After Heidi saw Antony and Cleopatra (can I just pause for a moment and say how completely honored I am that Heidi, David, and Pam all made the drive to Grand Rapids to see it?), she said, “Shakespeare wasn’t kind to Cleopatra, was he?” I immediately responded, “History wasn’t kind to her. Shakespeare worked with what he had.”
But that question has been rolling around in my head for a month now. One problem–or genius, depending on how you look at it–in A&C is that Shakespeare is so clearly impressed with Cleopatra. He is a Cleopatra fan and wants all of us to be, as well. How can we help ourselves? How can he? As Francis Boyle said once, “This play is about how sexy smart women are.” And it is, at least in part.
But Shakespeare also is always interested in what makes a just ruler. In most examples, the bad ruler, the one who is interested in his own power or wealth or personal mythos, at the expense of caring for his people, is the person Shakespeare makes into a villain. I think we’re supposed to feel a sigh of relief when feckless or self-centered kings are killed or deposed. And in this story, Octavius Caesar is ultimately the just ruler. He gives up his beloved sister to try to broker a peace. He is concerned that Antony isn’t taking the responsibilities of leadership seriously enough (and Antony isn’t!). Shakespeare mentions the pax romana several times in this play. He knows that Octavius’ rule was, on balance, one of the best times to be a commoner in the Roman empire. And yet, Cleopatra’s magnetic fire pulls at him across the centuries.
While I don’t agree with W. H. Auden’s insistence that Octavius “is a very cold fish indeed,” I don’t think Shakespeare wants us to be on his side. What does it mean that he gives an invitation to fall in love with the art and play and love that is Cleopatra’s court, even though that is not the home of the just ruler?
Silas, noting that I also have directed Romeo and Juliet, asked me, “Do you just like plays where people die because they are in love?” I laughed him off, but when I mentioned this to Scott (Antony), his immediate response was, “You do really love Duchess.”
And I do keep thinking about the connections between those plays, because they are there. They aren’t tragedies in the classical sense, where the central figure has a tragic flaw that brings him (or her) down. None of these plays are fundamentally about hubris or greed or even lust. Duchess is perhaps the clearest example, because Webster is much less subtle than Shakespeare. He doesn’t give us an alternative that is objectively good, like Octavius. But Duchess is, much like A&C, a play about a woman who refuses to engage with what is expected of her, even when what she is expected to do might actually be the right thing. Would a just ruler perform the self-sacrificial act of marrying for political alliance, to save her people from war or enrich their lives with trade and greater freedom, rather than marrying her household steward for her own heart’s pleasure?
I think Silas, my tiny dramaturg, is onto something here in connecting these three plays with each other, but I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to them because they’re about people who die for love. I think what draws me to each of these plays is that, at their cores, they are about women who burn a little too brightly. They ultimately suffer for it, but none of them express regret for choosing to live their biggest life. Their lives are an act of rebellion and self-proclamation. Yes, they die because of it. History is unbendingly cruel. But for an instant, they burn bright. Their possibility and bravery and insistence on being more than their society asks them to be, is endlessly compelling.
I keep thinking of the lines from the Sara Teasdale poem, “Barter”:
Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace,
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstacy
Give all you have been or could be.
Antony and Cleopatra is a breath of ecstacy. Octavius brings in far more than one hour of peace, but the magic of that breath is worth far more, at least in its instant.