Antony and Cleopatra isn’t really about them

I’ve found it quite hard to read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for no better reason than the film screen in my head kept going to the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film. Well, it was an epic that spawned a thousand make up looks, so it’s hardly surprising. It’s also a true – and quite well known – story, unlike Coriolanus, which we only really know about through Shakespeare and Plutarch, and not many people have read either or both (apart from me, apparently). I have a feeling that Julius Caesar will suffer from a similar problem, but in that case I’ll have to rid myself of Kenneth Williams exclaiming “infamy” at every available opportunity.

If I’m honest, the most interesting character in the play is Caesar. This is, of course, Caesar Augustus, Julius’ nephew and soon to become the first Emperor of Rome; but first he must rid himself of his co-triumvirs, Lepidus and Antony, which involves quite a bit of skulduggery and reading between the lines. Lepidus is quickly despatched, having become drunk and quite friendly with Cleopatra’s half-brother Ptolomy, who then stupidly goes and declares war on Rome. That there’s treason, that is, says Caesar and has his co-ruler clapped in irons and quickly removed from power. That just leaves that pesky Mark Antony, and he’s in Egypt…

Trying to marry him off to one’s sister doesn’t work, as Antony sends Octavia back with a flea in her ear before returning to his true love, Elizabeth Taylor… sorry, Cleopatra. This leaves Caesar no alternative but to declare war on Egypt and triumph at the Battle of Actium. The rest, as they say, is history.

I have to admit that I dislike the characterisation Shakespeare uses in this play; Cleopatra is histrionic and unreasonable, Antony is moody and dour, Caesar is petulant and conniving. However, it does mean that the casting in the Taylor/Burton/Harrison film is spot on, which might be why I keep thinking about it. The scenes with the title characters are simply not very interesting; I get it that Cleopatra is trying to manipulate Rome, but unlike Tamora from Titus Andronicus, her manipulations seem petty and ineffective. The Battle of Actium is dealt with as an aside – why did the Egyptian fleet flee? It’s not discussed. We know that Antony followed Cleopatra, and consequently was viewed as a coward in Rome – but why did she retreat?

Much as I love Shakespeare – and I do – this is not one of my favourite plays. That’s okay, I’ve got a “comedy” lined up next, and I usually hate those.

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