Sunday, November 19, 2006


Antony & Cleopatra doesn't have a Chorus. None of the Roman plays do, as Shakespeare preferred to use lower-class characters (citizens, servants, or, in the case of A&C, footsoldiers) to discuss current events. Thus, Act 1, Scene 1 of A&C begins with one of Antony's soldiers, Philo moaning to his friend Demetrius about their general's unmanly conduct in Alexandria:

PHILO: Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of his war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.

The advantage of this dialogue-based opening is its dramatic momentum. It's driven by characters who have objectives--unlike a Chorus, whose only motivation for speaking is to inform the audience. It's a much punchier way to start a play, and most of Shakespeare's masterpieces begin like this (Hamlet, Othello, and perhaps most successfully, Macbeth).

The disadvantage is a greater risk of audience confusion. At lights up, they don't know who these two characters are (their costumes might identify them as Roman soldiers, but whose soldiers? And where are they?), and we don't know who they're talking about--"our general" in Line 1 refers to Antony, but since the characters both know who their general is, they have no practical need to identify him by name. Same with Cleopatra, who is referred to twice in the above speech: once as a "gipsy" and once as a "tawny front." These semi-derogatory terms are perfectly in character for the resentful Philo, but they don't serve the audience's first, most pressing need: to know what's going on, and who is being discussed.

There are several justifications for this potential ambiguity. The first is that Shakespeare's original audience would have been more familiar with these terms--they would have understood, for example, that "tawny" and "gipsy" both refer to Cleopatra's dark skin colour, which distinguishes her from Roman women. The second is that Shakespeare's audience knew more about the historical situation than most modern audiences do. This point is debatable; but at the very least, Shakespeare's audiences had already seen his play Julius Caesar, so they knew about the events leading up to A&C. Modern audiences are, sadly, out of touch with their classical history, and JC isn't produced as often as it used to be.

The third justification for Shakespeare's ambiguity is unapologetic: he enjoyed starting off a play with a mystery. If you force yourself to forget everything you know about Hamlet or Macbeth, and then read the first few pages of Act 1, Scene 1, you'll see how much is left unsaid. Ambiguity and mystery is one way of drawing an audience into the world of your play. And, in any case, the ambiguity about the "general" and the "gipsy" doesn't last long: within 10 lines, the two characters arrive on stage and begin acting out the passion that Philo is describing.

None the less, I am concerned enough about the play's beginning to have done the unthinkable: I've added to Shakespeare's script. I feel that A&C has altogether too much backstory, and that Shakespeare doesn't spoon-feed it to his audience (which is good), thus running the risk that modern audiences will tune out in frustration (which is bad). I could solve the problem in the same way that many other productions do, by writing some program notes; and I may do this as well.

But I've had some experience writing faux-Shakespearean verse, so I thought I'd try a more active solution. Starting off the play with a Chorus loses that dramatic immediacy; but it gives the uninitiated audience members some common ground, so that they are not dropped into totally unfamiliar territory. In fact, it struck me that a modern audience might like to have things start off with a familiar image: the assassination of Julius Caesar. Even those who haven't seen a production of Shakespeare's JC know about this historical event--and A&C emerges fairly directly from that incident. You need only mention Brutus's civil war and the establishment of the Triumvirate, and you're pretty much good to go.

Here's what I came up with. I haven't yet decided if I will have the speech accompanied by dumb-show scenes, or tableaux, or even slide projections--one way or another, it would be nice to give it a bit more dramatic motion. I'll probably write a Chorus piece for the top of the second act as well (approximately Act 3 in the original).

CHORUS: I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.
‘Twas never so; not in our history.
For, after Caesar cravenly was stabbed,
Betrayed by Brutus and his fellow blades—
(A tale which our own author has described,
And many stages shown)—then there was war,
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
Did prowl the battlefield, and turn the swords
Of his assassins, guilty, on themselves.
Then rose in Rome a great confed’racy
Between three princes—the Triumvirate.
Great Caesar’s nephew, called Octavian,
Remained in Rome; and with him, Lepidus,
A grey reflection of an aging empire.
The third, Mark Antony: right hand of kings,
A peerless match in politics and war—
Brave Antony set forth to gird the borders
Of the sprawling Roman realm. Brave Antony,
Whose honour vaulted over mountaintops,
Whose majesty could have commanded all—
But first, he sailed to Egypt, where he met
The one force which surpasses honour, might,
Ambition, duty, death, the gods above—
In Egypt, mighty Antony met love.

No comments: