You know sometimes when some virtual stranger is wrong on the internet and you just can’t help yourself? Well, I got in a Twitter argument last winter over whether or not Antony and Cleopatra is a work of staggering genius. I kept writing, “AND ANOTHER THING.”
As we’re getting Pigeon Creek Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra remounted for a performance in the Rose, I thought it would be a great time to tell you just a few reasons this play is amazing and you should come see it.
- It’s a play about a woman’s fight for her own agency. Super relevant, four hundred years later.
- The histories all deal with “who is the just ruler” but this is the only one where we are supposed to be on the side of the unjust rulers. Not with sick fascination like Macbeth, but with admiration.
- Interesting genre-bending all over this play. It’s as much a romance as a history or tragedy, which means cool things like ghosts, gods, magic, etc. Since I’m very into “magical realism Shakespeare,” I go all in on that stuff.
- Everybody is trying hard to do what is right. They have strange and conflicting ideas about what is right, but that creates some powerful ambiguity.
- The language. Dang. So many of the lines are famous, and rightly so, but my favorite bits are the little moments that people never quote, like how Antony calls Cleopatra, “my nightingale” and “thou day of the world.” It is relentlessly gorgeous, no matter who is talking. Even sentries have beautiful words.
- It has two (TWO) sea battles. How do you stage that? Check out my MLitt thesis, “Sound, Trumpets,” gathering dust in an academic library near you.
- Subtle and beautiful connections to prequel Julius Caesar, another underrated play. Some are obvious, like the reappearance of the soothsayer. But the sneaky ones, like the images of mirrors–which appear in these two plays even more than in the twinning plays–are for the real nerds.
- This is hard to describe, but when I’m not working on Antony and Cleopatra, I read it and I think, “Why do I love this play so much?” It has a bunch of weird structural things, and the protagonists can be really awful. But when I’m working on it, or seeing a truly excellent production, I fall completely in love. Maybe the thesis of this play is, “Love doesn’t make sense,” and its genius is to give the audience an inescapable experience of that fact.
- Hard to describe this, but the relentless presentation of antithesis, I think, pulls the audience out of the world of the real and into a nearly meditative space. Trying to hold antithesis in my mind is like trying to look at the moon and see both the face and the rabbit simultaneously. It defies any impulse toward certainty. You know what other plays are famously riddled with antithesis?Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare reminds us that love is a paradox. A koan. A freeing meditation.
- A formula for determining the quality of an early modern play: # of people actually or nearly murdered by pirates * a numerical representation of their social rank. A&C beats all. Think I’m wrong? Good Tickle Brain backs me up.
AND ANOTHER THING: Although I think this play is brilliant, I have rarely seen productions of it that moved me. Reasons:
- Actors pick ONE thing to play for Cleopatra. She’s whiny OR sexy OR domineering. This ignores the textual assertion that she is full of infinite variety. Her text has contrasts lined up right against each other; she shifts from one moment to the next. It’s hard to play, but crucial for making the play work. We have to be as enchanted with Cleopatra as Antony is. If she’s doing just one thing for a long time, yes, she gets annoying. But played with textual clarity and commitment, she is utterly fascinating.
- Antony and Cleopatra rarely seem to have any chemistry. I think that the harsh words they use with each other can make it difficult for a director and/or actors to commit to this love. But their harsh words come out of the tension that their intense chemistry causes between who they want to be in the world and who they fundamentally are. So fascinating, so fun to play with–but impossible if there is any holding back. These are not people who hold back.
- Everyone wants to make Octavius the bad guy. Given that James and Elizabeth thought they were descended from him (they were wrong about that, but they thought it was true), I can’t imagine Shakespeare meant it to be read this way. W. H. Auden says “The passage of time is the enemy in A&C.” I think he’s right. He also describes Octavius as “a very cold fish indeed,” but I think he’s wrong about that one. I love Octavius.
- The production fights the magic. What if we take Shakespeare at his word, that Cleopatra has enchanted Antony? What if Enobarbus dies of a broken heart and we don’t make sense of it? What about when the guards hear Hercules leaving Antony–can we let that be the reality of what happens? (See also thesis, ibid)
AND ANOTHER THING: rebuttals to people’s wrong arguments against this play.
- “All the men are trash.” This is a terrible reason to hate an early modern play, because it applies to most of them. I’m pretty sure I learned in Tom Berger’s print culture class that Hemmings & Condell nearly used that phrase as title for the First Folio. Also, all the men are not trash. Pompey chooses not to have Menas kill men whose deaths would be very convenient for him. Enobarbus is loyal and loving–and makes a bad choice. Antony tries to do the right thing, he’s just not good at it. Dolabella is compassionate to Cleopatra, if unable to help her. Octavius weeps when he is forced to give his sister in marriage to keep the peace. Agrippa is trash, but everyone else has their reasons for their behavior.
- “They act like teenagers.” They don’t act like teenagers, they act like people who have spent their whole lives working for something and once they have it, they find themselves wondering why they thought it was all worth it. If that’s not adulting in a nutshell…
- The fourth act is a mess. Just keep it moving. It will be over soon. I’m joking–yes, there are a million tiny scenes, but I love how Shakespeare uses this quickness to make events come at us so quickly. It’s like an early modern montage.
If you don’t love Antony and Cleopatra, I think it’s because you haven’t seen a production that does the text justice. I’m pretty happy with how ours is looking. It’s changed a few minds already. Katherine Mayberry was nominated for a Wilde Award for her performance of Egypt’s queen. Let us try to change your mind–join us at the Rose on August 24!