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These Romans are crazy

27 Sep 10 | Re: Bonkers ancient guys

I’ve been watching and enjoying the TV series Rome. I know the sex and language and violence aren’t for everybody, but I think it’s really very good indeed - it’s brought classical characters like Mark Antony and Pompey to life for me and gives a great sense of the ancient world as a place where some of the most basic standards were very different, while other aspects of human nature were quite the same. Happily, it’s also sent me back to Shakespeare’s Roman plays, first rereading Julius Caesar and then having a first belt through Antony and Cleopatra.

If you haven’t seen or read the latter, I recommend it. It’s a very different kind of play from Julius Caesar, though - whereas in Julius Caesar you have the character of Brutus who is motivated by the lofty idea of the Republic (or at least wants to be), in Antony and Cleopatra everyone is nakedly purusing their own ambition for power. The interest isn’t in whether what is right will be upheld, but (as the very informative introduction to my Everyman edition helps to elucidate) in the contrast between how the two main Romans, Octavian (or Caesar or Octavius) and Antony, go about it.

This introduction, by one Tony Tanner of King’s College Cambridge, makes the point that Antony can’t seem to be measured or contained by anything. There is talk of his heart bursting out of his chest, of him bursting out of his armour; and his first words are “There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned”: what can be measured, or pinned down, is of no value, at least to him. Tanner might also have brought up Antony’s famous funny description of a crocodile (It is shaped like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just so high as it is, etc). Sure, this is mainly to mock the useless Lepidus, but it also underlines how precise knowledge of a strange beast tends to diminish it, whereas vaguely described crocodiles grow into chimeras and dragons.

Antony is associated with myth in other ways besides defying precise description. His claim to be a descendent of Hercules is frequently referred to; he commands men’s hearts through the force of his personality; and (when he acts like himself) he defies absurd odds to win famous victories. Octavian, by contrast, is a man of real history: he is descended from Julius Caesar - a great man but very much a historical rather than mythical one; he talks constantly of measures and gives precise, written orders; he commands men through an astute analysis of political realities; and he wins his battles by choosing them shrewdly.

You can extend this contrast by looking at the scenes set in Egypt for mythic associations, contrasted with a much more realistic or historic Rome. A lot of this would be up to the director, but in the context of Shakespeare’s other work, I can see how the Egyptian scenes could be played as a romance rather than a history, drowned in a perfumed fug, with the harsh light of reality shining only in Rome and the other parts of the empire. Then as fortune turns against Cleopatra and Antony, their kingdom is pegged back to just Cleopatra’s monument, which remains the last enclave of myth and magic amid the onrush of merciless history, until at last they die as well and reality takes over for good. Tanner reminds us that Medieval scholars saw the Roman Empire, for which Julius Caesar prepared the way and which Octavian finally established, as the idealised nation that brought Jesus into the world and so founded Christendom; from that perspective, the struggle between Octavian and Antony certainly is a war between two realities: Octavian is trying to establish the first seed of modernity while Antony fights to keep the old world of demigods and dragons alive.

One character who doesn’t merit even one mention in Tanner’s notes is Lepidus. This is strange, since on paper he is an equal third of the world-ruling triumvirate of himself, Antony and Octavian. Yet it is not strange, since he does almost nothing, except occasionally plead with the other two to stop fighting with each other. You can see that Antony has won power through charisma and military strength, and Octavian through political acumen and a calculating ruthlessness, but Lepidus is just there - a Jack Straw figure in a technically high position that even he probably couldn’t explain, but that doesn’t matter anyway because he is able to wield none of the power supposedly alotted to him. I wonder whether Shakespeare is being unfair to Lepidus, or whether he really was a complete empty vessel who somehow floated to the top and bobbed around there just long enough for others to notice and send him on his way back down.

If you know, or you are a Lepidus fan who just wants to talk Lepidus, get in touch (email link in sidebar).

Posted by MESSENGER at 18:46

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