Performance anxiety

So yesterday, I discussed the dearth of lines shared alone on stage by our titular lovers in Antony and Cleopatra. And I talked a little about the fact that for all their other interactions, they have an audience. In some of these cases, Antony and/or Cleopatra seem to be performing.

But there are more performances in the play, if you care to look.

And I care.

I would argue that Cleopatra’s teasing provocation of Antony in the opening scene is “played” for her attendants. Antony even says to her: “Whom everything becomes, to chide, to laugh, // To weep, whose every passion fully strives // To make itself, in thee” (I.i.49-51), and I immediately go to Method Acting when I hear “every passion fully strives // To make itself” (Yes, I know Method Acting won’t exist for at least three hundred more years, but don’t bother me with trifles…or facts!).

Cleopatra turns playwright in Act One, Scene Three, when she tells Charmian what to say to Antony: “If you find him sad, // Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report // That I am sudden sick” (I.iii.3-5). Cleopatra directs herself later in the scene for two different audiences (the attendants who are in on the joke, and Antony–who is not): “I am sick and sullen” (I.iii.13). Upon learning of Fulvia’s death, she tells Antony, “Good now, play one scene // Of excellent dissembling, and let it look // Like perfect honor” (I.iii.78-80), then critiques his responses as if they were performances: “You can do better yet; but this is meetly…Still he mends // But this is not the best” (I.iii.81, 82-3).

In Act One, Scene Five, Alexas performs for Cleopatra the “speech” (I.v.41) of Marc Antony, even adding his own stage directions (“So he nodded” [I.v.47]).

In Act Two, Scene Two, Lepidus implores Enobarbus to ask Antony to deliver “soft and gentle speech” (II.ii.3), which–if he’s asking to take a different course–would be a performance of sorts by Antony. And I’m sure that Antony’s responses in his meeting with Octavian could be played as an obvious performance (as is, I believe, his politic interaction with Pompey in Act Two, Scene Six). Later, in that same Act Two, Scene Two, I totally see Enobarbus’ barge speech as a performance (impromptu, but a performance nevertheless).

Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra speaks of “play[s]” (II.v.6) and “actor[s]” (II.v.9). When she strikes at the messenger and draws a knife, I’m wondering if this might not be a performance of sorts for her attendants, especially given the proximity of her theatrical diction.

In Act Three, Scene Two, Enobarbus and Agrippa both play-act as Lepidus as they/he mock-praise/s both Antony and Octavian.

When Octavia returns to Rome in Act Three, Scene Six, I’m thinking that Octavian’s response on seeing his sister is so overdone that it could be played as performance.

In Act Three, Scene Twelve, Octavian sends Thidias to negotiate with Cleopatra, telling the messenger to improvise the offer to the queen (“add more // From thine invention” [III.xii.28-9]); when she meets with Thidias in the next scene, her servile response might very well be an act for the benefit of Thidias, so that he will return to Octavian with a positive report/review of her actions.

When Antony speaks to his followers in Act Four, Scene Two, he admits to play-acting for their benefit, saying, “You take me in too dolorous a sense, // For I spake to you for your comfort” (IV.ii.39).

In delivering the faked news of Cleopatra’s death, Mardian performs the “final” words of the queen for Antony’s benefit.

Cleopatra foresees Octavian’s returning triumph as an “imperious show” (IV.xv.124), a fake processional.

In Act Five, Scene One, Octavian’s flattery of dead Antony, feels flowery, almost rehearsed.

In the final scene, Cleopatra fears that she and Antony will be the subjects of ridiculing plays in Rome:

 The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.
  • V.ii.217-222

When she dresses, it is as if she’s costuming: “Give me my robe, put on my crown” (V.ii.280), and she calls what she is about to do as a “noble act” (V.ii.285). She later play-acts breast-feeding the asp.

That’s a whole lot of performance in the play, so it’s not surprising that Octavian uses fictional and theatrical terms like “story” and “show” (V.ii.360, 363) in the final speech of Antony and Cleopatra.

2 Replies to “Performance anxiety”

  1. This is really interesting. It makes me think me that in a great number of other plays (Hamlet, Lear, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream pop instantly to mind), we see theater in a positive light, as it helps to catch the conscience of a king, protect the innocent, enable marriages, or bring rustics and royalty together through shared entertainment. But it appears that this play focuses on exploring a much darker side of theater. Do you find places in Anthony and Cleopatra where we see theater as anything but a vehicle for trying to get one’s own way?

    1. Absolutely great point and question. Do I see any example of non-self-interested performance/discussion of play-acting? Yes. Is it any less dark? Nope. When Cleopatra envisions the future dramatic representation of the relationship between her and Antony, it’s a pretty dismal view.

      But in a sense, even this is self-interest: winners write the history–and by force of cultural/political capital, the pop culture legends as well…a drunk and a whore would make Octavian seem more “august” in the future, I suppose…

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