The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s mature plays, which may account for the richness as well as the peculiarities on offer. Praised for monumental poetry and its multiple perspectives, the play also curiously defies the genre embraced in its title. It presents somewhat startling comedic moments and showcases heroes who exploit the boundaries of character as rashly as they do the territories of their ancient world. Our impulses either to champion or condemn the heroes swell and crash in an instant. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Matters of the heart are the presumed center of the drama and we learn quickly that hearts as fiery as these attract matter of all sorts. Some reckon Antony and Cleopatra to be the greatest lovers in history; Shakespeare’s couple would have us believe so. Their amorous displays are the talk of towns east and west of the Mediterranean. To Cleopatra, Antony is “infinite virtue.” He hails her as his “conqueror.” And yet, even with such lyrics, these rock stars of antiquity seem most enamored of themselves. Each is addicted to the other’s flattery—a fix to stoke self-worth—but their words are rarely as potent as their actions. Too often the events played out on stage betray some spoken vow.
The stage on which Cleopatra and Antony showcase their celebrity spans the world as they know it. Scenes move from Alexandria to Rome, and back again. Privacy eludes the lovers. Director Robert Richmond’s transformation of the theater for this production is a gesture toward intimacy within the all-too public arena in which the couple circulates. Their influence on the ancient world is reflected in Tony Cisek’s revolving, circular playing space—a globe marked by a symbol of Egypt set atop a Roman shield.
We’re reminded by these symbols of each lover’s broader obligations. Always Antony and Cleopatra are greater than themselves, which perhaps explains those choices that fly in the face of adoration. Cleopatra is called “Egypt”; Antony is a “mate in empire.” The two seem for the majority of acts to enjoy their larger-than-life distinction; these are people acclimated to prominence and to excess.
Plutarch faults Antony for excess in his Life of Marcus Antonius, the source for Shakespeare’s play (courtesy of Th. North’s translations). Though Plutarch specifically condemns Antony for doting excessively on Egypt’s queen, it’s clear in the Life that Antony was ever inclined toward indulgence. Shakespeare, so critical of excess in plays such as Measure for Measure, ennobles the hero’s shortcoming by offering excess as a symptom of virtue as well as of vice. Antony variously demonstrates a willingness to risk all, a characteristic essential to Roman honor; it’s evidence of his “fire in the bones” (Barton).
Such fire in Shakespeare’s play is restricted neither to Rome nor to men. According to Carlin A. Barton, Roman honor required the same “will, determination, and effective energy” of women. Characteristics of honor include a range of emotion, an expenditure of energy, spirit following disaster, a sensitivity to shame, a desire to be seen, the ability to “make faces,” and a drive toward truth (Barton). Antony and Cleopatra confirm their competence in heaps. The contest culture that gave rise to the quest for honor informs the lovers’ practices. These two are game players. We see them have a go at dress-up, play-acting, hide-and-seek, and high-stakes rounds of truth-or-dare. For both, confronting hard truths about themselves and their limitations is the ultimate challenge.
Part of the play’s tragedy is the loss that comes when the mighty discover they are merely human. Part of the play’s pleasure is the generosity that awareness provokes. Until the last, Cleopatra, herself “[n]o more but e’en a woman,” preserves Antony as a kind of God, though we sense that she knows better: “Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?” The text denies any affirmation. But we detect the hope inside the question and admire the spirit that inspires the dream and the imagination that raises it.