The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare around 1608. The story centers on one of Rome’s three leaders, Mark Antony, and the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. These two lovers are first featured at Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt. As the play continues, however, Antony’s political and social duties take the action to Rome, Syria, Actium, Parthia (modern day Iraq), Athens, and to various military camps in Egypt. In short, the lovers are put in locations and situations where they question each other's loyalty and love. The play’s ending is yet another example of how passion, mingled with power, treachery, and misunderstanding, can lead to a tragic end. We see this time and again in Shakespeare’s great works.
Antony and Cleopatra constitutes Shakespeare’s return to Roman history after an eight year break. It also gives him a chance to explore the theme of Empire, which was a hot topic in England then because it was a good time to run around sticking a flag in any land you could find. In other words, English colonial holdings were expanding. A big part of that colonial endeavor was making sure other cultures accepted yours as superior. Shakespeare calls this practice into question by pointing out that different cultures had been living successfully before the British arrived. Interestingly, Rome was successful as a conquering nation because it was more likely to let people keep their way of life, and pay a tax to Rome – instead of giving up their own culture entirely. How the empire tax would be enforced in other nations was still in question, and it almost seems like Shakespeare was giving the people of his time a history lesson, asking them to consider a different way of handling the whole empire issue.
Finally, there’s a reference to the future of Christianity in the play. The end of the Roman Empire is the beginning of the spread of Christianity throughout the world. When Caesar talks about the coming of universal peace, he means his reign, but it’s a nod to Shakespeare’s Christian audience that Christ brought real universal peace, and saved us modern-day folks from the ills of those ancient cultures. If it hadn’t been for Christ, he seems to be saying, we might still be in the constant wars that characterized folks like the Romans or Egyptians.
Why Should I Care?
Picture this: it's 300 and you're one of the Spartans going up against a million Persians. You know you're going to die, so why not go out in a blaze of glory? Or it's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and you're stuck at that fortress, Helm's Deep, preparing for war. There are ten thousand orcs marching towards you, and you think you're going to lose. All that's left to you is to decide how you're going to go.
In the words of that great sage Gandalf, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." Being up against insurmountable odds is a recipe for tragic grandeur. How else can you count on being remembered?
Shakespeare, too, understands that lost causes are a time for characters to shine. Antony and Cleopatra isn't like Hamlet, where you don't know exactly how everything's going to go to hell until it finally does. We've all heard about Cleopatra's fatal run-in with that asp, so we know that the characters are dead meat before any of the suicides happen. The tragedy has already happened: Antony has revolted against Caesar, Marc Antony keeps messing up his battles, and the two lovers are clearly doomed.
So what's left of Antony and Cleopatra is the drama of watching the hot mess of two people trying to come out of impossible circumstances. And from that perspective, they do a great job: after all, one of the best writers of the English language thought it was worthwhile to write a play about them. Cleopatra sticks a poisonous snake in her bosom and Antony almost disembowels himself rather than surrendering to Octavius and Roman power. In Antony and Cleopatra we get an example of courage almost two thousand years after everyone in the real-life story has died.
As Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Zack Snyder (director of 300) all know, we love a good impossible-odds story. After all, we'd like to think that, in 4009, maybe people will be reading about our dramatic exploits in the face of insurmountable foes (robot overlords? alien invaders?). Although, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, we would like to survive our heroic deeds.