Antony & Cleopatra, Act One: Scenes 1-5
It happens oh-so-rarely, but when it does, how unforgettable it becomes. You know, that book you pick up merely to see what it’s like, imagining you’ll dip in the equivalent of a curious big toe, only to have it sucked in from the first line and not surrendered until you’ve finished the whole damn thing.
The great reads, the best reads, the reads that stay with you forever after are like this.
When you get to the end you lament — and justifiably — because you have no idea when such a memorable experience will come along again. You may wish for it, you may long for it, you may search high and low for it to happen once more… but until the book gods smile down upon you, take pity upon your plight, you will twist in the wind, languish in mid-Storyville waiting in vain, enjoying what you chance to come upon, but yearning deep in your bones for a great yarn to win your heart and carry you out with the tide.
Well…Antony and Cleopatra was like that for me. I say “was” because I picked it up late last night, thinking ever-so-naively that I would have a quick go at the opening act “just to get things started.” Just-to-get-things-started my ass! I couldn’t sleep last night until I had finished the whole damn thing! “One more line, please, one more line, then I’ll –”
Famous last words!
Not that I minded. It has been a long while since I was clobbered by a story that way. Isn’t it lovely when time and space melt? When nothing else matters except the characters and situations right in front of you?
Non-readers won’t understand this. For them, the nearest equivalent might might be a James Cameron movie (and I say that with utmost respect for James Cameron). It’s no easy feat to make 3 hours disappear like a Houdini trick. I’ve attended movies lately that beg me to ask if they’ll ever end. And these are stories that are now wrapping up in 88 minutes. The days of the two-hour movie are numbered.
I knew I was in trouble from the opening lines of A&C though:
PHILO: Nay, but 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 glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain’s heart
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles of his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy’s lust.
Talk about starting with a bang! Man-o-manischewitz, as Tony Horton says during his grueling/glorious PO90X workouts…
Right from the getgo, we know what this story will be about: a great Roman general has been bitten hard, smitten by an extraordinary woman who has caused him to forget his purpose. You wonder about her immediately (though the image of Cleopatra comes pre-loaded, of course) — what could cause Antony to lose it so completely?
If this were merely a fabled love story, that would be one thing. But the setting for this torrid romance is deep, political intrigue: Antony is struggling to stave off the rivalry of his whippersnapper upstart, Octavius (as prefaced in Julius Caesar, the triumphant triumvirate is tenuous at best). The Empire has become a hatching ground for rival powers and conspiracies. But instead of consolidating his powers to check Octavius, Antony has allowed himself to be mesmerized — so much so that he doesn’t care what’s going on back at home.
You might think that Cleopatra must be quite the hottie, the supermodel who steals the quarterback or rock star away from the doting wife back in the village. And you’d be partly right, because Cleopatra certainly is one to turn heads by her beauty. But that alone cannot account for her compelling charms!
No, Cleopatra reminds me of Dagny from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She’s forceful and active, a match for any man who crosses her path. What’s more, she’s brilliantly self-aware, vital, alive… We get the sense that she could have any man she wants, and that the reason she wants Antony is because he’s the only man who has the spirit to tell her no — or try to anyway.
Ayn Rand’s sense of romance remains controversial. If a man had introduced the stark notions of love that Dagny holds, he’d probably be taken to jail. But what I loved about that book is what I love about A&C: the heroine steadfastly refuses to submit to anybody but her equal. She wants the man to be taller, stronger, more assertive than she — he’ll just have to be a rare breed to qualify. Anybody less than a Hercules will be subject to her rule. And in her world, those men are too easy to come by.
I could see where diehard feminists must get tangled up in a character like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, asserting that such a heroine can only be born in the minds of men. But rather than get caught up in that discussion, I’d rather marvel at the conundrum, the juxtaposition of competing values that makes Cleopatra so utterly watchable, and unforgettable.
She isn’t a Madonna or Lady Gaga, asserting her sexual independence by casting off her latest lover for the shiny new model that comes along. Nor does she grovel, prostrating herself at Antony’s feet, even though she recognizes that he is the love of her life. She feels deeply, her heart swoons in love and loss, but she hitches her hopes to that wagon and is willing to go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
There are issues at stake here that are so normal and yet so complicated. Antony is married back home, which of course causes his relations with Cleopatra to become a dalliance and Cleopatra the woman who steals husbands. But Shakespeare smashes that easy write-off with a hypnotic dialogue between his two lovers. By making Cleopatra boldly self-aware and assertive about her standing, she withers Antony by his inability to cast off one for the other, to make a choice and then live with it.
These are two people who belong together, yet who are thrown together by life’s strange circumstances. What business does Antony have in far-away Egypt? If he’d never left the shores of Rome, this star-crossed meeting might never have happened.
And yet, the Romantic reading says that two lovers who are destined to meet will find each other somehow. And when they do, what seemed normal once, and natural, falls immediately away. A higher destiny is calling. To which the question becomes: are you willing to answer it — come what may?
In this case, Antony’s immediate answer is yes. The problem for him is that it’s a qualified yes. As the opening lines indicate, Antony has all but abandoned any ideas he had about consolidating his rule back in Rome. Around this lady, all other aspirations evaporate.
But what makes this play so great is that a whopping conundrum does indeed come along. Antony is forced to return his interests back where they started. The situation at home demands it. The division of powers is getting out of hand.
Antony knows he’s caught up in forces greater than himself. He will have to break from the bewitchment from one in order to recover his reason to confront the other. And yet… and yet…
Making things even more complicated, Antony learns that his wife back home, Fulvia is dead. When Antony breaks the news to Cleopatra, their dialogue is one of the most stunning in the play. For rather than be happy for herself, she reacts more to his lack of emotion about losing a wife:
ANTONY: My precious queen, forebear,
And give true evidence of his love, which stands
An honorable trial.
CLEOPATRA: So Fulvia told me.
I prithee turn aside and weep for her;
Then bid adieu to me and say the tears
Belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene
Of excellent dissembling, and let it look
Like perfect honor.
ANTONY: You’ll heat my blood. No more!
This is a woman who can give as good as she gets. In my notes I wrote “OUCH” after the line about Fulvia. Cleopatra wonders aloud whether this will be his reaction when he learns that she has died (a foreshadowing, surely).
The great thing about Shakespeare, yet again, is that he has written a woman’s reaction, so different than a man’s. Rather than force a male response, he has captured that essential difference, as when a man tells a woman she looks beautiful tonight, only to be slapped with a “What, I didn’t look beautiful last night?” reply.
The moment Cleopatra questions Antony’s lack of response at the news of his wife’s death, that’s when you know that this is no ordinary play — and that she’s no ordinary character.
Ah, yes, the great reads. They come around so rarely. But what a joy it is when they do!