Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cleopatra's Victory

Here, alas, is another writer whose views of the play I find totally at odds with my own.

Thomas Price's book Dramatic Structure and Meaning in Theatrical Productions attempts the unthinkable: it creates a system with which to classify absolutely every play written. It's written like a logical syllogism; one of the theorems is about Action. I'll translate the theory-speak as we go along:

"The dramatic character's overriding wish [ie. their objective] must be deduced from a realistic assessment of his actions, just as his success or failure at attaining that wish must be determined from his deeds within the larger context of action and counteraction. Errors in dialectical placement will otherwise often result from taking too seriously either the character's own rationalizations for his actions."

Still there? Essentially, Price is saying that deeds speak louder than words. So far I agree; drama is about action, and it's way too easy for a character to talk about accomplishing great things while doing absolutely nothing (Falstaff bounds to mind).

Where Price and I part ways is the section where he uses Cleopatra as an example of a character whose self-justifying language misleads the audience into thinking she's achieved her goal:

"Commentators have ... allowed their judgment of the drama's action to be distorted by the Egyptian queen's eloquence ... [their] approaches to the play are predicated on two unspoken assumptions, namely, that poetical rationalizations for deeds are more important than the deeds themselves, and that the love-death motif automatically infuses the work with an ethos that elevates Cleopatra and her concubine to the status of true martyrs. Slighting the drama's actual events, such critics choose to discount the unromantic Octavius' dialectical victory."

Translation: first, Cleopatra talks big, but all she's really doing is taking the easy way out -- what Price later calls "the least painful possible of suicides." Second, Cleopatra isn't scoring any sort of victory by cheating Octavius of his famous prisoner. But she spins such a great speech that everyone onstage, and everyone in the audience, misses the fact that Octavius wins. Which, according to Price's methodogy, makes him the protagonist of the play.

Why is everyone so determined to take Cleopatra down a peg?

Octavius isn't the protagonist of Antony & Cleopatra. Price can produce as many dialectical studies as he likes, but no audience will ever find themselves rooting for him, no matter how sympathetic the actor who plays him is. And even though he's the last monarch standing, he doesn't win. If his objective were to conquer Egypt, then yes, he gets what he wants. But it's not. His objective is to conquer Cleopatra.

Does Cleopatra take the easy way out? As Price points out, the final scene contains a lot of negotiatons between Cleo and Octavius that make her seem very petty and cowardly. But it's equally possible to read these sequences as a ruse, another one of Cleopatra's mind-games -- not only buying herself time and space but actively persuading Octavius to assume that she will not attempt suicide. Because after all, what suicidal queen would try to hide money from her conqueror?

Cleo's suicide is not a gesture of defeat. She is actively accomplishing the things she has sought throughout the play. It's what Price dryly calls the "love-death ethos" -- Cleo wants to be with Antony forever, in a boundless and eternal expression of their love for one another. The only way to do this is to join him in heaven. But it's even cleverer than that; by choosing to die in a spectacularly memorable fashion (who cares if it's painless or not?), Cleo is assuring her place in the history books -- and denying Octavius a place (as Cleo's conqueror):

CLEO (to the asp): O, couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass

In a nutshell, Cleopatra's objective trumps Octavius'. She wants her love to be immortal. Does she achieve it? The very existence of the play itself says yes. The fact that it's still being produced, the fact that any 10-year-old knows who Cleopatra was (and most 40-year-olds have never heard of Octavius), says yes.

So, rag on Antony all you like. He's got plenty of shortcomings. But lay off Cleopatra, already! Geez!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Most ten-year-olds may or may not know who Cleopatra was. But when forty-years-olds don't know that Octavius became Ceasar Augustus, the greatest of all the Roman emperors,that says something about the education during the '70s and '80s