'Antony and Cleopatra', a play for the 21st century

'the Shakespeare play most likely to feel essential in the 21st century'

Three decades ago, Herman Northrop Frye, whose contributions to cultural and social criticism earned him widespread recognition as a literary theorist, described Antony and Cleopatra as ‘the Shakespeare play most likely to feel essential in the 21st century’.

This seems a remarkable prediction when we consider what type of world we live in now – a world of rapid globalisation and with an ever-increasing speed in the flow of information; a multi-cultural world in which we can eat Swiss muesli for breakfast, Italian pizza for lunch and Japanese sushi for dinner; a world in which we can stay at home but still witness the opulence of a first-world resort, the decadence of a casino, the devastation of a real-life war zone or the aftermath of a terrorist attack on TV.

So why would Frye predict that this play would ‘feel essential’?

There are certainly many reasons why Antony and Cleopatra might resonate with a 21st century audience.

For instance, the genre of the play, like many of our Hollywood blockbusters, is multi-faceted. It is a ‘history play’, a romance, a comedy and a tragedy. The grand scale of the setting and the larger-than-life characters provide a fabulous backdrop for the play along the lines of some of our best known television drama series like ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Tudors’.

The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra would not have attained its renown and immortality if they had not been extremely powerful and public figures. This is something modern audiences, privy to a multitude of celebrity profiles, can understand. Like our celebrities, Cleopatra’s position makes her public property and as such she has to choose her words carefully.

The action of the play spans across the Roman Empire and the Middle East during the time when Octavius Caesar (later Augustus) was laying the foundations of the mighty Roman Empire. This setting should be of interest to modern audiences with the present focus on the Middle East and the movement of people into Europe.

The contrasting worlds of Rome and Egypt are emphasised in various ways throughout the play and this is another important aspect. While globalisation has fostered cross-cultural experiences, the unprecedented movement of people from Africa into Europe has resulted in the polarisation of groups. Conflicts, based on differences in ideologies and the inability or lack of commitment of people to find each other through similarities in the human condition, continue to plague us.

What is also intriguing is that the play was written and performed after the death of Queen Elizabeth I and in the early days of the Jacobean era. Discussions on the extent to which the play is informed by the changes on the political landscape become more pertinent knowing that at some point in this century we will witness a similar transfer of power from a female monarch to a male monarch.  

According to Frye (1), in Antony and Cleopatra “There’s only one world, so there’s no patriotism, only more or less loyalty to competing leaders.” This is a clear parallel with our modern world in which we see an increasing focus on the leaders of countries rather than on nationalism.

Frye also observed, “There are any number of messengers in the play, and the air is thick with information and news but nothing seems to be getting communicated, although when something does happen it affects the whole world at once.” Doesn’t this sound familiar? Today, on screens of varying sizes we are bombarded by news – some real and some fake – making it increasingly difficult for us to fathom the truth.  

Frye may also have taken into account the impact of 21st century technology on our understanding of the play. Electronic devices make it possible for diligent students to ‘translate’ and better enjoy the salacious double entendres in the banter, the evocative imagery in the descriptions of Cleopatra and the Egyptian way of life, and the political drama and intrigue captured in the substance of speeches presented in the play. It is also easier now to ‘search’ and find relevant connections to the historical characters and events against which Shakespeare’s fantasy world is played out.

One wonders whether Frye, who died in 1991, could have foreseen to what extent the themes in the play – love, pleasure, decadence, loyalty, treachery, manipulation, power, honour, bravery gender, race and political intrigue – would resonate with the 21st century audience.

Perhaps, what makes the play ‘feel essential’ to the 21st century audience is not just the play’s imaginative appeal, or even its relevance in terms of its universal themes, but what we can learn from the complexity of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

Ultimately, it is the conflict between public duty and personal desire and how the characters respond to this conflict that imbues the play with suspense and interest. The conflict between what human beings need to be, deserve to be and could be, and what the time and place they live in condemn them to become, could scarcely be clearer than it is in this play (2).

(1)  http://www.macleans.ca/culture/arts/frye-saw-antony-and-cleopatras-air-thick-with-information/
(2) https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/an-introduction-to-shakespearean-tragedy

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