Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays

By Sara Munson Deats | Go to book overview

12.

The Allusive Tissue of Antony and Cleopatra

LEEDS BARROLL

The drama of the early modern period in England has been a product much used by historians seeking to understand these times because the words, situations, and ideational leanings discernible in public plays seem to provide ready access to the society of which they were a part. Nevertheless, a dilemma inherent in this hermeneutics of cultural interpretation lies in the multiple avatars of the playtext, in the fact that its written form-the product we have available for analysis-is only a blueprint, as it were, for performance. In the context of early modern stage practice, the written text unfolded dynamically in the sequential manner of a film, a piece of music, or an opera, its individual parts looping back and anticipating one another, its meanings taking shape in the fluid interplay among actors. This unwinding in (audience) time that was the public play made demands-visual, aural, and/or intellectual-soliciting the attention of eye, ear, and especially memory. That is to say-taking an example from Antony and Cleopatra-the “ending” of the play was (and is) perceived not only in itself-whatever that means-but also in terms of sights, sounds, or sequences presented previously as part of the performance. The audience is told that Cleopatra “looks like sleep” as if she were ready to entrap another Antony-and the past of the performance is put before them; similarly, when Dolabella flatters Octavius for his foresight concerning Cleopatra's probable behavior, his words resonate with his own secret warning to Cleopatra in an earlier scene.

But we have never attended an early modern performance of Antony and Cleopatra-just as no one who indeed did see the play but died before 1623 ever read the Folio text. There are two, not one, modes of existence of this product. Thus, the historian who would use a “public play” to study the culture of which it was a part is, in effect, not using the play at all in this sense. Nor is this remark an unnecessary splitting of hairs: Shakespearean printed texts do not contain an overabundance of stage directions. Thus, in Hamlet, for

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