This is basically a bromance between Antony and his honour, with Cleopatra as the main villain. She essentially tempts him into betraying himself and seals his fate. Or at least, that’s what I read.
I don’t like the depiction of Cleopatra at all. She’s pathetic, clawing and basically acts like a simpering, ageing schoolgirl. She was one of the greatest rulers Egypt ever had for fuck’s sake! She fucking commanded one of the greatest empires of the ancient world! Throughout the play she’s referred to in animalistic terms, in degrading terms, and the character herself almost seems to be a parody of Cleopatra, reducing her down to a petulant, irrational child. I did not like it at all.
Antony I liked no better. While he is the clear hero of the piece, and his downfall painted as a tragedy, I found it hard to find a single instance in which he did not make his own misfortune, or act in a way sympathetic or redeemable. Firstly, he fails his own moral standard, he ignores his duties, he breaks his word, he turns on his allies. Secondly, his love for Cleopatra, which you would think would be his redeeming feature and the central focus of the play, is shot through which such bitter, childish, macho resentments it is difficult to swallow it as sincere. He frequently curses Cleopatra, attacks her, and there is a constant undercurrent of violence towards her from him. This does not for a good love story make. It is difficult to see this even as a love story, when he 1) abandons her to marry another for political gain; 2) blames her for her defeats in battle; and 3) at one point vows to kill her. Finally, he brings destruction and war upon his own country (not for the first time – read Julius Caesar). He claims constantly to be a noble, honourable, good soldier, with his country’s best interests at heart. Yet he breaks with Octavian, even though Octavian bestowed the greatest honour he could upon Antony by giving him his sister in marriage. He wars against Rome’s own forces, and consistently claims dissatisfaction with the amount of power he has within the triumvirate. Having read Julius Caesar not long before, Antony seems like a very calculating, callous and ambitious man. His honourable reputation seems to be no more than propaganda he spreads to cloak his actions. The guy’s a dick.
In a lot of ways this is a story in which gender and colonial ambition are twinned. Rome is seduced by the glories of empire and ultimately destroyed by them. It is the dazzling exoticism which undoes Rome both in nature and in warfare. Cleopatra is the embodiment of this. Her destructive seduction of Antony is allegory for the pull and resentment felt by colonial powers for their colonies. If you think of the derogatory and animalistic terms she is referred to, this makes sense when you think of her not only as a woman, but a woman of colour. There is inherent racism as well as sexism in a lot of the representation of her.
For me it was great to read this play because my knowledge of Roman history has always had the fuzziness that comes from knowing only sporadic events which cover a 500-year period. Having read Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and I, Claudius, I now feel I have a sense of the timeline in which to place some of these events. And honestly, Antony seems to be a shitestirrer whose legacy is perpetual fracture and disunity, only slapped down by heavy force.