“These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,/Or lose myself in dotage.”

Act One, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


langry cleopatraTo continue with Mark Van Doren, discussing the Mediterranean world of the play, and the fact that “There is no terror because there is so much light.”

“When Iras says

    The bright day is done,

And we are for the dark,


She is bidding good-by to an afternoon which has been long with life; and the dark for which she is destined seems somehow to have no blackness in it, for the same reason that when Cleopatra utters her command:

     Darkling stand

The varying shore o’ the world


we cannot imagine that any cliff or headland has ceased to be luminous even though the sun has burned the great sphere it moves in. Light plays on everything with undiscouraged luxury; on land, on rivers, on island, and on the sea. We are never far away from the limpid and life-giving element of water, which, rather than forming like dew as it did in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ now spreads a rich iridescent film over the whole of a vast daylight existence. There is of course the sea, and Antony is one with his sword

Quartr’d the world, and o’er green Neptune’s back

With ships made cities.

(IV, xiv, 58-9)

But there is also the Nile, whose ‘slime and ooze, creative of ‘flies and gnats’ as well as crocodiles, we are kept no less conscious of than we are kept conscious of flowing streams wherein ‘tawny-finn’d fishes’ play, where swan’s-down feathers float at full of tide, and from which rise swifts and mallards. It is a world of languid and abundant life which cannot surprise us with news that swallows have built their nests in Cleopatra’s sails (IV, xii, 3-4), or that the river of Cydnus fell in love with her barge as it burned on its water.

      The oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes.


At night, since night must be, there is nevertheless the moon, whose fleeting terrene visits kept Italy and Egypt flooded with yellow light. And day by day again there is certain to be music – ‘moody food,’ says Cleopatra (II.v.1-2), ‘of us that trade in love.’  But it is not music played in a chamber, like the music of ‘Twelfth Night,’ or on the lawn of a great lady’s estate as in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ It has the dome of the world to fill, so that it plays ‘far off’ while Cleopatra fishes (Ii, v, 11), and runs both through the air and underground when

     the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,

Now leaves him.

(IV, iii, 16-7)

Such a world needs a special style, and the play triumphantly provides it. The units of this style, curiously enough are very brief. Nothing is drawn out as with too little thought we might have expected it to be. The action is broken into as many as forty-two scenes; our attention is constantly shifted from one to another portion of the single scene which is the earth. And so with the speech, the characteristic unit of which is almost breathlessly short. There are no rolls of rhetoric, no attempts to loop the universe with language. This universe is too large to be rendered in anything but fragments, too much alive in its own right to care for extended compliment and discourse. It can be handled only a process of constantly reassembling its many small parts – moving them about in an always flexible mosaic. For the world of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ shows its strength in nothing so much as its flexibility. Any part, examined closely, yields the whole, just as any speech, once it is made, escapes into some far altitude of the air without exactly losing itself; in the long run it will count. The action expresses itself in many ripples, like a resting sea. The climate in which Antony and Cleopatra so completely love each other permits them the luxury of little phrases, as if with their breath it panted the tale of its own endless well-being. Accommodating itself to its heroine, it utters itself with a refined sensuousness, opening its lips and pronouncing delicious words in which the light sounds of I , short a, s, st, 1, and ing predominate.

     By the fire

That quickens Nilus’ slime, I go from hence

Thy soldier, servant.

    This common body,

Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,

Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,

To rot itself with motion.


     Think on me,

That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black,

And wrinkled deep in time?


How much unlike art thou Mark Antony!

Yet, coming from him, that great medicine hath

With is tinct gilded thee.


By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth.



In the habiliments of the goddess Isis

That day appear’d.


That which is now a horse, even with a thought

The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,

As water is in water.


With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate

Of life at once untie


This is an aspic’s trail; and these fig-leaves

Have slime upon them, such as the aspic leaves

Upon the caves of Nile.

The speech of any person in the play is likely to spill itself in agreeable gasps, as if it came through gills; and the blank-verse line of the earlier dramas has almost lost its form in the fluid element that surrounds it.

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch

Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space.

Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike

Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life

Is to do thus, when such a mutual pair

And such a twain can do ‘t.


Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,

But bid farewell, and go. When you sued staying,

Then was the time for words; no going then;

Eternity was in our lips and eyes,

Bliss in our brows’ bent; none of our parts so poor,

Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,

Art turn’d the great liar.


     My salad days,

When I was green in judgement; cold in blood,

To say as I said then! But, come, away;

Get me ink and paper.

He shall have every day a several greeting,

Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.


I will o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and

Weep for my pardon. So it must be, for now

All length is torture; since the torch is out,

Lie down, and stray no farther. Now all labour

Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles

Itself with strength.

(IV, xiv, 44-8)

Such a style suits lovers who make up as quickly as they have quarreled; the anger of Antony and Cleopatra has a short memory, and pardons succeed curses with little shift of accent.

     Courteous lord, one word.

Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it;

Sir, you and I have lov’d, but there’s not it;

That you know well. Something it is I would, —

O, my oblivions is a very Antony,

And I am all forgotten.

(I.iii. 86-91)

That will do for Cleopatra’s text after any altercation; and Antony, who played with half the bulk of the world as he pleased and had superfluous kings for messengers, can humble himself as briefly:

Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates

All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss.

Even this repays me.


Their misunderstandings are waves which there are other waves to check, just as the bits of acting they practice on each other are chopped short because they know that neither can be deceived.


Good now, play one scene

Of excellent dissembling; and let it look

Like perfect honour.


You’ll heat my blood. No more.


You can do better yet; but this is meetly.


Now, by my sword,–


And target. – Still he mends;

But this is not the best.


This banter is from a queen who is herself a consummate actress, and she knows Antony knows it. “


Vanessa Redgrave in Antony and CleopatraAnd as part of the “Actors on Shakespeare” series, Vanessa Redgrave wrote on Antony and Cleopatra (she’s played the role of Cleopatra several times).  I’ll be including excerpts as we continue our reading:


“Antony was forty when he defeated the great republican Brutus on the battlefield of Philippi. He had been proconsul with the dictator Julius Caesar, in the year Julius was assassinated. Octavius, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, with the money left him by his great-uncle and support from a faction in the Senate led by Cicero, had secured the backing of numbers of his great-uncle’s war veterans and forced the Senate to declare him Consul. By the winter of 41-40 BC, Antony was forty-two, and Octavius Caesar was twenty-two.

Is Antony in love with Cleopatra? This is the question she asks him, and asks herself constantly. The text in my view reveals a man who is fascinated, impressed, knows how to flatter a queen, and is not in love.


If it be love indeed, tell me how much.


There’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d.


I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.


Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

Enter an Attendant


News, my good lord, from Rome.


Grates me: the sum.


Nay, hear them, Antony:
Fulvia perchance is angry; or, who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His powerful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this;
Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that;
Perform ‘t, or else we damn thee.’


How, my love!


Perchance! nay, and most like:
You must not stay here longer, your dismission
Is come from Caesar; therefore hear it, Antony.
Where’s Fulvia’s process? Caesar’s I would say? both?
Call in the messengers. As I am Egypt’s queen,
Thou blushest, Antony; and that blood of thine
Is Caesar’s homager: else so thy cheek pays shame
When shrill-tongued Fulvia scolds. The messengers!


Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair


And such a twain can do’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.


Excellent falsehood!
Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?
I’ll seem the fool I am not; Antony
Will be himself.


But stirr’d by Cleopatra.
Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours,
Let’s not confound the time with conference harsh:
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?


Hear the ambassadors.


Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom every thing becomes, to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!
No messenger, but thine; and all alone
To-night we’ll wander through the streets and note
The qualities of people. Come, my queen;
Last night you did desire it

In a different context, we glimpse the same Antony whose words turned an assembly of roman citizens from support for Brutus into a lynch mob howling for his blood. Antony is a politician through and through and Cleopatra knows this: ‘I’ll seem the fool I am not; Antony/Will be himself.’ From the first scene we must see a leader who is delighted and excited, but fully in command of himself and his goals. Demetrius and Philo, ambassadors from Rome, express a hostile disgust at a foreign luxury and culture they do not understand. They abuse the Queen of Egypt with coarse expressions. We will not be surprised when we shortly learn about the civil war that has continued in Italy.


Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glow’d 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.

When Antony has listened, later, to the dispatches from Italy, and takes his leave from the Queen, Cleopatra perceives an Antony she cannot command and remarks on the falsehood of his love rhetoric. Antony becomes angry because she has seen the truth, and he explodes; “You’ll heat my blood; no more.”


Now, my dearest queen,–


Pray you, stand further from me.


What’s the matter?


I know, by that same eye, there’s some good news.
What says the married woman? You may go:
Would she had never given you leave to come!
Let her not say ’tis I that keep you here:
I have no power upon you; hers you are.


The gods best know,–


O, never was there queen
So mightily betray’d! yet at the first
I saw the treasons planted.




Why should I think you can be mine and true,
Though you in swearing shake the throned gods,
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows,
Which break themselves in swearing!


Most sweet queen,–


Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell, and go: when you sued staying,
Then was the time for words: no going then;
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven: they are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar.


How now, lady!


I would I had thy inches; thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.


Hear me, queen:
The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile; but my full heart
Remains in use with you. Our Italy
Shines o’er with civil swords: Sextus Pompeius
Makes his approaches to the port of Rome:
Equality of two domestic powers
Breed scrupulous faction: the hated, grown to strength,
Are newly grown to love: the condemn’d Pompey,
Rich in his father’s honour, creeps apace,
Into the hearts of such as have not thrived
Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten;
And quietness, grown sick of rest, would purge
By any desperate change: my more particular,
And that which most with you should safe my going,
Is Fulvia’s death.


Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness: can Fulvia die?


She’s dead, my queen:
Look here, and at thy sovereign leisure read
The garboils she awaked; at the last, best:
See when and where she died.


O most false love!
Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill
With sorrowful water? Now I see, I see,
In Fulvia’s death, how mine received shall be.


Quarrel no more, but be prepared to know
The purposes I bear; which are, or cease,
As you shall give the advice. By the fire
That quickens Nilus’ slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant; making peace or war
As thou affect’st.


Cut my lace, Charmian, come;
But let it be: I am quickly ill, and well,
So Antony loves.


My precious queen, forbear;
And give true evidence to his love, which stands
An honourable trial.


So Fulvia told me.
I prithee, turn aside and weep for her,
Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears
Belong to Egypt: good now, play one scene
Of excellent dissembling; and let it look
Life perfect honour.


You’ll heat my blood: no more.

The politician, the legendary general, has met his match.”

And the beginning of her examination of Cleopatra herself:

“A stone head with a smashed nose stares at us in the Vatican museum. Her eyes are enormous. She has soft, full lips, rounded cheeks, hair caught behind the ears close to hear head, in a knot at the nape of her neck – sculpted, if indeed this is Cleopatra, in her ‘salad days,’ when she held her salon in Rome as the mistress of the dictator Julius Caesar. The nose was smashed, perhaps, by a young iconoclast when Octavius Caesar led the war against the foreign queen and Mark Antony.

When she gave birth to a boy, Caesarion, fathered by Julius Caesar, either she or the happy father issued a coin that shows Cleopatra as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and her baby boy as Eros:


In the habiliments of the goddess Isis

That day appear’d, and oft before gave audience,

As ‘tis reported so.


tazza farneseA glass vase, known as the Tazza Farnese, is said to have been commissioned by Cleopatra, to commemorate the ‘Donations’ ceremony in Alexandria in 34 BC. The translucent brown, creamy ivory, white and cerulean blue intaglio on the vase reveals an Isis in transparent silken robes a la grecque, reclining on the ground at the foot of her bearded Antony, who is presented as the god Horus. There are baby gods with wings, and ‘angels’; and, as is usual with a coronation ceremony, a cornucopia, promising a prosperous future under the sovereign gods.

Enter ANTONY, CLEOPATRA, her Ladies, the Train, with Eunuchs, fanning her.

Who is this lady? The textures whisper a haunting memory of the wild, wonderful and terrifying days of a queen (Elizabeth I) and an England gone for ever: the Bess who spoke and laughed as she walked through the mud of the English market towns and village greens as children gave her posies; the Queen whose train, dresses and jewels stuck awe as she greeted foreign ambassadors.

‘The twilight of a summer’s day came at last, and with darkness the castle in its fields and groves became a fairy palace: so glittering by glass a’night by continual brightness of candle, fire and torchlight, transparent through the lightsome windows, as it were the Egyptian Pharoah’s, relucent unto all the Alexandrian coast.’ So wrote Robert Laneham, a humble member of the train of Elizabeth I, of a July evening in Kenilworth Castle in 1575.

Antony sent her an invitation to dinner, but she thought it preferable that he should come to her…on his arrival he found preparations that beggared description, but he was especially struck by the amazing number of lights. There are said to have been so many lights hanging on display all over the place, ordered and disposed at such angles to one another and in such arrangements – some forming squares, some circles – that the sight was one of rare and remarkable beauty. (Plutarch, Roman Lives)

Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, organized banquets for his queen that were hardly less sumptuous than Cleopatra’s. Yet, as we know, the queen herself at little and meagerly. Her famous speeches were personal and eloquent, her reported conversations sharp and humorous. Her insatiable greed for adoration expressed in verse or in jewels renowned. Her wild and abusive treatment of her ladies in the court, alternating with tender affection for those girls most loyal and most near – all this was recorded. When she was ‘wrinkled deep in time,’ she lingered for hours with the young Earl of Essex, and when he betrayed her, sent him to the Tower and to his death.

‘Go tell the court it glows and shines/Like rotten wood.’ Thus wrote Walter Raleigh, probably about the court of the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. These and other words in the same poem (which may have been written about the court of James I) are as hostile as anything the Romans said or wrote about Cleopatra, or about Antony.

Elizabeth spoke French and Spanish fluently, some Flemish and Italian, and excellent Latin and Greek. Ascham (her second tutor while she was princess) read both the Greek testament and Sophocles with Elizabeth each morning, and during the initial two years as her tutor the pair completed virtually all the works of Cicero, together with most of those by Livy. Ascham subsequently boasted that the princess spoke more Latin than most clergy at the time. After Elizabeth had become queen, he continued to speak Greek regularly with her up to the time of his death in 1568.

‘The sound of her voice was also charming and she had a faculty with languages that enabled her to turn her tongue, like a many stringed instrument, to any language she wanted, with the result that it was extremely rare for her to need a translator in her meetings with foreigners; in most cases she could answer their question herself, whether they were Ethiopians, Trogodythe, Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, Medev, or Parthians’ (Peter Brimacombe, All the Queen’s Men)

In fact, writes Plutarch, she knew Egyptian, unlike her predecessors.

I have often wondered how Shakespeare could have written the role of Cleopatra, when he knew he would be obliged to have a boy playing her. Yet a boy could play the Virgin Queen, who was accused by Catholics and Calvinists alike of being a Jezebel, a bold and abandoned woman; and Cleopatra, as Shakespeare wrote her, is quintessentially an Elizabethan woman and a unique one at that: Elizabeth Tudor. All of Elizabeth’s negotiations for marriage were political, and I have absolutely no evidence to make me suppose that Cleopatra’s choices were not dictated by the necessities of defending and strengthening her realm. The English Queen developed her political skills as she developed her relationships: publicly.

Matters escalated further when Elizabeth took Alencon to a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and publicly kissed the Duke in front of the entire congregation. Later, when the French ambassador encountered the couple together in the Long Gallery at Whitehall Palace, he enquired of their intentions. The Queen warmly kissed the Duke again, took a ring from her finger and placed it on his, informing the delighted ambassador that he may tell the King of France that his brother would be marrying her.

The Spanish ambassador reported to Philip II of Spain that, one morning in a gallery, the Queen kissed the Duke of Alencon ‘on the mouth,’ drawing a ring from her own hand and giving it to him as a pledge.

I know I have the body of a weake and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too, and I think it foul scorn that Parma or Spain or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm,’ Elizabeth is quoted as saying at Tilbury on 9 August 1588.

If we read Elizabeth herself, or what her contemporaries wrote about her, we most certainly see the lady of whom Enobarbus tells Maecenas: ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.”  And yet, having drawn close to Elizabeth and seen and heard Cleopatra, we find that Shakespeare’s Queen of Egypt, who loved Antony more than her kingdom, is most unique in that she remains at Antony’s side from the middle day of the Actium sea battle, through his increasing mad drunkenness, despair and violence, to his suicide. Cleopatra escapes life and Octavius Caesar, giving up her body and soul in an ecstasy of belief that she will see Antony again in the world beyond life.

How misapprehended has Cleopatra been by centuries of theatrical mythology, owning to a combination of the propaganda of Octavius Caesar’s Roman faction and the prurience and prudery of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I think Shakespeare’s text reveals that there is a consistent ‘Roman’ puritanical point of view, but this should not be taken as the ground for Cleopatra’s feet in production or in performance of her role. Her moods change swiftly, her rage as terrifying as her sorrow; yet she is the opposite of Gertrude, of whom Prince Hamlet says bitterly: ‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’ Cleopatra is a queen, not the only daughter of a rich merchant as is Juliet; yet both are absolute unto death for the man they love. Cleopatra, who perceives the truth behind Antony’s declaration of loyalty, still loves him. She who can sense a trap behind all of Caesar’s promises, who is well aware that in staying with Antony she will lose everything – even, maybe, that Antony will kill her – stays at his side, even when she is driven away  by his threats. She it is who earns the place in history that Enobarbus speaks of:

     he that can endure

To follow with allegiance a fall’n lord,

Does conquer him that did his master conquer,

And earns a place I’ the story.

(III, xiii)

A ‘good’ woman, a constant woman – I am here writing a conclusion that I arrived at too late for any performance, for I never resolved this main question when I played Cleopatra in the five different productions I have acted in.

redgrave cleopatraI played Cleopatra for the first time in 1973, directed by my ex-husband Tony Richardson. The production was staged in the tent constructed by the visionary American actor Sam Wanamaker in Bankside, near the site where now, thanks to all those he inspired, stands the Shakespeare International Globe Theatre.

As Richardson writes in The Long Distance Runner:

‘Antony and Cleopatra has some of the most magnificent poetry in the whole canon, and it combines an epic sweep of dramatization – worlds colliding – with an equally reckless presentation of human character in squalor and sublimity, Antony and Cleopatra are monsters – mean, shabby, drunken, cowardly, indulgent of their own pleasures and vanities to the point that they’re willing to sacrifice their pasts, their honours and their countries, and yet made glorious by their passion and greed for each other …you can think of many, many parallels today.

Tony set the play ‘vaguely in the 1930s.’ He told me I should think of Cleopatra as a Pola Negri or Bette Davis of Joan Crawford, and I wore a thirties clinging ivory-satin evening dress most of the time, until the Monument. I had my hair cut a flaming Technicolor red, and cut like Garbo’s shoulder-length bob. Always generous, Tony wrote of my work: ‘Vanessa, by her daring was able to explore sides of the character with a harshness and truthfulness unparalleled in any other Cleopatra I’ve ever seen.’

Tony was an inspiring iconoclast, so I don’t think it was so very daring, and I was totally excited to venture wherever he urged me. I remember that I played the scene where Cleopatra hears that Antony has married Octavia as if she was very, very drunk; and that I played the scene when Antony leaves Alexandria for Rome as if Cleopatra felt she was starring in the biggest movie love scene she had ever played, with searchlights, and shrieking fans in the bleachers, metaphorically speaking. When the brief run ended, both Tony and I knew we had to make another attempt to climb this Everest, but we never managed to work together again on this play.

AnthonyMy view of Cleopatra is that of an Englishwoman. Preparing to direct Antony and Cleopatra in 1995, I played her in Jacobean dress, in a pile of rubble and scaffolding symbolizing a world already torn apart by war, about to destroy half of itself in another war. (My brother Corin’s Julius Caesar was also played in Jacobean dress in repertory with Antony and Cleopatra on the same set.) This production was an enormous success in Verona in the ruins of the roman amphitheatre, much less so in Plymouth – where the audience was warmhearted but clearly would have preferred an authentic setting in the Ancient Egypt prior to Alexander and the Macedonian conquest. Our multi-ethnic cast proved themselves wondrously when Corin and I directed Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in repertory at the Alley Theatre, Houston, Texas. There the school afternoon performances (all subsidized) were like rock concerts. For the first time the youngsters saw black men and women playing the leading roles. The Roman Empire and its predecessor, the Republic of these two plays, did not distinguish racially. From the first performance of Antony and Cleopatra in 1995 I cast a Republic that was being torn apart by its political factions, but peopled by ‘Latins’ from Africa, the Balkans, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. My Antony and Enobarbus were black, my Octavian Caesar and Octavia were black; my Charmian was Vietnamese, and my Iras was played by a refugee actress from Sarajevo.

In 1996, in Texas, Antony, Cassius and Octavius Caesar took a unique curtain call at the end of Julius Caesar, and the young people gave them a standing ovation. All three actors were from the West Indies; all were British citizens. The following night, in Antony and Cleopatra, we saw the Antony who had just won the Battle of Philippi, and Enobarbus was an African-American actor. I have never been in a company that formed such bonds; our Moving Theater Company created a first in both the United States and the United Kingdom. We had a split-level set, a courtyard in a ruined Italian Renaissance palace. This reinforced the intention to show that even Egypt was part of the Roman Republic, and that Antony and Cleopatra fought to win supreme power over that Republic.

In all these productions, including my last at the Public Theatre in New York, where the brilliant John Arone executed my idea of the scaffolding holding up a ruined Renaissance palace, my Cleopatra, her friends and her foes were dressed in Jacobean costume. I never, however, succeeded in establishing my own clear vision of Cleopatra.”

More to come from Ms. Redgrave in future posts…



My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning

Our next reading:  Antony and Cleopatra, Act Two


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