Star-crossed lovers: Antony and Cleopatra

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“Upon her landing, Antony sent to her, Invited her to supper; she replied. It should be better he became her guest, Which she entreated. Our courteous Antony, Whom ne’er the word of ‘No’ woman heard speak, Being barber’d ten times o’er, goes to the feast, And, for his ordinary pays his heart For what his eyes eat only.”

This was Mark Antony’s good friend Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, narrator in Shakespeare’s play about the life and times one of history’s most celebrated couples. ‘Couple’ here is used in the very loosest of senses, as both of Cleopatra’s lovers were already in relationships, even if they were wishing their spouses dead. Via first Caesar, then Mark Antony, she held sway over Rome for many years; History is somewhat confused as to whether she was truly a radiant beauty, with historians arguing over petty facts but the truth has to be that she can’t have been hideous to look at and was certainly a consummate charmer.

Her charm and guile certainly had the men begging for more. A combination of ‘you go, girl’ and Eve in The Garden of Eden, she had the power and the skill to get what she wanted but, unfortunately, her actions were to bring about not only her own demise but that of an entire republic.

Mark Antony was, as most of us know, the favoured general of Caesar and the one who picked up the job of raising Caesar’s son when the emperor died. He was also something of a ladies’ man, with four wives and countless mistresses. It hardly seems a match made in heaven but they did things differently in those days. Whatever really happened between them and whatever the outcome of their shenanigans, they left the world – largely thanks to Shakespeare – an enigmatic and stirring love story. If you’re over 30, you’ll probably have seen the epic three-hour-plus film Cleopatra starring another tempestuous and passionate pairing, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the roles of the fated couple. If you haven’t seen it, do – it plays a little fast and loose with the facts but is probably the best cinematic telling of the story.

The status of Mark Antony, co-ruler of The Roman Empire with Caesar’s adopted son Octavianus and the wit, charm and intelligence of Cleopatra, a woman who was a skilled mathematician and fluent in nine languages, must have proved to be the ultimate aphrodisiac in days of old. Cleopatra wanted Egypt to be safe from Roman occupation and Mark Antony needed some help with the mess he’d got himself into across the road in Parthia (now Iran). It was probably as much a ‘marriage’ of convenience as anything but it certainly worked. At least, it did until the tide turned against them.

Their individual suicides are the stuff of legend. Parallels can certainly be drawn to one of Shakespeare’s other masterpieces, Romeo and Juliet. Desperate lovers unable to imagine life without the other, choosing to exit this life rather than face the reality and a difficult love affair. It’s certainly possible that Cleopatra and Antony had a deep love for each other but as history is always written by the winners, the story has been subject to propaganda and spurious retellings ever since.

It’s a testament to how they lived that every attempt to recreate their lives in the cinema has invariably involved an awful lot of cash. The Burton/Taylor film was eye-wateringly expensive, with Taylor alone being paid $1m plus 10% of the profits – and this was 50 years ago when that sort of money could buy you the continent of Europe. It’s also the film on which they met and began what was to be a long and fiery relationship. Burton was seventh in line for the role in the film, but Mark Antony was only second.

Popular culture rewrites their characters as distinct and very different; Cleopatra, the wily seductress and Mark Antony, the dashing general, waging war and saving the queen from the might of the Roman army. This is partly true, although in reality, Cleopatra was a clever woman who already ruled a nation with her brother and husband (yes, the same person) and who wanted peace in her land. Antony was a soldier, co-ruler of Rome and ultimately, a man who made poor choices in which countries to invade, leading to the tragic ending to the story.

Their tale has been recounted so many times, it’s something everyone has an almost innate sense of. How many other queens of Egypt and their husband could you name? By fair means or foul, their story is one that has survived over 2,000 years.

It’s probably best to finish on Shakespeare, as he says it better than I, with Antony’s words as the sword goes in:

“I have done my work in, friends: O, make an end

Of what I have begun.”