Thursday, April 02, 2009

Shakespeare--Antony and Cleopatra (Part 1)

I was always partial to the Roman plays. Not that everyone else isn't, or that I hold the other ones in any lesser esteem, but these have always been especial favorites of mine, along with the Henrys. Possessiveness, jealousy, haughtiness, exclusivity, and the like, are conditions to which many are susceptible where Shakespeare is concerned, and as these are attitudes which I am particularly ill-suited to carry off well, I try to keep a certain emotional distance from most of the more beloved and contended-for plays, feeling, I suppose, that they can never really be mine anyway. The Roman plays, such as this one and Coriolanus, even Julius Caesar, seem comparatively to inspire a lower level of general intensity and rapture. If the Bardosphere could be conceived as a beer garden, I would likely be sitting at one of these stately but relatively sedate tables--perhaps alongside a Victorian era faux-ruin of some Roman gate or other--at a safe remove from the tumult, high-spiritedness and glamour of those devoted to the Dane, the Star Crossed Lovers, the Crookbacked Usurper or other of the grittier and more naturalistic heroes of the repertoire.

When I first looked into it some years ago, I thought Antony and Cleopatra just as good as any of the other major tragedies, with the exception perhaps of Hamlet, which doesn't resemble the other plays in the same ways that most of them do each other, and that opinion was not shattered, and was if anything enforced, by this latest misreading. The writing, the construction, the economy, the characterization, is so very expert and smooth, that one almost has the impression that the author's mastery of this particular form, and way of understanding the great issues of man's existence, is so thorough, that he is not properly challenging himself, or the audience, by insisting on pressing on to a more dangerous and scary level, which, if we have been properly bred up as thinkers, is what we crave most.

What would become of a person like Shakespeare today? Who would he hang out with? In what form would our noticing them, assuming such could even exist, consist of? Surely poetry in the contemporary world would strike a man of such dominating talents as too sluggish, effeminate, devoid of genius and culturally irrelevant a pursuit to be worth taking up; he would naturally want to direct those talents to some contemporary arena that was worth dominating. Would he find one though? Some have suggested that this class of person manages hedge funds or directs scientific research now, as if genius were of such a general and unsuppressible quality that anyone who possesses it must be apparent, and easily direct and establish itself it whatever area of activity currently most requires and rewards it. This reminds me a little of the American sports commentators who used to opine that if Allen Iverson and Michael Vick had been adopted or kidnapped as infants and raised in France they would be the greatest soccer players in the world because of their innate athleticism. I used to wonder if there was not something in this, that business and technology were dynamic, and the literary and teaching professions moribund because the former had siphoned off all the exciting talent that used to fill prep school faculties and the great urban literary scenes of the past. I was even convinced for a time that the qualities of mental talent, energy, and personality in the truly successful author were generally the same as those in any successful man of affairs, and if such men were to direct their fervor and appetites and primary means of understanding the world towards literature rather than commerce, etc, that humanistic studies and accomplishments would be flourishing again, and the masses as eager to idolize and follow the lead and outlook of these great men in matters of learning as they are in matters of economics. But obviously there is something more to it than just that. I will go more into that another time.

My commentary the other day on Mark Antony was of course preposterous. I am casting grand judgements on his abilities and character as if I were the one who was one of the great figures of my generation, and he the typical slavish sort of fellow. That is part of this game of pursuing literature that people like me play, the reader little less than the writer to a certain extent has to imagine himself raised to a level of equality, in some instances even superiority, to the subject under contemplation, however comparatively exalted. Success in writing or any art is to a great degree success in pulling off this conceit of elevation, making some ill-fed debtor scribbling lines in a garrett possess a historical stature equal to or greater than that of an emperor. If Antony was lacking of the finest qualities, what does one say of Lepidus then? You will remember he was the unfortunate third member of the triumvirate along with Antony and Octavian, who was snuffed out rather quickly with apparently little exertion and without arousing any protest from a potent camp. Shakespeare presents him as a loser and weakling whom the other prominent Romans are comfortable insulting to his face and making plans to dispose of as casually as they would make plans for their next orgy. We all know and many accept that if the comparatively weak put themselves in the way of the strong and don't recognize their inability to contend and attempt to resist, it is going to end badly and humiliatingly for them. I think people with any kind of well-developed spirit like it in high art productions when weakness and inferiority in men are not tolerated and punished severely. It is fearful, but also genuinely exhilirating to know that real demands might be made of your brain and character, failure to live up to which will cost you not merely your life, but any illusion of respect from your countrymen, your friends, and your foes.

This play does have two of my favorite classic Shakespeare quotations, the "infinite variety" speech, which is of course about Cleopatra, and the "O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" tribute to his godlike appearance and bearing.

Though I was trying to read this more closely and seriously so as to glean some insight as to what our author is really saying, I still came to the conclusion that he was in fact emphasizing the sexy parts at the expense of more serious geo-political analysis, and that that was actually the stuff he liked the most about the story. It can't possibly be true, but it was what I kept thinking, after my ever too easily entertained misled manner.

Octavius Caesar I thought comes of rather badly in this play compared with his depiction in Plutarch (who always refers to him as young Caesar), where it is difficult, given the pre-occupations of that author, not to feel some admiration for him. In that book his extreme youth--he seems to have been in his early twenties at most--lack of military credentials compared to all his rivals, and the manner in which most of those same did not take him very seriously when this crisis broke out are much more palpably felt. Yet he ended up the last man standing atop a large mound of very famous corpses and ruled the Roman Empire pretty much unmolested for the remaining 40 years of his life. In Plutarch he is presented as calm, prudent, possessed of self-control, steely of purpose without being given over to the bombast and grand gestures of the previous generation. Obviously much is left out of the Plutarch account, such as who/what sort of men formed this young man's army/base and how did he win their support? but I am simply noting an impression. Being a dramatist and a man of the hottest spirits both of body and mind, Shakespeare most likely found his dry, only too successful pragmatism and efficiency boring and cold. Overall the reign of Augustus has not offered much batter that writers wanted to make confections of compared either to his predecessors or successors.

Cleopatra is called a whore on several occasions in the play, and not in a means meant to induce sympathy. (Caesar: "...He hath given his empire up to a whore...", etc). Whether the result of this affair was a real, and if so staggering shift in the whole course of human history, or its significance has been overblown by art, how could Antony have flown the battle and given up all, including in some sense a last remnant of the spirit of the old Rome which in literary accounts he is often made to embody, for a woman? Yes, I would probably do the same, but even I would know it was a stupid thing to do. I wrote at the end of Act III, 'a sad juncture of the story. Antony (& C) are diminishing to ever more human dimensions, as is the essence of tragedy though in S. 'human' is invested with grander meaning than usual. Enobarbus only voice of accurate perception,' etc.

Some other notes:

On Antony, "that would make his will Lord of his reason" I wrote 'contrast with Iago.' Apparently I took the latter as taking the opposite approach.

I noted again that the 'language in this one superlative' next to "The itch of his affection should not then have nick'd his captainship...half to half the world opposed...leave his navy gazing."

Antony 'always underestimating young C' next to "...he wears the rose of youth upon him, from which the world should note...his coin, ships, legions, may be a coward's, whose ministers would prevail under the service of a child as soon as i' the command of Caesar..."

I'll have to do a short second post on this.

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