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Celebrating Idleness: Antony and Cleopatra and Play Theory

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 44, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 277-297 | 10.1353/cdr.2010.0003

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The "infinite variety" of Cleopatra's pretenses affirms her allegiance to a theater that embraces idleness, and finally becomes idleness. When Cleopatra dallies over the lines of the self-sacrificing or magnanimous lover—"Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it; / Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it"—Antony replies, "But that your royalty / Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself " (1.3.89-90, 94-96). Shakespeare's drama appears all too ready to corroborate the unease of early modern antitheatricalists who impugn theater for the spread of idleness within the culture. When in his Anatomie of Abuses Philip Stubbes observes, "If you will learne ... to practise Idlenesse ... you neede to goe to no other Schoole [i.e., theater], for all these good examples maie you see painted before your eyes in Enterludes and Plaies," the recreational rhythms of Cleopatra's Egypt might well serve as illustration. Here the queen may "laugh[]" her Antony "out of patience, and that night ... laugh[] him into patience, and next morn, / Ere the ninth hour ... dr[ink] him to his bed" (2.5.19-21). Rather than refute the charge that theater is "a nurseris of idelnesse," Cleopatra's variable palate of "Enterludes & Plaies" seems set on further stoking such heated discourse, as Antony and Cleopatra not only prove their culpability as idlers, they do so ardently.

Of course, while Shakespeare's Egypt is a holiday world, ruled by a queen devoted to the glorification of play, it is all the time being roundly censured by a Rome whose emperor remains soberly attuned to politics and warfare. Though Rome, led by Caesar, closely follows our couple, it does so with a perception primed for practical goals, and which can only disparage the lovers' fanciful moves. Pompey reads Cleopatra's diversions not as ennobling, but as debilitating and ultimately deadening, as he calls for her to "tie up the libertine [Antony] in a field of feasts; / Keep his brain fuming.... [S]leep and feeding may prorouge his honour / even till a Lethe'd dullness" (2.1.23-24, 26-27). The variant tones of the play's two worlds have often been read as two types of performance: an Egyptian theater that fosters unrestrained yet graceful designs spun from illusions and lies, and a Romanized one, steadfast and moralistic, which insists on staging idleness only in order to humiliate and condemn it. Hence, when defeated in battle, Antony foresees his followers "windowed" in Rome, himself publicly "subdued / To penetrative shame" (4.14.73, 75-76).

For centuries audiences have been conflicted over which of these worlds should win their sympathy—where indeed the playwright's own sympathies might lie. My reading of the play's central tension, which builds from Rome's dedication to practicable purpose and Egypt's immersion in play, asserts that it is the latter—a theater in which idleness is foundational—that Shakespeare's play celebrates. Roman resoluteness serves rather to secure one's admiration for Egyptian gambols. Rephrased, this observation is equally if not more curious: the impulsive nature, often exasperatingly so, of Egypt at play succeeds more often than not in souring us toward Roman resolve. I realize of course that I am joining a conversation long in session, and one that is replete with impressive studies of the play's dichotomous worlds. My inclination to stand with Egypt is certainly unextraordinary, and seemingly there is little to add in the way of hoisting the charms of our lovers high above the didactic maneuvers of Shakespeare's Caesar. Still, despite a longstanding critical trend to praise Egypt, the importance of idleness in the play, of players playing at loving, at warring, and even at dying, has yet, in my view, to be properly understood and celebrated.

Celebrations of idleness adorn Shakespeare's play. Michael J. C. Echeruo reminds us that "a celebration is not an imitation of anything, only a statement of something. In celebrating, we make a statement through a pattern of representations (acts of playing) without a causative or even a logical relation to the statement itself." When "the city cast[s] / Her people out...



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