One can take only so much bad news. Then it becomes necessary to seek sweet diversion. During these gray frozen days, however, not much else but bad news is available; even the small back-page articles are about Russians in Afghanistan or terrorists in Iran, or else chronicle the mild scufflings of presidential candidates whose words are flat and slippery as ice. s
Until suddenly, like orange light of summer sun, breaks in on us fresh news of Mark Antony. His splendid palace it's been reported, has been found by divers in the Mediterranean just off the shoreline of Alexandria, Egypt. Close by it too there rises Cleopatra's palace and Isis' temple and part of the fabled lighthouse of the pharoahs. And the lore of this forgotten world comes into our winter like fragrant incense wafted on warm breezes, or like lute music, subtle and beguiling, weaving sinuously as any question mark around the brute events of this day.
Mark Antony, too -- Shakespeare's Antony, anyway, whom he got from Plutarch -- knew what it was to be weary of bad news, incessant change and the blind shuttling menace of raw force. And the opening of "Antony and Cleopatra" shows him passionately desiring to turn away from history and live free. "Let Rome in Tiber melt," he says. "And the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space. /Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike feeds beat as well as man. . . ." And he, too, wanted to become a good safe beast, turning aside as to pasture from the unsatisfactory clamor of men's strivings, to live secretly and according to his own law.
Cleopatra was merely part of that yearning. It wasn't only that subtly mature, beautifully charming queen with whom he wished to sport the remaining sunlit years away, but what she represented too: "Egypt" itself, that sensual life, whose Nile-fed slime and ooze had generated gnats, fishes, crocodiles and man himself; and the Nile, too, that smooth moving road of abundant life immune from news, from whose warm surface mallards rose gracefully toward the declining sun.
That was only half of it, though, because Antony, a modern man and a realistic one, knew how dangerous the world was for those who sustainedly indulged such idyllic passions, and in the next scene convulsively adopted a new policy. "These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,/Or else lose myself in dotage."
And so, more out of fear than of interest, Antony returned to the world's mindless bashings, momentarily patched up his quarrel with Octavius Caesar and launched into war and intrigue once more, leaving Cleopatra for the cold northern embraces of a Roman wife who, like duty itself, was "a body rather than a life,/a statue than a breather."
But he soon grew bored, rebellious about having to involve himself with such fruitless complexities, and saw no good ahead. For he was an old soldier by now, veteran of mutability, who had long ago quit hoping that the sun of all political changes, even good ones, could ever lead to any pleasing, permanent state of things, in which life might once again take on the drowsy, bee-humming density of childhood; to whose lost Eden all his political efforts had beern merely a striving to return.
Sensual and happiness-loving as any American, Antony as last went back to Cleopatra for good; a tragic choice, because he knew that to respond less than fully to an adult version of reality that bore down on him in the form of murderous legions from the North was to buy with his own violent death whatever life he'd be able to savor in the quick meantime. But Antony accepted that and lived what was left of life without political illusions.
If it had to be lies he lived on, then he preferred Cleopatra's, those charming lover's trifles that were as butterflies compared with the systematic imperial untruths of that oncoming Northern colossus. Merely to live became his truth; and Cleopatra, as exotic and satisfying as a nectarine, summed that all up for him in palpable form. Worn out by politics, he was at last willing to die for that form of truth; had reached the point where he would respond only to extreme crises; and so was bound to be destroyed in time by the automaton empire that took no vacations.
Shakespeare wrote that play near the end of his career and must have felt Antony-like at the time -- craving to quit the babbling maul of London; craving to leave even his own creative genius that raged through him like fire through a house and wishing only to return to gentle Stratford. He too wanted life without comlications and had about a decade of it left.
What he'd learned in the big city, among many other things, was that all men were like Antony: torn between the noble, lazy claims of happiness and dire grappling with events as they arose. He loved Antony, and believed that in any humane life, which was the best life, this was the only way to live: in rhythmic suspirations of desire and necessity, like breathing.
But he also knew that in political life, it could not forever be that way. And that any nation that dozed on its sunlit barge while distant crises came on was doomed -- a truth that still moves among us as elusively as the fishes that weave among those massive columns in the cool submarine palaces of the kingdom that didn't want to hear bad news.