“The less her wrong, the less should be my woe;/ Nor she should pain, nor I complain me so.” – Antony, Antonius (III, line 229-30) [couplet by Mary Herbert added to the Garnier text]
Back in November, I made you all listen to me natter on about Mary Wroth’s Urania and in the course of that discussion, I introduced Wroth’s aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, to you. I told you that the countess had written a play about Mark Antony (not entirely accurate, but I’ll get to that in a bit…) that had influenced Shakespeare’s much more famous play, Antony and Cleopatra. So, I thought it might be interesting to do an eighth-grade-style compare and contrast between them. As plays about forbidden and doomed love, consider this a belated Valentine’s entry…
The only problem with this brilliant plan of mine, aside from having to track down a text for Herbert’s play and trying to get my own literary output for the year sorted, is that I don’t particularly care for Antony—either as a historical or literary figure. Some of you might have deduced this, coming from a person who’s devoted almost twenty hundred pages and nearly a decade to his antagonists. So it was hard to work up enthusiasm for (re)reading two plays with his name in the title; hence why it’s now February. But I was really interested in Herbert’s work and A&C is one of my favorites of Will’s plays in spite of its protagonists, so I got there in the end. But as a result, what follows will probably be my patented brand of semi-unserious literary criticism. Possibly including character-beats-as-Onion headlines, which is something that I’ve threatened to devolve to on this blog since Day One.
Anyway, before we get to the plays, I must own I somewhat misspoke when I intimated that Herbert had written Antonius. Because her play is in fact an English translation of Marc-Antoine, a play by the French dramatist Robert Garnier (1544-1590). Garnier is generally held as the father of French tragedy and set the style of the later great Baroque playwrights like Jean Racine. He and his contemporaries were the first French dramatists to adapt the structure of Roman playwrights like Seneca, Lucan, and Terence (and by extension the Greek classical playwrights) for modern-era European theater. They did this by adhering to the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place (one principal action, taking place in a continuous period, and in a single physical location); and by generally using classical or biblical stories as their subjects. As a result, French Renaissance tragedies read very much the same as tragedies written by Sophocles or Euripides. Garnier’s plays utilize choruses aside from the main characters (who number around a dozen, if you include unnamed messengers), generally have characters entering and exiting a single space, and most violence or death occurs offstage.
Since in the early Renaissance French culture was considered the most sophisticated in Europe, English playwrights and their audiences were quick to ape this trend. This could be like Mary Herbert creating a translation of Garnier’s Antonius as a closet drama meant to be recited aloud amongst her friends and family, or a professional playwright like Thomas Kyd producing a translation of Garnier’s Cornelia for the stage. I bring Kyd briefly into this discussion to try to dispel the idea that Herbert’s work is somehow “lesser than” because it’s a translation. As any widely-read bibliophile knows, translation is very much an art form unto itself and particularly in the more ethereal world of stage and poetry, it often requires a translator to virtually construct a new piece of art to convey the original author’s intent across time and cultures. And aside from this, Herbert was a very active translator of the original Antonius. She adds new couplets and phrases to Garnier’s text, clarifies allusions she thinks are too obtuse for a general audience, and changes around some of his sententiae (lines delivered as universal maxims, almost as an aside to the audience) for emphasis.
Herbert also tinkers with some of Garnier’s characterizations, especially Cleopatra. While Garnier is hardly unsympathetic to his heroine, as a Frenchman of his era, he is much less concerned about her morality than the much more straight-laced Countess of Pembroke is as a lady and an Englishwoman. Herbert’s translation goes to great lengths to portray the Queen of Egypt as a lawful spouse to Antony. In the English Antonius, Cleopatra frequently calls herself Antony’s wife and Herbert removes any references to the pair’s relationship being adulterous at any stage. For example, Octavius refers to Antony and Cleopatra’s eldest children, Alexander and Selene, as “adultery’s twins” (“deux jumeaux d’adultere”) in Garnier’s text, but in Herbert’s, they are “Cleopatra’s brats” (IV, line 76). While this might strike a modern reader as excessively squeamish on Herbert’s part, it is part of a consistent characterization of Cleopatra in her text and not just about keeping the play PG for a mixed-sex aristocratic audience. Herbert as author sympathizes with her somewhat sticky and unconventional heroine, and this bowdlerization is meant to make Cleopatra an admirable classical protagonist and rescue her from some of the harshness of the classical (and male) opinions both Herbert and Garnier are using as their source material.
Additionally, Herbert grew up during Elizabeth I’s reign and it is clear that behind the powerful queen regnant of Egypt stands the shadow of the queen regnant of England. But whereas Cleopatra surrenders to love and the “womanly” sin of jealousy, Herbert can contrast the (supposedly) chaste and proudly single Elizabeth, who was strong enough to resist this feminine temptation. Herbert must walk the tightrope between making Cleopatra admirable, but still showing that her failings lead to her demise. And speaking of Cleopatra’s demise, Garnier (and Herbert) do break with tradition by having her die in front of the audience on stage, however, she does this by simply fainting away bloodlessly on top of Antony’s corpse. The difference between the two versions is in Cleopatra’s dying declarations, where Herbert reigns in some of what she sees as the unladylike excess of Garnier. For example, where in Garnier has Cleopatra say “And let my body thus growing weak/ Faint over you, spewing forth my soul.” (“Et qu’en un tel devoir mon corps affoiblissant/ Defaille dessus vous, mon âme vomissant.”). Herbert alters this vivid image to “That in this office weak my limbs may grow/ Fainting on you, and forth my soul may flow.” (V, line 207-8).
As for Antonius itself, both versions of the play follow the aforementioned basic structures of classical theater. There are three main groups of characters: Mark Antony and his buddy Lucilius; Cleopatra and her bff handmaidens Charmion and Eras; and Octavius and Agrippa. Aside from these core groups, there are several other minor characters, including the philosopher Philostratus, who serves as an exposition dump in Act II, and a shifting group of choruses whose identity changes based on which of the core groups is on stage (Egyptians for Cleopatra, Roman soldiers for Octavius, etc). Like in a classical play, the action is definitely framed in more of a “tell-rather-than-show” format. Anything that might held to be of some interest to the forward movement of the plot (battles, deaths—heck, even confrontation between the core groups) is absent. Hence why Antonius joins the story with Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria after the disastrous defeat at Actium. Much of the dialogue is owned by the three main characters (Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius) and delivered almost in monologue, to which their groupies react and provide a sounding board (that will be mostly be ignored), while the chorus comments on the situation at the end of the act.
So what is everyone monologuing on? Well, everyone who isn’t Octavius is mostly talking about how screwed they all are, but the framing that both Garnier and Herbert use for this story is love. Rather than focusing on the complex and very real political issues that surrounded the fall of Ptolemaic Egypt and the end of the Roman civil wars, the playwrights present their characters possessed by the personal. Actium wasn’t about Julius Caesar’s heirs vying for control of his empire and Cleopatra trying to tread water in a dangerous situation: it was about Antony being so bewitched by Cleopatra that he will sacrifice his reputation for her, Cleopatra being so besotted with Antony that she will throw away her crown and kids to keep him from even thinking about Octavia, and Octavius being really pissed that Antony abandoned his sister for his great-uncle’s sloppy seconds.
But as with most things in classical literature, it was important to frame this as something that had happened before and our protagonists are too blinded by their humanity and hubris to realize it. Garnier and Herbert engage in an elaborate classical reference round-robin that eventually eats its own tail by looking back to Homer in one breath and anticipating Virgil’s Aeneid in the next. Philostratus’ main function in Act II is to compare Antony and Cleopatra to Paris and Helen in the Iliad, to show their (explicitly adulterous in Garnier) passion was doomed to be a force of destruction. This works because Antony’s always had the same dumb himbo energy that Paris exudes in the Trojan myth cycle. As Troy was destroyed by Paris’ love for Helen, Philostratus and his Egyptian chorus bemoan the imminent destruction a free Egypt and the approaching yoke of the tyrannical Octavius and Rome.
And Octavius is not thought of fondly in Antonius. As with Julius’ reputation, how much Octavius is admired or forsworn depends greatly on the general European attitude toward the Roman Empire versus the Roman Republic at any given time. If the times are pro-Empire, Octavius is the peace-bringing, law-giving Augustus—the good emperor whose vision was perverted by literal perverts later. If they’re more pro-Republic, Octavius is a tyrannical asshole who completed his great-uncle’s dastardly scheme to destroy the very concept of liberty. As we’ve discussed, the truth is somewhere in between these two points, but just because Garnier/Herbert think Antony and Cleopatra should have taken Meatloaf’s advice and not done at least one thing for love (bring down your reputation/kingdom, depending on which we’re talking about), that doesn’t mean that they think Octavius is in the clear. While it’s framed as though Octavius is taking our lovebirds down for the sake of his poor, maligned sister, his dialogue to Agrippa in Act IV presents him as much more cynical. A lot of his lines are about how he’s gonna have to kill Antony to maintain his hold on Rome and Agrippa trying to talk him out of it until a messenger arrives and tells them that Antony’s taken care of the problem himself. Then suddenly Octavius is like, “Oh, no! Now that he killed himself I feel bad about how I said I was going to kill him!” So that it appears that if Antony and Cleopatra’s sin is an excess of love, Octavius’ is a deficit.
Now, at least some of this should sound familiar to fans of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, given that Herbert’s translation was, as I said, was a source material for Will, along with Plutarch’s Lives. But before we get into nuts and bolts on plot, character, etc, I want to take a moment to again address style, because that’s arguably the biggest difference between Marc-Antoine/Antonius and Antony and Cleopatra. Because it is very easy as a modern person to lose sight of how revolutionary the technical craft of Shakespeare and his English contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe was in its time. If you’ve never quite understood what scholars mean by that, a really great way to see this is to do what I ended up doing for this post—read the plays back to back. It’s genuinely eye-opening to suddenly see a large casts of characters interacting with one another, bouncing back and forth between Alexandria and Rome, seeing battles and deaths… not to mention the welcome presence of humor. It must have been practically gobsmacking for Elizabethan audiences to see something like that, coming from the classical tradition preoccupied with the Aristotelian unities and larger-than-life heroes delivering grand monologues virtually uninterrupted by the action.
The neat thing about letting particularly Antony and Cleopatra talk to one another (and to a lesser extent, Antony and Octavius) is that they can show you their characters, rather than just telling you. Rather than simply explaining to the audience how much they love the other, Will’s Antony and Cleopatra tell each other. And it is this living, breathing relationship between the two titular characters that is the most successful aspect of the play. Placing Shakespeare’s plays in true chronological order is not an exact art, but we are fairly certain that A&C (1606-1607) is closest in chronology to Macbeth (1605-1606), and frankly, it shows. The dating is likely fairly accurate because A&C is basically a second Macbeth. Unlike so many of Shakespeare’s other plays and their passels of young lovers, both of these plays are centered on mature, established couples who have a believable, lived-in dynamic to their relationships. It’s almost like Will realized after the fact that the Scottish Play should have been called The Macbeths and used A&C to fix it by placing the important second half of the power couple in the title where she belonged.
Like in Garnier/Herbert, Antony and Cleopatra spend a lot of time waxing philosophical about one another to their various friend groups, but they also communicate directly to one another as any husband and wife would. These interactions are loving, argumentative, wheedling, disparaging… in short, they talk to one another like regular lovers and not orators preparing to Cicero the Senate to death. As my above Onion headline implies, Garnier/Herbert’s Antony bemoans to Lucilius that he wishes he knew how to quit Cleopatra, but her magical charms are too much for his feeble man-will. But in A&C, we see them interact, so we can see how Cleopatra loves and challenges him in action. As a bonus, we also have an extent Octavia for a few scenes, so the audience can see how the two women contrast between each other in how they interact with Antony. And in this vein, in Antonius we are told by Cleopatra that she only demanded to be present at the Battle of Actium because she was consumed by jealousy that Octavius would show up with his sister and lure Antony away from her. In contrast in A&C, we are treated to a truly delightfully funny scene where Cleopatra in turns attacks and cajoles a messenger that comes to tell her Antony has married Octavia. We see Cleopatra’s fury at the news and eventually her preening questions to the very put-upon messenger about whether Octavia is anywhere as magnificent as she is. We see her jealousy and her vanity, the things that will still ultimately be her downfall, but this is far more powerful than the tearful statements of Garnier’s post-Actium Cleopatra who already pretty much has her hand on the proverbial asp.
And that change in time is another major difference in the plays. As befitting a classical play, we the audience join Antonius with Actium over and the doom of Egypt already set in stone. The only thing the play is awaiting is the inevitable: Octavius’ arrival and the suicides of the lovers. Will backs the action up and starts farther back; we see Antony and Cleopatra together and reveling in each other’s company. He keeps Antony’s private nagging doubts that futzing about in Egypt isn’t probably the best use of his time or talents, but he uses this stated tension in Antonius between its hero’s love and honor to explain how Octavius could have lured him into the Octavia marriage in the first place, just as we see the fatal seeds of Cleopatra’s jealousy sprout. Octavius is as much of a dick in A&C as he was in Antonius (Will, through Cleopatra, wonderfully calls him “Fortune’s knave” [V, 2]), but he, like his antagonists, is given more context for his attitude, and as a result, is somewhat more sympathetic. He is annoyed at Antony for derping off to Egypt and leaving him to deal with Sextus Pompeius, but when Antony comes back, we are shown him giving Antony a second chance (and his sister, with very clear instructions to treat her right). We therefore see why Antony’s choice to go back to Cleopatra is so problematic and why it leads to Actium.
As for the battle, staging war in Shakespeare is always a little hit or miss, and A&C is no exception to this—the Battle of Actium is hands down the least interesting part of this play. But one is perhaps more willing to cut Will some slack in light of the mere concept of showing a battle (or dudes running off and on the stage to simulate the frenzy of fighting) was basically a new idea. But what Will lacks in battle staging, he more than makes up for in character deaths. Everyone dies on stage and there is a typically Shakespearean body count by the end. But these deaths matter more to the audience because we’ve had all of this emotional lead-up. One misses the deaths in classical plays less because we are told how to react; the English tragedy takes that safety net away from its audience. Yeah, violence is exciting and shocking, but not just because we’re all secretly groundlings at heart. Shakespeare’s staging builds up an emotional attachment to its characters because the audience has experienced what they have, and by killing them in front of you, it forces you to react in real time, even if you know what’s going to happen.
To return to the briefly-mentioned Thomas Kid translation of Garnier’s Cornelia, that even more than Antonius is the total antithesis of this idea. In Cornelia, Garnier basically sits his titular heroine down and has various people come tell her about terrible and exciting things happening offstage and she reacts to them. Does she do anything? No. Does anyone else during the entire course of the play on stage? No. Cornelia, and separately Brutus and Cassius, talk about how much they hate Julius, but nothing is done about this during the play and the only reason this even adds a modicum of tension is that Brutus and Cassius will eventually do something (in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). It might be tolerable in the hands of talented stage actors, but on the page it’s mind-numbingly stupid. While both Garnier’s French prose and Herbert’s English translation of Antonius are lovely enough to survive mere reading, Cornelia’s isn’t. And even if you disagree with that, in Antonius, the tension of Antony and Cleopatra’s fatal denouement means that the play is still building toward something, despite things largely happening offstage. In Cornelia, the denouement is the (offstage) Battle of Thapsus and the death of Cornelia’s father Metellus Scipio, a man who never appears in the play. We’re supposed to be sad because it’s another personal tragedy for Cornelia (who lost husband Pompey in Egypt before the start of the play), but it’s an emotional stretch for the audience. Particularly because it hinges on us agreeing with Cornelia that all of this is Julius’ fault when, unlike her dad, Caesar actually shows up to defend his actions to the audience and isn’t entirely unconvincing.
To wrap up, I would hate for all of you to leave with the impression that I think negatively of classical drama and its staging conventions unequivocally. I adore the Greek masters even in written form and I think my entry about Alexandre le Grand makes it clear that I love modern imitators like Racine. And I really enjoyed reading Antonius—both Garnier and Herbert produce some wonderful phrasing and a surprising amount of emotionality for a story we’re not used to see being portrayed so passively. It doesn’t have the breadth of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, but its smaller nature isn’t entirely a detriment. While Garnier himself would have seen his work as a stage production to be put on at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Mary Herbert translated it for the private, intimate consumption of her and her literary circle of friends. Antonius might not be the most forceful version of the Antony and Cleopatra story you could see in a theater, but as a closet dramatic work, or as a drama to read on the page, it can often hold its own against the best the Bard of Avon can muster.