Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Gospel According to Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra

Lust! Sex! Adultery and illicit carnal desire. Now that I have your attention, Please understand that I'm gearing up for the next Gospel According to Shakespeare class on Jan 18. I've been chewing on Antony and Cleopatra for about a month, and now I'm going back through it one more time to get some ideas down. And the big idea for today is: Lust.

The basic story goes as follows -- following their victory, Octavius Casar, Mark Antony, and Lepidus divide the world among themselves. Antony chooses Egypt and the East, where he falls for the seductive and wily Cleopatra. Antony begins to shirk his duties as a Roman ruler -- and when war breaks out, he is recalled from Egypt by Octavius. The three rulers unite again to defeat a rebellion, but seeds are sown for the three to be cut down to one. Octavius takes on Lepidus and wins. Then conflict arises between Octavius and Antony, resulting in the war that results in Antony's death and Cleopatra's suicide.

Sounds like a military story, right? True -- and we'll get to some of the themes of power another time. But lust is what drives Antony's action (and inaction) Act I pretty well establishes that Antony's relationship with Cleopatra has sapped his strength -- even from the first speech, given by one of Antony's soldiers:

"Nay but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters fo the 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 gypsy's lust. Look where they come.
Take but good note, and you shall see him
The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet's fool...." (1.1.1-14)

Again in scene 4 we find Ceasar in an extended complaint about Antony's behavior, concluding that he has become "...A man who is th' abstract of all faults/ That all men follow." (1.4.10-11). He's wasting away -- all for the love of Cleopatra.

Now romantic critics have charged that Shakespeare's intent is to show that the adulterous love affair with Cleopatra is but Antony and Cleopatra being true to themselves. The stern, sterile Roman way is often contrasted with the sensual and seductive Egyptian way -- and romantic critics almost always come down on the side of Egypt. They claim that Cleopatra has a mystic power of reinvention of reality. And they back it up with some nifty stuff.

However, this first act pretty well sets the tone. Cleopatra comes off more like a whiny and overprotective cheerleader who's trying to steal someone else's boyfriend. Her first line is "If it be love indeed, tell me how much." Please -- these "I love you more" games aren't the stuff of love -- they're the stuff of childish infatuation. Then, even as she entreats Antony to do his job and receive the ambassadors from Rome, she insults Antony's wife, Fulvia and "scarce-bearded Ceasar". Later we see her playing mind games with Antony just for fun: "See where he is, who's with him, what he does....If you find him sad, Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report that I am sudden sick." This is not exactly the height of maturity.

Believe me, I'm not against games and professions of love. They have their place in a healthy relationship based on deep committment -- indeed they are vital expressions of something deeply held within. However the common error is to suppose that the expressions are the thing itself. I suggest that Cleopatra is simply playing at love because she doesn't really understand the depth of what it actually is. Instead, she's more like the temptress of Proverbs 5: "For the lips of an adulturess drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave. She give no thought to the way of life; her paths are crooked, but she knows it not...Keep to a path far from her....lest you give your best strength to others and your years to one who is cruel....At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and your body are spent. You will say 'How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned correction!....'" And Antony seems to recognize this as he consults with his right hand man Enobarbus "I must from this enchanting queen break off. Ten thousand harms more than the ills I know my idleness doth hatch."

On top of this, Shakespeare gives us, in scene two of the first act, a comic scene with a soothsayer predicting death and doom for Cleopatra and Antony. Shakespeare is almost setting us up to have a visual parable of Proverbs 5.

Shakespeare's genius, however, is in making Cleopatra sound so good. It's well known that a part of Shakespeare's background was in viewing the medeival morality plays that portrayed an individual caught between Vice personified and Virtue personified. Shakespeare is famous for taking the stock chracters of these medeival morality plays and putting flesh on them and making them real people who are seductive and compelling (his villans are often more compelling than his heroes). Here he's done the same -- taken the personifcation of Lust and made her a real person who is funny and playful, affectionate, able to be hurt. We get seduced by her too -- we know she's bad for us, but we can't help but like her in a way. There's his genius -- he's not preaching a sermon, he's writing a story about very flawed characters who operate in a moral universe where there are consequences for actions.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Shakespeare talk lights your fire, you might also be interested in my Squidoo Lens on Shakespeare and Christian Themes