Thursday, March 28, 2024

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 18: Antony and Cleopatra

The Tragedie of Antonie, and Cleopatra , first broadcast May 8th, 1981
  • Possibly written: 1606-1607. Possibly his 30th play.
  • What’s it about? Antony, last seen in “Julius Caesar”, has become enamored of Egyptian queen Cleopatra and ignores his duties, but his co-ruler Octavian calls him home to help deal with various threats to Rome. Antony and Cleo eventually decide to rebel against Rome and both wind up dead.
  • Most famous dialogue: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”
  • Sources: Plutarch’s Lives, specifically Thomas North’s translation (which was an English translation of a French translation of the Attic Greek original.) Shakespeare takes whole passages, but also makes up some things.
  • Best insult: Not a lot of great insults in this one. Just a few: “Ah, you kite”, “You have been a boggler ever”, “Triple-turn’d whore!”
  • Best word: weet, foison
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I read it in college but I’ve never seen it performed.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Colin Blakely as Antony showed up in a lot of stuff. You’ve seen him before.
How’s the cast?
  • The most disappointing thing about the cast is that they didn’t carry over Antony and Octavian from their production of Julius Caesar. I think this play becomes a lot more interesting when it’s treated as a sequel to that play, showing Antony’s devolution from manipulator to manipulated. As it is, Blakely does a good job and Jane Lapotaire ably brings to life Miller’s lusty interpretation of Cleopatra.
How’s the direction by Jonathan Miller?
  • Miller produced the whole season and this is the third we’ve seen him direct, though apparently it was shot first. Unlike Timon of Athens, he doesn’t insist on Elizabethan dress, thankfully. Unfortunately, he said in interviews that he saw Cleopatra as just a “treacherous slut” and that dismissive attitude infects the production. If he’d had more respect for Cleopatra, it would have been a better show.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: You Can Only Draw It Out So Much

This production is almost three hours, but the war is over at the 2 hour mark. The final hour is dedicated to the two most overwrought death scenes in all of Shakespeare (or at least the half we’ve read so far). It plays a little camp in this version, and it would be hard to imagine it not seeming over the top unless it was cut down. If Shakespeare is to be believed, one of the world’s top causes of death is failing to understand that other people were faking their deaths. Just don’t fake your deaths, kids.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Gendering Flaws is a Problem

Was Miller right to see Cleopatra as just a “treacherous slut”? Was there more in the text he could have plumbed? I would say there’s room for a more sympathetic portrait here, but it’s certainly true that Shakespeare slights the actual historic figure. The real Cleopatra was not only a political genius but a flat-out genius-genius. She spoke 8 languages! Shakespeare doesn’t give an actress room to play that.  His Cleopatra is undeniably petulant, flighty, and sex-obsessed (“Oh happy horse to bear the weight of Anthony!”) 

 Of course, his male heroes are all deeply flawed as well. It’s not like there are any moral paragons in Shakespeare, but because he has only two female title heroes (Juliet being the other), it becomes more of a problem that Cleopatra’s many flaws are gendered as female. Knowing how kick-ass the real Cleopatra was, it’s natural to want her to be more sympathetic here, even if that might be too much to ask of any of Shakespeare’s universally-flawed heroes.

Alright, that’s the end of Season 3 of the BBC show, and I’m once again barded out, so I will take another break for a while. I’m not crazy about Miller taking over the show and only loved one of the six in this season (Timon). There’s some great material coming up in Miller’s second and final season, so let’s see how he does with that.


Nat said...

For famous dialogue, not “My salad days, when I was green in judgment?” People still say “salad days!”

Matt Bird said...

Good call!