Book Review: Antony And Cleopatra

Antony And Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Masmussen

Admittedly, this has never been even close to my favorite plays by Shakespeare [1].  As far as tragedies go, it is not one that I could particularly identify with when I started reading his plays, and even at this stage of my life it is not a tragedy that I find particularly comfortable.  There is a sense of melancholy here and decay and aging, and Cleopatra is the sort of woman with whom I tend not to get along with rather well, and in general I find the characters to be generally unsympathetic, at least among the main characters.  Octavia is sympathetic as someone who is trying to keep her brother and her husband together, unsuccessfully.  Enobarbus is sympathetic as a decent and honorable Roman who sees what Antony is doing clearly but feels loyal to him and ends up dying, it would seem, of a broken heart.  A few of the other minor characters are similarly decent people who one could identify with, but as the play tends to focus on the lead characters, most of them do not appear to be as relatable because Shakespeare is using them to play off divides of epicurianism as opposed to stoicism, head versus heart, and love versus war, among the three main figures.  And while this works as psychodrama, it makes the play a bit distant for readers like me.

This book is overall a bit more than 200 pages and begins with an introduction looking at the contrast between the Egyptian queen and various noble (?) Romans, along with the general sense of the overflowing of poetry on the side of Anthony and Cleopatra as opposed to Octavian.  There are some brief notes about the text and some key facts before the main body of the play begins.  This play is one of the longer ones of Shakespeare’s oeuvre at a bit shy of 150 pages, and then after the play (which has a lot of scenes and frequently switches back and forth between Egypt and Rome), the book contains the usual material that this series has.  Namely, the book contains a lengthy discussion of the play in performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere with a look in particular at seven Cleopatras and their Antonys, most of the latter being somewhat unremarkable apart from a stirring and nearly universally praised performance by the able Patrick Stewart.  After this there is a look at Shakespeare’s career in the theater, a chronology of Shakespeare’s works as well as the history behind the tragedies, and some suggestions for further reading and viewing and references as well as acknowledgements and picture credits.

What is it that makes this play so compelling to so many, even if it was not a play that was particularly well-regarded during the restoration period?  For one, this play deals with the rather relevant subject of dealing with love among the aging and with the familiar tension between the pulls of duty and responsibility on the one hand and erotic love on the other.  There are many people in our age–and every age–who see the irresponsible and emasculating Cleopatra as a tragic figure rather than simply an annoying or bothersome one.  To be sure, Antony is a tragic figure, but he dies in act 4, missing the entirety of the final act which is devoted to the doomed Cleopatra seeking to avoid humiliation at the hand of the victorious Romans, personified by the practical and somewhat cold Octavian, whose victory demonstrates the power of order over the chaos of Cleopatra’s amours, a victory that many people view as tragic given the loss of the generosity and bombast of Antony that strikes so many people as being something admirable and least regrettable to lose.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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