Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Rome & Egypt)

To modern Americans the Romans are an ancient people. To the ancient Romans the Egyptians were an ancient people. The Egyptians were as far-removed from the Romans as the Romans are from us. That’s history on a vast scale. Reading Shakespeare’s plays are not the same thing as reading history. They’re plays. They’re meant to entertain and enlighten us about the universal human condition, not give us a definitive history of Egypt and Rome. However, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare is free to make up whatever he wants. His audience already knew the story of Antony and Cleopatra as it was related by Plutarch and other historians. But no one, including Plutarch, knew for sure what Antony said to Cleopatra, or how Cleopatra responded. Within limits Shakespeare is free to create his own conversations. Through dialog and action Shakespeare can re-create the ancient characters of Antony and Cleopatra right before our very eyes. Who were these people, according to Shakespeare?

Shakespeare doesn’t just tell us who they were by describing them; he shows us who they were through the way they talk and interact with one another. For example, early in the play CLEOPATRA says: Give me some music; music, moody food of us that trade in love. Egypt (Cleopatra) is all about music and love, food and drink; Rome (Antony) is all about war and hardship and deprivation. We know Cleopatra likes music and love. But how do we know that Antony has been hardened by war and deprivation? Because as (Octavius) CAESAR says: Thou (Antony) didst drink the urine of horses, and the gilded puddle which beasts would cough at; thy palate then did deign the roughest berry on the rudest hedge…The barks of trees thou brows’d; on the Alps it is reported thou didst eat strange flesh, which some did die to look on…Antony is one tough guy. Even among the tough Romans, Antony stands out as unusually hardened to life.

So what is he doing in Egypt cavorting around with Cleopatra? Short answer: he’s in love. As he puts it: ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space. Kingdoms are clay… Apparently Antony has had enough of fighting. Now he’s ready to take on love; and he’s never met a woman like Cleopatra. Roman women are virtuous, almost stern. Egyptian women, on the other hand, are luxurious and sensual. They’re also highly cultured and entertaining. In one scene Cleopatra’s maid has the following exchange with a fortuneteller, SOOTHSAYER: You shall outlive the lady whom you serve. CHARMIAN: O excellent! I love long life better than figs. This kind of banter takes a highly-developed sense of humor. To appreciate its finer points is an art in itself. In another scene CLEOPATRA says: He (Antony) was dispos’d to mirth, but on the sudden a Roman thought hath struck him. To the fun-loving Egyptians the Romans seem dull. Even Antony’s no-nonsense assistant Enobarbus is impressed with Cleopatra. ANTONY: Would I had never seen her! ENOBARBUS: O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work…

Cleopatra is indeed a wonderful piece of work. But so is Antony. Cleopatra is wonderful in her sheer exotic exuberance. Antony is wonderful in the grandeur of his ordinary manhood. He has all the strengths and weaknesses that ordinary men have; he just takes them to extremes. CAESAR says of Antony: You shall find there a man who is the abstract of all faults that all men follow. In his youth he was a great warrior; perhaps the greatest Roman general there was after Julius Caesar himself. In middle age he turns his sights on love. What better sight than Cleopatra, nude on one of her famous love boats, calling Antony to a sensual pleasure he's never known? So Rome and Egypt meet at last. On Shakespeare’s stage they come to life.


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