Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Anthony and Cleopatra is the (other) greatest love story ever told

If, as I have claimed in a previous post, Shakespeare's intention in Romeo and Juliet was not to write the greatest love story ever told, then what about Antony and Cleopatra? This is no impetuous teenage passion- Shakespeare has taken as his subject one of the archetypal stories of doomed love. Antony, one of the triumvirate that rules the known world, abandons everything for the love of the enchanting Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Their story ends when Antony, believing Cleopatra to be dead, kills himself. Cleopatra then also commits suicide through the exotically tragic means of having an asp deliver a fatal bite. An archetype of tragic love down the centuries, appropriately played in the modern era by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, surely these two are the central characters in the greatest love story ever told?

Well, if that was Shakespeare's intention he had a strange way of implementing it. From the famous first line of the play Antony's love for Cleopatra is dismissed as "dotage" and Antony himself describes his time with her as "poison'd hours [which] bound me up/From mine own knowledge." Their rows are legendary and in Act 3 scene 13 Antony is vicious to Cleopatra, reminding her that "I found you as a morsel cold upon/Dead Caesar's trencher"

Cleopatra for her part knows how to provoke Antony, for instance in Act 1 scene 3 with her harping on about his marriage to Fulvia. Earlier in the scene she even announces her intention of doing so, giving her servant the instructions:
"See where he is, who's with him, what he does:
I did not send you: if you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick: quick, and return."
Her viciousness also echoes his, though her worst remarks are directed at the messenger bringing reports from Anthony. To him she says for instance "Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stew'd in brine,/Smarting in lingering pickle."
Of course the fact that the two of them famously row does not of itself mean that this is not a great love story- look at the similarities with Taylor and Burton who played them. However many of the characters' actions within the play cast doubt on that interpretation too. Antony abandons Cleopatra for Rome half way through the play and actually marries Caesar's sister Octavia. This is a political move of course, and he returns to Cleopatra, but their interaction, for instance in Act 3 scene 4 is that of a genuinely married couple.

Cleopatra is capable of political calculations too, and in Act 3 scene 13 is prepared to go behind Antony's back and surrender to Caesar. He does indeed commit suicide thinking that she has already killed herself but the way Shakespeare presents this is hardly sympathetic. In fact, echoing her game-playing from Act 1 scene 3 mentioned above, in Act 4 scene 13 Cleopatra has her servant tell Antony of her suicide, just to get his reaction. This is hardly the behaviour of a character who genuinely and passionately loves her partner:
"Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself;
Say, that the last I spoke was 'Antony,'
And word it, prithee, piteously: hence, Mardian,
And bring me how he takes my death."

Even Cleopatra's actual suicide is not quite such an unequivocal gesture of undying love as it might appear. She survives Antony's death and in Act 5 scene 2 actually starts negotiating terms with Caesar, for instance asking for her son to remain King of Egypt. However what she keeps harking back to is how she is going to be treated in the future. She cannot accept the loss of her power and authority and is haunted by the idea that Caesar will "hoist me up/And show me to the shouting varletry/Of censuring Rome." It is not the loss of Anthony that will blight her future life but the loss of her dignity and power.

So why has this story so often been said to be the greatest love story of all time? I think that, precisely as with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare is actually commenting on the ways such stories turn into myths. Caesar starts the process himself, with his concluding speech in which he says "No grave upon the earth shall clip in it/A pair so famous." However is motives for doing so are made absolutely explicit: he wants to gain some of the reflected glory as the person who was responsible for bringing this tragic story to its conclusion. As he says:
"High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented."

In the end then, I believe that Antony and Cleopatra is a play about celebrity rather than love. Unusually for Shaekespeare tragedies there are very few soliloquies in the play, because both central characters are constantly on show and constantly aware of their importance and the fact of being watched and noticed. Antony's greatest dread in the end is the loss of that public identity. As he says "I am Antony/Yet cannot hold this visible shape." Cleopatra's, even more tellingly, is the prospect not of oblivion but loss of respect. One of the images of the future that seems to horrify her most is that of their story being presented in mocking, rather than nobly tragic, ways:
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore."

So in the end it is in  all of the characters' interest that this story of political intrigue, military incompetence and human pettiness be presented as "the greatest love story ever told." And that, I believe, is the point Shakespeare is making.

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