Ah, Shakespeare- takes me right back to high school English class! (Truthfully though: I hadn’t read this play nor seen it performed, but the general strokes of the story were familiar.) Ready? Here goes: Marc Antony, the great Roman general, is uneasily sharing power with Octavius, Julius Ceaser’s nephew, and a third general, Lepidius. Antony has come to Egypt as part of the triumvirate’s previous battles against outside enemies and fallen in love with the seductive Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. Now that the outside enemies have been defeated, each of the triumvirate is jockeying for power and Cleopatra will prove Antony’s Achilles heel.
Cleopatra is rich and powerful, and when she comes to seduce Antony early on, she dips her sails in perfume to herald her arrival (Stacey Schiff, biographer of Cleopatra, says this part is likely true. Rich AND dramatic!). Captivated, Antony lingers too long in the east and makes poor choices in battle, unable to compete with the wily ways of Octavian (at home in Rome, Octavian has the ears of Romans while Antony ‘plays’ in the east). There is a final decisive naval battle where Antony turns tail to follow Cleopatra’s ships, which had abandoned him mid-fight; Octavian pursues the lovers back to Egypt where Antony’s men, seeing their weakened bargaining position, abandon him.
Cleopatra has servants tell Antony she is dead, and Antony attempts suicide by running onto his sword. He botches the job, resulting in a mortal wound that lets him to linger long enough to be taken to Cleopatra where she is holed up in her monumental tomb. They profess their love for each other, he dies and Octavian swoops in to try and assure Cleopatra that he will be generous to her, so she shouldn’t take the same deadly path.
One of Octavian’s men confirms that he intends to humiliate Cleopatra by parading her through the streets of Rome in subjugation, an insult she cannot bear. A local man carrying figs is allowed into the tomb by Octavian’s guards; unbeknownst to them the figs conceal deadly asps (snakes). Cleopatra and her serving ladies all commit suicide by asp, with Cleo expressing her dream of reuniting with her lover amongst the stars. Fin.
Whew! The essays that follow the play were one of the reasons that I picked up the version I read, and there is no shortage of material in this play for Shakespeare scholars- the prominent featuring and just plain space given to Cleopatra (Antony dies at the end of Act 4, so she gets a whole other Act to herself); the contrasts between the lustful, languishing East (Egypt) and the efficient, strategic West (Rome), and all the gender comparisons inherent there; the power of love to override good decisions but also its saving grace as making the ending less tragic than other tragedies (they will meet again in the stars- has a different feel than the tragic similar ending of Romeo and Juliet); the loaded interactions and motivations between Antony and Octavian, etc.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is a multi-dimensial character- conniving, self-interested and prone to jealousy while at the same time glamourous, confident and powerful. Ultimately she chooses to own her story by committing suicide, spoiling Octavian’s plans. This is in a sense a victory- once Antony lost the naval battle there was no real hope for a happy ending for Cleo (she’d tied her success to his) so a glorious exit was her best of two bad options.
As far as how much I liked it: I think I would have liked to have seen this one performed more than to have read it, especially with a Hollywood budget/ CGI to capture the special effects (or maybe this is my griping that the Elizabeth Taylor version wasn’t free on the streaming I subscribe to, so I’ve yet to get my dose of opulence). I realize that in Elizabethan times the scenery and costuming would not have had that same note of luxury, but there was just so much dripping excess, and Cleo displays so much diva energy, that I wanted more than just lines of text (as Shakespeare intended, hence a play and not a novel…).
I also love that the commentary section at the end pulled out some of the most famous lines from the play. For fun:
- Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch/ Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.
- Eternity was in our lips and eyes/ Bliss in our brows bent.
- Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety.
- We have kissed away/ Kingdoms and provinces.
- Finish good lady. The bright day is done/ And we are for the dark.
- Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/ Immortal longings in me.
Counting this one as the ‘Snake’ square for cbr14bingo