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  • Shakespeare, Steevens, and the Fleeting Moon:Glossing and Reading in Antony and Cleopatra
  • Andrew Mattison (bio)

The final speech of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Octavian Caesar notes the "pity" and "glory" (5.2.360) of the titular characters' "story" (l. 359), is an acknowledgment of the play's literary bent, its interest in the matter and means of narrative.1 That interest is not the full extent of the play's literary self-consciousness: it is concerned throughout with reading, particularly if the term is defined to include not only the literal reception or recitation of texts but also the interpretation of personalities, events, and the arc of history.2 Reading's importance and figurative potential are established early in the first act through the Soothsayer's introduction to his craft: "In nature's infinite book of secrecy / A little I can read" (1.2.10–11). Of course, what the Soothsayer is reading in nature's book—the remaining lives of the play's central characters—is also the plot of the play. There is thus an inevitable parallel between the Soothsayer's reading of auguries and two other kinds of reading: Shakespeare's, necessarily on display in a play about well-documented historical figures, and that of his audience. The latter occurs in many forms: literal reading is never entirely absent even in the theater (the promptbook is always there), playgoers may have read about the characters or the play itself previously, and the play acknowledges, particularly through the panoply of commentary on the meaning of Antony's life and character, that the audience will be interpreting what they are seeing. In a printed edition of the play, particularly one with a scholarly function, all of these elements of reading, past and future, come together.

This essay examines the interactions between various conceptions of reading in Antony and Cleopatra and some of the kinds of reading that emerge in the [End Page 90] print history of the play, well after its original publication in the 1623 Folio. It focuses on a parallel that is both intuitive and awkward: between the play's idea of reading and that of the annotated editions compiled by George Steevens at the end of the eighteenth century. The pairing is intuitive because Steevens's role in the reading of the play is so large; his editions were republished well into the following century, and he continues to be cited frequently in modern editions. It is awkward because the primary form in which he comments on Antony, marginal glosses and explications, does not lend itself to the attributes Octavian sees in the story Shakespeare tells. Annotations in general are, as Gérard Genette memorably describes them, "irregular, divided up, crumbly, not to say dustlike, and often so closely connected to a given text that they have, as it were, no autonomous significance."3 They do not lend themselves to the grandeur of tragedy.

Still, Antony shares with Steevens's editions a kind of reading that functions cumulatively and introduces self-contradictions and even self-effacements, not necessarily one that is intuitive and immediate. The play lends itself to being annotated. This does not mean that annotations, including Steevens's, are always effective; on the contrary, part of how they reflect Antony, which rethinks and partly obscures its sources, is through a similar combination of revelation and occlusion. In both the play and the ever-growing body of commentary attached to it, reading is associated with memory but can also induce a kind of forgetfulness when the accumulation of read and referenced texts begins to lose its coherence. This dynamic reflects as much on the work of critics as it does on Shakespeare's. Thinking about how annotation both draws on and shapes reading, sometimes in contrary ways, reveals the way Antony concerns itself with the relationship between how one reads and how one is read.

One of the many manifestations of Antony and Cleopatra's interest in reading is its easily recognizable relationship to Plutarch's Lives, paraphrased at many points throughout the play.4 These paraphrases can be central moments in the drama, as in Enobarbus's most famous...