Calder Classics

Antony and Cleopatra at the Public Theater: A Timeless Story

Ancient RomeRebekah JunkermeierComment

Director Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Antony and Cleopatra at the Public Theater in Manhattan left me wondering: Why is the story of Antony and Cleopatra still compelling today?

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra. Image from http://www.vividscribe.com/cleopatra/

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra. Image from http://www.vividscribe.com/cleopatra/

For starters, the play opens with an affair between two of the ancient world’s biggest stars. Marc Antony, as a part of the second triumvirate (consisting of him, Octavian, and Lepidus), is one of the three most powerful men in the world. Cleopatra is queen of the ancient power of Egypt, former lover of Julius Caesar’s (recently assassinated by the Roman senators Brutus and Cassius). As they revel together in balmy Alexandria, Antony receives news that his Roman wife, Fulvia, has died and that Sextus Pompey is raising an army against the triumvirate. Despite Cleopatra’s protests, Antony leaves her and Egypt for Rome.

Despite some heated words, Antony and Augustus swear to an alliance to defeat Pompey, and Antony solidifies it by agreeing to marry, Octavian’s sister, Octavia. When Cleopatra learns of Antony’s marriage, she’s furious. Only when she’s told that Octavia is short and ugly does her anger relent. Meanwhile, Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus meet with Pompey and settle on a peace treaty. The four men proceed to carouse and celebrate together, but things aren’t as rosy as they seem. As soon as Antony departs, Octavian reneges and attacks both Pompey and Lepidus. Interestingly, Shakespeare did not invent Octavian’s treachery (nor, the humorous detail of Cleopatra’s reaction to Octavia’s looks). These belong to Plutarch, a Greek historian who wrote a biography of Marc Antony in the first century CE and Shakespeare’s main source for the play. Shakespeare, it seems, merely condenses (and practically plagiarizes) Sir Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch (the first ever English version of the text). Who needs to concoct a new story when history provides such a salacious one?

Image from www.theschoolofstyle.com/blog/.

Image from www.theschoolofstyle.com/blog/.

As the play continues, Shakespeare shows the full humanity of Antony and Cleopatra. Despite their larger-than-life personas, it is the flaws of Antony and Cleopatra that make them such timeless characters. Antony is enraged at Octavian’s duplicity and declares war against him. Although Enobarbus, Antony’s closest companion in the play, suggests that he fight Octavian on land (where Antony is stronger), Cleopatra suggests that they battle him at sea. Torn, Antony sides with Cleopatra and they fight at sea. Twice. And the results are twice disastrous. In both battles, Cleopatra’s boat flees and Antony’s follows, leaving the rest of the fleet to be defeated. Antony’s struggle between his Roman duty and his love for Cleopatra is writ large in battle: “Oh, whither hast thou led me, Egypt? See / How I convey my shame out of thine eyes / By looking back what I have left behind / ’Stroyed in dishonor” (Act III, scene xi). Similarly, fierce Cleopatra flees when her strength is most needed: “O my lord, my lord, / Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought / You would have followed” (Act III, scene xi). Enobarbus loses faith in Antony and leaves to join Octavian.

No tragedy would be quite as compelling without a heartbreaking ending, and here Shakespeare doesn’t disappoint. Having blamed Cleopatra for both losses in battle, Antony resolves to kill her. To win Antony back, Cleopatra locks herself in her monument and sends him a message that she has committed suicide. Hearing this, Antony is bereft and decides to kill himself. But his attempt only wounds him. When he is brought to Cleopatra, he finds her alive and, in a very Romeo and Juliet moment, dies in her arms. Octavian then captures Cleopatra, who would rather die than submit to him. She kills herself with the bite of an asp, a poisonous snake. Finding their bodies, Octavian mourns the valiant couple as worthy adversaries and buries them together.

The epic story of Antony and Cleopatra is one of high stakes and high drama, both in love and war. It’s historical celebrities, “based on a true story” appeal, plethora of human folly, and tragic ending make it a story as compelling in 2014 as it was in the first century BCE.

Image from http://nfs.sparknotes.com/antony-and-cleopatra/.

Image from http://nfs.sparknotes.com/antony-and-cleopatra/.


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