By Heather Helinsky, Dramaturg
Last summer, PSF audiences watched Shakespeare fall in love with Viola de Lesseps, the imaginary character from the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love, written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman.
While historians know a bit about Shakespeare’s domestic life and have pondered odd details of why Shakespeare willed his wife Anne Hathaway his “second best bed,” we don’t truly know anything about Shakespeare’s views on love other than what we learn from his characters. With every play, with every character, there’s a naval map of clues orienting us to Shakespeare’s feelings about love and the oceans of drama it generates.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare chooses to dramatize two famous leaders from history who were forced to make choices upon the largest stage of their time: shifting global politics and the fate of the Roman Empire. How Antony and Cleopatra navigate the dangerous waters of their passion swirling and colliding with their responsibility to their nations gives us much to consider regarding Shakespeare’s views on love.
Shakespeare wastes no time introducing us to Antony and Cleopatra. As the curtain rises, Antony should be commanding his men on the battlefield, instead, he refuses to yield to the orders from Rome, and only seeks time with Cleopatra:
Let’s not confound time with conference harsh.
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?
(Act I, Scene 1, lines 45-48)
Yet Antony is no young Romeo mooning over Rosalind and then quickly shifting his hot-blooded emotions to Juliet. Antony, by this moment in history, is mature, a controlled commander who has not just survived but was heavily involved in the plots and machinations of a Roman Empire recently wrenched from a republic to a kind of oligarchy of Triumvirs.
When Shakespeare’s audiences last met Antony in Julius Caesar, he was the man who mourned Caesar’s corpse and vowed vengeance. He manipulated words so expertly that he turned the assembly of Roman citizens supporting Brutus into a seething mob. He cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
In Act IV, scene 1 of Julius Caesar, Antony coldly divided up the empire in a secret meeting with the Triumvirate, and was willing to sacrifice his own family members for political gain. Antony was a deadly serious man, giving terse orders in his rise to power.
So it’s quite a shocking opening for a play that Antony is now seemingly consumed by the fire of love. Or is it?
The source of his desire is a 30-something woman who rules the last great kingdom in the region, Egypt. Shakespeare’s dramatization of her cements her image more than any coin or historical account.
The historical Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 22 years. Declared a goddess as a child and a queen at 18, she was no stranger to navigating the political shifts of the Roman Empire, the greatest regional power that threatened Egypt. In that era, the Roman Empire devoured its neighbors, setting its sights on Egypt, which was the last remaining truly wealthy country in the region. If Cleopatra wanted autonomy for her country, the stakes were high.
The lovers inhabit a dangerous world where time is fleeting. Yet, perhaps it is the lack of time that Antony and Cleopatra have together—as Shakespeare’s audience would have known that these two historical characters met a sudden and sensational death—which intensifies their passion.
Director Eleanor Holdridge notes, “Everything they do is witnessed, is in the public eye. There are always servants and spies and aides in attendance on the couple. Antony and Cleopatra each have different agendas that play out over the course of the play; loyalty and love being nowhere near the top. There’s a Hollywood feel to it, like the paparazzi are always out and the pressure to play things for the public can interfere with private desires.
“They have had the world at their fingertips.” Holdridge continues. “She—ruler of an empire, he—the greatest warrior in the world. And now what? They have found love, but are trapped by the old ideas of who they are. Antony is mired in the male dominant culture of Rome even while he may long to give up his power to Cleopatra. But the deep cultural ideas about manhood, and a need for Roman-type power and adulation, continually come to the surface. Cleopatra uses sex and ideas of gender to get what she wants. She wants an Egypt that she, not Rome, rules, and manipulates Antony to keep that power, even while she loves him.”
What Shakespeare so deftly balances at this point in his career as a playwright is to not allow history to become a weight on the story. Plutarch, whose Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans was the source material for Shakespeare’s play, wrote, “…a casual action, the odd phrase, or a jest reveals character better than battles involving the loss of thousands upon thousands of lives, huge troop movements, and whole cities besieged.”
Shakespeare knows how to make these great leaders from history into the flawed, relatable human beings they were, and hooks us with private, relatable insights. Love—being one of those universal experiences—can challenge and frustrate the greatest global leaders as it might an ordinary citizen.
Cleopatra’s name is now associated with an asteroid, a video game, a cigarette, restaurants, and Elizabeth Taylor, but it’s Shakespeare’s play where we can perhaps get a better glimpse of this powerful and famous woman. She is both stratospheric and on the ground with us, like us. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, commanded ships, and then lost everything as she gambled with her Roman paramour for a chance at what many of us hope for—a great Love.
Heather Helinsky, dramaturg: MFA from A.R.T./Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, Harvard; 2001 alumna, DeSales University Theatre.