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Assisted Suicides: Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus in 2006–7

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 58, Number 4, Winter 2007
pp. 509-529 | 10.1353/shq.2007.0064

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Assisted Suicides:
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus in 2006–7

Roman Suicides

Halfway through Volpone, Mosca suddenly says to his master, "Will you be pleased to hang me? Or cut my throat? / And I'll requite you, sir. Let's die like Romans / Since we have lived like Grecians."1 In the general confusion of the play—and in surprise at such a proposal coming from a character with a well-developed instinct for self-preservation—one might easily miss the joke: Mosca promises that, once Volpone has killed him, he'll return the favor. With remarkable brevity, Jonson has drawn attention to one of the biggest problems involved in dying like a Roman: the fact that it's hard to do without help. Jonson's own Roman tragedy Sejanus had depicted the unassisted onstage suicide of Silius, who thereby escapes the outcome of his obviously rigged trial, but Julius Caesar, to which Sejanus was often compared, had dramatized the problem of finding someone else—usually a servant like Mosca—to hold the sword, and the further problem of what that servant is to do afterward. (Pindarus runs away; Strato stays to explain what has happened.) That onstage death was funny to Restoration audiences we know from Dryden ("'I have observed that, in all our tragedies, the audience cannot forbear laughing when the actors are to die; 'tis the most comic part of the whole play'").2 I see Jonson's throwaway line as an indication that Roman suicides were already at least potentially comic.

In 2006–7, there were a number of opportunities to test the extent to which the problem of incredulous laughter was built into the Roman plays. In the 2006 "Edges of Rome" series at Shakespeare's Globe, the theater's new artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, offered an Antony and Cleopatra and a Coriolanus which enthusiastically embraced their inherent comedy; Gregory Doran's productions of Antony (2006; on tour and in London into 2007) and Coriolanus (2007) had a similar lightness of touch, partly as a result of heavy cutting; and at Canada's Stratford Festival (2006), I saw a very different Coriolanus directed by Antoni [End Page 509] Cimolino. Anyone who found all these onstage death scenes hard to take could at least be thankful that the Globe hadn't revived George Chapman's Caesar and Pompey, in which Cato not only runs himself through but, when someone proposes to stitch him up, pulls out his own entrails in order to finish the job.

Chapman's play was among the staged readings that Globe Education offered around the "Edges"; another was Thomas Kyd's translation of Cornélie by Robert Garnier. It was a pity that the Globe did not put on Julius Caesar in the same season, since both plays clarify the Caesar-Brutus relationship, not to mention the references to Pompey that continue into Antony and Cleopatra. More importantly, they remind one that Elizabethan dramatists knew not only Plutarch's Caesar but also the demonized Caesar of Lucan's Pharsalia (some of which Kyd's one-time roommate, Marlowe, had translated). There's not a lot to say about either of these as a production. Cornelia (coordinated by Crispin Bonham Carter) made effective use of a small chorus and did justice to the poetry of what is essentially a closet drama. Caesar and Pompey (performed on 26 February 2006) had an effective moral mouthpiece in Anthony Calf's Cato; following Cato's view of the other characters, coordinator Laura Baggaley cast sharp-tongued Richard Bremmer as Caesar opposite a genial Danny Sapani as Pompey, yet even so could not prevent Caesar from looking like the greater man. Pompey, in his first quarrel with Caesar, calls the latter's epilepsy a curse of the gods, constantly justifies himself, and blames others after his defeat. By contrast, Caesar takes responsibility ("It was not fortunes fault, but mine" [2.3.10)],3 he declares after his one serious defeat) and frequently shows mercy to his enemies, although they usually suspect his motives. Cato's conviction that Caesar will destroy Rome's freedom leads to his suicide, and the play ends with reactions to...