Summer Festival - Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is the eleventh play by Shakespeare that I have directed.I’ve made my way through all four of the major comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night) as well as one of the more minor ones (Two Gentlemen of Verona). I’ve directed two of the major tragedies (Romeo and Juliet, King Lear), two of the romances (The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest), and one of the problem plays (The Merchant of Venice). Each of these plays has a unique personality, but as I wrestle with Antony and Cleopatra, I am struck by its singular nature. Part history play, part tragedy, part mordant comedy, the play (written and performed in 1606, the same year as Macbeth) marches across two continents, several ancient countries, and across the Mediterranean Sea. It is sprawling, epic, sometimes ungainly, sometimes quite funny, and, finally, gorgeously poetic.

In this play, we come to know three towering characters from history. Antony and Cleopatra begin the play still wrapped up in the heat of their legendary passion. Shakespeare’s Antony is no longer the war hero of his earlier years. We are introduced to him sometimes frolicking in the streets of Alexandria dressed up in Cleopatra’s scarves and headdresses and often frolicking in her bed. The Cleopatra we know from myth is evoked in stunning poetry by Enobarbus as he recounts her meeting of Antony on the River Cydnus, but when we see her in her scenes with Antony and others, she is very human; sexual, playful, cruel, funny, emotional, and smart as a whip.  Realpolitik enters the play quickly as Antony is forced to deal with rebellions by his brother and his wife Fulvia. These real world events pull him from Egypt and back to Rome where he meets his soon to be arch rival, Octavius Caesar.

By making his play not only about Antony and Cleopatra, but also about Octavius Caesar, Shakespeare is able to expand his canvas to include many antithetical themes: the cool reason of Rome as seen in Octavius vs. the heated sensuality of Egypt, the fall of one empire and the rise of another, sterility vs. fertility, and, most importantly the crumbling of the mortal in the face of the immortal.

Surrounding all of Antony and Cleopatra’s emotional, deeply personal, bold, heroic, and ultimately catastrophic maneuvering of armies and navies, sits the master strategist, Octavius Caesar. One of the more interesting of Shakespeare’s characters, he coolly plots his rise to power throughout the course of the play, and with his conquest of Egypt begins his long reign as Emperor.

But, although Octavius wins in the mortal world, our title characters definitely prevail in the eternal world, the world of myth and legend. Antony’s death is semi-botched and messily human, but Cleopatra, in a beautiful scene in the final act re-imagines him as a god:

-His legs bestrid the ocean; his reared arm

-Crested the world, His voice was propertied

-As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;

-But when he went to quail and shake the orb

-He was as rattling thunder.

Having thus successfully transformed her human lover into an imagined mythic creation, she is then freed to catapult herself into eternity with one of the most elaborately staged and beautifully executed deaths in history, rendered by Shakespeare’s pen in some of his most beautiful poetry.

Antony and Cleopatra is a heady mix of characters and situations set on a huge canvas.  We have attempted to plunge headfirst into the fascinating, shifting tonalities of this glorious play, and  I hope you enjoy the journey through all the elements of earth, water, fire, and air.