Now here’s a play. It has everything: passion, power and beauty. It was written, as Coleridge said, with “angelic strength” and “fiery force.” It burns grandly across the wide range of an empire, finally coming to rest in a hushed and monumental stillness. Epic in size and scope, Antony and Cleopatra is in every way an astonishing achievement.
This is a truth universally acknowledged, yet the play does not always triumph in production. Antony and Cleopatra is always spacious, magnificent and it’s almost too much for the stage it was written for. It has 43 scenes, the most of any play in Shakespeare. It seems a thousand characters are introduced, never to be seen again. It’s one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, and you feel it might easily have been twice as long. The cast is so extensive that actors in the original production must have played two or three or even four roles. There is a scenic problem in the last act that scholars and producers are still trying to work out. We have no record of the play being performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime—it almost certainly was, but it’s not likely to have broken box office records. During the century after his death it was only produced in John Dryden’s tamed and domesticated adaptation called All for Love. In other words, this is a play with problems.
We think we have some solutions. We have seriously pruned the script, not without regrets. But now, at least, we have a story you can follow and a play lasting not much more than two hours traffic of the stage. We have an excellent cast of 18, about the size of Shakespeare’s own company, large enough to handle the play’s epic scope. And we have two wonderful leading actors. James Keegan is Antony, a role he played last year at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia, and Tracy Hostmeyer is Cleopatra. She was last seen here as Venus, goddess of love—the perfect run up to Shakespeare’s Queen of the Nile. So our ship is trimmed and ready to sail.
But even a streamlined version of the play overflows the measure, and that’s one reason why it’s so wonderful. Antony and Cleopatra is a play that continually refuses to be contained by any standard category of understanding. We are told at the outset this will be a story of a man who has forgotten his duty, a leader of men who has been diminished by his passions. And in fact this is the story we actually get. Antony is overcome by Cleopatra, he loses command, and dies after his defeat by Caesar. But the problem and the beauty of the play is that we get all this and so much more. We are invited to question the value of public duty to an empire that seems entirely devoted to perpetual conquest. We have been prepared for a moral tragedy, but then the morals multiply or disappear altogether. Which side are you on—the disciplined but bloodless Rome, or the self-indulgence of pleasure loving Egypt?
You’re likely to find yourself taking both sides at different times, making contradictory judgments from scene to scene. This is no simple sad heart wrenching love story like Romeo and Juliet. These lovers are middle aged celebrities, knowing, powerful and complicated. They want it all, love and empire all at once. They have issues. They are celebrities expecting to be watched and always performing for the larger world. They speak a heroic language which transcends the ordinary, yet at times they seem childish, manipulative and confused. Their words fly up, their deeds fall down. The heroic Antony, a triple pillar of the world and kin to Hercules, comes off as loser in almost every one of his scenes. And Cleopatra—well, Cleopatra is a whole other universe.
She is, famously, a woman of “infinite variety,” whose person “beggars all description.” Yet Cleopatra is not so much infinite as she is unresolved, at least in the minds of the audience, since Shakespeare refuses to organize her character into any predictable pattern. She’s generous, loving, jealous, vindictive, cowardly, cunning, hysterical, brave, heroic, devouring, delightful and impossible. She declares herself marble constant then minutes later she’s fire and air. She’s a regal fishwife, then a goddess. She’s beginning to sound like my wife. She is consistent only in consistently eluding any reasonable way of summing her up and pinning her down.
That could be said about the entire play. For the most part the action follows the historical record. You can read what Shakespeare read in Plutarch, and follow the playwright working at speed, picking out this, discarding that, and sometimes incorporating North’s translation with very little modification. Plutarch, the first century Greek historian, was the dramatist’s perfect source, since in his Lives a person’s make-up determines his fate. Shakespeare lets the rich complexities of Plutarch’s characters shape his play, and the result is as messy as history itself. The play ends tragically and predictably with the lovers’ suicides, but how much more complicated these are compared to the tragic accidents which take the lives of Shakespeare’s teenagers. Romeo and Juliet is a play of maximum pathos (“never was there a tale of more woe”), but what do we have here? There’s still plenty of pathos, but there’s bathos too—the noblest Roman of them all botches his own suicide. There’s improbable comedy when Cleopatra and the dying Antony compete to see who gets the last word. The instrument of death is delivered by a clown, and he gets some laughs. And then there’s pure transcendence: Cleopatra’s suicide is quietly moving, breath-taking and wonderfully controlled. But this triumphant finale is abruptly followed by a clinical post mortem. Like the Nile, like life itself, the grand river of the play is always rising and falling, lifting us over and beyond normal channels then sinking to reveal the mud and slime in its bed.
There is nothing like Antony and Cleopatra. It’s grand, it’s epic, it flows with assurance. It’s a tragedy, but it’s in a class of its own. If it resembles anything, it’s that exotic Egyptian creature, the crocodile which Antony describes to Lepidus: “It is shaped sir, like itself, and it is broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nouriseth it; and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates…[It is] of its own color too…and the tears of it are wet.” This play is a marvel. It has its own height, length and breadth. At the end it transmigrates, and the tears of it are wet. You’ll see.