Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Antony and Cleopatra, 1883 (detail) Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary. Overall Impression: This is a moving and impressive play
Per Bevington Text: Plot is drawn almost in entirely from Plutarch Lives. It flouts the classic unities and ranges across great distance and time with 42 scenes and many more named characters (31) than usual. The vision is ambivalent and ironic. There is integral use of bawdry in the main characters. Egypt is presented as enchanting but enervating, a place of non-Roman practices such as transvestitism, oriental opulence, Epicurean feasting, etc. There is an inversion of dominance in sexual roles between A. and Cl. A. has been captivated by Cl. Rome is also portrayed as disfigured by political conniving. Octavia is a pawn for Octavius. Old friendships must be sacrificed for political expediency, and Pompey has allied himself with pirates to achieve his ends. Octavius Caesar embodies the ironic limits of political ambition, attacking only when he has the advantage, etc. whereas Antony is appealingly unpragmatic, refuses to blame others, generous even to Enobarbus when he deserts him, spontaneous, impatient with the ordinary. Antony's magnificent qualities help bring him down. Octavius is deeply cynical about women. Cleopatra is a "lass unparalleled", rising above her counterpart in Plutarch (Plutarch portrays her as primarily a temptress who causes the downfall of the hero), definable only in terms of paradox and contradiction, both a whore and a Lucretian Venus, sluttish and holy. Her mystery is like poetry itself. A. and Cl. fantasize that their love will be eternal despite the defeat they suffer in the eyes of others.
Act I Scene 1
Alexandria Egypt, Cleopatra's palace [historically c. 40 BCE]. Two of Antony's friends, Philo and Demetrius discuss how A. (who is a military leader and one of the triumvirs of Rome along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus) has become the "bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy's lust" and that he has become a "strumpet's fool". They stand aside as A. and Cl. enter. Antony (43 y/o) and Cleopatra talk of love and A. says "There's beggary in the love that can be reckoned." He refuses to hear a messenger from Rome, saying "Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space. / Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike / Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life / Is to do thus." and "Let's not confound the time with conference harsh. / There's not a minute of our lives should stretch / Without some pleasure now." Demetrius is dismayed to see Antony's contempt for Rome. Act I Scene 2
Cleopatra's palace. Idle and bawdy conversation among Cleopatra's female attendants Charmian and Iras and Lord Alexas, Mardian the eunuch, a soothsayer, and Antony's right-hand man Domitius Enobarbus. Cleopatra enters and says Antony is having thoughts of Rome. A messenger tells Antony that Fulvia, Antony's wife, is stirring up trouble, first making war against Antony's brother Lucius and then uniting with Lucius against Octavius [we later learn it is to draw Antony back home.] Also, Labienus (the ally of the triumvir's enemy Brutus and Cassius) is making inroads into the Roman territories in Syria and Lydia, etc. and another foe, Sextus Pompeius (son of former first triumvir Pompey the Great), has allied with pirates against Rome and has won Sicily. Antony knows he is needed at home and that he must break his Egyptian fetters. Another messenger arrives to say Fulvia has died in Sicyon, the Greek town in which he left her. Antony generously expresses regret at her death, saying "There's a great spirit gone! Thus did I desire it. / What our contempts doth often hurl from...