A question I often ask to break the ice at parties is “If some mad theatre director came up to you in the street one day and told you that you had the perfect face, that he knew he could cast you in any role in the whole of Shakespeare – black, white, male, female, anything – and you’d succeed brilliantly: what role would you ask for?”
(Yes, I go to a lot of these kind of parties. I study English Literature.)
I’ve had some interesting responses. One girl wanted to be Hecate in Macbeth, who gets cut out of the play in most versions for probably not being genuine Shakespeare; someone else wanted to be the bear in The Winter’s Tale, whose part consists of a single stage direction – though it is, to be fair, the most justly famous stage direction in all Literature.
Of course, as is the case with most of these questions, my answer has been carefully worked out beforehand. I universally opt for Enobarbus, from Antony and Cleopatra, which promotes many puzzled looks.
Enobarbus is the forgotten man of Shakespearean tragedy, his tear-jerking end subsumed into Antony’s bungled suicide (like Charles II, he takes an unconscionable time a-dying) and Cleopatra’s magnificent, stately death by snakebite. And yet, of all Shakespeare’s characters, he’s the one I’ve come closest to crying over. Of Shakespeare’s characters, he alone manages to combine both high poetry and solid earthiness, and does so brilliantly. He’s not above getting drunk when there’s a truce to be celebrated, or pugnaciously defending his fighting reputation to a rival, or mocking the tipsy gullibility of Lepidus. And yet to him fall some of the most beautiful passages of description in the whole play, no, the whole of Shakespeare, when he describes Cleopatra for the men of Rome.
Age shall not wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
He is perceptive enough to see that Anthony cannot possibly hold true in his marriage to Caesar’s sister, Octavia, and that by his infidelity the truce between Antony and Caesar is sure to be broken; he perceives that Antony should fight on land, rather than risking a naval battle at Actium, and that if he does fight at Actium, the last thing he should do is take Cleopatra along to spectate. But Antony, of course, does so anyway. Seeing his master’s fortunes turned around, and inevitable defeat facing the Egyptian lovers, Enobarbus who, like most soldiers, is a realist by training, makes the decision to defect to Caesar’s company. But in what is simultaneously his tragic flaw and his saving grace, he can’t live with himself afterwards. To turn from the beauty and romance of Egypt to the solemn and ordered ranks of Rome; from the impetuous trust of Antony to the suspicion and neglect of Caesar is too much for him. When Antony, in a magnanimous gesture, sends after him the treasure Enobarbus abandoned in his escape, he becomes so ashamed he resolves to ‘go seek / Some ditch wherein to die: the foul’st best fits / My latter part of life.’ His final speech runs thus:
O sovereign mistress of true melancholy,
The poisonous damp of night disponge upon me,
That life, a very rebel to my will,
May hang no longer on me: throw my heart
Against the flint and hardness of my fault:
Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder,
And finish all foul thoughts. O Antony,
Nobler than my revolt is infamous,
Forgive me in thine own particular;
But let the world rank me in register
A master-leaver and a fugitive:
O Antony! O Antony!
Calling upon his master, he sinks down and dies. A master-leaver and a fugitive he may think himself – yet what I like best about him is that the realist and the poet contend in him, and though the realist gets the upper hand for a time, the poet eventually wins. To die, as Cleopatra recognises, is far better than to be carried back to Rome by Caesar as an ignominious token of victory. Even by dying of shame, Enobarbus affirms adventure and romance over mean profit-seeking, and though his death cannot match the awful tableau of Antony and Cleopatra’s finale, one feels he too is entitled to the queen’s aching lament over her departed lover.
Oh, withered is the garland of the war.
The soldier’s pole is fall’n! Young boys and girls
Are level now with men. The odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.