Monday, 1 January 2018

Anthony and Cleopatra - The Old vs the New

It seems that I have been seeing quite a few Shakesperian plays of late, namely because not only have I moved to Melbourne where there happens to be more in the way of theatre (though Adelaide does have the occasional play come through, and they also do have the odd productions during the Fringe as well as their own version of Shakespeare in the park), but also because the Stage to Screen productions, and the National Theatre Live productions, have meant that I have had much more of an opportunity than I have had in the past. Mind you, that doesn't include the various DVDs that I have, which includes a box set that I picked up in London from The Globe (which I have yet to get around to watching any of them).

The problem is that Shakespeare can be incredibly draining at times, namely because the language is not just incredibly flowery and poetic, but also because it is somewhat archaic. In a sense it seems that you feel that parts of the play are simply dragging on way too long, and really want the characters to either hurry up or get to the point. Mind you, Shakespeare isn't about getting to the point though, if you want something that gets to the point you might as well go and watch a random action movie starring Vin Diesel. No, Shakespeare isn't about getting to the point, it is about the various characters pouring out their hearts and their emotions, and for the tragedy of the circumstance to hit us (if the play is a tragedy of course).

Thus so we come to Anthony and Cleapatra, a play that until recently I have only had the chance to read, though at the beginning of this production we were taken through the various productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company going back to at least the 1970s. At first I thought that maybe this wasn't all that popular a play, but I suspect it may have something to do with where one happens to live (an in Australia you generally only get productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and if you are lucky, King Lear). Yet the story seems to stick in my mind in the same way that Julius Caeser does, and as I was watching the play unfold I couldn't help but think back to when I was a child having the knowledge that Cleopatra was the most beautiful woman in the world.

I guess we have William Shakespeare to thank for that, though of course Cleopatra is only one in a long line of Egyptian Queens who have that name. Yet like the knowledge of Julius Caesar's assassination, and the betrayal by his friend Brutus, even if we haven't seen the play, the knowledge of it sits with out collective conscious. Mind you, a lot of my early knowledge of Cleopatra, and Ancient Rome, actually comes from the Asterix comics (and as a kid we loved our Asterix and Tintin comics). Of course, Cleopatra does make an appearance in the comics in one where Asterix and Obelix travel to Egypt to help Cleopatra win a bet against Caeser as to who are the better builders - Egypt or Rome. The one thing that I took away from that story was that she happened to have had an enchanting nose.

An Ancient Scandal

Well, I'm not sure if one could consider the affair between Anthony and Cleopatra to be all that scandalous, though in a way it was in the eyes of Octavian Caesar who was trying to implement a system of family values among Rome's upper classes. Anyway, the story begins after the second-triumvirate succeed in their war against the conspirators and opens in Egypt with Anthony and Cleopatra engaged in a steamy love affair. While one may wonder how it is that he ended up here, the reason is not really addressed in the confines of the play (though we can always go to Plutarch for the answers). While there he receives news of his wife's death and must hurry back to Rome, much to Cleopatra's distress. The thing that struck me here, as Cleopatra sat on her throne pining for Mark Anthony, was that this wasn't a simply two week trip and he would be back - the journey to Rome from Egypt was a long, and treacherous, journey, and a round trip could take months. In this world patience really needed to be a virtue.

However, while there Anthony marries' Octavian's sister so that they become brothers, but there is always a desire to return to Egypt to be with Cleopatra. However, news eventually reaches Alexandria and Cleopatra is shattered, believing that all is lost. Yet it is not so because Mark Anthony eventually leaves Rome and returns to Cleopatra's embrace. This is where the scandal arises because it is not any woman that Anthony is cheating on, it is Octavian's sister, and this he takes with a huge offence. It is clear by this time that the Triumvirate is starting to fracture, and once again we find ourselves in the midst of a civil war, one that results in both Anthony and Cleopatra's death, and Octavian assuming the role of Imperator of Rome.

One thing that stood out particularly was the choice of actor for the character of Cleopatra. No doubt most of the previous productions basically had an Anglo-American actress, however here the producers have cast Josette Simon in the role, which gives the play a much more realistic, and exotic, flavour. A part of me doubts that Cleopatra would have been fair skinned, though we must remember also that she was a Ptolemy, which meant that she was Greek. Yet the Ptolemy's, while being Greek, were also very Egyptian in character. Yet by giving the Egyptian characters a more Middle Eastern/African feel to them adds an element of realism to the production.

Okay, while I do have a version of Anthony & Cleopatra on DVD, as performed at The Globe, the other thing that stood out about this particular play is that every version is different, and while I might watch a version performed by The Globe, the version performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company is going to be vastly different to the one at the Globe (which I haven't had the opportunity to see yet). One thing that was impressive was how they did the Battle of Actium, probably the last great sea battle of the Ancient World. Basically they had a number of model ships on the stage, and the various actors who then picked them up and run around with them while music played in the background. Like other plays that I have seen, such as a depiction of the battle of Agincourt in Henry V, the way that such huge battles are staged also adds a lot to the play.

An Ancient Land

The play is set in both Egypt and Rome, and in a way what we see is a conflict between the old and the new. Rome represents the new power that is sweeping the land, while Egypt is an Ancient Land whose history dates back eons. Even then, Egypt has fallen, risen, fallen, and risen over the centuries so that there really isn't one specific kingdom that one could call Egypt. While in our mind the Egypt of the Pyramids and the Egypt of the Valley of the Kings is one and the same, they reality is that they are not. The Egypt that was ruled by Rameses II is not the same Egypt that was ruled by Cheops (the builder of the Pyramids). Further, the Egypt of the Lighthouse and the Great Library is another Egypt entirely - Ptolemaic Egypt - which as I have mentioned about, is actually Greek with an Egyptian flavour to it.

In one way the world used to be centered around the Egytian Empire, but the world back then was an incredibly small world. Sure, Google Maps may suggest that the time it takes to walk from Egypt to Israel is nowhere near the Forty years that the Bible claims that the Hebrews took to cross the desert, the people who made that connection either haven't read their Bible, or are simply looking for any old excuse to debunk the text without actually critically considering what they are saying (for instance, wandering in the desert does not indicate a straight line; also, Google Maps claims that it will take me 24 days to travel from Adelaide to Darwin by foot, but does not take into account that I am wandering through a desert, and the 24 days is basically walking non-stop - if I broke it down to 8 hour days, then it blows out to something like 72).

It seems like I have gone off on a bit of a tangent here, though going back to the play, if we don't go as far back to the Egypt of the Pharoahs, and simply consider the Egypt of the Ptolemy's in one way we are still looking at an empire in decline. Egypt was probably the last frontier on the Mediterranean, though at that time it was a Roman protectorate. However Ptolemaic Egypt was for a time the centre of arts and culture around the world - this was the result of the creation of the Great Library - all the scholars and philosophers of the day made their way to Alexandria as this was pretty much where they could learn the best. In that sense Alexandria had replaced Athens. However, Rome was very much on the rise, and in the preceding century had pretty much conquered the entire Mediterranean coast. The glory days of Ptolemaic Egypt were behind them, and the Great Library had already been destroyed in a fire. This was now a time for them to step aside an allow a new empire to take hold.

Passing of the Old Guard

Okay, while Mark Athony was still one of the rulers of Rome, it also seemed that it was time for him to step aside for some of the younger blood. While Octavian was around during Caesar's assassination, he was not one of the major players. It was Mark Anthony who took the centre stage, and who formed the second triumvirate to fight and defeat the conspirators. However, come now we discover an older Mark Anthony, one who has fought his wars, and is wanting to take it easy and relax. Yet the play opens with a suggestion of a debaucherous party - this isn't a question of love, this is a question of lust. In one sense, as the old that is the queen of Egypt comes to the new, the Triumvirate of Rome, we also have the old guard sitting down to spend his golden years in ease.

Yet we must remember that Cleopatra is still a queen, and in taking Anthony as her lover, he becomes a king - this is an insult in the face of Octavian because it comes across as if Anthony is setting himself up to be a rival to his power, and we are also in Egypt, which is sufficiently far away - if he wanted to launch a takeover, building up an army in Egypt would be the sensible, and a most strategic thing to do. In fact I believe that Pompey established a base in Egypt during the Civil War. In one sense Octavian is on the rise (and Lepidus, the third leg of the Triumvirate, is fading further and further to the back), and conflict with Mark Anthony is inevitable.

This is the problem of the political situation of Rome - in one sense they want stability, but in another sense they do not want an entrenched autocrat. This is why they went down the road of the Triumvirates, but the problem with them was that both times they ended in Civil War, as is the case here. The second Triumvirate falls apart and both Anthony and Octavian come to blows at Actium. Here Octavian wins, but Anthony wins the second battle, but it is a hollow victory as by the third battle Anthony's troops had deserted him, leaving his stranded and alone.

A More Mature Love

The director, in an interview before the play, suggested that Anthony & Cleopatra was a more mature love as opposed to that of Romeo and Juliet. In a way I would say yes, but I would also say no. One of the reasons is that young love tends to be a lot more pure, and a lot more innocent, where as the older one gets, the more jaded one gets. Yet there is also an essence of debauchery here - when one is young it seems that one is a lot more innocent, and in a way the love is much more pure, yet here it seems to be driven by sensual desire - both Anthony and Cleopatra are much older than our other heroes, which gives it a much different aspect.

Yet one cannot escape the similarities between the end of both plays - we have one pretend to be dead, so the other kills themselves, only for us to learn that they aren't really dead, but when they find out that their lover is dead they end up killing themselves - and the play ends. In both plays there is poison, Cleopatra kills herself with an asp, while poison is used in Romeo and Juliet (though since I haven't seen the play for a very long time, thanks to Baz Luhrman and Leonardo Di Caprio, I can't say for sure).

Also, there is this question of forbidden love - Romeo & Juliet come from houses who are at war with each other, while Mark Anthony is married, not just to any woman but to Octavian's sister. Then there is the question of them establishing themselves as King and Queen of Egypt. This isn't so much an aspect of the forbidden love, but rather an inevitable consequence of the affair. While one might look at them and say, they are having an affair - who cares. Well, we do, and so does Octavian. Remember, there was this desire to rid Rome of its vice and debauchery, and reintroduce some family values into the middle and upper classes, and having Anthony, one of the rulers, run off and do this really doesn't help with this.

Yet I am not so sure whether I can really consider this to be debauchery. In a way I don't necessarily think it is. Maybe at first it is - Mark Anthony is just taking it easy - but he is called back to Rome, and is married to Octavian's sister. In a way Cleopatra should be gone and forgotten - sure she is pining for him, but the fact the Anthony returns to Egypt to embrace his love shows that he actually does rather than it simply being some debaucherous night out. No, this is serious, serious enough for Anthony to not only betray his friend, but also run the risk of earning the enmity of the empire - which he eventually does.

A Brutal Death

The one final thing I wish to touch upon is how long it actually takes for somebody to die in Shakespeare. In one sense they talk, and talk, and talk, and stab themselves, and then continue to talk. A part of me wanted to scream out 'die already - enough with this waffling'. Yet, I think we forget how serious Shakespeare takes the death of a major character. Sure, in our post-modern cinematic culture, people die left right and centre on the screens, yet even in Hollywood the death of a major character is significant. In reality, when a major character dies, there is an entire scene devoted to the character's death. It made me think of a series that I just finished watching (the Sarah Conner Chronicles), and how half way through the second to last episode one of the major characters is suddenly shot in the head - that's it, nothing more, he's dead. To be honest with you, it sucked, and sucked big time.

This is why Mark Anthony, and Cleopatra (and many of Shakespeare's other characters) take so long to die, and that is because not only is the character significant, but death is significant. Death is final, and permanent - it is the end. To cheapen it the way we have done in modern films really doesn't do it justice. This is the nature of what is termed a mook - a character that exists in a film, or show, simply to get shot and to die. This is not what death is about, and it is why characters in plays beat and moan, and wail, when they are dying, because they aren't mooks - they are significant. In fact every human being is significant, though to attach a depth of personality to every single character that is killed in your typical action movie does have the potential to really do your head in.

Yet this is the problem with the modern world - we some how cheapen the death of certain segments of society, or even the world. If somebody where to die in our home town then it is a travesty, yet hundreds of thousands of people die daily around the world, and we basically shut it out of our minds. However, this is something that is beginning to change - the opponents of the Iraq War went to great pains to document each and every civilian death that occurred because of the invasion. It is not just soldier's, but civilians as well. Yet, in many cases we still go about our daily lives, as if the problems on the other side of the world are either too far away, or just too difficult for one person to fix.

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Anthony and Cleopatra - The Old vs the New by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. I haven't read (or seen) Antony and Cleopatra. It does seem to be less popular here. Perhaps because of Elizabeth Taylor...

    I like your point about the dying. I suppose one reason is that except in decapitation, death used to take a bit longer in many cases. A slow bleedout was a common enough scenario. Obviously, Shakespeare uses more dramatic language than the average mortally wounded person would be able to muster - but likewise for his commoners, right? (Bottom is such a great example.)

    The approach to the naval battle sounds interesting. I find the staging of epic scenes to be fascinating - and the smaller the production budget, the more interesting it becomes.

    If I get a chance, I will definitely see this one live.

    1. I didn't realise that Taylor wasn't hugely popular. Unfortunately I haven't seen her version of the play, though I did watch Taming of the Shrew a while back, which I have to admit was a little silly.

      I agree, his commoners do seem to speak a lot more eloquently than they would in real life.

    2. The thing with Elizabeth Taylor is that the successful period of her career (through the mid-1960s) isn't remembered by many of us. Instead, we tend to think of her later years. For my parents' generation, they often associate her with Eddie Fisher - who she stole (more or less...perception is everything) from Debbie Reynolds. For us Xers, we think of her 8 marriages, her desperate attempts to look younger than she was, and her substance abuse issues.

      It is kind of a shame, because she was once beautiful, and a competent (if not world class) actor. But it is hard to see her in a film without thinking of all the later baggage, when she was more a punchline than anything.