“The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra,” from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, by W. Shakespeare

I suppose we can chalk the negativity you’re about to read to some kind of “law of higher expectations.” I expected to like this play, because I love history and I’ve read and heard a lot about Cleopatra and Marc Antony since I was young. Yes, everything was contradictory between fiction and non-fiction, and sources really hated these two so there’s tons of bias in the histories.

But that made me expect to like this play more. I mean, it sounds bad, but more vitriol you’d think would mean a more energetic depiction.

I wasn’t expecting this one to be so boring.

Maybe I watched Liz Taylor and Dick Burton in Cleopatra too damned many times (and I’m not really a fan of either, let alone both of them together). And it surprised me that for more than half the play, Antony and Cleopatra aren’t even in the same scenes.

Basically Antony and Cleopatra begins with the lovers together being perhaps a little too doting and silly with each other (wasn’t expecting that), and he gets word eventually that his wife, Fulvia, has died in Rome. He leaves to attend to his affairs and to help the rest of the triumvirate (Lepidus and [Octavius] Caesar) defeat Pompey, who has decided to rebel against the three men’s rule of Rome.

Pompey is pretty strong and the three worry about how to best cement their alliance (though the other two are more concerned with cementing Antony to Rome). Caesar has a widowed sister, Octavia, and they agree to marry her to Antony in order to make the families closer together and cement loyalties. So the marriage takes place and there’s even an agreement with Pompey, while Cleopatra home in Egypt gets super pissed off when she hears of the marriage.

Naturally, since Antony has a major thing for Cleopatra, he’s not going to give her up, and that brewing action will facilitate the destruction of the triumvirate and pave the way for Caesar to become the first emperor of Rome (and of course lead to the lovers’ death).

At least, you think it would be that simple.

It’s a very long tragedy, and I had to re-focus myself a few times. For one thing, Caesar was a far more complex character than the “silly lovers”, and arguably had more importance. It’s no wonder the play dragged in places, because I realized that Caesar was weaving his plans to break the very truces and agreements he helped to make. In most works or sources regarding Antony and Cleopatra, Antony’s inevitable return to Cleopatra’s side is generally considered the insult that led to the triumvirate breaking up. I guess after investing so many lines and pages to Caesar, Shakespeare wanted to make it far more complex.

Well, I can dig that, I suppose.

I just can’t believe it took so much time and space in the play.

Antony is interesting in that he’s torn between honor and love. His duty is to Rome, but his heart is in Egypt with Cleopatra. It’s at the famous naval battle at Actium,where he leaves the fleet behind to follow her, that this dichotomy finally tears him apart and Antony dies several times before his end. Their relationship becomes a roller-coaster ride of arguments and forgiveness, crazed jealousy and guilt.

Cleopatra has many different emotions as the play goes on and while I’m glad she didn’t hold to one stinking emotion the whole time, I was hoping to see more intelligence from her. If there’s anything the historical Cleopatra was noted for, it was her intelligence (and Lady Macbeth-worthy psycho-moments). She’s reduced to an easily angered and easily placated, almost silly woman rather than a ruler taking care of her nation. She shows a bit of that toward the end, but it could’ve come a lot sooner.

On the other hand, it felt the play was more about Caesar and Antony than anything else. I just wish this play had been whittled down a bit, then maybe it would’ve been more enjoyable for me.

Still, if you have an interest in history and Ancient Rome, Antony and Cleopatra might be worth a shot, especially if you’re making a study on historiography or Shakespeare himself. I didn’t particularly like it, but I know I’ll likely try to read it again.

Not my cup of tea, but it could be yours.

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