Shakespeare – Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraAnthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Oxford World Classics, edited by Michael Neill

Okay, so let’s start with the obvious. Anthony and Cleopatra is a Shakespeare play, which means that it’s generally very good, sometimes a little confusing and very much a work a fiction.

Essentially, the play follows the final months of the second Roman Civil War, the one where Anthony was defeated at Actium and Octavian assumed control of the Roman Republic, essentially turning it into the Empire and setting the stage for a good 300 years of perpetual dictatorship. You know, season two of HBO’s Rome. The play plays fast and loose with the facts – Stacy Schiff has noted Cleopatra was likely a good deal more savvy  than Shakespeare plays her, for example – but even now, this play has tremendous influence; when was the last time you heard Anthony called by his proper name, Antonius?

As for the play itself, I’ll restrict myself to a few loose thoughts. I’ve never seen it in performance, but I imagine it works a great deal better here than it would on stage. Yes, Cleopatra, Octavian and Anthony are all fascinating characters, but the staging and pace of this thing is hard to figure out: Act 5, for example, has a confusing scene where Anthony’s body is taken to Cleopatra: was it lifted or taken off stage and brought around? There are others, including a triumph scene and Enobarbus’ death, which seemed a deal hard to picture in my head.

Still, it’s a fun read and one I enjoyed thinking about, especially the political scenes where Anthony and Octavian talk in formalities as they plot the other’s downfall; I’m currently reading a book about Nixon’s first term of office and I can’t help think of the similarities. Anyway, it’s Shakespeare. You’ll probably like it.

So the focus here is in this specific text, the Oxford edition first published in 1994 (and currently in it’s third edition). It weighs in a hefty 400 pages, with a lengthy introduction and notes by Michael Neill. In a novella-length intro, Neill writes about the textual history of the play, it’s performance history and looks at it in the context of it’s times. He makes some interesting observations about parallels between it and an earlier play and to North’s translation of Plutarch (see here and here for stuff I’ve written about Plutarch). There’s also a lengthy analysis of the different themes of this play, which I found occasionally interesting but mostly over-my-head or pedantic. I suppose students studying this play in a classroom would get more from that than a casual reader.

Thankfully, Neill spends a lot of time on the play’s performance history; how it wasn’t staged for many years, then staged with archaeological trappings: whatever the current trend for how Roman Egypt looked was how the play was staged. I suppose it’s interesting, but truthfully, I was more interested when he describes how different performers played their characters to different effect. For example, Patrick Stewart’s Enobarbus gave the play a different feeling than Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. There’s an interesting bit on the lack of black casts for this play, which does go out of it’s way to describe Cleopatra in similar language as Shakespeare describes Othello. It’s all interesting stuff; going back to it after reading the play helps set the scenes you just read a little better, too.

The book is packed with notes, too. They can seem overwhelming, especially when they dominate the page, but they’re almost always helpful. Sometimes they explain an obscure word or point out how it’s the first recorded use of one. Sometimes they offer textual commentary: why he added or dropped a word from the manuscript or other editions. Occasionally, they help explain a scene and how a reader should interpret it, like this note to scene 2.6, a confrontation between Anthony and Octavian:

“The veiled ironies of this scene are nicely caught in Peter Hall’s note to his actors at The National: ‘this scene is about politicians who never say what they are thinking… conceal your hostility beneath a veil of utmost charm. Make it sound perfectly genuine. The art is to show now nice you can be.’ ” (pg 204)

Generally, I found myself reading each scene twice. Once straight through, then a second time going back and forth between the text and notes. I usually didn’t have any trouble; unfamiliar words usually explain themselves in the play’s scenes. But the notes helped too, especially on the second reading, since they explain what’s happening on stage or what various editors (from Dr. Johnson right up to Neill) think Shakespeare was getting at.

A final note: I find that when reading Shakespeare, or any play for that matter, it’s worth remembering it’s meant to be read out loud, like poetry. If you’re passive when reading his work, it’s easy to fall into his verse and never come out; phrases that seem hard to follow on paper are a lot easier to keep track of when read out loud.

I don’t have this play in another edition, so I can’t compare it directly to Arden, Pelican, Norton or other editions, but generally Oxford seems about the same with Arden’s long introduction and heavy annotation. It doesn’t have the critical appendixes Norton’s usually does – just an abridged version of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Antonius and a section on pronouns – but it’s more specific than I usually find Pelican editions to be: no general intro on Shakespeare and his life, no long discussion of The Globe or etc, but a detailed and specific intro to the play.



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