Last edition, I looked at The Merry Wives of Windsor, a Shakespearean play so mediocre that I likened it to The Phantom Menace. This week, I’d like to step into more positive territory by looking at the oft-maligned classic tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. Within the academy itself, Antony and Cleopatra is often considered one of the Bard’s most beautiful works, right up there with the greats (Hamlet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, etc.). At a more popular level, however, the play is fairly under-performed, and there is no major film version of the play, which puts it on a lower pedestal than even Titus Andronicus and (somehow) Corialanus. As I’ll explain in a bit though, this actually isn’t that surprising.
But firstly, let’s give some context: Antony and Cleopatra is generally categorised as a tragedy, is a loose sequel to Julius Caesar, and is essentially the story of the downfall of legendary lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra. In brief, the play chronicles the lovers waging war against Octavius Caesar, and in the end, losing. The lovers then commit suicide and – as is oft the case in Shakespearean tragedy – are glorified posthumously by the victorious Octavius.
Sounds standard enough – so why the lack of exposure? As usual, it could just be bad luck, or the fact that the play is often overshadowed by other tragedies. However, I do think there are a few specific qualities about the play that make it just a bit too odd for popular appeal.
To begin, the play is very messy structurally: the chronology of the play is just totally trippin’ out. The first and second acts, for instance, constantly switch settings back and forth between Egypt and Rome, as if the Ancient World was having some kind of rave where instead of strobe lights they had nonsensical scene changes instead. This gets even more freaky come Act Four, where there are no less than fifteen scenes; to put that in perspective, that is twice as many scenes as in Hamlet’s Act Four, and almost three times as many as King Lear’s. Add on the fact that these scenes are still highly erratic in terms of what they depict – one moment Antony is giving a pre-battle speech, the next random soldiers are discussing completely unrelated things – and you have a highly confused audience.
But also, Antony and Cleopatra features some seriously frustrating (or simply strange) sequences. There is, for instance, an entire subplot concerning Antony and Octavius mediating with some pirates, culminating in everyone getting smashed and not a whole lot else. Whilst there is a historical basis for this sequence of events, it is largely perfunctory as a piece of plot; its inclusion is baffling. Then there is the more infamous scene in the play, where Enobarbus, Antony’s trusty sidekick/second-in-command/something-unspecified, commits suicide. Or rather, dies of shame. Like, he literally feels bad about betraying Antony (it’s complicated), and then just dies. Harold Bloom once said that Shakespeare invented the modern human being: Bloom’s statement might be true figuratively, but Shakespeare sure as hell had no idea how the human body worked. You don’t just die from feeling embarrassed about something (unless you’re Alan Jones; man, that puts Shakespeare in really bad company). Man.
So this all sounds somewhat scathing thus far – but bear with me. In spite of its eccentricities and flaws, Antony and Cleopatra is still definitely a play you should check out. Most importantly, it is a play that is rich for creating one of the most fascinating and complex female characters in theatre history, the eponymous Cleopatra herself. I could spend an entire article writing about what makes Cleopatra so fantastic, but in short, she is riddled with contradictions and she knows it. Critics have throughout history been baffled by Cleopatra’s constant inconstancies, her peculiar shifts in characterisation, her perpetual fickleness of feeling. The truth is, Cleopatra is a woman in a world where love, humanity and power are all performed, expressed theatrically through a mode of being much akin to acting itself. And she understands it and harnesses that fact to her advantage: she upstages Antony and Octavius constantly and uses her unpredictability as a means of asserting her own will upon those surrounding her. Cleopatra is the alpha example of what female empowerment looks like – certainly not the last, and certainly not the most perfect. But she’s just freaking badass.
There’s also some really moving poetry in the play, a really interesting exploration of the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between human desire and rationality, and indeed, some rather profound explorations of what it means to be (to be Antony? To be a hero? To be somebody at all in this senseless, formless world?). Seriously, it’s great stuff. So take it from me: Antony and Cleopatra, unlike The Merry Wives of Windsor, is not unknown because it is bad. No – it is a play that is quirky, but one that should also be celebrated. Because it is ultimately a play about love, sex and the incomprehensibility of the self: it is a play about the apotheosis of the human spirit, and that’s why you (yes you) should know more about it.