The origins of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.


It is impossible to be precise about an exact date for Antony and Cleopatra but obviously it must be before the play was entered into the Stationers' Register on 20 May 1608. At this time, only members of the Stationers' Company were permitted to publish material for sale: any member wishing to print a book had to enter the title in advance in the Register. Some of the titles were never actually printed and remained only entries but the Register has proved an invaluable fund of information for later students of literature.

The text of Antony and Cleopatra was not printed until the Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623. Another play on the subject, Samuel Daniel's The Tragedy of Cleopatra, had been first published in 1594 and was reprinted, 'newly altered', in 1607. Daniel's revisions are clearly influenced by Shakespeare's play, which Daniel would have seen on the stage or perhaps in manuscript form. It seems likey that 1606 was the year of composition. This is around the same time that King Lear and Macbeth were written.

Patrick Stewart as Mark Antony and Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, surrounded by guards and maids. All are wearing white
Antony and Cleopatra 2006 directed by Gregory Doran. Mark Antony played by Patrick Stewart.
Photo by Pascal Molliere © RSC Browse and license our images

Shakespeare's Sources

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 Approach

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.'

The Shakespeare Touch

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 andHeroides, 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.

Historical contexts 

Tom Holland is the author of Rubicon: The triumph and tragedy of the Roman republicand Persian fire: The first world empire, battle for the West. He describes the world in which Antony and Cleopatra takes place.

"Had Cleopatra's nose been shorter," thought the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, "The whole look of the world would have changed." 

Not, on the face of it, the most fortunate of assertions: for Cleopatra, far from being the beauty of legend, seems, judging by the portraits on her coins, to have had a nose that could hardly have been any longer. Yet Pascal's broader point, that Cleopatra's attractiveness served to shape the course of history, was nevertheless well made. Beaky she may have been, but Cleopatra could still draw on resources of seductiveness that appear to have been limitless. 

"Her sex appeal," swooned the Greek biographer Plutarch, "Together with the charm of her conversation, and the charisma evident in everything she said or did, made her, quite simply, irresistible." And who, looking at her track-record, could possibly doubt it?

Certainly, she set her sights high. So far as we know, she only ever took two lovers - both of whom, at the time, ranked as the world's most powerful man. Her favours could hardly have been more exclusive. Power, for Cleopatra, was the only aphrodisiac. This was what enabled her - long nose or no - to shape and shake her times. Only fitting, as Shakespeare's Charmian might have put it, "For a princess / Descended of so many royal kings." 

Cleopatra was doubly a monarch. As Queen of Egypt, she laid claim to the venerable title of pharaoh: not merely a devotee of the country's fabulously ancient gods, she ranked as one herself. Yet Cleopatra, although worshipped as the New Isis by her native subjects, was in fact a Greek: the heir to a dynasty originally founded by Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great. The Ptolemies, over the centuries, had been unfailingly characterised by viciousness, sensuality and greed - and yet their kingdom, thoughout it all, had remained illumined by the glory of the conquering Macedonian.

Alexander's tomb still stood talisman-like in the city he had laid out amid sand and marshes some 300 years before, and which was now the most dazzling urban landscape on the planet, the ultimate cosmopolis, where East and West truly met: Alexandria. No wonder that Cleopatra, growing up in such a place, dared to imagine herself successor to the legacy of the man who had founded it: the rule, not merely of Egypt, but of all the world.

An imperious fantasy - and a dangerous one. The glory of the Ptolemies, and of the whole Greek world, was much diminished from its former greatness. Indeed, of all the independent kingdoms that had been established amid the fracturing of Alexander's empire, only Egypt still retained her independence. The rest had succumbed to the expansionary ambitions of a new power, a republic, and sternly contemptous of monarchs: Rome. That the Ptolemies themselves were permitted to survive was a reflection not of their strength, but rather of their pitiful weakness. Egypt was a land of unrivalled fertility and the Roman general who conquered Alexandria would have the bread-basket of the Mediterranean in his hands. By unwritten consent, a prize so dazzling was a prize too far. In the view of most Romans, it was safer and just as profitable to leave the Ptolemies to administer the costs of their own exploitation. A succession of Cleopatra's forebears had played the role of the Republic's poodle to perfection: secure enough to squeeze their subjects dry on behalf of their patrons, impotent enough never to present the slightest threat to Rome. On such a humiliating basis were they permitted to limp along.

By the mid-1st Century BC, however, the Republic was starting to implode, and the shock-waves, inevitably, were soon reverberating throughout Alexandria. In 49 BC, Rome's greatest general, Julius Caesar, launched a civil war that would ultimately result in his establishing a dictatorship amid the rubble of his city's ancient constitution - and give Cleopatra her first stab at restoring her family's fortunes. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48 BC, he quickly found himself embroiled in a dynastic death-struggle between the 21 year old queen and her younger brother. Cleopatra acted with typical decisiveness. First she had herself smuggled into Caesar's presence rolled up in a carpet; then she got herself pregnant by him; finally, with her brother defeated and killed, and herself securely upon Egypt's throne, she followed Caesar to Rome. The whole city was agog. It was said that Caesar planned to move the seat of empire to Alexandria, that he planned to marry Cleopatra, that he aimed to proclaim her the mistress of the world. Then, on the Ides of March, 44 BC, all such speculation was bloodily silenced. Caesar was assassinated. His murderers proclaimed the restoration of the Republic. Cleopatra, sensing that this was no time for her to linger in Rome, hot-footed it back home.

And there, as the Roman world succumbed to a renewed spasm of civil war, she remained. Caesar's assassins, unable to win Italy for their cause, also fled to the East. Meanwhile, Rome herself was placed under martial law by a triumvirate of the three most prominent Caesarians: Mark Antony, a playboy general who combined flamboyant vulgarity with a no less flamboyant élan; Marcus Lepidus, who had served the murdered dictator as his official deputy; and a 20 year-old, the young Octavian, Caesar's great-nephew and adopted heir. 

In 42 BC, Antony and Octavian together won a great battle outside the Macedonian city of Philippi, destroying the army of Caesar's assassins, and effectively securing the entire Roman empire for themselves. The two victors, sidelining Lepidus to a sinecure in Africa, portioned it up. Octavian, returning to Rome, received the West. Although this gave him mastery of the capital, it was also somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Italy was in turmoil. Sextus Pompeius, son of the man who had led the armies of the Republic against Julius Caesar, had profited from the chaos of the times to establish himself as the master of Sicily, and the admiral of 250 ships. Preying on the shipping lanes, he began to throttle Rome. Inevitably, the more the Romans starved, the more unpopular Octavian became.

Meanwhile, in the East, Antony was having a far more pleasurable time of it. His indulgences were those that had long been traditional among the Republic's proconsuls: fighting the Iranian kingdom of Parthia, Rome's only surviving major enemy in the East, and patronising Rome's subordinates. In 41 BC, he summoned Cleopatra to his headquarters - an unconscionable humiliation. The Queen of Egypt, however, wafting into the harbour amid the flashing of silver oars and the cooing of her attendants, had magnificently turned the tables. She knew Antony of old - vulgar, carnal, ambitious - and had correctly calculated that the best way to win his heart was with overblown spectacle. Just as he had been intended to do, Antony speedily made Cleopatra his mistress and passed a delightful winter with her in Alexandria. As with Caesar, so now with the new master of the Roman world, Cleopatra soon got herself pregnant. Having delivered Caesar a son, she went one better, and gave her new lover twins. It began to be whispered among Antony's enemies - and even his followers - that he was going native. And this is the moment at which Shakespeare's play begins…

This article first appeared in the show programme for the RSC's 2006 production of Antony and Cleopatra.

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