Thursday 2 August 2012

Devouring Books: Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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

I should warn you before I even begin that this review is not at all going to do this play justice. I mean, I don't think I'm really qualified to do Shakespeare justice at all anyway, but this time is even worse because 1) I read this during a readathon which, while fun and everything, doesn't exactly encourage me to deep reading, if you know what I mean, and 2) I had some mostly wrong pre-concieved ideas about what the play was going to be like, and when it wasn't like that I got slightly pissed off and huffy and, dare I say it, even bored? We'll discuss (and by discuss I mean I'll type and you read. You know, if you want.)

So. The preconceptions I had about Antony and Cleopatra were that, it would basically be a tragic, Romeo and Juliet style love story, very dramatic and sexy and, you know, with loads of Antony and Cleopatra together time. And obviously they're the two most important characters, and they are together some of the time, but it felt like their story actually took a back seat to the power struggles between Antony and Caesar (not that Caesar. The other one. A new one) and their battles and skirmishes and whatnot. This isn't exactly a problem (although, as we all know, I don't like things that include war!) and it's not something that really devalues the play at all, it's just that my preconceptions of the thing held me back from fully appreciating what it actually was about. Which is a shame, but it's something that I do a LOT, not just with books but with movies too, so I should probably work on that. I happen to know that, when I read this again, I'll like it and appreciate it much better, but the first time around? It didn't really work for me.

The thing with reading plays is, as good as they are, their intention is always to be performed, and so reading them doesn't really give you a proper or full representation of what they actually are. I actually found that with Antony and Cleopatra, I got really confused about who was on whose side at each point, and when various battles were happening, which I'm sure is something that I wouldn't be able to miss onstage. It doesn't help that I was also reading the battle scenes/bits where Antony was in Rome whilst half of my mind was going 'but when will he go back to Cleopatra?!' and this is why I say I'm sure I'll be able to appreciate it better next time around. But anyway, I found the political side of things confusing, and didn't really know who was friends with whom at any given time, but it's entirely my fault for basically not wanting there to be a political side to things, if you know what I mean.

So, was the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra really all that? Well, it was... Interesting. Actually, I don't mean ...interesting, I just plain mean interesting. I never really got any sense that theirs was a 'can't possibly be without each other' love, since, on the contrary, they spend the majority of the play apart, and much of their relationship seems to be based on sex and desire- Cleopatra is clearly this figure of great desire just, historically, but for it to be so... out there was something I wasn't really expecting! Now, obviously there's nothing wrong with their sexual desire, but the problem is that there doesn't really seem to be anything deeper there, and so when called upon to prove their dedication to each other, they're more into looking out for their own, separate interests, rather than for each other.

See, interesting right?! I guess that, since Cleopatra is the ruler of Egypt, and Antony the joint ruler of the Roman Empire, their top priorities are not each other, but their respective countries/Empires. So, basically, they're grown ups who love each other and sexing each other, but are mature enough to realise that their passions are not necessarily as important as entire countries/empires full of people. It's not so romantic, but it sure is practical, and I think realistic. It's not that they don't love each other enough, it's just that they love their people more. Or something. Until they do love each other, right near the end, and that's all good. And also, Cleopatra is a wicked awesome feminist:
"Charmain: Madam, methinks if you did love him dearly,
                   You do not hold the method to enforce
                   The like from him.
Cleopatra: What should I do that I do not?
Charmain: In each thing give him way: cross him in nothing.
Cleopatra: Thou teachest like a fool, the way to lose him."
Ok, not really a feminist so much as a master manipulator of Antony/men in general, but still! She won't be all subservient so that he can be in charge, and that's just great!

So basically I've just given the Antony and Cleopatra more post time than it gets in the play. But that's ok since I get extremely bored and tired out by battles, even when Shakespeare does them. I suspect those parts are much better/clearer when they're being acted out and you're properly paying attention, but for the casual reader, the thing to really stay for in this is the central relationship which is, I say again, really interesting and intriguing and worth sticking around for.


  1. I have this on my classics club list, I've read a bit of history from this time so I'm looking forward to it. I'll know now to expect politics rather than mainly romance. Shakespeare is apparently partly responsible for recasting Cleopatra as just a sex symbol rather than a competent ruler in her own right, did you get that impression from the play?

    1. Oh, it's cool that you have some historical knowledge of it, I reckon that'll make this much more fun/understandy for you! Definitely the political overtakes the romantic in it.

      I *definitely* got the sense that Cleopatra was cast purely as a sex symbol- although there was a part where she chose her kingdom over her man, there was a sense that her way of doing so was by offering herself to this dude (*tries desperately to avoid spoilers*) like sexually. And most of her part was going 'oh Antony, how could you leave me when I'm so sexy?' while he got to go out and deal with politics and stuff. So yeah, not the best in that respect!

  2. Mmm practical sexytimes.

    No, I tried reading this when I waaas 15 maybe? And I went at it on the heels of a really big Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor phase and MISTAKENLY thought the movie Cleopatra borrowed a lot from this, so when I discovered it is, in fact, just straight up Shakespearean difficultness, I gave up and went back to watching Burton/Taylor make out.

    But yes, very well-written, etc etc. Which...yes.

    1. You have a problem with things that are well written?! But, well, yeah, I found this a lot harder than a lot of other plays, mostly because I was like 'so where are they now? What's going on? Wasn't this guy Antony's friend a minute ago?' etc etc.

      But Shakespeare! It's not like I find him easy to read, but it's worth it just for the bits you can *sigh* over. Ah, good writing...

      (I have never seen Cleopatra, but I suspect it's like Elizabeth Taylor walking around being all sexy and stuff, which to be fair is what about 20% of this play is like. But then the rest is not so much.)

  3. I had the same notions! I thought "oh R&J but with adults instead of whiny teens. This will be fun!" and then it was all geopolitical power struggles and that is not what I thought I was signing up for Mr. Shakespeare. And then there are a billion scenes in each act and I never have any idea where they're supposed to be.

    1. Duuude, I got so confused about where they were, and I missed the bit where Caesar and Antony stopped being friends, so I was like 'wait, you guys are fighting? Why are you fighting?!' So yeah, it mostly went whooshing over my head!

      The introduction in my big ole complete works actually says that this is like a grown up Romeo and Juliet. And I'm just like, this is a complete LIE just to trick you into reading it! But I did like the love bits. Mostly.

  4. I applaud you for being able to read Shakespeare-anything, especially 'just because'. I like that they love each other, but they love their people more.

    1. Aw, it's not so hard! Ok, it's pretty hard, but mostly worth it in the end! I also like that they love their people more, because that's just so sensible and unselfish and exactly how you'd want your leaders to be. Mmmhmm. *nods*

  5. I've never read this play in detail, though I know a bit about Anthony and Cleopatra from other sources. I've always had the notion that Cleopatra was an irresistible sexual woman whose favours were courted by many noblemen, but who chose Anthony to bestow her favours upon. The two of them were formidable together. But as was peculiar in those times, wars, conguests and empire building and expansions were the norm and took precedence over personal desires. Again, Anthony had fought Julius Caesar's enemies, (Brutus and Cassius) in battle and had been victorious and had to consolidate his power and position over Rome. He also had to contend with Octavius Caeser, nephew of Julius, whom he was quickly falling out with. So his desire and psassion for Cleopatra had to take second place, though they were together whenever they had the opportunity. Me thinks passion and power are a formidable combination.