Day 415: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and CleopatraOf the Shakespeare tragedies I have been reading, I think I have the least sympathy for the characters in Antony and Cleopatra (except perhaps for Othello–I have no sympathy at all for him). One of the problems is in, of course, how their relationship has historically been portrayed–with Cleopatra as a manipulative slut instead of a sovereign trying desperately to save her kingdom from being swallowed up by the Roman Empire. But the victors always get their way in portraying the conquered.

Antony and Cleopatra is, of course, the play about the last years of the relationship between Marc Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt, their political maneuverings with Rome and particularly with Octavius Caesar, and their deaths.

I believe the traditional way of looking at this play is of the great man brought down by his fascination with a rapacious woman. However, pay attention to the difference between how the characters talk about the nobility of the Romans and how the Romans actually act. I think something more subtle is going on here. I don’t see much evidence of a great man in this play. I see a soldier who pretends to be a noble Roman and is not. I see a female ruler who is more of an enigma, who controls her own shifting image, like a chimera.

image of The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald ArthurNot having the strongest grounding in classical literature, it is not always clear to me what is going on during the political maneuverings and battles, and which characters are on whose side. Of course, it is a historical fact that Cleopatra fled the battle of Actium with her ships at a strategic point, causing the battle to be lost. Why she did so is still a mystery.

For a different view of Cleopatra, although maybe a closer view than Schiff thinks, see Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography.

4 thoughts on “Day 415: Antony and Cleopatra

  1. Carolyn O October 24, 2013 / 1:29 pm

    I liked Stacey Schiff’s biography, although my favorite for sentimental reasons is Michael Grant’s. I think the contemporary scholarly reaction toward the play is much more favorable toward Cleopatra. Harold Bloom (though I often loathe his analysis, I think he’s right on this one) calls her something to the effect of “the director of her own tragedy” (I’m not getting that quite right, but director is definitely part of the equation). It’s such an interesting play, just for the age of the actors alone.

    I know it’s considered ridiculous, but I absolutely adore the Elizabeth Taylor/Rex Harrison/Richard Burton movie called Cleopatra (has really nothing to do with Shakespeare, but it does give a rough view of the politics).

  2. whatmeread October 24, 2013 / 1:32 pm

    I haven’t read the Grant biography. Yes, I am aware that more modern scholars have a more favorable reaction, but Schiff certainly groups the play into that category, which is probably what I am thinking of. I find Cleopatra to be mysterious and am not sure whether I like her or not. But in general, Shakespeare seems to be more favorable to women in most of his plays than you would think for the time.

  3. whatmeread October 24, 2013 / 1:33 pm

    Oh, yeah, I forgot. I saw that movie when I was in my teens! I can hardly remember anything about it, but I thought it was hilarious when I searched for Antony and Cleopatra on my library web site and got that movie!

  4. Cecilia October 24, 2013 / 2:04 pm

    I also saw the movies (the other being Caesar and Cleopatra with Vivien Leigh) and don’t remember any of them either. It would be fascinating to revisit the stories now as an adult.

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