What I love about this play: This is easily my favorite of the tragedies. Everything is on a grand, grand scale, particularly the poetry, which is opulent and gorgeous and seductive, and becomes even richer and more laden with hyperbole as the characters start to anticipate the end: “We have kiss’d away / Kingdoms and provinces.” “Come, let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me / All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more; / Let’s mock the midnight bell.” “Where souls do couch on flowers we’ll hand in hand / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze. / Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops.” “I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony... His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm / Crested the world.”
My favorite bit, probably, is Antony’s speech to Eros right at the end, as he’s starting to grasp how fleeting his own life is and how swiftly everything he was has dissolved:
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish
A vapour sometime like bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen these signs.
They are black vesper’s pageants...
... My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body.
Naturally, he also reaches for a gambling metaphor – “she, Eros has / Packed cards with Caesar, and false-played my glory” – because he and Cleopatra are gamblers at heart, and they play for absurdly high stakes and lose, just as they do everything else to excess. And this makes them so much more interesting than the sober, sensible Romans. (I recognize that Octavia, in particular, is probably the nicest person in the play, but you see exactly why she leaves Antony so cold.)
Much, much love for the supporting players as well – most of them name-only characters in Plutarch. Charmian and Iras, who laugh off the soothsayer’s prophecies that they “shall be more beloving than beloved” and “have seen and proved a fairer former fortune / Than that which is to approach,” end up having their share of tragic nobleness. And oh, Enobarbus. How do you not love Enobarbus, the blunt-spoken, cynical Roman soldier who is clearly a little in love with Egypt, against his better judgment? (My students last fall didn’t, which baffles me; I suppose they couldn’t forgive him for betraying Antony, but he does have very good reasons, especially if you take Antony’s abuse of poor Thidias as the moment that finally decides him.)
Also, I love Lepidus getting drunk off his head and trying to figure out the crocodile. Too funny.
Favorite memory: I read this for the first time during the Great Blizzard of ‘94, when I was a senior in high school. I can’t remember exactly why – I guess I just thought, “oh, well, we probably won’t have school for a week, might as well read some Shakespeare.” And I baked some cookies, and learned how to ice-skate. We had to stay after school an extra half-hour for the rest of the year – which I thought was sheer torture – but I’ve always been grateful for that week.