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Julian Meynell's Books

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Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare, Cynthia Marshall, Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine

A play that is in the middle of Shakespeare's work in terms of quality.  It tells the story of Antony and Cleopatra's doomed romance and their defeat at the hands of the future emperor Octavian.  By far the best thing about the play is Cleopatra and Antony as characters and their relationship.  Cleopatra might be the most complex woman in any play I have read by Shakespeare.  She is very clearly grounded in the historical Cleopatra and the contradictions of Shakespeare's character appear to have more or less been the complications of the historical person.   She is a brilliant and complex character.  On the one hand sexual and manipulative on the other regal and sincerely in love.  She is a study in contradictions and these contradictions ultimately doom her.  Antony is also well realized and again seems basically rooted in the actual person.  He is a drunken partying soldier, who wants power but who is beguiled/madly in love with Cleopatra.  There's is a relationship dysfunctional in the extreme.  Both love each other, but do not trust each other.  Cleopatra continually tries to use Antony, which Antony is aware of and acts in a volatile and capricious manner towards Cleopatra.  There relationship is a very dysfunctional one, but a very real one and they are both violently and uncontrollably in love with each other.  It is a great and very real relationship, albeit a deeply troubled one.  It is Shakespeare once again being the absolute master of psychological realism.

The structure of the play is a little weird.  The Battle of Actium take place at the middle point of the play and the last half of the play is very much the two main characters waiting around for the inevitable.  It is in Act IV where the play is at its peak, where the two main characters isolate themselves from each other and each wait their destruction by Octavian in delusional or destructive ways.  The death scene of Antony is a great death scene and gets across the horror of death in a vivid way.

The play moves rapidly between Egypt and Rome and the scenes often shift with great rapidity.  I have seen this referred to as almost a montage, which at least for Act III seems quite correct.  Egypt and Rome symbolize the classical distinction between East and West that go right back to the ancient Greeks.  Apparently, many commentators see this as a contrast between the masculine and the feminine.  While there is some of that at play, instead I think that we have more the distinction between reason and emotion.  Octavia is a sensible roman woman who is prepared to marry for political reasons, whereas Antony is torn between the mercurial sensitivity of Egypt and the steady reasonableness of Rome.  This is the same distinction that we see going back to Herodotus and one that Shakespeare cannot have been unaware of.  So, while there is a male/female distinction going on here, its best not to get too taken by that, because it is not the main point at all of the Egypt/Rome contrast.

The language of the play is Shakespeare's and one finds in it the usual number of passages and lines that have made their way into ones consciousness.  It is a very uneven play.  Act IV is tremendous and almost on par with his best stuff, but the pacing of the whole thing is weird and parts of it are not so inspired.  Obviously, the play should be read, because it's Shakespeare and he truly was the greatest writer of all time.