Antony and Cleopatra

With the exception of the plays I was assigned to read in school, the urge to read Shakespeare on my own is always inspired by pop culture. Watching the end of HBO’s Rome this weekend put me in a Shakespeare state of mind and I was compelled to read Antony and Cleopatra.

For years, I’ve been fascinated by romantic tragedies. What’s even better than a happy ending is a tragic ending; whereas a happy ending masks and forgives human fragility, a tragic ending is the fictional equivalent of a bright, unforgiving light bulb held to the face of all the characters. It’s not a pretty sight. There’s excess, obsession, and rot—a serpent heart hidden within a flowering face.

We all know the iconic love story of Antony and Cleopatra. But the part of the story that has always interested me was how Mark Antony could fall so far from Fortune and Grace. Remember the rabble-rousing general Antony in Julius Caesar? He use to be the golden-boy of Rome and Caesar’s right hand man; he was stoic, controlled, and the model of Roman masculinity.

And then in Antony and Cleopatra, you can see his wits unraveling around him: he abandons his naval fleet at the Battle of Actium, he challenges Emperor Octavian to a futile man-to-man combat, and he alternates between calling Cleopatra the love of his life and a desert-whore. He is no longer in control of himself and has, as the Greeks use to call it, an “excess of humours.” His flaw, perhaps, is loving a little too much such that in the Roman tradition, he has ceased to be a man. These violent delights have violent ends!

As much as I admire romantic tragedies, it’s painful to watch great men crumble and lovers on the verge of achieving happiness tumble off the edge. After reading my fair share of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fortune seems to engineer the demise of great men. A great man’s downfall is harder to watch; their lives are like suns, their deaths, a blinding explosion rippling across the cosmos. As for ordinary men—the cobblers, stonemasons, and fishermen living on the periphery of these suns— their lives are more stable, they dim into the darkness, leaving only a faint etching of their light as proof of their existence.

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