Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So hello, learners. Welcome to our week 8 summary. And this week we’ve been looking at Antony and Cleopatra. Yes, and Cleopatra is certainly a great topic of conversation– lots of parallels between her and Queen Elizabeth I? Well that’s an interesting one, isn’t it? The parallels were certainly made. There haven’t been that many queens in history who have been figures of such power and such charisma. So inevitably, having a queen on the throne, Cleopatra was a comparison that was made. Although of course, it was one that had to be made very carefully in her lifetime. Cleopatra, the seductress, the figure who draws Antony away from his political duty– that’s not how Elizabeth would have liked to be represented.
Skip to 1 minute and 3 seconds So it is a play that could only have been written after her death, and the connections between Cleopatra and Elizabeth do have to be kept at arm’s length. And how successfully do you think Cleopatra, as a part on stage, could be played by a boy actor, or a male actor? Well that is the really fascinating, extraordinary thing. I mean, if we think about this part of this woman who is past her prime, has an enormous sexual aura, incredibly rich, complex language. She’s dressed in robes and crowned. She’s an almost mythical goddess like figure. And then we think this part would have been played by a teenage boy. It’s quite extraordinary to imagine.
Skip to 1 minute and 51 seconds I think we have no difficulty imagining Shakespeare’s young romantic heroines– Juliette, most obviously, the heroines of the comedies such as Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It, who of course cross-dresses as a boy– we have no trouble imagining the teenage apprentice boy actors playing those parts, even perhaps Lady Macbeth. But Cleopatra, it does seem a stretch of the imagination. But there’s absolutely no reason to doubt that it was played by a boy apprentice. And of course there’s a joke about that towards the end of the play, when Cleopatra says, I’m going to commit suicide rather than allow myself to be captured by Octavius, paraded through the streets of Rome.
Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds And she has a horrified vision of some squeaking actor boying her greatness in the posture of a whore, which is a reference to the way that the Puritans sometimes referred to the boy actors, as being like whores. So a very bold thing for the boy actor to stand there and say, Cleopatra horrified at the idea of being played by a boy actor when she is being played by a boy actor. I think one thing though is that, of course, by the time we get to Antony and Cleopatra probably about 1606, Shakespeare’s been writing for the same acting company– for Chamberlain’s then King’s Men– for more than a dozen years.
Skip to 3 minutes and 18 seconds So several boy apprentices would have come through, and I suspect what would have happened with Cleopatra, is that it would have been the apprentice who was sort of coming towards the end of his time. And it would be late teens rather than early teens, maybe a boy actor who cut his teeth on lighter, more comic roles– Viola. And then Cleopatra would have been a great climactic role. And you made the point there that Cleopatra is a very sexualised character, and very different from the other heroines in Shakespeare’s plays. How do you think that would have gone down? Well I wouldn’t say very different from all of them. I mean there are quite a few sexy females characters in Shakespeare.
Skip to 4 minutes and 4 seconds But certainly Cleopatra using sexual allure as a political tool– that is very, very striking, quite risky. But of course it’s cleverly done. So often in Shakespeare, he represents a character or an issue in such a way that you can interpret it in diametrically opposed ways. So if you were of a Puritan tendency, and you thoroughly disapproved of the idea of a female monarch, you disapproved of the idea of sex, then you can say, well, you know Cleopatra– she’s a wicked temptress. She draws Antony away from his duty and she comes to a sticky end and she deserves it.
Skip to 4 minutes and 50 seconds Conversely if one is of a more liberal or romantic disposition, then you can really enjoy her allure and feel a great sadness in the tragedy. He really does have it both ways. And how do you think her sticky end, her suicide would have been looked upon? Because that was obviously frowned upon– Atttitudes to suicide– it’s a very interesting question. “Why should I play the Roman fool and fall on my own sword?” is a line of Macbeth’s.
Skip to 5 minutes and 28 seconds Ancient Roman philosophical ideas were very influential in Shakespeare’s time. And one of the ideas in a certain strand of Roman thought, of stoical thought, was that it was noble to kill yourself when there was no other way out. There were counter-arguments though, that it was the most cowardly thing to commit suicide. That a true stoic, a true Roman should face his end nobly and not try to escape from it. So there were those debates about suicide in Roman philosophy and then they come over into Renaissance philosophy. Shakespeare, by this time in his career, is immersing himself in the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the great French writer. And he writes very interestingly about these debates about suicide.
Skip to 6 minutes and 14 seconds The very fact of Mark Antony botching his suicide draws attention to the issue. Cleopatra’s suicide seems to be achieved with a kind of grace. That word, grace, is used as extraordinary lines when, even Octavius, who’s her great opposite– her great enemy in the play– sees her and sees a kind of grace in her ending. There is this kind of transcendence achieved. And Cleopatra has become, like you said, quite a mythical character. And how much do you think Shakespeare played a role in that myth? Shakespeare undoubtedly played a big role, but on the other hand, the myth was already there beforehand and has continued long after him.
Skip to 7 minutes and 1 second And some of the Hollywood versions of Cleopatra– the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra– are not really very close to Shakespeare. So next week, week nine, we’re looking at our last play. We’re looking at The Tempest. Yeah. So The Tempest– interesting because it’s mysterious, the world of The Tempest. This is one of the few Shakespeare plays where he’s inventing the story. So it’s not like reading Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch and dramatising the Mark Antony story. This is Shakespeare making up a story, and very unusually, making up a whole world. We’ve looked at plays set in a range of real places from Windsor to Venice to Rome and Egypt. The island of The Tempest is invented. Where is it?
Skip to 7 minutes and 49 seconds It is influenced, we’ll discover, by voyages to the New World, to the Caribbean. But it also seems to be an island in the Mediterranean. The shipwreck that takes place at the beginning of the play, is when people are going back to Italy from a wedding in North Africa. Equally it’s a play that seems very contemporary to Shakespeare’s writing at a time of trade and colonisation. But it also has references to the Ancients, to classical antiquity. So it pulls together many, many of our themes. So it’s a great play for us to be finishing our tour through the plays with. And do we have any productions? It’s been filmed a number of times very effectively, in a number of different styles.
Skip to 8 minutes and 40 seconds A fascinating film that the very arty director, Peter Greenaway, made called Prospero’s Books, which is not actually a film of the play, but a kind of meditation upon the play, with John Gielgud playing all the parts, including Prospero. And Julie Taymor, who’s one of my favourite Shakespearean directors– I recommended her Midsummer Night’s Dream earlier in the course. She also did a wonderful film of a great Shakespearean favourite of mine, that alas we’re not doing in the course– Titus Andronicus. But she also did a Tempest film, which is very interesting. I think I put it down as a sort of heroic failure. She switched the gender of Prospero and had Helen Mirren playing the part.
Skip to 9 minutes and 20 seconds That was a treat but there were some problems with the film. But lots of choices. Well thank you.
Week 8 summary
In this summary video, we bring together some of the themes and ideas from Week 8 of Shakespeare and His World.
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