24 April 2008

Book Review: Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Eponymous Challenge #2
Royalty Rules Challenge #3

Antony and Cleopatra The world as the Romans know it is divided between three men, but those three are about to be reduced to one. With Aemilius Lepidus out of the way, the fight is between Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar. Antony prefers to spend his time in luxury in Egypt with the still-beautiful Cleopatra, while Octavius concentrates on the running of the empire. They are united for a time by the threat posed by Pompey and by Antony’s marriage to Octavius’s sister. But the lure of Cleopatra is too strong, and the desertion of Octavia gives her brother the perfect excuse for war. Antony is confident of victory; but his pride goes before the fall not only of himself, but of Cleopatra.

It was hard not to read this and not compare it to what I know of Roman history. A reasonable amount of compression took place; Lepidus was dispensed with some years before the Battle of Actium. This realisation didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the play; after all, Shakespeare is hardly reliable history (Richard III, anyone?). Besides, the rearrangement of the empire took second place to the relationship between the two main characters. Antony was entranced by Cleopatra, happily ignoring official business where possible so that he might stay with her, while she was not content unless he was in Alexandria with her. For a famous monarch, Cleopatra had moments of surprising clinginess and emotional erraticness; for someone who controlled a kingdom, she didn’t always have much control over herself. Her powers of seduction being legendary, however, I didn’t stop to think overmuch about what he saw in her.

The structure of the play was impressive, but I couldn’t avoid the thought that it must be hard to stage. Several acts run to more than a dozen scenes, and some of those fill less than a page; just enough to establish the who, what, and where. (The mind boggles at the idea of the backstage chaos created by having groups of people entering and exiting in such quick succession.) The main characters leave plenty to think about, being so drawn as to allow for the reader’s own judgement. A hero, or a fool? A tragic queen, or an emotionally unstable manipulator hoist by her own petard? A political schemer, or a man genuinely concerned for the empire he’d inherited? The play doesn’t decide. Its downside is that, compared to other tragedies, it feels ... well, rather un-tragic. It doesn’t inspire the if-onlys as, say, Romeo and Juliet does; it prompts no listing of things which might have changed everything if they’d just turned out differently. Antony and Cleopatra carries a sense of leaden inevitability.

Rating: B


Suey said...

I've got this one on my shelf too. I wonder if I'll ever actually read it. Hopefully. I'm fascinated with the story.

Anonymous said...

I do want to read this after seeing it performed last year. I read a synopsis on the intersnet before going and was definitely glad I had! I felt the play went on a little long after Antony had died and I was thining get onwith it, but I did enjoy it for the most part.

Kayleigh said...

I must admit this isn't my favourite Shakespeare work, I got lost with the sheer amount of characters that came and went. Plus the eponymous characters were really annoying and unsympathetic. My favourite Shakespeare is still A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Good review though.

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