Sunday, June 04, 2006

Antony's Arc

My mind has been elsewhere (along with my body; I've been on a writing retreat), so I haven't written much lately. But rescripting proceeds apace, and I'm managing to adhere to my own strict requirements of cast size and running time. I start to realize now that I'm worrying far too much about the literal size of armies onstage. Theatrical audiences are trained to understand that one or two soldiers stand in for an army, just like a throne stands for a court, or a man with a ring of keys stands for a prison.

Meanwhile, I've started reading Vanessa Redgrave's thin volume on A&C, which was published by Faber and Faber as part of their "Actors on Shakespeare" series (Redgrave directed A&C, and starred as Cleopatra, in Houston in 1997). Her first, surprising, assertion about Antony's character is that he doesn't love Cleopatra -- at least, not at first:

"The text in my view reveals a man who is fascinated, impressed, knows how to flatter a queen, and is not in love."

Antony's skill in flattery is an extension of the diplomacy which keeps him alive throughout Julius Caesar, and the political manipulation that empowers him to turn the citizens against Brutus in his famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. And it certainly makes sense that the middle-aged general would bring that same acumen with him to Egypt. But does that really mean he doesn't love her?

Assuming that he doesn't, the next question is: why doesn't Cleopatra see this? She is, after all, as much a political animal as he is? I wonder if it's possible that both of them think they are fooling/controlling the other, trying to maintain an emotional distance while drawing their partner deeper into their political webs. If this is the case, Antony breaks free of Cleopatra's control as early as Act One, when he learns of Fulvia's death and decides to return to Rome.

But something happens to him while he's away from Egypt. Redgrave hasn't put her finger on it yet -- and, indeed, I think Shakespeare is a bit cagey about exactly when it happens. But clearly, Antony finds it impossible to get Cleopatra out of his mind, and at some point he must realize that he really is in love with her, after all. It is this movement that provokes Antony's doubts and causes his missteps in later acts.

Redgrave writes that Act III, Scene vii "illustrates the change that has come upon him -- from his confidence in Athens in the preparations for the coming war (in Act III, scene iv) to his present doubts surrounding the outcome of the battle." Is it a superstitious fear of Octavius that causes this (he does comment on Octavius's daunting luck)? Or an aging man's fear of youth? Or is it because he knows that he can no longer wage war with the fearlessness that soldiers need -- because he now has something to lose, or something to go back to when the fight is over?

If I had to pick a moment when his eyes are opened to his love for Cleopatra, it would be Act II, scene vii -- the remarkable banquet scene aboard Pompey's galley. Cleopatra isn't mentioned in this scene, but Antony must surely feel her absence at a feast of such bacchanalian intensity. As Lepidus quizzes him about Egyptian geography and zoology, he responds in riddles that seem to evoke his inability to articulate (or forget) Cleopatra's greatness:

LEPIDUS: What manner of thing is your crocodile?
ANTONY: It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth. It is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
LEPIDUS: What colour is it of?
ANTONY: Of its own colour too.
LEPIDUS: 'Tis a strange serpent.
ANTONY: 'Tis so, and the tears of it are wet.

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