Shakespeare in the 18th Century: A Magnificent Blend

The Royal Shakespeare Company and Miami’s GableStage via New York City’s Public Theater, have done the impossible in juxtaposing two important pages of history. In their desire to bring the original Shakespearean tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra to a new era, these two companies went to the 18th  century at a time in which prejudice and racial discrimination ravaged the Caribbean.  The play, wonderfully directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, stars Jonathan Cake as Mark Antony, Charise Castro Smith as Octavia, Samuel Collings as Octavius Ceasar and  Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra, and a cast of other talented actors.  To entertain and to introduce the audience to the music that is infused in the play, there are exemplary musicians who play folklore, traditional Haitian music, before the play begins.  The well-known story of Antony and Cleopatra brings tears to many theater goers’ eyes, and has taken passionate love to another dimension when the companies  in a parallel attempt move back and forth  from the Roman Empire to the Haitian Revolution against France in the late 18th century.
As the story unfolds people familiar with global history relive the poignant and passionate love story of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra who is madly in love with Marcus Antonius (known as Mark Antony).   After the breakage of the triumvirate, war was inevitable between Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavius) and Anthony. The ill-fated love so characteristic of Shakespearean theater culminates with the suicidal and tragic death of the two lovers.  It is truly a poignant and breathtaking story! How then can one take such a tragic story and bring it to the twenty-first Century? To immortalize true love and bring it to the level of a ‘Paul and Virginia’ or a ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the producers went into the Haitian folklore and found ways to deify the slave woman with songs like Choukoune, Ti zwazo, and Dèy before offering them in holocaust on the altar of veritable but impossible love.  To uncover the plot that leads to the death of a white colonialist and his colored mistress, Anthony becomes a French general obligated to return to France, and Cleopatra becomes the: ‘Choukoune ak je li clere kou yon chandèl’ (A woman with eyes shining brighter than a star), and the mourning woman desperately awaiting the return of her lover.  The infusion of both stories makes for a brilliant recounting of this familiar love story, despite some historical inconsistencies that Shakespeare fashions in his recounting of an Egyptian and Roman tragic love story.
The relationship between Octavius, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra is complicated, but we can look to history for clarity and understanding.  Julius Caesar had a relationship with Cleopatra, but after his death, Mark Anthony had an affair with her while he was married to Fluvia, his current wife, who later died.  Upon Julius Caesar’s death, the throne was given to his son Octavius. Octavius may not have thought well of Cleopatra because of her affairs with both Antony and Julius Caesar. Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar may have been a political move for her to secure her throne against the Roman Empire.  Cleopatra may have served her own interests in her love relationships.  Furthermore, according to Adrian Goldsworthy in his historical biography, Antony and Cleopatra, “There is no actual evidence to suggest that her concerns went any further than enduring a steady flow of taxation into her own hands, to cement her hold on power.”  According to history, Cleopatra was well educated and cagey.  She used her perspicacity shrewdly to cement her place in history. Additionally, Shakespeare’s tragedy portrays Octavius as a ruthless, cold-hearted ruler and Antony as a simple-easy minded soldier has very little veracity; these depictions appear to be merely fooder for good story telling.
In Shakespeare’s rendition of this tragedy, there is great tension between Octavius and Antony and Antony and Cleopatra.  To forge a strong military relationship between Antony and Octavius, Octavius offers his sister, Octavia, in marriage to Antony; however, this friendship is ephemeral and the marriage is duplicitous.   This marriage is the basis for the conflict between Antony and Cleopatra and the continued affair with Cleopatra is the basis for the erosion of Antony’s relationship with Octavius. Antony and Cleopatra make themselves both king and Queen of Alexandria further angering Octavius.  Antony also walks away from a battle to follow Cleopatra. Through mendacity and beguilement, misinformation is given to Antony, ultimately causing a macabre scene. At the end, there is great distrust and misunderstanding by the major characters, resulting in the deaths of both Antony and Cleopatra.
The acting, set design, and costume design help captivate the audience when watching an otherwise difficult Shakespearean tragedy. The powerful emotion the characters display helps to understand the dynamics among the characters. A pool of water was strategically placed at the back of the stage and cleverly used in several battles at sea. The characters wore either stolas ( worn by Roman and Egyptian women ) or togas worn by Roman men to represent the attire of both Rome and Egypt during that era.
Familiarizing oneself with the story including its historical aspects may be necessary to gain a greater understanding of the play.  Otherwise, one may find himself exiting the theater during intermission.  Shakespeare is difficult.  The vocabulary is bombastic, but the music, the passion, and the great acting can assist in overcoming these challenges. I may see it a second time for further enlightenment of this historical drama. There is no shame in admitting that the play is intellectually challenging; the shame is in doing nothing about it.
Comments are welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s