I got the harebrained idea to read a Shakespeare play. So when Suzanne read “Cleopatra” I thought to read Anthony And Cleopatra.
I download the original folio version from Gutenberg.org. I was struggling with the language and archaic elements. Suzanne told me to look at SparkNotes.com. Reading the notes helped me follow along. I also found the Kindle’s built-in dictionary helped with the archaic English.
This might not have been the best play to read. But it was meant to be read as a closet drama. Unlike the more familiar plays of Shakespeare, “Anthony And Cleopatra” ranges all over the known world over a large period of time, with dozens of characters, and lots of action.
The notes suggest the play is about honor and how the characters see themselves. I see the play as a historical drama in which Shakespeare tried to cram too much history. The Spark Note Study Guide asks, why characters said or behaved in a certain way. I would argue they didn’t- this was Shakespeare trying to get the plot across. So much of the character’s words and actions ring false. The language grates: not just to my modern ear, but the idea that Romans and Egyptians would speak old English is too much to take.
I’m also spoiled by modern writing. I rarely run across characters that are so thin, and act against their self-interest, or against human nature. When the Egyptian fleet retreats not once but twice, why would Anthony blame himself. More likely he would kill a couple Egyptian Admirals so it would not happen a second time. Or he would not rely on the fleet when his army is more than up to the task.
No matter how taken Anthony is with Cleopatra, he’s not going to change how he fights. And why not blame Cleopatra for the losses- she is Queen of Egypt after all, and her neck is on the line. You can’t be the ruler of a country and be oblivious to the danger. (Obama is the exception that proves the rule?) The play would have been much better if Cleopatra was using Anthony or playing him off of Pompey and Caesar for her own political gain. Conversely Marcus Anthony had five wives, so he could certainly be playing politics through marriage.
I know this play was was entertainment and not history, but when Pompey berates Menas for not killing the Triumvirate: Anthony, Octavian Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus, you have to wonder. The history of the world would have been radically different if he had. I believe the true history was less about honor and more about killing your rivals. The play reads like a satire of Southern Gentlemen going on and on about their honor.
I would rather read Shakespeare’s histories of British Kings, where he’s on firmer ground, or his love stories, which are timeless.