Monday, July 4, 2011

Shepheardes Calendar and Antony and Cleopatra

I would argue that both Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar (1579) and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra are about establishing stringent binary oppositions only to dismantle them later, thereby questioning any stability those organizing principles may have possessed. The twelve stories in the Shepheardes Calendar are arranged (as the titles suggests) from January to December, beginning with the hope of Spring's rebirth and ending with the other end of the life cycle: death. Many of these months examine opposing viewpoints or conditions. January begins with Colin Clout, who has just been rejected by his beloved Rosalind, journeying from the country into the town. Now only is the pastoral juxtaposed with the more industrious city, but love is also contradictory in and of itself, as Colin laments that it should "breede both joy and payne, " cursing and blessing his meeting Rosalind by turns (54, 49-51). February opposes youth and age, with the young Cuddie wishing for the frivolity of Spring while the aged Thenot asks him to be patient, saying that the fertility rituals Cuddie wishes for are a young man's game, a silly public display that he is glad to be rid of. Though Cuddie does not heed the warnings he is given at the end of the poem, I get the sense that he acts so not from any failing of character, but becuase hes role in the cycle of life is to be young and kind of stupid. If he did not fulfill this role, the natural order of the Calender would be disrupted. Spenser's deliberately archaic language (a trope he uses to slightly different, more nationalistic effect in The Faerie Queene) helps cement the "It's always been that way, it will always be that way" stasis that the poem both thrives on and confuses.

March, as the beginning of Spring, touches on two boys' stories of romantic knowledge, and things get really interesting in April, when Hobbinol (a shepherd) sings a song of Colin's love of a woman named Eliza who is "Ycald in Scarlot like a mayden Queene / And Ermines white" (lines 58-9, page 73). The colors and fabrics associated with this "mayden Queene" are a not-so- subtle nod to Queen Elizabeth I, thereby placing the Queen at the center of a homosocial triangle created by the two opposing young men. This placement of the Queen within a pastoral motif mirrors many royal parties of the period and glorifies a form that, as it praises the natural, is quite reliant on artifice. May centers on a Protestant/Catholic worship debate that never rally gets settled, and the rest of the poem frames Colin's pursuit of Rosalind various ways, with December causing him to conclude that he is like fruit that fell off the tree before it really had the chance to ripen, since he is old but unlucky in love. Therefore, though the whole poem tries to say that it is youth and love that are compatible, it ultimately contradicts itself, choosing to end the poem by saying that mortality is the only stable fact; all the other rules we make for ourselves are negotiable.

Antony and Cleopatra works to dismantle binaries as well : masculine/feminine, logical/emotional, Roman/Egyptian, and normal/excessive are the big ones, and the play wants us to think that all the words on the left and all the words on the right line up with one another, that Rome is tough and strong and cool-headed and Egypt just wants to get laid and then cry about it. Or at least the play wants us to think that's what it wants to do. At first. Except that Antony cries an awful lot, and Cleopatra is pretty good at getting stuff done in her kingdom, even when she uses some stereotypical feminine wiles to do so. Some of the other soldiers attribute this to Cleopatra's corrupting influence, and then they all get scared of being feminized to the point that when Lepidus gets rip-roaring drunk to celebrate the formation of the Triumvirate, the other men refer to his hangover as greensickness--a form of anemia that Early Modern medicine attributed to virgins, the cure for which was sex ASAP (and preferably sex that resulted in pregnancy). At worst, women are all things negative in the world of the play. At best, they're bargaining chips, as in the case of Antony's marriage of political alliance to Octavia.

Not that this sexism is limited to Romans in the play, or to dudes in general. The moment that Cleopatra hears of Antony's marriage to Octavia, she sends her attendants to gather information about the woman in order to prove that she is more beautiful and younger than Antony's current wife. Even though Cleopatra is often frivolous in similar ways, she dies with dignity, on a throne, refusing to witness her kingdom's downfall. With this ending (and because Antony's death happens much earlier, letting Cleopatra's death occur in Act 5, when tragic climax deaths usually occur), a woman who has embodied Egyptian excess embodies Roman logic and ruling ability. Everything the play relies on for its stability is made unstable in the end.

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