Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Shakspere Society of Philadelphia
Maybe not the first, but the oldest Shakespeare club in America or possibly even the world, has kept minutes for over a hundred fifty years.

Shakspere Society November 28, 2001


Dean Wagner in the chair. Other members present: Bartlett, Binnion, Bornemann, Cramer, Di Stefano, Dupee, Fallon, Fisher, Green, Hanna, Hopkinson, Madeira, Peck, Simmons, Warden, Wheeler.

Your scribe apologizes for a mistake in the last meeting's minutes: the current head of the Franklin Inn Club was not among us during that meeting, but we expect to greet him soon.-- Notice was taken of an article in a July issue of U.S. News, on the views of that hardy crew that insists that the Earl of Oxford wrote the Bard's plays. Appended documents quote a long list of famous actors and scholars who have swallowed this nonsense over the past few decades. Your scribe will provide a short digest of these documents at the next meeting, and in the minutes of that meeting. --Members are asked to inform Secretary for Meetings Di Stefano that they wish to attend a meeting at least twenty-four hours in advance of that meeting. A member called our attention to the fine chapter on Antony in the recently published collection of lectures on Shakspere by W. H. Auden. This was Auden's favorite of the Bard's plays. To Auden, the historical material is not important; the personal relationship of the two lovers gives the play its power because that is what kindles Shakspere's imagination and brings to life its extraordinary language. Cleopatra's desertion of Antony at Actium is the great crux of this relationship, in Auden's view. Only two members have been lucky enough to have seen productions of this play in the theater; one in Central Park, one in London with the great Helen Mirren as Cleopatra but Miss Mirren was roundly panned by the reviewers for her work in this production!

We began our reading with Act Four, Scene Two of Antony. Vice Dean Fallon noted that in Scene Two, Antony predicts his death, and reminded us that when a character has such premonitions in a play of the Bard, that death is sure to occur. All the rest of the play is set in Alexandria, in contrast to the vast geographical sweep of earlier scenes.

4.3A famous moment: unearthly music is heard, and a guard comments, "Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd, / Now leaves him." The Vice Dean pointed out that there is little of the supernatural in this play, as is generally true of Shakspere's plays. Macbeth and Hamlet are of course the notable exceptions, and we recall the brief appearance of Caesar's ghost to Brutus late in Julius Caesar. (One might also think of the wonderful moment when Hermione's "statue" seems to come to life at the end of The Winter's Tale. Her overwhelmed husband's reaction: "If this is magic, let it be an art/ Lawful as eating!")

4.4---A comic moment in preparation for the disaster at Actium that seals the fate of the famous lovers: Cleopatra "helps" Antony arm for battle, and of course is all thumbs, childishly ignorant about battle armor, costume from a realm alien to Egypt's erotic enchantress. The lovers play, as they do so often, it was pointed out; but the scene is poignant to auditors and readers. We know the story: soon they will both die.

4.5, 4.6---Enobarbus finally leaves Antony, after delaying almost as long as Hamlet in doing what he feels he must do. Once in Caesar's camp, he is full of remorse and self-castigation, vowing, "I'll not fight thee." In 4.9, Enobarbus commits suicide, saying, "My revolt is infamous" and denouncing himself as "A master-leaver." It was remarked that these final scenes with Enobarbus enhance Antony's character in our minds, since his often cynical, witty, unsparing critic is so despairing at leaving his master.

Actium: Cleopatra for the second flees the battle scene. Antony immediately declares that "All is lost./ This foul Egyptian has betrayed me." Her motives? We do not know them, but Antony is certain that her desertion is calculated, and he loses all will to carry on his contest with Caesar. However, we were reminded, in the play's final scenes Cleopatra seems utterly loyal to Antony, full of grief, devotion, love. Almost all their followers leave them, so they are left to focus entirely on each other and their intense mutual devotion, as Antony dies in his lover's arms.-- Antony has fallen on his sword earlier, after his loyal servant Eros has killed himself rather than fulfill his promise to kill his master to save him from capture and public humiliation in Rome. Members commented on the many repetitions of the name "Eros" by Antony in this scene, with its powerful symbolic overtones. -- Finding Antony's corpse, the victorious Caesar grieves and praises his great adversary--as he had, we were reminded, over the corpse of Brutus at the end of Julius Caesar. Caesar, a member remarked, has lost his most splendid opportunity to shine in the public arena now that his greatest adversary is gone.

Our next meeting is December 12, 2001. We will begin reading with Act Five, Scene Two of Antony and Cleopatra. We will then start reading our next play for study and discussion, Measure for Measure.

Respectfully submitted, Robert G. Peck, Secretary for Minutes

Originally published: Saturday, January 26, 2008; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019