In the process of cleaning out my study for its current use as the boys’ playroom (already the scene of an epic Nerf-sword battle between the Squirrel Boy and me), I came across Harold Bloom’s ginormous Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. As only someone absolutely certain of himself could do, Bloom gives you the correct (i.e., his) interpretation of every single Shakespeare play, with specially large sections on Hamlet, King Lear and Henry IV (a.k.a. The Adventures of Falstaff). And in his case, the ego of such an undertaking seems backed up by some serious insights. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The ones that stuck with me the most enhanced my appreciation of both my favorite Shakespeare play (Antony and Cleopatra) and the one that always set my teeth on edge (Romeo and Juliet). I’ll talk about A&C first.
Specifically, Bloom points out that Cleopatra is, in the vast emotional range she displays (tragic lover, mercurial friend, queen, spoiled brat, mature woman), the feminine equivalent of Hamlet and thus Shakespeare’s greatest female role, the more so for being, in his opinion, virtually unplayable. I’m not sure if he means that no actress is capable of it, or that simply because it’s a female role there can be no actress capable of it. Certainly it’s never attained the universal status of the Denmarkian Dynamo; perhaps it’s because we don’t allow actresses the same prestige as actors? I mean, even people who’ve never seen it know Olivier was “the best Hamlet ever.” But who recalls Kim Stanley, whose recent biography was called Female Brando in recognition of her enormous talent? Katherine Cornell played Cleopatra in what was probably the only successful American run of the play, back in the late 1940s; I can hear the voices now saying, “Katherine who?”
The late Charlton Heston often chastised fellow movie actors like Robert De Niro for not attempting the great roles on stage. He himself constantly returned to the “man-killer” stage parts like Macbeth throughout his career, a process he called “waltzing with the Old Gentleman.” Are there no actresses who see the gold in a part like Cleo? I mean, in a world where Ethan Hawke can make a passable Hamlet, surely someone like Charlize Theron should make a run at Cleopatra.
There are several film and video versions of the play, including one directed by and starring Mr. Heston as Mark Antony. My favorite, though surely not the best, is this one for its absurdist casting. While Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave make a perfectly adequate Antony and Cleopatra, it’s in the supporting cast that the head-scratching begins. Star Trek alumni Nichelle Nichols as Charmain and Walter Koenig as Pompey? General Hospital heartthrob Anthony Geary as Caesar? It has to be seen.
Next post, how Bloom helped make me able to stomach Romeo and Juliet.