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Marvin Rosenberg. The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra.

Marvin Rosenberg. The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra. Edited and completed by Mary Rosenberg. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2006. Pp. 605. $80.00.

Marvin Rosenberg takes us through Antony and Cleopatra with an act-by-act, scene-by-scene re-enactment of the characters' interactions. In the process, he pays tribute to the "subtext" of the dialogue, the "polyphony" in each main character's psychology, the ways in which scenes "build," and the "linear" or "contextual" nature of scenes. The linear mode moves "from a beginning through a chain of chronological sequences toward an end.... Every important speech or action is an arrow pointing to a next speech or action"; the contextual mode "adds breadth to this central scaffolding. It explores the identity and inner life of the various characters" (133, note). Interspersed among the representations of the scenes in which Antony (Rosenberg prefers the Folio spelling, "Anthony"), Cleopatra, and Octavius first appear are separate chapters on each figure. The study of act 5, written largely by Mary Rosenberg using her deceased husband's notes, is followed by four sections, also written or compiled by her: "Is Anthony and Cleopatra a Tragedy?"; an "Epilogue"; "A Note on the Historical Cleopatra--69 BC-30 BC"; and "Critical and Theatrical Bibliographies."

Rosenberg delineates the personalities and characters of several of the dramatis personae. He wants us to interpret their actions and re-create what might be going on in their conscious and subconscious minds to explain their behavior. In attempting to unravel Cleopatra's "psychic fears" (83), for example, he cites a psychologist's assessment of the queen as "a personality bent on defending itself against the primary danger of rejection and loss" (83) and follows it up with this commentary:
 As the play opens, Cleopatra makes a game of asking, "How much am I
 loved: am I loved enough?" Behind the game, she asks--needs--to be
 told, "Yes! Of course." But her covert fear will manifest itself
 sharply the moment the first Messenger from Rome appears. Anthony
 shrugs him off; but surely we must see and hear--or
 imagine--Cleopatra's sudden change of tone, her instant
 anxiety. It is expressed in her verbal emotional fencing,
 which, as she will say (mistakenly?) to Charmian (1.2.6-10), is the
 way not to lose Anthony. She now fears acutely his return to Rome.
 Will submission to Caesar keep Anthony away? Or to his wife,
 Fulvia? Fulvia dead? Then? (83-84)

He concludes this discussion of Cleopatra with the same warning he uttered in his chapter on Antony: "Everything said about the character can still be only a beginning. We can only know its full polyphony in its dynamic: in its line-by-line becoming" (85).

As he discusses each scene, Rosenberg also introduces commentary on performances of the play that he has read about or seen. His remarks are meant to suggest ways in which part of a scene either could be played or, contrarily, should not be played. He intends these remarks, like his others, to stimulate the imaginations of readers so that they will devise for themselves a strong, felt experience of the behavior of the figures in each scene. But all too frequently, his comments are "about the character," and we are led to reflect rather than to imagine. In addition, the ambiguities of language, character, and action inevitably impede one's imaginative identification with the characters. Moreover, Rosenberg so envelops the characters' behavior with judgments that our rational (moral) and irrational (nonmoral) responses become confused, and we are unable to react with the imaginative freedom he espouses.

Early on, Rosenberg establishes a dichotomy between those who think of Antony and Cleopatra positively (the Yeas) and those who think of them negatively (the Nays). But the dichotomy is artificial (especially in its characterization of the Nays), too simple and restrictive, and too merely judgmental. Also, he overworks it, in part because he is himself--undisguisedly--an idealistic and even sentimental yea-sayer. Although he employs the dichotomy as a means of enabling us to enter into the characterizations with a feeling response, he does not eliminate the difficulties of doing so; he writes about Antony, for example:
 We have seen that Nays and Yeas read the same words and disagree. I
 think we can only decide, again, by saying the lines from the inside,
 by trying to be Anthony. How does one be noble? How many noble
 people do we know, or know of, as models--noble in thought, in
 emotion, in presence, in language, in action? We know admirable
 friends about us whose feelings, ideas, and conduct are noble,
 but who may not have the physical grace, appearance, language
 and power the heroic Anthony must manifest in the theatre.
 How do we feel that noble? Try! Do we breathe differently?
 Does the head lift? Anthony's does--until Actium, and even
 after. (73)

Apart from the vagueness of the directives here, the kind of engagement Rosenberg advocates is often hampered by the very problem it attempts to resolve: ambiguity. Confronted with ambiguity, including the establishment of a clearly defined moral perspective, we are more readily induced to reflect rationally than to embrace an imaginative transference. Moreover, the style of the language, when it is aureate, exalted, opulent, or self-consciously mannered, draws attention to itself with such force that we are made more conscious of the qualities of the language than we are of the characters speaking it. In fact, Shakespeare's linguistic displays stand as one of his chief means of purposefully detaching us from the psychology of his figures, enabling us to stand back so that we can be properly awed by their actions and admire their showcased, heroic-romantic language. In our detachment, we are unable to pinpoint motives or to slip imaginatively inside the characters and become them, something that Rosenberg--though apparently not Shakespeare--fervently insists that we do. Rosenberg would have been more helpful if he had first taken into account the playwright's employment of conflicting categories of consciousness as a device of dramaturgy.

To achieve the full-fledged imaginative connection with the characters that he wishes us to have, Rosenberg would also have done well to examine the connotations and tone of the language, beyond simply encouraging his readers to read passages aloud. The language is a chief barrier for readers (and actors) and, until they come to an understanding of the many linguistic complexities of the play, imaginative identification with the characters remains problematic. What, for example, do we make of Philo in the opening speech of the play? On the one hand, he is excoriating Antony for lacking restraint and rational common sense, but on the other, Philo himself "o'erflows the measure" (Ant. 1.1.2) and, paradoxically, builds up the image of Antony through evocative language even as he tears it down. Another example: when Thidias says to Cleopatra, "He [Octavius] knows that you embrace not Anthony / As you did love, but as you feared him," and Cleopatra replies, "Oh" (Ant. 3.13.56-58), how do we understand her response? Rosenberg tells us, "The single vowel has been made to say many things: surprise, anger, inquiry, awareness, calculation, amusement, agreement--often many things at once. Enjoy it" (299). But it's difficult to "enjoy it" until we have come to some understanding of it and, of course, our understanding is only complicated by our uncertainty about Enobarbus's reaction: has he accurately or inaccurately judged Cleopatra as playing false to Antony?

There is no question that Rosenberg cherishes this play and its author. The narrative throughout is warm and chatty--even if repetitious. He wants us to engage with the characters with all our emotional stops out, to imagine their subtext, to fathom the psychological causes of their responses, and to become them. But, ultimately, he fails to offer us sufficient means, perhaps because, by design, Shakespeare does also. Thus, understandably, Rosenberg tends to be more impressionistic and suggestive than analytical in his approach--e.g., page 145, where he mentions the structural parallel between act 2, scene 1, and act 1, scene 4 ("a leader entering in argument with subordinate(s), a messenger to come") but doesn't explore the reasons for the parallel. He is impressively knowledgeable about the scholarly aspects of the play, whether they have to do with Plutarch, the Folio text, or historical matters. And he can be wonderfully sensitive and attentive to significant details.

Mary Rosenberg is equally persuasive when it comes to details. For instance, she tells us that Antony and Cleopatra had three children together, that Octavia was pregnant with the child of her deceased husband when she met and married Antony, and that, during their eight years of marriage, Octavia and Antony also brought children of their own into the world. Shakespeare, of course, leaves all of this out. That he does so bolsters Marvin's position as a yea-sayer and, ironically, undercuts Mary's as a naysayer, although at the end of the book, she claims she "can now understand--and almost agree with--his [Marvin's] feeling that Anthony and Cleopatra is as fine a play as Shakespeare ever wrote, if not his absolute greatest" (481).

When students of Shakespeare and scholars discuss Antony and Cleopatra, they frequently talk about the psychology of audience response (probably more often than in discussions of other Shakespeare plays), largely because this play teases its readers and viewers, creating in them a desire to come to a clear resolution in understanding the characters, yet always refusing to satisfy that desire. The Rosenbergs know this and know as well that great artistic achievements resist easy categorization. Their book is most successful when it endorses this principle.


University of Hartford
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Author:Logan, Robert A.
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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