Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act I)

Romeo and Juliet may have been Shakespeare’s most famous pair of star-crossed lovers.  But they were young and inexperienced at the game of love and the game of life.  They were just getting started and were amateurs.  Antony and Cleopatra knew how both games were played and were masters at it.  They were much more experienced as lovers and much more powerful as political and military leaders of Rome and Egypt.  So the question comes up: was the love Romeo felt for Juliet the same kind of love that Antony felt for Cleopatra?  Or were these two love affairs conducted on totally different levels, motivated by totally different needs?  Another way to put the question: are all love affairs basically the same or is each one unique and special in its own way?  Antony certainly had more responsibilities than Romeo.  As the play begins we hear Antony’s soldiers complaining that this dotage of our general's/O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,/That o'er the files and musters of the war/Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,/The office and devotion of their view/Upon a tawny front… Take but good note, and you shall see in him./The triple pillar of the world transform'd/Into a strumpet's fool… When Romeo falls in love and is transform'd his buddies just roll their eyes; but when Antony falls in love and is transform'd the men under his command are concerned for his safety and theirs too.  When Juliet flirts with Romeo her parents might get upset; but when Cleopatra flirts with Antony the whole fate of Egypt hangs in the balance.  Another crucial difference is this: Juliet’s father had forbidden her to see Romeo because he was a Montague and she was a Capulet.  This was the big hurdle in Romeo & Juliet.  But in Antony and Cleopatra we have a different kind of problem: Antony is married to another woman.  Juliet’s relationship with her father may have been shaky but she trusted Romeo completely.  She had complete confidence in that relationship.  Cleopatra’s relationship with Antony was not as confident.  She confronts Antony bluntly: Why should I think you can be mine and true… Who have been false to Fulvia?  Cleopatra is shrewd and this is a very good question.  Can a man who’s been unfaithful to his wife be trusted in other areas of his life?  Can we trust him as a business partner, for example? This is a very practical question.  Some people think sex and business are two totally separate spheres.  Adam Smith pointed out in Wealth of Nations that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love…  Why should I care about a man’s love life as long as his widgets are cheap?  Under this theory what we do in private is irrelevant to what goes on in the marketplace.  But Aristotle had a different view.  He believed that the family is the association established by nature for the supply of men's everyday wants…  So for Aristotle it’s natural that when families are torn apart the whole community suffers and business suffers too.  Antony’s soldiers agree with Aristotle.  They don’t think Antony can keep his private affairs separate from his public duties.  And apparently Antony’s “business partner” (Octavius Caesar) doesn’t think so either: Antony, Leave thy lascivious wassails… Let Antony’s shames quickly/Drive him to Rome: 'tis time we twain/Did show ourselves i' the field; and to that end/Assemble we immediate council: Pompey/Thrives in our idleness.  Octavius is younger than Antony but has this advice: there’s a time to play and a time to work.  Now is the time to work.  We need to combine our resources and turn them against our enemy, Pompey.  Leave Cleopatra alone.  Every day you’re with her Pompey gets stronger.  Antony knows all this.  War is his business.  And as a businessman he knows it’s time to get down to work.  But as Cleopatra’s lover he also has a hard time getting back to Rome’s business.  Antony is just as smitten with Cleopatra as Romeo was with Juliet.  Money and power are strong incentives but for men like Antony (and Romeo) love is the strongest incentive of all.


Post a Comment

<< Home