As the heatwave grinds on, I found myself talking this week about two titans of the classical world, Mark Antony and Aristotle.
In the week that marks the anniversary of the final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by Octavian at the Battle of Alexandria on July 31, 30 BCE, I was asked to the rehearsal room to guide the cast of the National Theatre’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (directed by Simon Godwin) through the complexities of Mediterranean history during the preceding decade.
The whole cast was impressed by how closely Shakespeare had followed the language and imagery in Plutarch's exquisite prose biography of Antony. The loudest ‘ooh’ greeted a coin found by the Sea of Galilee which shows how seriously Antony and Cleopatra had taken their plan for joint rule at least of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. But shock was expressed at the horrible propaganda images of Cleopatra as a strumpet churned out by Roman imperial publicity machines subsequently.
|Cleopatra VII & Antony in flagrante in British Mudeum|
Ralph Fiennes (Antony) wanted to know how torn Antony really was over parting ways with his former Triumvirs (unanswerable question!); and whether he was serious about marrying Octavian’s sister while carrying on a long-term affair with the Queen of Egypt (also unanswerable, although he had children that decade with both).
Sophie Okenedo (Cleopatra) was fascinated by the artefacts that show the cultural hybridity of Cleopatra’s Egypt and wanted to know how much being a woman had proved an obstacle to a proud Ptolemy determined to retain independence for her ancestral realm.
|Hybrid Monument to Cleopatra VII|
Tim McMullan (Enobarbus, who gets the best poetry) seemed struck by the tragedy of Gnaius Domitius' Ahenobarbus’ career—he changed sides twice and died a lonely death, says Shakespeare's source Plutarch, out of shame at his own disloyalty.
Then to Oxford on Saturday, where Nigel Warburton, by miles the leading proponent of public philosophy in Britain, interviewed me on my book Aristotle’s Way for his Philosophy in the Bookshop series in Blackwell’s store on Broad Street. Despite the searing heat, a wonderfully engaged audience of all ages gathered to ask penetrating questions about Aristotle’s relevance for the ethical and political issues we face today.
|With Nigel Warburton in Oxford|
|Standing room only for Aristotle, even on a hot August morning|
With audiences like this, despite all the reasons for gloom about the future, and the antics of our leaders on both domestic and world stages, I feel convinced that there are reasons for optimism. People want to make sense of our past, present and future, and I don't think that time is up for homo sapiens just yet.