Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra in Love

There are lots of songs about love: Love Makes the World Go ‘Round, The Theme from Love Story; the list goes on. But our generation wasn’t the first one to discover love. And we weren’t the first generation to proclaim love in music, art and drama. Neither was Shakespeare. But he was exceptionally good at it. And Shakespeare was particularly good at taking universal human themes (such as love) and tying them to specific historic settings (such as medieval England or ancient Rome). This play is about the power struggle in Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. But its primary dramatic focus is the love between a powerful Roman general (Mark Antony) and an equally powerful Egyptian queen (Cleopatra). They weren’t equal in political power. Rome was clearly the ruling force in the world of politics. But Cleopatra was clearly the ruling force in the world of courtesans and lovers. Early on we get this insight into Mark Antony: his captain's heart, Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, And is become the bellows and the fan To cool a gipsy's lust. Mark Antony had the heart to win great battles. But now his heart is hard at work in another task: “to cool a gipsy’s lust.” The “gipsy” is Cleopatra. Her lust is not for sex but for having things her own way. This is the same Mark Antony who once said Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears… And this is the same Cleopatra who once seduced the great Julius Caesar. The rest is history, as they say. Antony and Cleopatra are not just two ordinary tourists who happen to hook up on a cruise and fall in love. These are two extraordinary players on the world stage when both are at the top of their game. They’re also two of the most powerful people in the world, so the stakes are high. Kingdoms will rise or fall depending on the decisions made by Antony and Cleopatra. So what do these two spend their time doing? Here’s Shakespeare: ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space. Kingdoms are clayWhat sport tonight? Forget politics. Let’s have some fun. That’s Antony’s view. Here’s Cleopatra’s: He was disposed to mirth; but on the sudden A Roman thought hath struck him. Poor Mark, he’s stuck in that old Roman duty thingy. Why can’t he just relax and enjoy life? It’s not that Antony doesn’t know what’s going on here. He does. He even acknowledges the hold that Cleopatra and the luxurious culture of Egypt have over him. ANTONY: These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, Or lose myself in dotageI must from this enchanting queen break off: Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know, My idleness doth hatch. In short, while Antony and Cleopatra are playing around in the love boats of Egypt, back in Rome there’s an anti-Antony coalition forming to put his rival (Octavius Caesar) in power. Antony knows this but can’t break away from the pleasures he finds in Egypt and Cleopatra’s arms. Sometimes he wishes things were different. ANTONY: Would I had never seen her. But his close advisor has seen Cleopatra too. ENOBARBUS: O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work; which not to have been blest withal would have discredited your travel. Why should a man travel the whole wide world if not to meet a woman like Cleopatra? So they pursue their doomed love affair to its tragic end. When Cleopatra’s ships flee in battle, Antony follows. Was it her fault? No. ANTONY: I have fled myself; and have instructed cowards To run and show their shouldersI have offended reputation, A most unnoble swerving. CLEOPATRA: O my lord, my lord, Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought You would have follow'd. ANTONY: Egypt, thou knew'st too well My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings, And thou shouldst tow me after Antony was a great man, a man among men. Cleopatra was a wonderful piece of work. In the end he became “her” Antony (CAESAR: She shall be buried by her Antony…) and she became his queen. Antony was right. Kingdoms are only clay. Now Rome is long gone. But the love story of Antony and Cleopatra lives on.


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