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Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Context


Shakespeare's Audience

William Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra for an audience that was broadly familiar with the story of the two lovers. A classical education was fundamental in Shakespeare's era; Latin and Greek studies took primacy over other subjects. Even grammar-school students were expected to learn Latin and sometimes Greek. Many courses at 16th- and 17th-century European universities were conducted entirely in Latin; although Shakespeare did not attend university, much of his grammar-school education would also have been conducted in Latin. Because classical education emphasized Greek and Roman history and literature, students were steeped not only in classical history but also in Greek and Roman mythology. This is not to say every English schoolboy had an extensive grounding in the classics; most British boys of the period received little if any education. But classical subjects permeated 16th-century culture in the same way familiar fairy tales, for example, permeate contemporary culture.

Plutarch's Lives

In a 1623 poetic tribute to Shakespeare, the poet Ben Jonson wrote that the playwright knew "small Latin and less Greek." Fortunately Shakespeare did not need to draw on either language to write his dramas about ancient Rome. In 1579 Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans was published. The Lives is one of the most important books in Western literature. In it Plutarch (c. 46 CE–c. 120 CE) wrote 50 biographies of famous people in classical history. Shakespeare relied heavily on four of these biographies when he wrote Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. He surely drew on Plutarch's characterization of Cleopatra: "Cleopatra oftentimes unarmed Antonius, and intised [sic] him to her, making him lose matters of great importance." This idea—that love for Cleopatra led Antony to neglect his military and state duties—became an influential one in the literature of the period.

Shakespeare was not the only playwright to read Plutarch nor the only writer of his day to be fascinated by Antony and Cleopatra. In 1578 the Countess of Pembroke translated the French play Marc Antoine into English. Her translation was renamed Antonius and published in 1592. This version was meant not for professional performers but as a "closet drama" to be read rather than performed onstage. A second closet drama, The Tragedy of Cleopatra, was published in 1594 and went through several editions.

The Story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony

Cleopatra ascended to the throne of Egypt in 51 BCE and formed an alliance, both personal and political, with Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, with whom she had a son, Caesarion. About three years after Caesar's assassination in 44 BCE, she met and began a passionate affair with Mark Antony, one of the three new rulers of Rome, the others being Octavius Caesar (Julius's nephew and heir) and Lepidus. Antony and Cleopatra had three children during their years together, a number of which were spent apart. However, when Antony did remain in Egypt for long periods of time, he neglected his duties and lived extravagantly, focusing his attentions on Cleopatra. Tensions continued to build among the three co-rulers of Rome, even though Antony, recently widowed, married Caesar's sister Octavia in 40 BCE. In 32 BCE Antony divorced Octavia.

In 34 BCE Cleopatra was deified together with Antony in Alexandria, and their children were made heirs, thus defying Roman law. The next year preparations began for a war between Caesar and Antony for supremacy. Caesar's forces defeated Antony and Cleopatra's at Actium in 31 BCE; famously, Cleopatra's ships suddenly turned and fled, and Antony left the battle to follow her. The next year after Caesar won a final naval battle at Alexandria, both Antony and Cleopatra died by their own hands. In 29 BCE Caesar returned to Rome and was crowned as Augustus Caesar by the Roman Senate in 27 BCE.

Antony and Cleopatra and Middle Age

Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra in 1606 or 1607—five years after Hamlet, about two years after Othello, and during the same period in which he wrote King Lear and Macbeth. Considered his greatest tragedies, these five works address challenges people face as they age. Shakespeare was in his early 40s around then, so it may not be surprising that Antony and Cleopatra treats the subject of midlife crisis. Both main characters cling to a vision of the fame and power they enjoyed in earlier days. The scenes in which they realize their former glory is gone forever are among the strongest in the play; that both arrive at a measure of mature acceptance before dying gives the ending a redemptive quality that is uncommon in tragedies.

Publication History

Antony and Cleopatra was entered into the Stationers' Register, an early form of copyright, in 1608, but there is no record that the play was staged during Shakespeare's lifetime. This does not mean it went unperformed; rather, records from the time are sometimes incomplete or absent and trying to piece together a play's history frequently requires some inference. The Folio edition of the play was published in 1623, after Shakespeare's death. Shakespeare's expensive and esteemed folios were large books produced by folding sheets of paper in half to produce four printed pages. In 1677 John Dryden's version of the story—a conscious Shakespeare imitation called All for Love—was performed by the King's Company in London. Dryden's play is set entirely in Alexandria and deals primarily with material from Act 5 of Antony and Cleopatra. As 19th-century author Sir Walter Scott wrote approvingly, Dryden left out "whatever in the original story is shocking and repulsive." It was not until the 20th century that relatively authentic versions were produced.

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