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antony and cleopatra

26 october 2015

Antony and Cleopatra is a gorgeously-written play – so famous for its poetic language that it is odd to learn that some critics have resisted that gorgeousness because they think it distracting from, even detrimental to, considerations of the play's stagecraft. "Some of its interpreters," David Bevington says in his 1990 Cambridge introduction, "have been charged with over-valuing the art of the play by seeming to claim that the poetry rather than the drama validates and even creates the noble visions the play reveals to us" (34). Bevington argues that A&C's "greatness is essentially theatrical" (40).

One would think this could be a both/and dynamic: peerless poetry shouldn't exclude masterful drama. But there's been a tension in Shakespeare studies (or at least, there was, 25 years ago) between those who see the texts of the plays as verse novels, and those who see them as guidelines for good shows.

The question then is whether Antony and Cleopatra is a good show. I've never seen it. Bevington's stage history (through 1990) suggests that most productions have failed to some extent. Most of the great leading ladies have tried Cleopatra, but it doesn't seem to have been a great success or anyone's favorite or signature role. The Royal Shakespeare Company suggests that the most memorable Cleopatra of recent years was Mark Rylance, better known in the US as Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

Sidebar: What is up with so many all-male productions in recent decades? I know they're authentic (of sorts; Rylance was in his late 30s when he played Cleopatra, and that's ahistorical). But if I were more paranoid I'd think that it was a plot to give women even less work than they get in Shakespeare anyway.

Perhaps tellingly, the great actress of the present moment, Cate Blanchett, seems to have played Cleopatra only once, in a two-day "workshop" in Sydney in 2012, a venture that went nowhere. Her Antony was Richard Roxburgh, who is recognizable enough but not exactly Kenneth Branagh or Colin Firth. Antonys in general have been mostly forgettable. Perhaps the paranoid dynamic I hinted at above is a factor. Antony has wonderful lines in this play, but he is always going to be upstaged by Cleopatra. "I am dying, Egypt, dying," as he says in the fourth act, but he's really been ready to hit the road since the curtain rose, and he's gone by the fifth.

The whole of Antony and Cleopatra has a "dying fall" about it. It's a play of nostalgia and regret, of not being what you used to be. The best lines for a man belong to the jaded old soldier Enobarbus, who is great in both high key ("cloth o'gold, o'tissue") and low ("drunk to bed"). And Antony is never better than when remembering what he used to be and resolving to hold one last party before departing:

for when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I'll set my teeth,
And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell. (Act 3, Scene 13)
Those were the days, my friend.

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. 1623. Edited by David Bevington. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. PR 2802 .A2B48

UPDATE 07.24.2022: I recently re-read Antony and Cleopatra after re-reading John Dryden's A&C play All for Love. I now think they're closer in quality than I'd remembered. Neither is a great stage play, I'll venture, but Dryden's plot is well-constructed, and too much of Shakespeare's consists of reports of obscure events interspersed with elaborate formalities.

Antony and Cleopatra contains greater poetry, of course. And unlike Dryden, Shakespeare could write truly funny scenes, in terms of strong jokes and strong comic situations. Enobarbus' badinage, Cleopatra dressing down a messenger who brings bad news, Lepidus drunk, the clown who brings the queen "the Worme" … these are sharp bits, and exactly what the high seriousness of the theme needs as counterpoint.

But unless pretty drastically cut and remodeled, I don't know that Antony and Cleopatra is very compelling theater – as the opinions of producers and stars over the centuries seem to suggest.