Antony and Cleopatra: stage directions in dialogue

With every play, I like to take a look at the stage direction that are hidden in the dialogue. Shakespeare’s (in)famous for a dearth of explicit stage directions, forcing the enterprising actor/director to plumb the dialogue lines in search of some helpful nuggets. And thus my occasional sojourns into script studies. Antony and Cleopatra is no different.

Only it is.

Lemme ‘splain…

Remember that notoriously troublesome stage direction that kicks off Act Three, Scene Ten? Well, that’s not the only descriptive direction:

  • Flourish. Enter Antony, Cleopatra, her Ladies, the train, with Eunuchs fanning her” (I.i.10 stage direction)
    Fanning her. Nice touch.
  • Enter another Messenger, with a letter…Gives a letter.” (I.ii.116, 120 stage directions)
    In many plays, we wouldn’t even get the letter direction, only the “this bears” (I.ii.120) bit of dialogue.
  • Enter Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas, in warlike manner.” (II.i opening stage direction)
    Warlike. Cool.

You get the picture.

With all that explicitness, however, it doesn’t seem that there are fewer dialogue directions this time around.

In Act One, Scene Five, we get a bit of possible performance direction: as Alexas recounts Antony’s gift of the pearl, Alexas breaks from his quoted direct attribution for “So he nodded” (I.v.47). I’m guessing an actor might act out that physical action.

In Act Two, Scene Five, Cleopatra describes the face of the fearful messenger: “But there’s no goodness in thy face if Antony // Be free and healthful; so tart a favor // To trumpet such good tidings” (II.v.37-38). Note to the messenger: assume a tart favor in your face.

It’s pretty obvious that Octavian should not be drunk at the Pompey party, as he states, “But I had rather fast from all four days // Than drink so much in one…Our graver business // Frowns at this levity” (II.vii.100-01, 119-20). Or at least he shouldn’t be as drunk.

Both Octavia and Octavian should be tearful in their good-byes in Act Three, Scene Two. Antony says of his new bride, “The April’s in her eyes” (III.ii.43), as in April’s showers. And Agrippa says that Octavian “has a cloud in’s face” (III.ii.51). I’m supposing the actor playing Octavian is pretty close to April as well.

In terms of casting, I’m thinking that Cleopatra has a higher-pitched voice. Why? Because when she learns that Octavia is “low-voiced” (III.iii.13), Cleopatra says, “That’s not so good. [Antony] cannot like her long” (III.iii.14). Whether Octavia’s voice is really, truly low or not, a low voice would make Octavia less attractive to Antony, less appealing than Cleopatra–she of the melodious voice.

Later, we get another performance direction: in Act Three, Scene Five, Eros is explaining to Enobarbus where Antony is: “He’s walking in the garden — thus” (III.v.15). Now regardless of this being an Eeyore shuffle or a caged animal prowl, it does direct the actor playing Eros to do something.

Another performance instruction comes when Eros (again) describes the physicality of Cleopatra to Antony: “The queen approaches. // Her head’s declined, and death will seize her” (III.xi.46-7). Eros may not act this out, but Cleopatra should tilt that that pretty lil’ ol’ head of hers.

As for how make-up is deployed, Antony needs at least some gray in his hair, as he describes his own “grizzled head” (III.xiii.17).

In Act Four, Scene Two, Antony shakes hands with the “servitors” (IV.ii.10 stage direction) that enter: “Give me thy hand, // Thou hast been rightly honest, so hast thou, // And thou, and thou, and thou” (IV.ii.10-2). The multiple “thou”s imply that each will give Antony his hand.

Later, Cleopatra and Eros must make mistakes in arming Antony, as the Roman general interjects, “False, false; this, this” (IV.iv.7). This implies some kind of indication of an error and possible a correction.

And finally, in Act Four, Scene Eight, Antony has one of his soldiers kiss Cleopatra’s hand, “Behold this man: // Commend unto his lips thy favoring hand. // Kiss it, my warrior” (IV.viii.22-4), and there is no dialogue that makes us believe that she doesn’t do this.

The (written) play’s the thing: Read the text, and it’ll give you hints as to what to do on stage…not just what to say.