Antony and Cleopatra
Opera in Two Acts
About Antony and Cleopatra
Of all Shakespeare’s plays Antony and Cleopatra is the only one that fuses “love drama,” “power drama,” and comedy in one theatrical entity. Shakespeare’s most structurally expansive creation, it deals not only with the archetypal love affair between the two title figures, but also with international power politics, specifically the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of Empire as represented in the waning fortunes of the once noble warrior Antony, and the ascendance of the young, charismatic Octavius (Augustus) Caesar. The resonance with current world politics, the decline of democratic values and shifting international allegiances is both and provocative and timely.
Cleopatra’s is the deepest and most psychologically textured of all Shakespeare’s female roles. Her extraordinary human qualities are on display in the course of the play—her narcissism, her intelligence, her sexual allure, her ethical ambivalence, her military savvy, her bravery, her indomitable will and ultimately her genuine capacity to love. She is a commanding queen, and to the general populace she possesses a mythic stature, descendant of the goddess Isis and one who has proven herself to be a clever and skilled leader of her country. Nonetheless in her love-play with Antony she can expertly play the vixen, while in her anxiety over losing him she shows a real human vulnerability that transcends her narcissism.
Thoroughly conscious of her own powers, both political and erotic, she is whipsawed between her love for Antony and the struggle for self-preservation. When she realizes her defeat, she chooses suicide over the humiliation of being brought back to Rome as a trophy of Caesar’s military triumph.
Octavius, as Shakespeare portrays him, is younger (“scarce-bearded”) than the historical figure who defeats whose laser-like focus and cool executive abilities already demonstrate his leadership strengths and urge to accumulate power.
Antony, by contrast, is middle-aged, disinclined to warfare and wishing only to spend his remaining days in Alexandria in the seductive and luxurious company of Cleopatra, feasting, lovemaking while neglecting his Roman obligations. Nonetheless, his fractured sense of duty and honor pull him back to Rome in a half-hearted attempt to make peace with Octavius.
The action takes place in approximately 30-31 B.C and alternates between Alexandria and Rome, though the production will utilize a variety of devices to further audiences’ connections to the contemporary moment. Through this journey we witness the transmutation of two holographic, god-like, figures, Cleopatra/Isis and Antony/Hercules, into flesh-and-blood lovers in all their fragility, intimacy, and uncertainty.
SCENE 1: Cleopatra’s bedroom. Antony is barely recovered from the previous night’s festivities. She taunts him about his Roman wife Fulvia and needles him repeatedly about “the scarce-bearded Caesar.” Realizing he must temporarily return to Rome, Antony affirms his love for her, to which she responds with scorn and self-pity.
SCENE 2: In Rome Caesar voices his disgust for Antony’s shirking of duties in Egypt while he, Caesar, has to deal with a mounting insurrection. Antony arrives, greeted by a chilly, annoyed Caesar. A heated argument ensues. Agrippa makes a surprise proposal: that Antony marry Octavia, Caesar’s sister, who has recently become a widow. To everyone’s astonishment Antony agrees.
Enobarbus describes the fantastic scene when Antony first met Cleopatra in Cydnus, her glamorous arrival on her barge with its perfumed, purple sails, and her irresistible magnetism (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”)
SCENE 3: Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra lounges by the pool, pining away theatrically for Antony. Eros arrives with news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Cleopatra erupts in a rage. Unwilling to hear the truth she continues to ask the same question, “Is he married?”
SCENE 4: Now officially Antony’s wife, Octavia voices her frustration in being caught in the middle of the two men she loves. Antony resolves to make preparations for war against Caesar. She must choose between her husband and her brother.
An angry Caesar relates news of Antony and Cleopatra, who are back together again and behaving in flagrant disregard of Rome. He is interrupted by the surprise appearance of his pregnant sister Octavia, who has left Antony and fled back to Rome. Insulted now two-fold, Caesar declares war against Antony.
SCENE 5: (The Battle of Actium): Despite the fact that his navy is cobbled together from inexperienced sailors and inadequate vessels, Antony is exuberant, savoring the return of his long lost military prowess. His pride is such that he believes he can win any contest. Cleopatra has provided sixty of her own Egyptian warships. The naval battle goes badly for Antony, and at a critical moment Cleopatra inexplicably recalls her ships. Worse still, Antony draws back his navy and flees, following hers. The result is catastrophic. Alone on deck of his ship, Antony rues his fascination with Cleopatra and blames her as well as himself for the catastrophic outcome of the battle. (“All is lost! This foul Egyptian has betrayed me.” )
SCENE 1: Returned to Alexandria, Antony and Cleopatra replay the devastating lost sea battle. She is contrite for having withdrawn her ships from the battle, never having suspected he would follow her. His military power, he says, has been neutered by his love for her. He will now have to send entreaties to the young Caesar, a galling humiliation for Antony, the once celebrated warrior.
Caesar reads petitions from both Antony and Cleopatra, bowing to his authority and begging his mercy. He orders Agrippa to go to Alexandria and convince Cleopatra to abandon Antony.
Agrippa, now in Alexandria, meets alone with Cleopatra to present Caesar’s proposal. She responds ambiguously while Agrippa flamboyantly kisses her hand. An enraged Antony interrupts and orders Agrippa to be whipped. In a blistering diatribe, Antony unloads on Cleopatra—“the false soul of Egypt”– accusing her of duplicity and lack of faith in him. Charmian urges her queen to flee to safety in the monument (a fortified tower).
Scene 2: Caesar in Rome gives a rousing speech to the populace, proclaiming Rome’s absolute dominance over the known world. Chorus of “vox populi” hail his ascendance.
Scene 3: Cleopatra bids her maid Iras to go to Antony and inform him that she, Cleopatra, has committed suicide out of remorse. It is a ruse on her part, intended to recapture his attention. But Antony believes this false information and, in despair, orders his loyal servant Eros to help him commit suicide. Eros refuses, killing himself instead, forcing Antony to do it himself. But Antony bungles. Charmian arrives, is shocked to see him writhing in agony and tells him that Cleopatra is indeed still alive. He, wracked in pain and nearing death from his wound, is carried to the monument.
From the height of her tower Cleopatra watches Antony’s nearly lifeless body hoisted up to her. He is failing and she is beside herself, (“Noblest of men, wil’t thou die? Hast thou no care of me?”) Antony dies in her arms.
Scene 4: A triumphant Caesar dispatches Maecenas to go to Cleopatra and offer official forgiveness, although his ulterior motive is to exhibit her in Rome as a victory trophy. There is now no hope of escape for Cleopatra. Maecenas arrives with Caesar’s patronizing message. (“Be of good cheer. You’ve fallen into princely hand; fear nothing.”) But Roman soldiers suddenly seize Cleopatra, who reacts by attempting to stab herself. They release her, but not before Maecenas admits to Cleopatra that Caesar indeed will parade her in humiliation through the streets of Rome.
Cleopatra commands her women to bring her finest clothes, her crown and her jewels. A peasant brings a basket that contains several poisonous asps. Each of them lies back and applies an asp to her body. Cleopatra imagines she hears Antony call. (“I see him rouse himself to praise my noble act. I hear him mock the luck of Caesar.”) She embraces her two women companions, Iras and Charmian and then places an asp on her breast and prods it to strike with its venom (“Come, thou mortal wretch, With thy sharp teeth this knot instrinsicate of life at once untie.”) She dies.