"Be juster, Heaven; such virtue punished thus, will make us think that chance rules all above, and shuffles, with a random hand, the lots, which man is forced to draw."I should start with two ways in which the odds were stacked against my favoring this play. First, regardless of how compelling the emotional arguments, I am universally incapable of sympathizing with adultery. To me it is an action born of greed and poor impulse control, which are two of my least favorite human characteristics. This doesn't stop me from, for example, loving Woody Allen films. It simply means that I am not going to sympathize with what the author is trying to manipulate me into sympathizing with.
The second problematic element is John Dryden's prefaces. Dryden had a tendency to circumlocution that makes even me look concise by comparison. You will remember that Dryden wrote about 800 pages of preface/dedication to his translation of The Aeneid (or, at least, it seemed like it). This preface was notably shorter. As I've said before, I refuse to skip prefaces unless the author commits the unforgivable sin of spoiling the material in the act of introducing it. In short, I felt that his preface was a bit indulgent and seemed as if he might have been paid by the word.
And so I entered the piece in a grumpy mood, finding one more hurdle to enjoyment immediately. In the beginning I was struck with the realization that I could not imagine how to mount a successful production of this play today. I felt that there was too strong of an expectation for the audience to accept Antony as a great, heroic figure, whereas contemporary audiences would see Antony throwing himself on the ground in grief as a blubbering emo drama queen.
However, as the play unfolded, I began to suspect that this may have been intentional on Dryden's part (or if not, at the very least, this might be a way in which a modern production could work). Even in Plutarch, Antony seems to have been a remarkably impulsive figure. I was not convinced that Cleopatra was expected to be an entirely sympathetic figure in the piece, nor was the eunuch particularly villainous. I think the key to this understanding lays in the character of Ventidius. I felt that the curmudgeonly Ventidius may well be the true protagonist in the piece. He is certainly the one who comes off best at the end of the play. It's the part I would most like to play although in my mind's eye I had him cast as mid-to-late aged Paul Newman. His character is the through-line to the tragic ending, but his is also the commentary on all of the other characters. While we are shown the tragedy of the tormented lovers and we do see it as tragic, we also have the sort of John the Baptist, voice of righteousness figure in Ventidius, who doesn't allow us to wrap ourselves too deeply or too sympathetically in the drama of the love affair.
As my reading progressed, my opinion on the piece reversed. The winning aspect of the piece was the quality of the writing. What Dryden lacked as a prose author, he more than makes up for in verse. He is clearly indebted to the Bard as we see hints of Romeo and Juliet's starcrossing, Iago's treachery (albiet in a far less spiteful form), and Hamlet's ending. We also see it in his wordsmithery and keen eye for the human experience. Here is an example in an exchange between Antony and Ventidius about Octavius:
Vent. I heard you challenged him.In this passage we see the futility in the face of the inevitability of death and a foreshadowing. Why seek self-preservation when the eventual end is a whimpering death? We, the audience, are finally convinced of the greatness of these figures as they take the helm of their own extinguishing and thereby hold up a mirror to how conscience doth make cowards of us all.
Ant. I did, Ventidius.
What think'st thou was his answer? 'Twas so tame!-
He said, he had more ways than one to die;
I had not.
Ant. He has more ways than one;
But he would choose them all before that one.
Vent. He first would choose an ague, or a fever.
Ant. No; it must be an ague, not a fever;
He has not warmth enough to die by that.
Vent. Or old age and a bed.
Ant. Ay, there's his choice,
He would live, like a lamp, to the last wink,
And crawl the utmost verge of life.
I'm not sure a piece in this series thus far as surmounted such odds to win me over. Truly this is one of the great pieces of Western drama.