The Size of Dreaming: A Zoom Lecture
Ah, there you are. Sorry I’m late.
All your bright faces in all your bright squares. Like row after row of commemorative postage stamps.
Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1606-1607 coming on the heels of King Lear in 1605 and Macbeth in 1606. Busy, busy, busy, work, work, work, for our boy Bill.
Set against the founding of the Roman Empire around thirty B.C., Antony and Cleopatra is sometimes lumped with the tragedies. But it’s really part of that suburb known as the Greek and Roman plays. This is a particularly rough neighborhood. Blood spraying from the lawn sprinklers, high school girls playing volley ball with decapitated heads, Uber-eats delivering children cooked into pies. Great setting for a love story.
Some look at Antony and Cleopatra as the mature answer to the youthful rapture of Romeo and Juliet. Certainly it ends the same way, with the title characters dead. Everybody ends up dead in the tragedies. In the comedies they end up humiliated. You decide which is worse.
Actually, you couldn’t be on commemorative postage stamps. You have to be dead to be on a United States postage stamp. Dead or fictional. Or a national park.
The last time we saw Antony he was on the ascension, mopping up the blood and entrails at the end of Julius Caesar. Antony and Cleopatra opens about a dozen years later and finds Antony as one third of the second Roman triumvirate, sharing power with young Octavius Caesar, son of Julius Caesar and destined for greater things, and Lepidus, “a slight, unmeritable man” who spends the play stepping on rakes and wondering what hit him.
But all the conspiracies and political tomfoolery of the piece are mere background for Antony’s unraveling as a soldier at the hands and other appendages of Cleopatra.
Cleopatra was also Julius Caesar’s lover and you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see the father issues draped all over that situation like garlands of seaweed.
When I said you had to be dead or fictional to be on a U.S. postage stamp, I didn’t mean you had to be a dead fictional character. You just have to be fictional. So, Paul Bunyan can share the corner of an envelope with Edith Piaf and Ronald Regan can sail through the postal system next to Popeye.
Have any of you ever put a stamp on an envelope? People used to do it all the time. Within living memory. At least my living memory. Which continues to this day, thus excluding me from stamp-hood.
Your exposure to letter writing is probably restricted to literature. Allowing me to segue seamlessly back to Antony and Cleopatra which is loaded to the gills with letters, communiques, missives and a boxcar full of the miserable messengers who carry them.
In Act Two, Cleopatra commands one hapless bit player: “Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears/That long time have been barren.” Having been ordered to shove things into the queen the messenger gets a look on his face she doesn’t like. She warns him not to tell her Antony is dead or else: “The gold I give thee will I melt and pour down thy ill-uttering throat.”
Clearly a toxic work environment. But one does not report the queen to HR.
The messenger is there to tell Cleopatra that Antony has married Octavius’ sister, Octavia. Octavia, Octavius. Not much originality in the Caesar family. At least they didn’t name one of the kids Brooklyn.
He tries to break it to her gently.
“First, Madam, he is well.” But then: “Madam, he’s married to Octavia.”
And she lays into the poor soul, beating the crap out of him, or, as the stage direction indicates: “She hales him up and down.”
And he runs out of the royal chamber as fast as his Nubian legs can carry him. The same messenger has to come back in Act 3. This time he’s smart enough to tell her what she wants to hear; that Octavia is “dull of tongue, and dwarfish.” That she doesn’t walk, but “creeps.”
Satisfied, she gives him money and that’s the last we see of him. But we’re left with a portrait of Cleopatra straight out of Snow White: Gazing into the magic mirror and demanding “Who’s the fairest of them all?” Not that I’m suggesting Walt Disney had anything to do with writing Shakespeare’s plays, although that would go a long way to explaining The Merry Wives of Windsor.
No, this is Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Vain, violent, jealous, insecure. Capable of diminishing Antony from soldier statesman to adolescent goofball.
His friends are appalled by the transformation: “Take but good note, and you shall see in him/The triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see!”
What happened to him? Cleopatra happened to him.
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety...” And blah-blah-blah.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Anthony were made for each other, soaked in entitlement. They stand outside the world where the rest of us suffer. When they look at each other it’s like a pair of facing mirrors, endlessly trailing their reflections behind them. Like shimmering trains of arrogance. The world is meaningless to them.
Antony tells Cleopatra, “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space. Kingdoms are clay.” They’re trapped in this Tunnel-Vision of Love, blind or simply uninterested in the pile of unburied dead collecting at their feet. Overweening romance played out in front of Picasso’s Guernica.
There are those who hold that the romantic poetry of this play is unsurpassed in Shakespeare. I’m not going to tell you some of it isn’t very good.
When Antony dies in Act 4, Spoiler alert, Cleopatra tries to summon the dimensions of him and says their love “Is past the size of dreaming.” I’ve always liked that line. “Past the size of dreaming.” Not merely bigger than a dream, but beyond the scope of dreaming itself. Ungraspable. Uncontainable.
But back in Act 2 she’s moping around the palace, wondering what her absent boyfriend is up to. “Where think’s’t thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he? Or does he walk? Or is he on is horse? O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony.”
“Past the size of dreaming.”
“O happy horse.”
She pines for him like Annette did for Frankie...a reference as distant from your experience as anything from Shakespeare. “O, for a Beach Blanket of fire.”
It’s deliberate, this dissonance. But why? To what purpose? Maybe the playwright wants to tell us love is a messy soup at the best of times. Jealousy and passion live cheek by jowl and you can’t have the best parts without the bad, juvenile, destructive parts.
Of course, when kings and queens square off map-makers shudder. When we screw-up all that happens is someone cries, bills go unpaid, and children cultivate resentment that grows like toadstools all over what was a beautiful lawn when you went to bed last night.
Are we supposed to see ourselves in these lovesick chowderheads? Should we weep or laugh when Antony botches his suicide in Act 4? The tragic miscommunications of Romeo and Juliet become the stuff of sight-gags as an incompetent, yet mortally wounded Antony has to be hauled up the side of Cleopatra’s monument to die in her arms.
They’re pulling him “aloft” like so much laundry and he calls out, “O, quick, or I am gone.” Well maybe you should have waited till you were at the top of the monument before you stabbed yourself.
Why, no matter how hard we try, why do so many of our days end in such awkward slapstick?
So, they Deus ex Machina Antony up the side of the monument and into Cleopatra’s arms. They kiss, he dies.
And Cleo gets one of the best lines about loss, the feeling of loss, the cold vacuum of loss. “There is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon.”
It’s the phrase “visiting moon” that really sells it. Not just the moon, the “visiting” moon. Nothing is permanent, nothing stays put, nothing’s where you left it, not the moon, not your car keys, not even love.
The feeling is genuine, of course, but she’s forgotten something. The moon always returns. It continues to visit, still sees us, still reflects, still bounces off the shards of broken mirrors and glass door knobs we manage to pick out of the mud as we go along.
Tony’s dead, Cleo sends for jewels and gowns so as to make a lovely corpse of herself. And then, in the final scene of the play, a spear-carrier arrives at the monument and announces:
“Here is a rural fellow that will not be denied your highness’ presence...He brings you figs.” Thus pre-figuring Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers. “The gates swung open and a Fig Newton entered.”
In both cases the line is associated with the entrance of a clown. We expect Harpo in Animal Crackers, but in Antony and Cleopatra, we get someone so glaringly out of place it feels like Bill got his manuscripts mixed up and this “Country Man” wandered in from another play. Possibly a spin-off that collected all the second bananas from Dogberry to Malvolio. He does indeed enter carrying a basket of figs. And curled among the figs is the asp Cleopatra requested, the instrument of her death.
“Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there/That kills and pains not?” Cleopatra asks the Egyptian hayseed.
It is a moment of great seriousness, great sadness. Unfortunately, no one has given the Country Man a heads up about this and he badly misreads the room.
“Truly I have him. But I would not be the party that should desire you to touch him, for his biting is immortal. Those that do die of it do seldom or never recover.”
He’s either wildly off book, or the only member of the dramatis personae who realizes this is more farce than tragedy.
Cleo plays it straight, like Margaret Dumont. She asks the Country Man if he’s certain people have died from the bite of the asp.
“Very many, men and women, too. I heard of one of them no longer than yesterday--a very honest woman, but something given to lie, as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty.”
Perhaps snickers from the groundlings reach the stage, maybe the actor playing dead Antony can’t stop himself from giggling, so Cleopatra tries to get the bumpkin off stage.
“Get thee hence,” she tells him. “Farewell.”
He puts down the basket and says something very curious: “I wish you all joy of the worm.”
Worm, of course, meaning serpent in this case. He knows what she’s about and wishes her well. But I hear something else in the parting, a different role for a different worm waiting in the wings.
The worm that waits for Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and the rest of us who only serve to swell the progress of a scene.
“Farewell,” she bids him.
The Country Man leaves, but only after saying, “I wish you joy o' th’ worm.”
“Joy o’ th’ worm.”
It is better to be the Man who brings the basket of figs than to be the demigod who needs what the figs conceal. No one is disappointed by the Man who brings the figs. As long as he remembers to bring the figs.
Iras and Charmian, Cleopatra’s servants, return “bearing Cleopatra’s royal regalia.” They dress their mistress. Cleopatra kisses them goodbye and Iras falls down dead. “People come and go so quickly here.”
Cleopatra puts the asp to her breast.
“With thy sharp teeth this knot instrinsicate/of life at once untie. Poor venomous fool,/Be angry and dispatch.”
But she’s misjudged the poison’s strength and the great Cleopatra kicks off without finishing her last line. She gets to say “What should I stay...” and dies, leaving it to Charmian to finish the question: “What should I stay...” “In this wild world?”
And then, in death, Cleopatra is upstaged one last time. Charmian closes Cleopatra’s eyes and says, “Your crown’s awry, I’ll mend it.”
And she does. And all the bombast and blood, all the murder, mayhem, the blazing ships and blazing vanity disappears. Erased by the simple, silent act of a maid adjusting her dead mistress’s crown.
For one moment the clockwork of the universe pauses and nothing moves except for Charmian’s hands, adjusting a crown.
That’s where the heartbreak lives. In the details. In the corners.
The Romans return. Charmian grabs a piece of asp for herself, and dies next to her departed queen.
Caesar enters and surveys the wreckage. He knows he’s won. He knows the world is his. A world fit for calculating politicians, with no place for love-sick soldiers. But Octavius Caesar can afford to be magnanimous.
“She shall be buried by her Antony. No grave upon the earth shall clip in it/A pair so famous.” “Our army shall/In solemn show attend this funeral./And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see/High order in this great solemnity.”
Then the final stage direction: “They all exit, the Guards bearing the dead bodies.” Which I think is how a solid thirty-eight percent of Shakespeare’s plays end.
I would have liked an epilogue. I would have liked it if Shakespeare had brought back the Man with the figs. Pomp and ceremony and corpses exit stage right, then the Man with the basket of figs enters from the left. He comes downstage center, looks at us, thanks us all for coming to the show, admonishes us to drive home safely, taking care to avoid the brigands and cut-purses along the way. And then he leans over the edge of the stage, still holding his basket of figs and death, and tells us: “Kingdoms are clay. I wish you all joy of the worm.”
“Hello, I must be going.
I can not stay, I came to say
I must be going.
I’m glad I came, but just the same
I must be going.
I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer through,
But I am telling you,
I must be going.”
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.