Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Notable Encounter

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema O.M. R.A. 1836 - 1912
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra 41 BC
Oil on panel
65.5 x 91.4 cm
Private collection

Between 1850 and 1912, Shakespeare`s Antony and Cleopatra was regularly staged at London's theatres. The Egyptian queen was fully entrenched in the public's mind

In this great work, Alma-Tadema depicts visually what is only narrated in the play by one of Antony`s commanders: how Antony met Cleopatra and became entranced by her.

In AD 41 Antony, one of the triumvirs ruling the Roman Empire, summoned Cleopatra (who had been Julius Caesar's lover) to Tarsus in Cilicia to prove her loyalty. She came. The rest is history.

In this depiction of the famous scene, the focus of attention is Cleopatra. All figures are gazing at her. Including the viewer. She looks out at the viewer of the painting. She is beguiling and enchanting

We are looking at Cleopatra`s universe and she of course is the centre of it. We all think we are the centre of the universe. But she knows that for a brief period of time she is it. She revels in it. She eclipses all others including the powerful and magnificent Mark Antony.

The effect is the result of planning and artifice.

The description of the scene by Enobarbus in the play is one of the great speeches in English drama. It is pure poetry, appealing to all the senses of the listener`s imagination:

"When she first met Mark Antony, she pursed up
his heart, upon the river of Cydnus ...

I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did ...

Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i' the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature."

Like Agrippa in the play, we can only gasp in response "Rare Egyptian!"

Enobarbus continues:

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish"
The famous description is an impression, a dream sequence for the listeners rather than reality. There is an ethereal and temporary quality of the scene being described, almost like shadows on the wall of a cave

It is of course too good to be true. And the play is of course one of Shakespeare`s tragedies

For the Egyptian Queen and her lover, passion and voluptuousness become their universe. Their world comes into conflict with the Roman world of reason and realpolitik. The lovers are caught up in themselves. Their intense love seems to herald mutual self-destruction. Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) of Rome triumphs over the East.

The play was written in the period 1603 -07 just after King James I had succeeded Queen Elizabeth. At the time James was compared to Augustus. When he came to the throne there was much Jacobite propaganda including a coronation medal that had a picture of James wearing a laurel wreath and an inscription describing him as ‘Caesar Augustus of Britain.’

But the play is much more than Jacobite propaganda. The attitude towards the complex characters of Antony and Cleopatra is in many ways ambivalent. Even in defeat and suicide, they seem to retain a form of greatness.

It is a strange and ambivalent play about strange and mysterious people: human beings who try to overcome their humanity and their fellow human beings and attempt to become gods, part of the then pagan pantheon.

In the last Act Cleopatra sings the praises of her dead lover:

"His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear'd arm
Crested the world; his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't, an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping; his delights
Were dolphin-like, they show'd his back above
The element they liv'd in; in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets, realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket."
(V. Scene 2. 82-92)

When told that there was never a man like Antony, Cleopatra replies:

"You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But, if there be, or ever were, one such,
It's past the size of dreaming; nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet to imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite."
(V. Scene 2. 94-99)

The play is set in the time before Christ. Glamour, glitz, bling, statecraft and raw military and political power fill the scenes and we are dazzled and entranced.

But Shakespeare`s audience were deeply religious. And, strangely, God appears to be absent from the play.

But there is a hint that the age of Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian is just about to come to an end and we are seeing the cusp of a new era and dispensation. With the victory of Augustus, we think we see the triumph of Reason and Political Power backed up by Military Force.

After the defeat of Cleopatra, Egypt and the other Middle Eastern states became Roman provinces or client states.

But about 40 years after the events of the play, much more dramatic events were to happen in King Herod`s kingdom and also in Egypt

The great meeting between Antony and Cleopatra took place in Tarsus in Celicia in 41 BC. And 49 years later, in AD 8, the Apostle Saul (later renamed Paul) was born there.

And the world would never be quite the same place again.