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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

"Antony and Cleopatra" by William Shakespeare

I saw this play at the National Theatre in the matinee performance on Saturday 19th January 2019. Ralph Fiennes made an excellent Antony by Sophie Okonedo was simply stunning as Cleopatra.

James Shapiro (2015) in 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear points out that despite having virtually invented the soliloquy and having used it to great effect in Macbeth, the preceding play, Shakespeare has hardly any soliloquies in Antony and Cleopatra.

James Shapiro (2015) in 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear states that Shakespeare's "account of Cleopatra is suffused with paradox and hyperbole”. The example that he gives is from Act 2 Scene 2 in which Enobarbus says that Cleopatra "makes hungry Where she most satisfies". But there are many other examples too. 

Sophie Okonedo's portrayal of Cleopatra was of someone whose behaviour depended on fickle whim. She is demanding. She wants to know how much Antony loves her and he replies: "There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.” This was a wonderful portrait of a woman who is passionate and headstrong, governed by her desires.

For Antony his life in Egypt is the dream but he is repeatedly called back to reality. Antony is also able to dissociate his two lives. Thus, for him, his marriage to Octavia is purely something political whereas Octavia is furious when, as she is attempting to broker peace between Antony and Octavius, Antony runs back to Cleopatra. In the end though Antony has very little choice in the matter. As he says, in explanation of his retreat from the battle of Actium when Cleopatra's fleet disengaged and ran away and Antony followed: "My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings".

Neither of the two protagonists is good at listening.  The play opens with Antony repeatedly refusing to listen to urgent news from home. Shortly after, still in the first act,  there is a scene in which Antony is trying to tell Cleopatra that he must return to Rome because his wife Fulvia has died but Cleopatra, assuming he is going to tell her that Fulvia has called him home, won't let him get a word in edgeways. Later there was a hilariously comic scene in which a messenger (it was played by Eros in the NT production) tries to tell her that Antony has married Octavia. “I do not like 'But yet,' it does allay/ The good precedence; fie upon 'But yet'!/ 'But yet' is as a gaoler to bring forth/ Some monstrous malefactor.” she tells him and when he finally plucks up the courage to say the words she tries to kill him (in the NT production this entailed her chasing him into the swimming pool and him floudering in it getting wetter and wetter). This demonstrates an earlier comment by Enobarbus when he says that women ‘die’ when they hear bad news: “Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment ... she hath such a celerity in dying.” (which comment, of course, foreshadows her suicide). And this refusal to listen comes to the climax when Antony repeatedly refuses the advice of his generals to fight Octavius on land rather than at sea. They are appalled:
“Your ships are not well mann'd;
Your mariners are muleters, reapers, people
Ingross'd by swift impress; in Caesar's fleet
Are those that often have 'gainst Pompey fought:
Their ships are yare; yours, heavy”

They aren't the only ones who won't listen to advice. When the triumvirs (Antony, Octavius and Lepidus) are on board Pompey's ship getting drunk, Pompey is advised to cut the cable, put to sea and cut their throats but he refuses because of his honour. This, of course, dooms him in the end.

The construction of the play is interesting. There are many foreshadowings of snakes and serpents (including the crocodile which a drunken Lepidus asks about). The play has the difficult task of trying to chronicle some complicated history. Thus, although the battle of Actium, regarded by some historians as one of the pivotal encounters of world history, is more or less at the very centre of the play, there are more battles after it which gives the feel that Actium was not that important after all. And this second battle has to be divided into two days; on the first Antony believes that he has won. So the narrative is muddled as it leads to the lovers' doom.

In the end they have to die. Antony requests his servant Eros to kill him but Eros turns the sword upon himself: this led to a gasp across the auditorim in the NT production. Then Antony botches the job of suicide, lingering until he is taken to Cleopatra and hoisted to the top of the monument where she is hiding. There she is taken alive, being tricked by the one man that Antony told her she could trust, and she has to smuggle in a snake in a basket of figs so that she too can kill herself. All a bit Romeo and Juliet in the end.

Great lines:

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;”

“Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.”

“The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack: the round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets,
And citizens to their dens: the death of Antony
Is not a single doom; in the name lay
A moiety of the world.”

“Sir, I will eat no meat, I'll not drink, sir;
If idle talk will once be necessary,
I'll not sleep neither: this mortal house I'll ruin,
Do Caesar what he can. Know, sir, that I
Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court;
Nor once be chastised with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up
And show me to the shouting varletry
Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me! rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring! rather make
My country's high pyramides my gibbet,
And hang me up in chains!”

January 2018



Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

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