Shakespeare's sources

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown investigates the stories which inspired Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:


In 1579 Sir Thomas North published his English translation of the first-century historian Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Shakespeare found a mass of fascinating material in Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony and gave it form and focus in his play by concentrating on Antony's relationship with Cleopatra. Plutarch's historical approach is a gift to a dramatist, focussing, as it does, not only on battles and political treaties but also the looks and demeanour of his subjects and the complexities of their personalities - their desires, fears, strengths, frailties and follies. Shakespeare learns from Plutarch, for example, that Cleopatra once smuggled herself into Julius Caesar's presence rolled up in a mattress. The many parallels between Shakespeare's writing and that of his source demonstrate the closeness of his reading of North's translation. The most well-known of these is the description by Enobarbus in Act 2 Scene 2 of Cleopatra's first meeting with Antony. North's version describes it this way:

    'She disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, hautboys, citterns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture, and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands with the which they fanned wind upon her.'

And this is Shakespeare:

    'The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
    Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
    Purple the sails and so perfumed that
    The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,
    Which to the tunes of flutes kept stroke, and made
    The water which they beat to follow faster,
    As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
    It beggared all description: she did lie
    In her pavilion - cloth of gold, of tissue -
    O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
    The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
    Stood pretty, dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
    With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
    To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
    And what they undid did.'

Shakespeare does make some significant changes to his source material. In Plutarch, for example, Antony's marriage to Octavia lasts some years and produces children. Shakespeare, on the other hand, minimizes the alliance by making it short-lived and barren.

It is Shakespeare's choice to lay great stress on the transcendent nature of the love between Antony and Cleopatra as his play reaches its conclusion. His lovers frequently compare themselves to gods or demigods: Isis, Venus, Mars, Hercules, Aeneas and Dido. The mythological stories of these figures provide another range of source material, accessible through classical works, such as Ovid's Metamorphosis and Heroides, Virgil's Aeneid, and Apuleius' The Golden Ass. Such material was also found in English works, such as Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women and The House of Fame, and, in the late sixteenth century, Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage.

The story of Cleopatra and her lover had long been well-known and popular. Robert Garnier's play, Marc Antoine, written in 1578, was translated from the French by the Countess of Pembroke and published in 1592 as Antonius, a play to be read rather than acted. Another closet drama, Samuel Daniel's The Tragedy of Cleopatra, was first printed in 1594 and subsequently reprinted several times.

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC

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