We have finally reached the last tragedy. I cannot tell you how happy I am. Before I can throw a little party, however, we must discuss Antony and Cleopatra.
Mark Antony is a member of the Roman triumvirate. His wife, Fulvia, was opposing Octavius Caesar while Antony resided in Rome with Cleopatra. When he received word that his wife had died, Antony returned to Rome to make peace with the other members of the triumvirate, promising Cleopatra that he would return. In order to cement an alliance between himself and Octavius, Antony married his fellow leader’s sister, Octavia. Upon hearing this, Cleopatra flew into a rage, but Antony eventually returned to her. Together, they prepared for the war brought on by Octavius attacking Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirate.
I don’t think i’m spoiling anything by telling you that everyone dies at the end of Antony and Cleopatra. It is a tragedy after all, and what would a quality tragedy be without multiple suicides?
Suicide is a particularly interesting issue in this play because it highlights the main struggle: duty versus passion. Antony’s desires are at odds with his duties, and the conflict is tearing him apart. Egypt is mesmerizing, but his power is in Rome. He desires Cleopatra, and yet, he knows Octavia is the appropriate choice for a wife. As I read, I got the feeling that Antony was at something like a retirement stage in his life. Pleasure is his priority, but he can’t quite get what he wants. He has too many responsibilities. How does this relate to suicide? Well, in Roman culture, suicide was considered honorable if you were sacrificing yourself for duty or to preserve your pride. The Bible’s account of the Roman jailer who was ready to throw himself on his sword because his prisoners had escaped is an accurate depiction of what life was like for members of the Roman military/government. The contrast in reasons for suicide is what shows the struggle between duty and passion. Antony kills himself out of despair, which was not considered honorable, while Cleopatra induces her own death so that she cannot be used by the Roman government, a reason which would have been honorable. Characters feel this struggle between what they want and what they should do even until the very end.
Antony and Cleopatra is also an interesting depiction of love between two older people. Shakespeare wrote much about young love, but seeing these characters experienced in romance is fascinating and different.
As far as adaptations go, there are two which would be fairly easy to find. The first, with Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus in his first television role, was done in 1974. The second was done by BBC in 1981. I have seen neither of these adaptations, but I feel confident in recommending the second at least because BBC did there best to create great visuals for educators. The adaptation presented to us in class consisted of snippets from a ballet, which seemed intriguing. I’ve always wondered what Shakespeare’s work would be like in ballet form, since it eliminates the blank verse that has made his so popular.
Overall, Antony and Cleopatra was good, better than some of the tragedies we read when compared by general sadness. It also contained quite a bit of history that was fun to work in with Shakespeare’s dramatic touches.