Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Language of Dreams

There are a zillion great lines in Antony and Cleopatra, although most of them have not crept into our common language, the way a lot of lines from Hamlet or Macbeth seem to have done. The most flexible expression seems to be Cleopatra's "salad days," as in "My salad days, when I was green in judgment"--which is an unfortunate choice, I think, because it's a really lame pun.

Thanks to T.S. Eliot and
The Waste Land, another line has currency for countless first-year university students: "The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne"... This is the beginning of Enobarbus's splendid description of Cleopatra's triumphant meeting with Antony--a crucial event which has already occurred when the play begins, but which Shakespeare returns us to through Enobarbus's sardonic yet high-poetical reminiscence. It's a glorious speech, and I think I'll find it hard to resist the temptation to stage it as well (the way all film versions inevitably do).

I think my favourite lines, or at least the lines which express the most about the play, is Cleopatra's description of Antony in 5.2 (again, after Antony has died and left the narrative). It comes at a moment of tremendous tension, as Dollabella is trying to persuade Cleopatra to surrender her crown to Octavius Caesar. He's trying to appeal to reason, but Cleopatra is immune. Finally, she turns the conversation to the topic of dreams, and blurts out:

I dream'd there was an Emperor Antony;
O, such another sleep, that I might see
Such another man!

Her description continues over Dollabella's objections:

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

This is Shakespeare's language at its scintillating best ("His delights / Were dolphin-like"--that's freakin' perfect). But, in addition to the poetry, this moment represents, for me, the central energy of the entire play: using language and imagination (ie. dreams) to transcend reality. Antony never does become an emperor in real life (he is, at best, one-third of a monarch), but Cleopatra dreams that he is larger than a colossus, and that dream ends up having more veracity than anything that happens in real life. Similarly, Antony & Cleopatra's love seems to transcend the clouds, and very nearly overtakes the petty politics of empire-wrangling and civil war. Their love, like their language, is insubstantial--a dream--but it's the thing we cling to when we leave the theatre.

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