For a couple of days before yesterday’s latest Friday Film Focus, I wrote a little about the (what I find as fascinating) character of Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra. Only four appearances, seemingly innocuous, but wonderfully ambiguous, and not a little mysterious. Of course, I’m going to get around to the grand (not-so) old lady soon.
But first, what about Charmian?
While not as pivotal (narratively speaking) a role as Octavia, it is a larger one, this attendant to the queen.
Sixty-three speeches over the course of ten scenes (I’m not counting Act Three, Scene Thirteen, Act Four Scene Two, and Act Four, Scene Thirteen in which the stage directions have her on stage, but she is neither referenced nor has any lines…but more on that in a bit). Only our title couple, Enobarbus, and Octavian appear in more scenes, have more speeches.
Nearly a third of her speeches come from her first appearance in Act One, Scene Two–the only scene in which she spends any substantial length of time onstage without the presence of Cleopatra. Her first speech, which opens the scene, plays almost like a mini-Me for Cleopatra:
Filled with performance-like flourishes (the overwrought multiple references to Alexas), it contains a commanding question, and a touch of bawdy (with the cuckolding reference), a microcosm of the rhetoric we will come to expect from her mistress the queen. The rest of the scene plays out in the same manner: haughty (“Out, fool!” [I.ii.40]), faux regal pronouncements (“Our worser thoughts heavens mend! Alexas–come, his fortune, his fortune” [I.ii.61-2].) , mixed with a dash of bawdy (“I love long life better than figs” [I.ii.33], figs being a euphemism for the male genitalia)… a prosaic Cleopatra. And this idea of prose is important: Charmian speaks entirely in prose for all her time onstage in this scene…right up to the moment that Cleopatra enters, at which point, she moves to verse. Which is what she speaks for the remainder of the play–save an awkward few lines at the beginning of Act One, Scene Five, and for a short section in Act Three, Scene Eleven, where she, Iras, and Eros, all try to get Cleopatra’s attention…unsuccessfully.
Charmian speaks in verse in the presence of her queen. And what she speaks feels almost like a distaff version of what Enobarbus provides for Antony: she’s part sounding board, part subordinate, part confidante, part voice of a dissenting opinion. She’s unafraid to voice different philosophies: when Cleopatra (early in Antony’s absence to Rome) says, “That I might sleep out this great gap of time // My Antony is away,” Charmian responds–completing an antilabe, no less–”You think too much of him” (I.v.5-6). She does her queen’s bidding, and holds her secrets (Cleopatra whispers in her ear near the end of the play [V.ii.193 stage direction], and within fifty lines another servant arrives delivering
figs, er, asps). She has wide enough rein to even tease her queen about former lovers, “O that brave Caesar…The valiant Caesar” (I.v.67,69). And at the end, in the presence of her now dead queen, she finishes her part in verse, part(ing) with a joke: The guard, seeing the body, says, “Caesar hat sent–” to which Charmian replies, “Too slow a messenger” (V.ii.321).
Again, Charmian speaks in verse in the presence of the queen. And in the presence of Antony, she speaks…not at all:
- She may (it’s unclear) enter with Antony and Cleopatra in the opening scene of the play, but she has no lines
- She speaks until Antony enters in Act One, Scene Two, then exits immediately
- In Act One, Scene Three, she speaks with Cleopatra until Antony arrives, then is silent the remainder of the scene
- Act One, Scene Five, Act Two, Scene Five, and Act Three, Scene Three are all missing Antony
- As mentioned above, in Act Three, Scene Eleven, she speaks a few prose lines to a non-listening Cleopatra, and a non-aware Antony
- As noted above, Act One, Scene Thirteen, and Act Four, Scene Two, have her in the stage direction (onstage with Antony) but silent on stage
- Act Four, Scene Four has her in the stage direction (onstage with Antony) but silent on stage, until he leaves the stage, then she immediately speaks
- In Act Four, Scene Fifteen, Charmian interacts with Cleopatra, but with Antony’s appearance, she stops talking, resuming only once he has died
What to make of that? Enobarbus speaks in the presence of and to Cleopatra. But Charmian is not afforded the same rights with her titular gender-opposite…is this a statement about the role of women in the play?
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