"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra – NOT a Love Story

Most people think of Antony and Cleopatra the way they do Romeo and Juliet – lovers for all time; lovers of the ages; passion, romance, desire. In short, all things that most of us only dream of. The fact is, Antony was an old guy totally besotted by the younger, voluptuous, dramatic, sex goddess of the East who cared little for him as a man and used him in her single-minded pursuit of power. Sound familiar? Many of Shakespeare’s women had the same ambition – Constance, wife of King John, who seethes with mother-ambition for and a fierce she-bear protection of her son, Arthur, who she wants to accede to the throne; or Lady Macbeth who goads and taunts her husband, the Thane of Cawdor, to commit the bloody deeds that will propel him to the throne; or Lady Anne, who swallows all her pride and loyalty to a murdered husband and father-in-law and marries the arch-villain Richard III, their murderer, to assure her royalty, wealth, power, and future; or Goneril and Regan, not satisfied with the disposition of their father, King Lear’s lands, conspire and collude to rip every last bit of sanity from him to garner all.

Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt, and had had illegitimate children by the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and had reported dalliances with yet another member of a Roman triumvirate, Pompey the Great. Egypt was a part of the Roman Empire and enjoyed the semi-autonomy of most of the Roman provinces; but Cleopatra, or any regent of Egypt, could never be entirely sure of her security and her future, nor that of her children. Although no historical details or dramatic representation of her relationships with Caesar and Pompey were recorded, based on her relationship with Antony and Shakespeare’s dramatic version of it, it is clear that she was a canny and brilliant sexual politician. She knew that she would add another surety to her claims to Roman authority if she had sons by the rulers of Rome.

Cleopatra played Antony like a violin. She knew his weaknesses – his fear and suspicion of Caesar Octavius; his political ties to his wife Fulvia (who like any good Roman woman, conspired for more power, joining forces with Antony’s brother against Caesar!) and consequent reluctance to leave her; and his dimming future as a martial hero in Rome’s pantheon; and she dug deeply into him body and soul to exploit this knowledge.

He had no defenses against her onslaughts, her parries and thrusts, her wounding insults and innuendoes. He clearly loved Cleopatra and was willing to give up his career and his life for her.

We can only wonder why? Was she that desirable? OK, she was the consort to emperors who could not resist her charms. She was reported to be ageless, of timeless beauty, and sensuality incarnate. She was theatrical – appealing to all men with dull wives and routine, political lives – and she was vital, full of energy and life. Who could resist her? But still – a commanding general and admiral of land and sea forces? A member of the ruling triumvirate? One of the most powerful men on earth? Antony was not unlike Othello who had similar martial credentials – both so poorly understood women and overestimated their own strength, that they both died a fool’s death.

It is easy to say that Antony was a fool – another over-the-hill male who could not resist one last fling with not only an attractive younger woman, but the sex goddess of the Roman Empire, which, by the way extended to most of the known world in 46BC. Even if he knew that she was playing him (Shakespeare’s text does not overtly suggest this, but it is possible), he might well have consciously risked his reputation and career for her. Why not?

I have never bought this. Men of extreme power never say ‘Why not?’; and have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their posts. No, Antony was simply a man caught in the spider’s web; and when he realized it, it was too late.

Antony, when he is defeated for a second time in an ill-advised sea battle, this time against Caesar himself with the fleet of Cleopatra, wants to end his life. He is as inept at this as he is at sexual politics, and asks Eros to kill him (rather than falling on his sword as any honorable Roman would have done). Eros refuses and kills himself instead. Antony finally realizes that he cannot escape the inevitable and does the deed.

Cleopatra, meanwhile, far from pining away at the death of Antony, is busy preparing her survival strategy and negotiates with Caesar to remain Queen and to assure the succession of her children. Yes, says Caesar, but turn over Antony. Too late, but she of course is willing. When she realizes that her terms are not acceptable and that she will face the taunts of the Roman unwashed, and will ride humiliated and spat upon through the streets of Rome does she kill herself. Not for the love of Antony as Romeo does for his beloved Juliet, but for herself. Caesar decrees that a monument to them both be built and revered, but this was neither the death of heroes or lovers; just the death of an outwitted woman, and a besotted man who had lost his senses.

Shakespeare was no believer in romantic love, and but for the unusual and unexplained exception of Romeo and Juliet, a true and pure love story, he was true to his credo. Even in the Comedies, he is cynical about love. Rosalind and Beatrice, two great female heroes of As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing do not love their men, although as in all Shakespeare’s comedies, they get happily married. They play with them, trick them, look down upon them, but ultimately marry them because that was what young women of good families did. However, as one critic suggested, they all would be divorced within a year.

I am all for this take on marriage. In the old days, marriages were arranged for purposes of power. Women were horse-traded and they were forced into roles of backstage shenanigans which they did quite successfully. Shakespeare’s women, although subservient to men, were clearly their intellectual and power equals. In today’s world, the power trading is much more subtle but there nonetheless. Marriages are all about achieving a balance – psychological, social, economic, personal. The best marriages are those in which the partners have successful negotiated a realistic and fair contract – a good deal for both.

Am I being cynical? Not in the least. The key to peace if not harmony, whether in marriage or between nations, is a matter of a fairly negotiated contract. Man is a devoutly economic animal, with antennae as sensitive as a moth’s, and if the balance is tilted, there will be struggle and battle until equilibrium has been reestablished.

Shakespeare’s ‘love’ stories are as illuminating as anything he has written. He, forever and always, has an uncanny insight into human nature and behavior; and this is why he is always the go-to source for figuring things out.

To be published this week in Real Story Publishing (www.realstorypublishing.com) later this week.

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