Temporality and Beauty in Antony and Cleopatra
From Firenze University Press Journal: Aisthesis
Giuseppe Di Giacomo, Sapienza Università di Roma
This essay shows how, in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the relation between the protagonists can be seen as an insurmountable contrast between two different cultures — on the one hand, the “diurnal” and “rational” culture of Rome and, on the other hand, the “nocturnal” and “passionate” culture of Egypt –, but also as an opposition between two different ways of understanding the relation between illusion and reality, appearance and truth, and thus between theatre and life. More specifically, what emerges is the awareness that art, embodied in Cleopatra’s beauty, constantly reminds us of the unredeemable finitude and transience of the human being, who is inevitably immersed in time.
Through the reflections developed in this essay, I would like to show how Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, by representing the close connection of themes such as love, war, art and death, is a play that calls into question the existing order of society and, at the same time, offers an opportunity to think, more broadly, about the meaning of art. In this light, a central theoretical point is the need to look for a «new heaven» and a «new earth» which runs throughout the whole play, finding its final achievement in the image of the Mausoleum: the Mausoleum where Octavius Caesar orders that the two protagonists should lie by themselves.
It is precisely in the Mausoleum that we find a condensed symbolic representation of «another» meaning than the one predominant in the world — a world where what prevails is possession, together with violence, rivalry and the will to power. Consequently, what the Mausoleum embodies is, on the one hand, the possibility to reach an absolute coinciding with meaning and, on the other hand, the awareness that achieving such meaning, considering that it coincides with the death of the two protagonists, rules out any chance of redeeming the human condition from its finitude and caducity. The essay highlights how, in Shakespeare’s play, art itself testifies to the impossibility of saving the finite from its finite-ness, as the character of Cleopatra demonstrates in an exemplary way.
If, in the play, Cleopatra represents a symbol of art, it is also true that, as an «object of desire» which is always denied and, as a consequence, can never be fully possessed, Cleopatra ends up embodying an idea of art and, simultaneously, an idea of beauty which are indissolubly intertwined with time, i.e. with transience and contingency. What emerges is thus an idea of art which makes us part of the absolute, while testifying to its unreachability, as it is the expression of a mystery which is and remains indecipherable. It is, in other words, a mystery that, being unsay-able, can only be «said» and «communicated» through silence.