Friday, February 11, 2011

Antony and Cleopatra: This Modern Love

Cleopatra and the Dying Mark Anthony by Pompeo Batoni, 1763

Despite the fact that the action picks up in ancient Rome, more or less where Julius Caesar left off, there is a lot that is remarkably modern about Antony and Cleopatra. You’ve got a guy blowing off work to make time for his mistress, people getting married carelessly without bothering to get to know their spouses, and a husband-stealing diva who creates all kinds of drama for her already remarried widower boyfriend because she can’t ever really be sure that he’s any more committed to her than he has been to any of his poor, dead wives. Of course, this kind of thing is just fodder for daytime talk shows when it involves the lower classes, but it is primetime news when it involves royalty or heads of state. The infidelity of England’s Prince Charles to Lady Diana became more than just countless front pages; it became a part of world history. Imagine how much more scandalous it would be, then, if the unfaithful party was actually expected to be in charge of running his country, and carelessly placed his people at risk in order to pursue the continued pleasure of his mistress’s company. This is exactly where Mark Antony begins in Antony and Cleopatra.

Having heroically run Julius Caesar’s assassins out of town (and onto their own swords) in collaboration with Caesar’s nephew Octavius, the rule of the Roman World post-Julius Caesar was left to Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus – a man whom Antony basically told us was a moron in Julius Caesar. So okay, we’ve got three guys basically ruling the civilized world, and one of them is an idiot. Good deal. To make matters worse, from the first scene of Antony and Cleopatra it is clear that Antony’s main focus is no longer duty and honor. He’s off in Egypt, wrapped up in an affair with Cleopatra. In fact, Antony is so preoccupied that he won’t even take time out to listen to messages from Rome (“he’s not answering his phone; he hasn’t checked his voicemail – we’ve sent him like LMCMXI texts”). And there isn’t just a Rome he should be co-ruling, there is a wife at home he should be caring for (or about). Tough luck, Fulvia. First you get stuck with that unfortunate name, then with this no-good husband of yours.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1896

Having better luck with Fulvia’s husband is the great Egyptian empress Cleopatra – well, sort of. He is into her; Cleopatra does have that going for her. But despite Antony’s love and attention, Cleopatra hardly seems content. Maybe it’s because the dude is still married to someone else, or maybe it’s actually possible to be insecure despite being the most powerful woman in the world, probably both. Whatever the case, from the play’s outset, Cleopatra is consistently toying with Antony, playing one game after another to get him to prove his love – a tell-tale sign of an unhealthy relationship. Note to mistresses everywhere: you are never going to feel like a big enough deal. You might be the Queen of Egypt, but you’re still not that guy’s wife.

Angelina and Brad, Brad and Jen

That’s something I always wondered about Angelina Jolie: can she ever really be sure of Brad Pitt’s faithfulness when he left his wife, Jennifer Aniston, to be with her? Theirs is a situation with a lot of similarities to this one in Antony and Cleopatra: you’ve got the cheating husband, the high-profile affair with a major lady, and you also have the backlash of public opinion. While Antony is in Egypt being shady, people back in Rome are talking plenty of trash, and dropping the ball on his responsibilities as a leader was no help. Fulvia isn’t the only one with cause to feel betrayed, there is a whole nation that Antony is neglecting. At least Brad had the decency to keep showing up to work.

Through the epic public-relations adopt-a-thon, Brad and Angelina managed to weather the storm, but the Antony and Cleopatra situation is a bit more problematic, especially for Antony. While it’s probably always an awkward situation when your wife dies while you’re in another country partying with your mistress, it’s especially tricky when your mistress is history’s biggest diva. Cleopatra proceeds to give Antony the business because his wife is dead, but he doesn’t seem all that broken up about it. Egypt’s queen has a “is that how little you care about me” moment, just as Antony finally realizes he needs to get back to his country and handle his business. He is hard-pressed to assure Cleopatra of his true love for her, since Fulvia got such a raw deal, but he does what he can as he races out of the proverbial Egyptian door.

As Antony turns his attention momentarily back to his job, he quickly proceeds to re-complicate the whole situation. To smooth things over with ticked off rival Roman leader Octavius, Antony agrees to get married again, not to Cleopatra, the woman he actually loves (that’d be crazy talk), but to Octavius’ sister Octavia. What kind of plan is that? Did no one see the huge and inevitable problems?

And seriously, how many politicians need to get busted for various shadiness before men realize that trying to juggle two women and a high profile job is a bad formula?! News flash, fellas: THIS WILL NOT END WELL! Former President Bill Clinton is now best-known for the dishonest phrase “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He’s not remembered for any of the awesome saxophone work he did; he’s not remembered for inventing the mini-thumbs up; he’s just remembered for all the affair nonsense, so well encapsulated by that one lie.

Here is Bill doing the things that history ought not forget

So, the answer is no, Antony. Bringing in a third woman is not a good idea.

As Antony gets progressively worse at doing anything but jumping through fiery hoops for Cleopatra, and Cleopatra gets progressively more psychotic in concocting crazy mistress games for Antony, the pair hurtle toward the play’s tragic conclusion. All I’ll say is that as far as romance goes, this whole one lover pretending to be dead thing never seems to work out for anybody. Honesty, as it turns out, really is the best policy, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find that in the seedy world of high-level political adultery. Who knew?

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