“If one were asked to select the play of Shakespeare’s that best represents all aspects of his genius and preserves the most harmonious balance among them, Antony and Cleopatra would be the inevitable choice.”

Antony and Cleopatra

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


AC 1Dramatically adventurous, richly characterized, linguistically dazzling, Antony and Cleopatra is one of the great triumphs of Shakespeare’s late career. It is, it is said, closer than anything else he wrote to the Romantic ideal of sublimity – something so magnificent that the only one can react is with reverence and awe – and as such, received the praise one would expect from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who extolled its “fiery force” and “giant power,” and commented that there were probably no other works by Shakespeare in which “he impresses the notion of angelic strength so much.” In its depiction of the tremendous and history changing conflict between Rome and Egypt, the play is one of Shakespeare’s most ambitious political dramas.  But…it is the grand (and that’s the only word that can be used to describe it) passion between the two lovers that is at the heart of its action, and which is, ultimately, the impetus behind the tragedy. Indeed, for all its vastness, the play is also endearingly domestic in scale, and with their middle-aged squabbles and tantrums, Antony and Cleopatra come to embody something the fragile humanity that sits in the center of global politics.


First appears on the records in May of 1608, it seems likely that it was written a few years before: Christmas 1606-07 is possible.


As usual, Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579) is the main source – Shakespeare actually lifts some passages from it verbatim. Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra (1594) and Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter (1607) were also influences, as was, to a lesser extent, the Countess of Pembroke’s Antonius (1592).


Although the publisher Edward Blount registered the right to print Antony and Cleopatra, it seems that he never actually did.  The only surviving text is that of the 1623 Folio; numerous quirks seem to indicate that it was probably copied directly from Shakespeare’s manuscript.


From Harold Bloom:

Icon-AC“A.C. Bradley considered only four of Shakespeare’s characters to be ‘inexhaustible’: Hamlet, Cleopatra, Falstaff, and Iago. Readers and playgoers might wonder why no role from King Lear is on that shortlist: Lear himself, Edmund, Edgar, or the Fool. Perhaps Shakespeare divided his genius between the four in King Lear, which is certainly as inexhaustible as Hamlet among all the plays. Of Shakespeare’s representations of women, Cleopatra’s is the most subtle and formidable, by universal consent. Critics never can agree on very much about her. Shakespeare’s control of the various perspectives on her is so astute in this play, more perhaps than in any other, that the audience is given an enigmatic range of possible judgments and interpretations. Since Antony clearly does not understand her, are we likely to do any better? Rosalie Cole makes a nice point that we never see Antony and Cleopatra alone together. Actually we do, just once, but only for a moment, and when he is dangerously enraged against her. What were they like when they were, more or less, in some harmony? Did they go on acting, each taking the other as audience? With Hamlet, Falstaff, and Iago, they are the most intensely theatrical personages in Shakespeare, and Cleopatra at last wears Antony out: it would take Hamlet or Falstaff not to be upstaged by her. Cleopatra never ceases to play Cleopatra, and her perception of her role necessarily demotes Antony to the equivocal status of her leading man. It is her play, and never quite his, since he is waning well before the curtain goes up, and she cannot allow herself to wane. The archetype of the star, the world’s first celebrity, she is beyond her lovers – Pompey, Caesar, Antony – because they are known only for their achievements and their final tragedies. She has and needs no achievements, her death is triumphant rather than tragic, and she forever is known best for being well known.

After the four high tragedies of domesticity and blood, Antony and Cleopatra breaks out into the great world of the struggle of East versus West, of dissolving vistas and innumerable scenes. Dr. Johnson oddly judged that ‘no character is very strongly discriminated’ in Antony and Cleopatra, an observation more for Macbeth, where only the Macbeths do not fade into a common grayness. Everyone in Antony and Cleopatra is distinct, from the choric Enobarbus through the Clown who at the close brings Cleopatra the fatal asps. There are a dozen sharply etched minor roles aside from Antony’s ex-ally Caesar and Antony’s closest subordinate Enobarbus.

So vast and intense are Cleopatra and Antony as personalities that they seem to conclude the major phase of Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the inner self, which had begun at least twelve years before with Faulconbridge in King John, Richard II, Portia, and Shylock (however unintentional) and then had flowered in Falstaff; a decade before Cleopatra. Coriolanus, who follows Cleopatra, is a ‘lonely dragon’ with an abyss within, and the protagonists of the late romances are something other than realistic representations. Doubtless it is simplistic to suggest that the fourteen consecutive months in which King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra were composed [MY NOTE:  How mind-boggling is that?] wore out even William Shakespeare. I am the most Bardolatrus of critics and yet even I find that after Antony’s collapse and Cleopatra’s apotheosis, Shakespeare was wary of further quests into the interior.

John Dryden, in the Preface to his popular revision of Antony and Cleopatra, under the title of All for Love (1678), allowed himself to sound mildly censorious concerning his illustrious protagonists:

‘That which is wanting to work up the pity to a greater heighth, was not afforded me by the story: for the crimes of love which they both committed, were not occasion’d by any necessity, or fatal ignorance, but were wholly voluntary, since our passions are, or ought to be, within our power.’

antony-and-cleopatra-history-1766-361x541I doubt that Dryden himself ‘pitied’ Antony and Cleopatra, though he clearly regarded their mutual passion as reprehensible and catastrophic. I don’t know that it is at all useful to characterize the relationship between Cleopatra and Antony as mutually destructive, though Shakespeare certainly shows that it helps destroy them. Still, in their high-stakes cosmos of power and treachery, Octavius doubtless would have devoured them both anyway, at a perhaps more leisurely pace. All for Love, Dryden’s exuberant title, would not have done for Shakespeare’s play, even All for Lust misses the mark. Antony and Cleopatra are, both of them, charismatic politicians; each of them has so great a passion for himself and herself that it becomes marvelous for them actually to apprehend each other’s reality, in even the smallest degree. Both of them take up all the space; everyone else, even Octavius, is reduced to part of their audience. There is, to be sure, a ghost who never appears in this play: Julius Caesar, who alone never reduced them to supporting cast, though never to mere audience, Perhaps it was from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, play and character, that Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra learned their endearing trait of never listening to what anyone else says, including each other. Antony’s death scene is the most hilarious instance of this, where the dying hero, making a very good end indeed, nevertheless sincerely attempts to give Cleopatra some advice, while she keeps interrupting, at one point splendidly responding to his ‘let me speak a little’ with her ‘No, let me speak.’ Since his advice is quite bad anyway, as it has been throughout the play, this makes little difference, except that Antony, just this once, almost stops acting the part of Antony, Herculean hero, whereas Shakespeare wishes us to see that Cleopatra never stops acting the part of Cleopatra. That is why it is so wonderfully difficult a role for an actress, who must act the part of Cleopatra, and also portray Cleopatra acting the part of Cleopatra. I recall the young Helen Mirren doing better with the double assignment than any other Cleopatra that I have seen.”


From Marjorie Garber:

ant_playbill_1849_243x317“Twenty-first-century scholars have tended to prefer the term ‘early modern’ for the period in which Shakespeare wrote, rather than the earlier label ‘Renaissance.’ (Other contenders over the years have included ‘Tudor/Stuart’ and ‘Elizabethan-Jacobean’ or simply ‘Elizabethan’ as in E.K. Chamber’s masterwork The Elizabethan Stage.) ‘Early modern suggests that what is depicted anticipates our present time. ‘Renaissance,’ a term borrowed from history and art history and often used to describe fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy rather than seventeenth-century Britain, has variously been seen as historically and geographically inexact, as implying an unfairly ‘dark’ view of the Middle Ages. Yet the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England, Scotland, and Wales were times of intellectual ‘rebirth,’ as literary historians have always recognized. The rediscovery of the classics – often literally rediscovered after years of being ‘lost’ – and a new emphasis on the models provided by earlier moments of civilization and empire led to a focus, in the school curriculum, on Greek and Roman mythology, poetry, and history writing. The curriculum of the Stratford grammar school where Shakespeare studied included Ovid’s Metamorphoses, William Lily’s Grammatica Latina, and Aesop’s Fables, and even some moral philosophy (Cicero) and Roman classics (Sallust).

Ben Jonson’s gentle observation in his memorial poem ‘My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,’ affixed to the First Folio, famously alluded to Shakespeare’s ‘small Latin, and less Greek,’ but all such things are comparative. Shakespeare’s knowledge of classical languages was ‘small’ compared to that of Jonson, a self-taught polymath (and the son of a bricklayer). But Shakespeare knew far more Greek and Latin than most readers do today, and he was educated in what we now call ‘the classics.’ Queen Elizabeth and King James both knew Latin – Elizabeth most famously harangued an impertinent Polish ambassador, extemporaneously, in that language, observing complacently after the fact that she was glad to have had a chance to use her Latin, which had ‘long lain rusting.’ James wrote Basilicon Doron and The True Lawe of Free Monarchies and presented himself, in iconography and rhetoric, as the inheritor of Roman greatness.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, newly translated by Sir Thomas North and published in 1579, provided a model – widely utilized in contemporary histories – of example and comparison. Placing ancient rulers and generals side by side, a Greek and a Roman (Theseus with Romulus, Pericles with Fabius, Alcibiades with Coriolanus), Plutarch’s Parallel Lives suggested a way of reading history that did, indeed, look backward and forward at once. The implication for the eras of Elizabeth and James was clear: England (or, in James’s time, Britain) was the third term, the next major Western civilization, and its heroes could and should be seen as the natural inheritors of the patterns discerned by Plutarch. History taught, and it also warned; the stories of yesterday’s heroes were models for conduct, statecraft, and martial prowess, but were also lessons about pride, vainglory, and the fleetingness of fame. Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antony’ is one of Shakespeare’s chief sources here, along with Plutarch’s ‘Of Isis and Osiris’ and Virgil’s Aeneid.

When we approach Shakespeare’s magnificent baroque creation Antony and Cleopatra, perhaps the first question that arises is one of genre. Is it a tragedy, the tragedy of Antony, or is it the greatest and most excessive of Shakespeare’s history plays? ‘I and my sword will earn our chronicle’ (3.13.178), Antony tells Cleopatra: I will make our place in history through my heroism on the battlefield. But is the play about the end of the old order in Rome, and the coming of new? Is it about a young, political Octavius Caesar who resembles Prince Hal in his cold calculation? Or is it about Antony and Cleopatra as they appear in the play’s last acts, transformed into quasi-mythological beings who transcend time and space? Is this play, that is to say, about Egypt and eternity? Egypt and art? Or about Rome and time? Rome and history? What is the relationship between love and war, and love and order, in Antony and Cleopatra?”


From Mark Van Doren:

424660“If ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was written first among the three tragedies in which Shakespeare returned to Plutarch for his source, the writing of it involved the removal of his imagination to a distance that almost staggers measurement.  The poet of “King Lear” and “Macbeth” now works freely under a great dome of lighted sky which knows no clouds except an occasional illusory and indistinct one, and which feels no wind beyond the soft one of its own effortless breathing. The world of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is so immense that time yawns in it; and this is not because time is going to die as it did in ‘Macbeth’ but because it luxuriates in a sense of perfect and endless health. The mandragora that Cleopatra wants to drink so that she may ‘sleep out this great gap of time’ (I, v 5) while Antony is away needs scarcely to be drunk in a universe already drugged with a knowledge of its own size. It is all the world that Plutarch knew or that Shakespeare knows as he writes: the Mediterranean world where opulent Africa lies across a gleaming sea from Spain, Italy, and Greece, and where innumerable kingdoms stretch eastward to the horizon. Nor is there terror in such distances. Men are at home in ‘the wide arch of the rang’d empire,’ and call each other naturally the most glorious names: ‘triple pillar of the world,’ ‘demi-Atlas of this earth,’ ‘senators alone of this great world,’ ‘world-sharers,’ ‘universal landlord,’ ‘sole sir o’ the world.’ There is no terror because there is so much light.”


From A.D. Nuttall:

AC_PosterAntony and Cleopatra, like Romeo and Juliet, shows by its title that it has two main characters not one, and this is already, implicitly, a move against the singleness of focus natural to European tragedy. It is hard to imagine a Greek tragedy called, say, Theseus and Phaedra. In Romeo and Juliet the double title signaled a negotiation with comic form. In Antony and Cleopatra the doubling is the product of a reduplicated metaphysic: the tragedy of a Roman soldier and the tragedy of love. The story of Antony in the play is the story of a political and military leader who falls in love, gloriously and disastrously, with an Egyptian Queen. The story of Cleopatra is the story of an erotic free spirit whose life becomes entangled, gloriously and disastrously, with imperial Rome.

Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens are all Plutarchian plays. Plutarch himself was a Greek and therefore sees the Romans from outside, as a harshly masculine culture. This immediately sheds a chill on the resulting Roman plays. Julius Caesar, compared with, say, Macbeth, feels like a black-and-white film. Coriolanus, we sense, might have been fully human but only if he had been born into another culture. As it is he is a titan, a machine, an emotionally stunted child – a man perhaps, but never (except for just one instant) a human being. The sense of coldness may be increased by an underlying awareness that these people lived before the birth of Christ. One wishes to speak of an ‘impoverished’ world but the word suggests that things have got worse when the main idea is that on the contrary they are about to get better – and that is what makes the ancients, relatively, poor. Perhaps the right word is ‘un-enriched.’ A.C. Swinburne, indeed, thought that the world turned grey with the coming of Christ. It may well be that Shakespeare, as he read his Plutarch, would have thought that the world was grey before Christ came to redeem it. [MY NOTE:  That really doesn’t sound right.]  Certainly a sense of undernourished humanity fills Timon of Athens, which deals with Greeks, not Romans. But in Antony and Cleopatra color suddenly blazes.”


From Harold Goddard:

PSP08531“If one were asked to select the play of Shakespeare’s that best represents all aspects of his genius and preserves the most harmonious balance among them, Antony and Cleopatra would be the inevitable choice. Here history, comedy, and tragedy are chemically combined; here the scope of the drama is world-wide, here sprawling and recalcitrant material is integrated with a conservative art that only many rereadings permit one to appreciate; here all the important characters of a huge cast are distinctly individualized, humor is so inherent that we do not think of it and could not conceivably speak of it as comic relief; here poetry of the highest order remains continually in keeping with the immense variety of scene and subject; here, finally, a conclusion that borrows touches from the death scenes of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear blends them into what is in some respects the most complex, sustained and magnificent piece of musical orchestration to be found anywhere in Shakespeare.”


And finally, from Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae:

AC Poster 2“Despite his love for the glamorous personality of multiple moods and masks, Shakespeare subordinates all his characters to the public good. The great chain of being reasserts itself at the end of his plays. The psycho-alchemic pattern of Shakespeare’s comedies is release, remelting, and reincorporation in society. So Dionysian fluidity and metamorphoses move toward a final Apollonian ordering, a Renaissance moral value in which Shakespeare rejoins Spenser. In Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) Shakespeare amplifies the psychology of his transvestite comedies. Antony and Cleopatra shows us what happens when sexual personae refuse reincorporation into society and insist on remaining in nature, the realm of perpetual transformations. The play confirms that the price of Rosalind’s remaining an androgyne in the Forest of Arden would be spiritual death.

Antony and Cleopatra, long thought technically flawed, may be the favorite Shakespeare play of my generation of critics. Unlike older scholars, some of us find King Lear boring and obvious, and we dread having to teach it to resentful students. Antony and Cleopatra has come into its own. Its choppy multitude of scenes, flying about the ancient Mediterranean, do not irritate sensibilities schooled on cinema. Here again is Shakespeare’s mobile eye. Spenser’s camera is the obsessive zoom lens, concentrated and iconistic. But Shakespeare’s hand-held camera takes us to the air, dominating western space. Antony and Cleopatra closely follows its source in Plutarch. But as usual, Shakespeare adds his own metamorphic metaphors and pyrotechnic personae. I see this play as the most thorough of Shakespeare’s replies to Spenser. The Egypt of Antony and Cleopatra is Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, fertile stamping ground of the femme fatale. But Shakespeare, the Dionysian alchemist, is determined to rescue nature from its daemonic taint. He will show it as its rawest and most brutal, then defend it. Yet Renaissance order must have the last word.

Over the last century, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra has undergone a radical change in critical fortunes She used to be the lowest of the low among Shakespeare’s protagonists. Her sexual libertinism and volatility led to Victoria and post-Victorian vilification. Her sharp mood-changes were thought moral duplicity. In scholarly literature before the feminist 1970s, rare indeed is a comment like A.C. Bradley’s ‘Many unpleasant things can be said of Cleopatra; and the more that are said the more wonderful she appears.’ Perhaps apocryphally, a Victorian theatergoer leaving a production of Antony and Cleopatra remarked, ‘How different from the domestic life of our own dear Queen.’ Since then, there has been a huge shift in sexual assumptions about women, from which Cleopatra has profited. The Victorians admired Cordelia, Lear’s one honest daughter, as the saintly perfection of femininity. To me, probably as time-bound as they, Cordelia seems a vapid nincompoop, self-righteous and self-thwarting. Even for her most generous apologists, Cleopatra presents interpretive problems. Her temperamental excesses make people uneasy. She is, in my terms, Shakespeare’s most uncontrolled and uncontrollable Dionysian androgyne, the metamorphosing Mercurius who obeys no law but her own. Hence she cannot survive her play.”


After the shattering bleakness of King Lear…reading this is going to be almost like the film version of The Wizard of Oz – as we the grim black and white world of Ancient Britain for the Technicolor splendors of Egypt and Rome.

A question for the group – do you want to keep the same kind of pacing for this play as we did for Lear (one act per week), or would you like me to speed it up a bit.  Let me know!


Our next reading:  Antony and Cleopatra, Act One

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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10 Responses to “If one were asked to select the play of Shakespeare’s that best represents all aspects of his genius and preserves the most harmonious balance among them, Antony and Cleopatra would be the inevitable choice.”

  1. Joe Simon says:

    I like the slower pace, as long as the material supports it.

  2. artmama says:

    Thanks for the intro, and I also vote for slow and steady.

  3. GGG says:

    Yes, i third that. Liked the pace of Lear.

  4. Eddie says:

    Slow is good for me so I can get caught up and avoid falling behind.

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