David Sarkies's Reviews > Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
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's review
May 19, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: tragedy
Recommended to David by: My English Teacher
Recommended for: those who like Shakespeare
Read from March 17 to 21, 2005 — I own a copy , read count: 2

The Final Saga of the Roman Republic
19 May 2012

This is truly a play of epic proportions, taking place in areas from the centre of Rome to her periphery, such as Egypt and the borders of Parthia. It is one of Shakespeare's later works, and the skill in which he brings so much together onto the stage simply goes to show how skillful he was at producing drama. Now, some scholars like to argue that Shakespeare could not have been responsible for so many plays of such high quality, however I personally find such research and argument to be quite useless. In the end, I tend to, and have always tended to, lean towards the mythological than the scientific, and while it may be the case that Shakespeare was not responsible for the plays, I personally see no benefit in such argument.
One of the things that I struggle with these plays is that they can be difficult to follow at times with the poetical language of the 17th Century and the difficulties in determining which character is what (and in some cases involves flipping back to the dramatis personae). I have also been watching the series Rome, and the characters of Mark Antony and Cleopatra seem to invade my mind from that show making it a little difficult differentiating the characters. The Mark Antony of the TV series is a much more brutal and despotic character than is Shakespeare's. However, we must remember two things, and they are that Shakespeare is not attempting to give us an insight into the culture and lifestyles of Ancient Romans, while Bruno Heller is not trying to produce, or even rewrite Shakespeare. In fact it is very clear that Heller, in his TV series, is giving Shakespeare a very wide berth.
I find the topics of Shakespeare's plays quite interesting though because I have noted that Shakespeare seems to steer clear of writing any plays based upon biblical stories, even tragedies (and there are many stories in the bible that a skillful playwright could transform into a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions), but rather he seems to lean much closer to the secular world of Ancient Rome. Further, he does not seem to go to rewrite the ancient tragedies, even those of Seneca (Shakespeare did not know Greek therefore he only had access to Greek texts that had been translated, such as Plutarch's Lives). Even then, Shakespeare only borrow three stories from Plutarch's lives, that being Coriolanus, Julius Ceaser, and Mark Antony (even though Julius Ceaser is the tragedy of Brutus).
I am almost inclined to suggest that if it was not for this play or for Julius Ceaser, that the characters of Ceaser, Brutus, Antony, and Cleopatra, would probably not be as dominant in our culture as they are. In a way, Shakespeare took one of the defining periods of Roman History, namely the period in which the republic collapsed to be replaced by the empire, and placed them onto the stage. Whether this play is supposed to be a 'sequal' to Julius Ceaser is difficult to determine, though it is interesting to note that Bernard Shaw later wrote a third play, Ceaser and Cleopatra, to turn this into a trilogy.
The background of these events is when Ceaser Augustus finally came in on his own and ascended to the throne as the first emperor of Rome. However, it is also interesting that after this we have another great shift in European history, in that we shift from the west, back to the east, to the birth, life, and death, of the Messiah. However, this is not mentioned in the play, though there are some hints to the appearance of Herod of the Jews.
It is difficult to tell whether there is truly a fatal flaw in Mark Antony, and it is also difficult to determine whether Cleopatra actually loved. Her trick at the end of the play, where she feigns death, and as a result, Antony kills himself, is not the action of somebody in love, even chivilrous love. In a way she has been testing Antony's love throughout the play, but whether she loved him, or simply lusted after him, is difficult to tell. Many of us like to see this as a love story, but to me, it is not. It is a story about a man who let himself become possessed by a wiry woman and in turn brought about his downfall. Remember two things about Egypt of this period, it was not a part of Rome, rather it was a protectorate, and secondly, Cleopatra considered herself a god. While she was subservient to Rome, she still did not recognise Rome as her ruler. As such, by sinking her claws into Antony proved a way of enabling her to shift the balance of power back to her.
It is interesting that Shakespeare uses the serpent as the means of her death. It is almost as if the serpent is submitting herself to a serpent. She wrapped her coils around Antony and enchanted him, and in doing so set his downfall in motion (remembering that this is not the Mark Antony that is portrayed elsewhere). Ceaser tries everything to break her spell, including marrying him to his sister, but he fails. In the middle of an important battle with the pirates that are preventing wheat shipments from reaching Rome, Antony deserts and travels to Egypt. In Egypt he finds that his soldiers are deserting, and even though he wins the first battle, he makes a tactical error, by fighting at sea instead of land, and as a result, he is defeated.
However, it is interesting that Ceaser does not condemn or punish him for his crimes. It appears that Ceaser understands that it was Cleopatra's whiles that dragged him to this point, and has his body carried off in honour, and leaves his legacy intact. However, Cleopatra, recognising that her life in luxury and as a queen of Egypt is over, instead of going into slavery, she poisons herself. We hear her speak of being a slave and of watching plays where she is turned into a whore and mocked on stage. It is not her position that leads her to her death, but her legacy. However, it is not the legacy that has come down to us, as we, today, know of Cleopatra as the beautiful queen of Egypt.
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02/05 marked as: read

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