Never one to shy away from famous lovers, one of Shakespeare’s most famous set of lovers comes straight from the history pages. The historical time period during which Marc Anthony and Queen Cleopatra lived was so long ago that many interpretations and evocations of their characters have come our way, creating such depictions that make it hard for us to distinguish the real characters behind the drama.
In Shakespeare’s tragedy he depicts them as full blooded and passionate human beings; not just passionate in love and about one another, but also passionate about politics and power. Their love affair is depicted as a sensual one right until the end, with enough phallic or penetrative references to make many an audience in Shakespeare’s time hot under the collar. As befits their status as rulers, Anthony and Cleopatra are also representatives of their culture and peoples. Mark Anthony is a masculine figure representing a hardened, masculine country. By contrast, Cleopatra is mysterious, feminine and exotic.
Anthony (even as we see him Julius Caesar), is a man who lives by playing the rules, a man who holds himself strongly by his honor and fortitude. They are a conquering peoples, expanding their Empire. Egypt, this unknown land very different from home is another to add to the list of territories. Cleopatra is characterised as more in tune with nature and the elements – the values of culture between the two countries are completely different, as are the fundamental characters of the eponymous lovers.
In many ways this helps demonstrate the Shakespearean knowledge of the world at the time. Italy was a well known country, the Roman Classical works just as if not more renowned, the staple of many a young mans education. The world of Rome may have been distant in the past, but it was certainly more familiar to them than any kind of ‘Oriental’ (I use the term in referring to lands beyond Western Europe in both a southerly and easterly sense) world. The almost giddyingly passionate love which Cleopatra sucks Anthony into is one far from the more socially constrained Elizabethan world. The Queens decadent and romantic way of life is not just dreamily different from Anthony’s – it’s different from most of 17th Century Europe as well.
We can go two ways with Cleopatra’s characterisation. When I was younger I used to see her as the woman who let her idealisms and lack of strong values get away from her, leading to the downfall not only of herself but also of her people. But like I said, I was younger then. When I see the play now I feel that I’m observing a woman completely able to give into the passions and intuitions of her life, no matter where that leads her. Given that in today’s world the boundaries between being feminine/masculine or good/evil are more overlapped than ever we do not need to see Cleopatra as a classic ‘reckless female’. Intensity of emotion is no longer something that needs be bad.
I realise at this point that I’ve missed out any sort of play synopsis and I guess that’s because it’s one of those plays with not just an already famous story but also because to divulge too much really is to miss out on the unfolding of one of the most beautifully tragic love stories on screen. For a beautiful adaptation recommend watching the famous Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton adaptation, where the portrayal of the two character undoubtedly sealed the image of Anthony & Cleopatra in popular culture for many generations.