Portal to the Pages

A quick glimpse into my thoughts on various fiction

Antony and Cleopatra – Colleen McCullough

on November 3, 2012
Book cover of "Antony and Cleopatra" by Colleen McCullough

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is the 7th book in the Masters of Rome series, however I was unaware of this fact until after I finished reading it. Therefore, I will be reviewing Antony and Cleopatra as a standalone novel.

As the title suggests, it focuses on the experiences of Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra. The novel is set between 41 BC and 27 BC, so clearly does not cover all of the two main characters’ escapades. The main focus of the novel is that of the love affair between Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra and the events that this influences.

I was interested in reading this book, not only due to my interest in historical fiction, but also the fact that I knew relatively little about the history of Cleopatra and nothing at all about the history of Mark Antony. I expected the novel to give me a brief, if romanticised, insight into their personalities and the major events of their lives. I would be lying if I said that Antony and Cleopatra does not provide this insight, however it was the surrounding content that I found issue with.

Antony tends to move about between locations throughout the events of the novel and, as such, interacts with a number of different secondary characters. Cleopatra generally remains in Egypt and focuses on grooming her son to take over as the ruler of Egypt. The novel also follows the life of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire.

The portrayal of these three main characters is quite strong, with their motivations and ambitions explored in great detail. I found the growth of the character of Octavius to be particularly compelling, as, over time, he becomes the clear leader of Rome. Antony’s obsession with defeating Octavius actually fuels Octavius’ success further and Octavius’ goading of Antony becomes an interesting strategy. However, the author also goes into a great level of detail with almost all the secondary characters in the book. There were characters that the author spent pages describing and outlining the background of, only for these characters never to appear again in the novel. This made for incredibly tedious reading and I found my interest waning the further I got in the book.

I understand that from a historical context, these characters may have been crucial in setting the scene and to exclude them from the novel may have proved inexcusable, however from an entertainment perspective, many of them were extremely dry. I felt that much briefer backgrounds could have been given to some of the characters, without negatively impacting upon the reader’s understanding of the surrounding events of the novel.

The pacing of Antony and Cleopatra also left me feeling deflated. For a book that spans almost two decades, I felt that it moved at a glacial pace at times. One such example is the appearance of one of the title characters, Cleopatra. Cleopatra does not appear until the 23rd page, which may not sound like a major issue but it felt more like the 100th page. I kept wondering when Cleopatra would appear and whether or not to keep reading the book, a question I revisited at numerous times. At this relatively early stage in the book, I decided to persevere as I thought that the eventual appearance of Cleopatra might inject some life into the novel.

Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s presence only slightly improved the tedium of the novel, as the pace did not really speed up. She was also portrayed as an intensely unlikable character, filled with her own self-importance. As things started to go wrong for her, I did not feel any sympathy and instead felt that, while she was getting what she deserved, I did not really care how her life turned out.

Similarly to Cleopatra, the character of Antony was not portrayed in a very likable manner. He had numerous fatal flaws, such as recurring depression and poor military intelligence. I identified with him slightly more, to the point that I felt vaguely sorry for the troubles he encountered, but, once again, I didn’t find myself caring all that much what his final outcome was.

The saving grace of this novel, and what kept me reading to the end, was the character of Octavius. In contrast to Antony, Octavius was shown to have a number of core competencies essential to a good leader and general. He was portrayed as innovative, insightful, intelligent and had an unparalleled understanding of the motivations and opinions of the people of Rome. I find it much more compelling to read about a successful and/or innovative leader than a poor one. If Octavius did not feature so strongly in this novel, Antony and Cleopatra may have become the first book I gave up on reading before finishing.

Overall, I cannot recommend this novel as, at almost 600 pages long, I found it to be more of an endurance test than an enjoyable read. Perhaps the point of the novel is lost on me and one must read the previous six books in the series to fully appreciate the literary techniques at play, but I feel that if Antony and Cleopatra is anything to go by, reading another six books in a similar vein might actually push me over the edge!

If you have read Antony and Cleopatra and enjoyed it, please comment below and maybe you can educate me on the nuances that I missed in my reading. Alternatively, if you also disliked the book, feel free to vent in the comments section!

Sinead

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