Thursday, September 25, 2008

Antony and Cleopatra

I'm reading all of Shakespeare's plays in a year: this is the third.


Reader-response theory recognizes that when encountering a work of literature, the individual brings with him or her all sorts of experiences with life and literature. An honest approach recognizes this, and may find insight in the text.

I'm a junky for watching good TV series on DVD. And after seeing Rome, my visualization for characters like Mark Antony and Cleopatra is still stuck on James Purefoy (not, oddly enough, Charlton Heston) and Lyndsey Marshal. Sometimes an actor's appearance and representation sticks in the mind, forming the character. I expect that for my entire life, James Purefoy's Mark Antony will be my Mark Antony. Purefoy's movements, facial expressions, voice, and speech rhythms will always linger in my memory.

My question is whether this connection of a literary character to a actor's portrayal is based on my own memory, or on the strength or weakness of the text. I encountered Hamlet before I had seen any actor portray him, and so when I read Hamlet, my mental visualization is independent of any actor. So too with memorable characters like Macbeth and Lear. But I expect that Kenneth Branaugh will always be Henry V for me. Is this solely because of the chronological order I encountered the work, or because of the strength of the work itself? After all, at this point I can occasionally read a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without seeing Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy.

Or it could be in the quality of the play. For whatever reason, Shakespeare's literary Antony couldn't shake Purefoy's Antony from my memory.

Perhaps only Dostoevsky made suicide more a prominent element of his work than Shakespeare. I can see why suicide is such a pressing theme for literature. It is the place where human will confronts nature, chance, or fate. It is the direct confrontation of free will and death. It is the ultimate show of despair at the cosmos or mere circumstance. In Dostoevsky, I think it is the rejection of the belief that human beings are machine-like animals, preprogrammed creatures without will concerned only with survival: in Dostoevsky, suicide shows that there are other motivations (like ideas) that guide human behavior.

Shakespeare's plays are littered with murders and suicides, and eloquent characters capable of insight into just what suicide may mean.

1 comment:

  1. I strongly agree with you about James Purefoy's Mark Antony, and Marshal's Cleopatra. I prefer to think it based on the strength of their performances, and the show itself. Forget Shakespeare, we have all spent years of history classes dipping into the lives of people like Antony and Cleopatra and watching Rome was like being introduced to the whole cast of characters for the first time.

    I have a similar issue with P.G. Wodehouse. I read Wodehouse before watching any of the show "Jeeves and Wooster," and I suppose there is still a little bit of the characters not entirely subsumed by my mental image of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry—but their influence is overwhelming. I would hardly say Wodehouse's characterization is weak; but the portrayals are so strong and so faithful to the original that they can't help sneaking into my mind.