Imagining Anthony and Cleopatra

R.L.P. Jackson


Talk to an ordinary old-fashioned reader of Shakespeare (if you can find one), or to a philosopher with a love of Shakespeare, and you'll probably pretty soon hear something like "'the manyheaded multitude", as Shakespeare says in Coriolanus': Shakespeare, for such a reader, 'says' things; he even means them. The notion of a Shakespeare who 'says' things, let alone meaning them, has tended to become increasingly problematic; and no sophisticated reader these days is going to be caught out claiming that Enobarbus's famous lines on Cleopatra in II, ii ('The barge she sat in ... '), or Cleopatra's equally famous lines on Anthony in V.ii ('His legs bestrid the ocean .. .') come to us, as it were, from the Bard himself: they belong, we never tire of reminding ourselves - even if we don't share the fashionable modern scepticism about 'meaning' - to a dramatic context in which the individual 'characters' ofEnobarbus and of Cleopatra and their interaction with their fellow participants in each scene are as important as the words which they themselves speak. I don't exactly want to quarrel with this less extreme version of what one might call the 'modern' approach to Shakespeare indeed, to a large extent at any rate, I share it myself. But it does seem to me that in our desire to avoid the crudity of such formulations as 'Shakespeare says of Cleopatra that "Age cannot wither her'" we have tended to lose touch at the same time both with Wilson Knight's still useful notion of a Shakespearean play as a kind of 'extended metaphor' to which all the characters' speeches, in their individual ways, contribute, and with the related notion of a Shakespearean play as embodying and enacting a more or less unified and unique imaginative experience - unique, that is, to each play - which at the same time takes its place in the more general development of Shakespeare's oeuvre as a whole.

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