Till about 1599, Shakespeare had not seemed particularly interested in the tragic. He had written only two plays that are now classified as tragedies, and one of those was Titus Andronicus, an exercise in Senecan excess that I find difficult to take at all seriously. The other was Romeo and Juliet, a colourful and exuberant work that, some would say, has more in common with the comedies than with the tragedies (in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, Tony Tanner rather mischievously classes it with the comedies). But then, in 1599, it all seemed to change. That year, he wrote As You Like It – to my mind, his last purely comic work, sunny and cloudless, and generally untroubled by dark shadows. And he wrote also Julius Caesar, and Hamlet: not since the Athenian tragedians had the world seen tragic drama of such stature. One more comedy was to follow – Twelfth Night, and that was far from unclouded; then came Othello, King Lear, Macbeth –
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
And in between those dark visions, he wrote a couple of plays that some wags, tongue, one hopes, very much in cheek, have described as “comedies” – Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, plays as murky and as sunless as any ever written. There was also Timon of Athens, a play that has always struck me as an early draft subsequently abandoned, rather than as a fully finished work, and a play in which the darkness of vision is again unmistakable. Only All’s Well That Ends Well seems to radiate a bit of sunshine. Here, Shakespeare seems to be looking forward to the fairy tale world and the vision of reconciliation that are apparent in his late plays. But All’s Well That Ends Well is so conspicuous an exception, that it’s not unfair, I think, to describe it as a sort of anomaly. The imaginative world Shakespeare presented in his plays for over ten or so years is a world so intensely and unremittingly tragic, that we’d have to go back to Aeschylus, to Sophocles and to Euripides to find anything remotely comparable.
What brought about this sudden darkening of vision? True, there had certainly been tragic elements in many of his comedies: Shylock may be seen as a tragic figure; tragedy threatens quite menacingly in Much Ado About Nothing; and the vision of Twelfth Night seems to me much darker than the vision of, say, Romeo and Juliet ever was. And yes, elements of the tragic may also been seen in some of the history plays, most notably Richard II and Richard III. But even so, nothing Shakespeare had written before 1599 could prepare us for what followed. There have been many conjectures, of course, on why his vision so darkened: my own conjecture is that Shakespeare had discovered Homer – Chapman’s translation of The Iliad, the first to appear in English, was published in 1598 – and that this had acted as a catalyst, bringing to the fore of his mind a tragic imagination that had previously been in evidence only intermittently. (Certainly, it seems obvious from Troilus and Cressida that Shakespeare wasn’t unacquainted with Homer.) But there’s little point conjecturing on the matter: we can only remain grateful for, and try to understand, what we have.
Shakespeare’s great series of tragic dramas came to an end rather strangely: after Macbeth, possibly written in 1606, as James Shapiro suggests, Shakespeare wrote two more tragic plays, and he seemed to go out of his way to make them unlike the tragedies that had gone before, and also as unlike each other as was possible. One was Coriolanus, an austere monolith of a play, with all lyricism stripped away, and featuring at its centre a beef-witted hunk, a mere fighting machine incapable even of growing into self-awareness. Even subplots that might have provided some welcome relief and contrast are absent. And the other play was Antony and Cleopatra, into which Shakespeare poured in all the richness and opulence, all the lyricism and ebullience that he had been so much at pains to keep out of Coriolanus. Speaking for myself, Coriolanus is a play I respect, but it has never come close to capturing my imagination; Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, is the play I frequently cite as being my favourite of the entire Shakespearean canon.
And the differences between this and the earlier tragedies could hardly be more apparent. In the very opening scene, two Romans speak of Antony in disparaging terms: yes, he had once been a great soldier, but now he is but “the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust”. Not the way we’d expect a tragic protagonist to be talked about, especially in the first scene: first impressions are, after all, always important, and if the protagonists are presented from the very start as a lustful gipsy and her comically besotted paramour, it would become very difficult to establish afterwards their tragic stature. But Shakespeare goes a step further: after we have heard the two Romans, Antony and Cleopatra themselves enter the stage, and, far from showing us some aspects that may lend credibility to their being figures worthy of tragic greatness, they but confirm what we have heard of them. Shakespeare presents his tragic protagonists as essentially absurd. He shows us two middle-aged people, one a queen and the other one of the three most powerful men in the world, wilfully neglecting their duties and responsibilities, and acting like lovesick teenagers. This is the challenge Shakespeare sets himself: how can you present characters as essentially absurd and comic, and yet convince the audience that they are worthy tragic protagonists?
What unfolds is a drama on the vastest of scales, the many scenes – no other play has nearly so many scenes – cutting with an almost reckless abandon across continents, changing moods taffeta-like from minute to minute, ranging from scenes of the most tender intimacy to vast panoramas of diplomatic manoeuvres, wild parties, blood-soaked battlefields. This is the big Hollywood spectacular avant la lettre. And it is all clothed in a poetry that is so sumptuous and luxuriant, and, by the end, so heart-rendingly beautiful, that it takes the breath away. When W. H. Auden edited an anthology of English poetry, he included this entire play.
It would have been easy for all this spectacle to have overwhelmed the characters, but Shakespeare, certainly by this stage of his career, was too good a dramatist to allow that to happen. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt, and she had maintained her power through careful and well-practised use of her sexuality, unerringly capturing with her wiles the men she needed most to capture; but now, she is middle-aged, and aware of her declining powers. And also, she is in love, possibly for the very first time, and is terrified that she will not be able to hold on to the man she cannot now even contemplate losing. Antony too is middle-aged: in his time, he had been a great soldier, and a great statesman; he had carried out his duties and his responsibilities with diligence, and with honour. But he is tired of all that: his weary and battered spirit now craves only pleasure – with excessive feasting and more than excessive drinking, and with the sensual delights in Cleopatra’s arms. Whatever greatness these two characters may previously have possessed, we don’t see much of it here.
We do, however, see and hear enough to recognise Cleopatra’s irresistible appeal, her “infinite variety”. Even the cynical old soldier Enobarbus seems utterly besotted:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
Such a description makes it virtually impossible for even the best of actors to do justice to her: how does open portray a person so charismatic and irresistible that even “the vilest things” seem but to make her more attractive? I suppose it’s best to let Shakespeare’s miraculous dramatic verse do much of the work, but it can’t be easy. For “the vilest things” in Cleopatra are indeed pretty vile. She is utterly egotistic and self-obsessed, and seemingly unaware of her duties and responsibilities (she is, after all, a queen!); she is spoilt, and is deeply manipulative; and there is something about her nature that seems irredeemably shallow: the rest of the world can go to hell as far as she is concerned as long as she gets what she wants.
Antony seems little better suited to take on a tragic role. Once again, whatever he may have been in the past, what we see of him is a man who seeks little other than personal pleasure, whose sense of duty visibly erodes as the play progresses, whose judgement seems increasingly pickled in excessive amounts of alcohol. By the time he meets his death, the only self-awareness he seems to have acquired is his awareness that he doesn’t understand himself, and that he never had.
More unpromising material for tragic protagonists cannot be imagined. There seems little of the stature that we find even in a mass-murderer such as Macbeth, who, even in the deepest pit of moral depravity, retains an awareness of what has been lost, of what might have been. Sometimes, I can’t help wondering whether Antony and Cleopatra are tragic at all: do we really feel any sense of loss when they die, as we do with Hamlet, or with Othello, or even with Macbeth? These are people who, used as they have been to power and status, cannot possibly live as private citizens; and yet, they are neither sufficiently competent nor sufficiently responsible to be rulers; is not death the best thing for them, and indeed, for everyone else? Perhaps. But, by some alchemy that I have tried hard over many years to understand, Shakespeare raises these two deeply inadequate human beings to the status of gods. By the final act, we are presented with the solemn majesty of death itself, and of two people who willingly venture into that unknown land to discover a union, a consummation, that is not possible in their earthly lives. In weak humanity, defective and irreparably damaged, Shakespeare finds the divine. And I don’t know how he does it. After a while, I content myself merely to stare and to wonder.
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle –
It’s always difficult to answer the question “Which is our favourite Shaespeare play?” but, more often than not, I reply Antony and Cleopatra. I love it beyond all bounds. I love those rich colours filling its vast canvas; I love its overflowing exuberance, its willingness to see humanity with all its flaws and defects and still discern in it the godlike. Could this be the same writer, I wonder, who, only a few years earlier, had written the bitter and angry Troilus and Cressida? That too was a masterpiece, but while that had left us in despair at the human condition, this play, written at the end of Shakespeare’s long tragic journey, seems reconciled to humanity, accepting of what it is. When I go to my shelf containing all the Shakespeare plays, it is generally for this one I reach first.