Why This Play?:
It was the penultimate play that my FutureLearn class tackled. I’m still trying to stick to the reading schedule for that course, despite the fact that it ended earlier this month (luckily, the lesson material is still online, so I’m slowly but surely going to finish the course!). The holidays and other recent events have thrown my schedule for reading/writing off course, and my alone time has greatly diminished the past few weeks. I have firm plans to get back on track in 2016!
Antony & Cleopatra is like Romeo & Juliet, all grown up. Because they’re grown-ups, the stakes of their doomed love are much higher -- they’ve built much bigger lives and have a broader scope of influence than a couple of teenagers. They manage to screw up entire empires over each other. And throughout the whole ordeal, Antony has a friend who’s watching helplessly as it all unfolds. It’s an epic love story, and an epic disaster story. So what happens when you’re the one who’s trying to keep everything from burning to the ground? It’s a Type-A’s nightmare, y’all.
So What Happens?:
...Pretty much everything. This play covers the span of years and multiple empires, so hold on to your Cleopatra headdresses and laurel wreath crowns! It’s gonna be a bumpy read.
In Egypt, two Roman army guys are moping around about how their chief has gone soft since he’s been preoccupied with a woman. Thus the stage is set. Enter Antony, one of the three leaders of Rome (part of the triumverate with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus), and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. They’ve been sweet on each other for awhile and have been spending all their time carousing together in Alexandria; Antony shirking duty to his empire. Even when a messenger from Rome arrives, Antony sends him away so he can go back to having fun (after Cleo taunts him that his wife Fulvia or his co-leader Caesar may be trying to call him back). Turns out that the messenger brings news that Fulvia and Antony’s brother tried to raise up an army against Caesar. Ruh-roh. Just as Antony’s worried about how his loyalties will lie, another message from Rome comes to reveal all kinds of news -- Pompey wants battle to avenge his father’s death (Julius Caesar killed him, as you may recall), Fulvia’s dead, and Parthians have invaded Syria (part of Cleo’s kingdom).
Antony’s gotta head back to Rome to handle this business, but Cleo’s not having it. She gives him a guilt trip over leaving to see to his dead wife, muttering that she’ll be treated the same way eventually. Back in Rome, the rest of the triumverate, Caesar and Lepidus, worry that Antony is lost to the fun Egyptian life forever. They want him back in Rome to fight with them against Pompey’s rising navy. Meanwhile, Cleo misses Antony when she receives a pearl sent on his behalf. She swears he’s the only one for her and dismisses memories of lovers past (including Julius Caesar), claiming that Antony trumps them all in her affections.
Pompey has pirates working for him!
Menecrates and Menas (said pirates) don’t think that the ⅔ triumerate can stop him...but then they hear that Antony’s returning to Rome to bring the leaders back to full-force. That may make battle a bit more difficult. But the triumverate bickers upon Antony’s return. Enobarbus suggests they save the fighting for Pompey, and Agrippa (Caesar’s right-hand dude) hatches a brilliant plan to restore peace among the leaders: Antony should marry totally Caesar’s sister, Octavia, as a sign of loyalty. They all agree, and a tentative truce now holds. This is bound to work out well, eh?
Enobarbus holds court, telling other Romans all about the time that Cleopatra got all dolled up on a fancy barge and met Antony. He also affirms that marriage or no, Antony will always end up back in Cleo’s arms. A soothsayer warns Antony about challenging Caesar, and a wary Antony realizes that he’s happier back in Egypt. He sends his lieutenant, Ventidius, to fight the Parthians to help Cleo’s folks out. Out in the East, Cleo is excited to see a messenger from Rome. He gives the good news that Antony and Caesar are buddies again...but that Antony has to marry Octavia to make that happen. Cleo threatens the poor guy with knife, and he runs away. Back in Rome, Pompey and the triumverate hold an incredibly forced polite meeting. Pompey declines peace; he thinks someone should be punished for his father’s death (even though the guy who killed him is long dead). But in a show of political cordiality, he throws a little party for the triumverate. Antony teaches everyone how to drink like they do in Egypt. Menas thinks this is perfect opportunity to murder the triumverate, but Pompey declines. Caesar doesn’t think partying is in order.
Ventidius has defeated the Parthians just as Antony asked...but he’s nervous that putting on too good a show as a soldier could make the lax general end up cutting him down. As Antony and Octavia are off to Greece, and Antony insists his wife choose between her husband and her brother, since Caesar is badmouthing Antony all over Rome. Cleopatra speculates on Octavia’s inferior beauty (her assumptions nervously confirmed by our old pal, the messenger). Enobarbus brings everyone up to speed with the news that Pompey has been defeated and murdered, and Caesar imprisoned Lepidus and is pretty much single-handedly running Rome now.
Not to be outdone in power plays, Antony names Cleopatra and her son (by Julius Caesar) supreme rulers of a whole big region around Egypt, plus he’s accusing Caesar of wrongly keeping Lepidus’s wealth.
Caesar none to happy about this, but he considers sharing the loot with Antony, who’s still technically his co-ruler. But then Octavia shows back up in Rome -- Antony is off cavorting in Egypt again. The two Roman heads are gunning for a showdown, and civil war is on. In Egypt, poor Enobarbus tries to convince Cleopatra to back out of the fighting so she won’t distract Antony (he knows his master’s kryptonite). He also warns Antony against fighting Caesar’s superior navy, but Cleopatra wants to provide some of her ships/sailors to help. They go to battle on the water, Cleopatra’s ship retreats, and Antony stops everything he’s doing and makes the dopey move to follow her. Naturally, they are then quickly defeated.
Antony’s cursing his own stupidity, and Cleopatra is falling all over herself to apologize. Antony just shrugs and concedes that he’s a big dummy for her. So he asks Caesar to just let him live in Egypt (the world’s first request to work remotely?) and to back off from interfering with Cleopatra’s kingdom. Not good enough for Caesar, who is still pissed at Antony for the bit about shirking duty and snubbing his sister. He tells his messenger, Thidius, to let Cleopatra know he’ll back off of Egypt if she either kills Antony or drives him away. Being all queenly in her manners, she lets Thidius kiss her hand. Antony watches this exchange and he feels supremely betrayed. Cleopatra smacks him upside the head (perhaps not just figuratively) and is incredulous that he doesn’t realize how much she loves him. A revived Antony vows to fight Caesar again. Enobarbus can’t even believe the bullshit that is unfolding before his very eyes, and he decides that (as much as he loves Antony) he needs to watch his own back. He’s leaving to go join Team Caesar.
Antony’s still determined to fight, but his soldiers are freaking out over hearing music coming from below ground -- tunes from the underworld aren’t exactly seen as a positive sign. Antony give Cleopatra a farewell smooch and heads into battle. His side performs well at first, so he’s expecting eventual victory. He hears about Enobarbus defecting, but in a moment of self-awareness of his own mistakes, he doesn’t hold it against his pal. Enobarbus is torn with guilt over abandoning his mentor, especially after Antony sends him all the wealth that he left behind as a sign of goodwill. Enobarbus asks some soldiers to remember his sorrow and remorse, then he dies (heartbreak? exposure to the elements?). Antony’s using Cleopatra’s ships to support his navy, but they’re not fighting alongside him and his fleet has to surrender. He violently blames Cleopatra, and she flees to her family tomb and sends a messenger out to report that she’s dead (that’ll that big mean boyfriend a lesson in appreciation!). Faced with the loss of his status, reputation, and now his love, Antony no longer sees any reason to live. His servant Eros kills himself rather than assist Antony with suicide, so Antony stabs himself. Word comes that - surprise! - Cleopatra was just fooling, and she’s actually alive and well in her family tomb. Servants get the dying Antony there in the nick of time for the lovers to beg forgiveness and bid each other farewell. See you at the crossroads, Antony.
Later, Caesar is “mourning” Antony when Cleopatra arrives to parley.
Cleo tries to trade fealty to Caesar if her son can remain king of Egypt, but Roman soldiers grab her up. Caesar’s lackey Dolabella talks with Cleo, telling her Caesar that she’ll be treated well if she publically show that Caesar is all-powerful. She now understands that Caesar means literally to parade her around as a sign of his strength and power, and she wants no part of such shame. A clown arrives to bring the queen some figs (which apparently are usually toted about in a basket of snakes?). During a brief moment away from Rome’s envoy, Cleo bids her servants goodbye and coaxes the snake to bite her across the breast and arm (Iras is so distraught, she drops dead right there, whereas Charmain follows suit with the snake biting). The queen’s body is discovered, and Caesar vows to bury the lovers together as a monument to their (unwise but famous) love. Plus, he then gets to be sole emperor of the Roman empire, so at least someone comes out on top!
Check This Out:
A really super nerdy and cool interview, circa 1979, with Trevor Nunn (former AD at Royal Shakespeare Company) and Patrick Stewart talking about the character of Enobarbus. You get to hear Sir Pat Stew say “poop” (granted, it’s a direct quote and not in context of feces, but it’s always a funny word, right?):
10 Little Known Facts about Cleopatra. Apparently, she and Antony really did have a drinking club. One fun time that Shakespeare’s love of drama wasn’t too far off the mark of history.
This is the most delightful audience interaction I’ve ever seen, in a performance of Antony & Cleopatra at the Globe in spring of 2014:
Thoughts and Themes:
This play is the tale of two people who just keep coming back to one another, no matter how disruptive and destructive their love is. They allow their affections for each other to trump all other aspects of their lives – which is not only to their own detriment, but to that of the people they rule. I don’t in any way want to couch Antony as the righteous man who’s brought down by an evil, sultry woman. If anything, Antony has just as much negative sway on Cleopatra as she does on him. I think the most relatable aspect of this play is that everyone, even the great and epic heroes and world leaders, has a weakness, something that makes him or her cease to care about everything else in their lives except for one driving passion.
Enobarbus is a stand-in for the audience; he’s the level-headed character who voices all of our concerns. Enobarbus points out that Antony is being foolish, throwing away his place at the head of the Roman empire and the reputation that he has carefully built to be with a woman is not good for or to him (despite her love for him). I think we’ve all played the part of Enobarbus in our lives. Everyone has had a friend or family member who succumbs to the same bad idea repeatedly. This may be a similar story to Antony’s (or Cleopatra’s for that matter), that you have a friend who stays in a relationship with a person that is so obviously terrible for him. Or your friend has an addiction issue or is stuck in a bad job or apartment that he won’t leave behind. We have all had some situation where we are on the outside, peering into our friend’s life, trying to steer him to the obvious solution (dump her, go to rehab, look for a new job). Similarly, Enobarbus tries to counsel Antony, tries to listen and understand and support. But there comes a point when he’s done all he can, and no amount of his intervention will convince Antony to put his head back into running Rome. The lure of Cleopatra (Antony’s personal drug) is too great. Besides, Antony is a grown man who will make his own decisions. Enobarbus eventually realizes that he can’t allow himself to be pulled down with Antony’s bad choices, and he defects to Caesar.
A few days ago I was wondering how A&C plays out in my life, and I was completely stumped. I initially thought it was because I was so distracted…during the days I was reading the play I was also deeply involved in trying to help a friend through a personal crisis. I was worried for this person, doing all kinds of research on how to help, not sleeping, but still trying to keep up my own routines and obligations in attempt to stay sane (plus all the tasks leading up to the annual Christmas madness!!). Reading Shakespeare was a little flashlight in the dark for a few days there. And it struck me later, like a ton of bricks, that the reason I couldn’t relate to either Antony or Cleopatra’s mad passions was because I was too busy being Enobarbus in my actual life. I too was absorbed with trying to help lead a friend away from a dangerous preoccupation.
I’m not going to touch on my friend’s troubles; none of that is my business to share. Suffice it to say that this is a person I love who has been dealing with some issues for a while, and the resulting stress culminated very recently. My friend is Antony, consumed with something that isn’t healthy. Thoughts of Cleopatra and desire to be with her cause Antony to ignore the good things he’s created in his life and shirk his responsibilities. My friend also is preoccupied to the point that beloved interests and occupations are disregarded. It’s so easy to comment from the outside looking in, isn’t it? We watch horror movies, for example, wondering why the characters don’t do the obvious (run out the front door instead of upstairs!). Exasperated Enobarbus wants Antony to return to Rome and get busy leading the empire, leaving Cleopatra as a fond memory. I want to take my friend by the hand and point out the correct path to follow. I am a Type-A big sister personality to a tee -- if someone I love is having trouble making a decision, I’m usually quick to offer to make one for them. Naturally, I am a major source of both help and frustration to my loved ones, usually simultaneously. But things are seldom solved so easily and quickly.
Enobarbus couldn’t handle seeing his general, the man that he revered and respected, debase himself over infatuation. He was frustrated (and put in danger) to the point of withdrawing his support. Yet this never made him stop caring for Antony. Antony does have the wherewithal to understand why his friend leaves. Hell, Antony feels guilty about all his actions; he knows exactly which behaviors have lost him his followers. When he (very decently) sends Enobarbus his fair share of wealth as a thank you/I’m sorry gift, Enobarbus’s heart breaks.
So really I am Enobarbus only to a point, because I refuse to withdraw my support. If anything, I’m rallying. It is not easy to support a friend through a tough time and through behaviors/thoughts that you don’t understand. But isn’t that why we make and maintain friendships? To laugh through the good times, of course, but also to help hold our hands through the bad. To see us through to the other side. Because there IS an other side if you can see it through. With all that said, I stand with my friend. To hell with Caesar.
Next up, I'm going to finally finish my reading for the online course! Let's kick off 2016 with magical creatures and a shipwreck with The Tempest!