Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 91)
Antony and Cleopatra
For further information on the critical and stage history of Antony and Cleopatra, see SC, Volumes 6, 17, 27, 47, 58, 70, and 81.
Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606) records some of the significant events that occurred from 40 to 30 b.c. as the Roman Republic came to an end and was replaced by an imperial monarchy. At the outset of the play, Rome is ruled by a triumvirate of leaders: Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Aemilius Lepidus. By its close, the struggle for control of half the world ends with Octavius as the sole victor. The dramatic action shifts back and forth between Rome and Alexandria as Antony alternately pursues his duties as a military leader and his desire for Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose erotic appeal has seemingly captivated him. After his defeat by Octavius at the battle of Actium, Antony hears a false report of Cleopatra's death and attempts to kill himself. The dying Antony is brought to Cleopatra's stronghold. After his death, she arranges and carries out her own suicide, predicting that the two of them are destined to become the most famous lovers in history. One of the academic challenges that Antony and Cleopatra presents is its mixture of history and tragedy, politics and passion. Recent commentary often emphasizes the play's political aspects, though some critics continue to highlight its love story. Other important critical questions addressed by scholars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries include race and gender issues, and to what extent characters and events dramatized in the play reflect social, cultural, and political realities in early modern England.
In a wide-ranging essay, Ania Loomba (2002) addresses some of these concerns, such as the play's dichotomies between East and West, Egypt and Rome, and Cleopatra and Octavius in terms of early modern English culture. The critic finds many reflections in Antony and Cleopatra of the English fear of foreigners and outsiders—particularly those whose skin color is darker than theirs—and anxieties about the power of alien women to emasculate men or divert them from their commitment to political domination. Similarly, Francesca T. Royster (see Further Reading) contends that Antony and Cleopatra's depiction of the Egyptian queen as black-skinned reflects late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English social and cultural anxieties about miscegenation. In particular, the critic calls attention to the discrepancy between early modern England's fear of miscegenation and its recognition that Egypt was a principal foundation of European culture. Other commentators have focused on the juxtaposition of Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra, including Arthur Little (see Further Reading), Arthur Lindley (2003), and Andrew Hiscock (see Further Reading). Remarking on what he sees as the disparities between Rome and Egypt, Little maintains that it is precisely because Egypt is so different that Rome feels threatened by it. Lindley and Hiscock treat Cleopatra and Octavius as epitomes of these disparate cultures. Lindley compares Cleopatra's association with festivity and her perception that values are mutable to Octavius's single-minded determination to monopolize the world and reconfigure it on his own terms. Hiscock, too, contrasts Cleopatra's volatile—sometimes chaotic—creativity with Octavius's insistence on permanence and definition.
Linda Charnes (see Further Reading) argues that the battle between Octavius and Cleopatra “is staked out across the terrain of Antony's ‘identity.’” She contends that Antony is driven by a desire to weave together the two parts of himself, but that he finds it impossible to carry out this project. Cynthia Marshall (see Further Reading) focuses on what she, too, sees as Antony's “imperiled identity”; like Charnes, she views Antony as a man who is unable to define himself and allows others to shape his image. Marshall also discusses Antony's repeated self-reproaches and the significance of his suicide. Jacqueline Vanhoutte (2000) devotes her essay on Antony to the complex issue of his attempt to kill himself. Vanhoutte views Antony as a man desperate to establish his own identity and his honor as a Roman hero, rather than permitting others to do this for him. The critic argues that the play neither praises nor condemns Antony's suicide but instead encourages audiences and readers to suspend judgment about whether it is a noble act or a despairing one. In his study of Cleopatra, Frederick Turner (1999) emphasizes the Egyptian queen's association with the Nile: a recurring source of energy and new life. Writing from the perspectives of psychoanalytic theory and classical mythology, Lisa Starks (see Further Reading) describes Cleopatra as both “the male masochist's ideal woman” and a “goddess-queen.” Cristina León Alfar (2003) views Shakespeare's portrait of Cleopatra as one of his several “experiments with alternate forms of feminine power.” In Alfar's judgment, the play explores how a woman faced with imperialist, masculinist aggression might use her femininity to contest that aggression. Little also remarks on Cleopatra as a sexually and racially polarizing figure. Little suggests that the ultimate goal of the queen's theatricality is to challenge Romans' attempts to define her in their own terms. Indeed, the critic maintains that the queen's suicide is an attempt to reframe herself, to present an image of “chastity in death.”
In his introduction to the Riverside edition (1974) of the play, the eminent British critic Frank Kermode (see Further Reading) remarks that Antony and Cleopatra is now generally regarded to be one of “Shakespeare's supreme achievements.” Yet the play continues to resist critically successful stagings. The play presents several challenges to directors and set designers, such as its thirty-two scene changes and the question of how to represent the play's middle-aged lovers. Indeed, many critics highlight the challenge of successfully representing the lovers when discussing the deficient sexual chemistry between Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren in Sean Mathias's 1998 production at the Royal National Theatre in London. Reviewers also contend that while Mirren gave a poignant and technically precise performance as the queen, Rickman's interpretation of Antony as a weary, listless general was a disaster. Commentators also disparage Steven Pimlott's 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) revival of the play, maintaining that the ensemble actors' solid performances were often overshadowed by Pimlott's contrived theatrical innovations. In particular, critics disdain the artificial symbolic device in which each character, upon dying, calmly stood up and walked off the stage while the dramatic action proceeded around them. By contrast, reviewers applaud Giles Block's production of Antony and Cleopatra that same year at London's Globe Theatre. Utilizing such Elizabethan theatrical conventions as period costumes, a simple platform stage, and an all-male cast, Block succeeded, according to many commentators, in emphasizing the imaginative and entertaining aspect of Shakespeare's study of politics and sexuality. Critics praise Mark Rylance's portrayal of Cleopatra, maintaining that not only did he transcend the gender barrier, but he also imbued the multi-faceted character with some freshly provocative insights. Michael Attenborough's 2002 RSC presentation of the play received generally mixed critical reviews. While some commentators assert that Attenborough admirably balanced the dozens of scenes and deftly presented the transitions between Rome and Egypt, others find many of the production's dramatic shifts confusing. In addition, most reviewers express dismay that so many classically trained actors had so much trouble speaking Shakespeare's verse.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Turner, Frederick. “The Invention of Value: Shakespeare's Fatal Cleopatra.” In Fortier, Feliciter, Fideliter: Centennial Lectures of the Graduate School of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, edited by Lewis Pyenson, pp. 19-63. Lafayette: Graduate School, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1999.
[In the following essay, Turner examines the theme of creativity in Antony and Cleopatra. The critic devotes particular attention to the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra; their attempt to devise a new world that, in contrast to the Roman one, would be unpredictable and self-generating; and the rhetorical figures, especially of hyperbole and paradox, that underscore the motif of emerging life.]
I. THE LABORATORY OF CREATION
At the core of Shakespeare's economic theory is a radical vision of the world as spontaneously generating order, structure, and value in a continual self-metamorphosis. Antony and Cleopatra is a sort of thought experiment, in which the object of study—how emergent structures and values are created—is isolated and disentangled from other possible factors, so as to be examined in itself. Shakespeare is constrained by the logic of his investigation to purify of any extraneous causes the natural creative process and the bonds and gifts that are its human extension, revealing their essential mechanisms. This purification or...
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SOURCE: Loomba, Ania. “The Imperial Romance of Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, pp. 112-34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
[In the following excerpt, Loomba evaluates the play's dichotomies between East and West, Egypt and Rome, and Cleopatra and Octavius in terms of early modern English culture. The critic finds many reflections in Antony and Cleopatra of the English fear of foreigners and outsiders—particularly those whose skin color is darker than theirs—and anxieties about the power of alien women to emasculate men or divert them from their commitment to political domination.]
Written only a few years after Othello, Antony and Cleopatra (1606-7) looks at the intersection of racial difference, colonial expansion, and gender from a very different angle. In this play, Shakespeare reaches back to events which had occurred in the first century bc, and which had been repeatedly narrated by Roman and other storytellers from that time to his own. By taking as his central figure a foreign queen who was already a symbol of wanton sexuality and political seduction in European culture, Shakespeare comments on a long tradition of writing in which sexual passion expresses, but also ultimately sabotages, imperial ambition. Shakespeare harnesses a long history and wide geography to early modern English anxieties about women's power, foreigners, and...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Antony's ‘Secret House of Death’: Suicide and Sovereignty in Antony and Cleopatra.” Philological Quarterly 79, no. 2 (spring 2000): 153-75.
[In the following essay, Vanhoutte argues that Shakespeare's depiction of Antony's suicide precludes judgments of it as either ignoble or praiseworthy. Drawing on the writings of Donne and Montaigne, she explicates early modern views of self-slaughter and concludes that although Antony initially contemplates death at his own hands in a despairing frame of mind, he ultimately regards his suicide as a self-assertive act that will thwart the attempts of others to define him.]
Just after Antony dies from a self-inflicted wound, Shakespeare's Cleopatra asks, “is it sin, / To rush into the secret house of death / Ere death dare come to us?”1 The question appears to be rhetorical; Cleopatra soon announces her intention to prove her “resolution” by pursuing “the briefest end” (4.15.91).2 This decision earns her the homage of her most assiduous critic: Caesar, fond of describing the living Cleopatra as a “whore” (3.6.67), refers to the dead one as “bravest at the last” and “royal” (5.2.333-34). Readers of the play have followed suit. The queen of Egypt herself is the subject of conflicting commentary, but her “end” typically earns critical applause. Even those who denounce...
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SOURCE: Alfar, Cristina León. “‘I kiss his conqu'ring hand’: Cleopatra and the ‘Erotics’ of Imperial Domination.” In Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and Power in Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 136-59. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003.
[In the following essay, Alfar reads Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of female modes of power, with particular emphasis on Rome's imperial, masculinist domination. Cleopatra exploits the erotic desire inspired by her body, the critic suggests, using it for political purposes as well as personal interests, even though she understands that regardless of her strategies, she is relatively powerless against Roman aggression. Alfar also compares Cleopatra with female characters in other Shakespearean tragedies: Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Goneril and Regan in King Lear.]
The dynamics of gender and power staged in King Lear and Macbeth are intricately linked to women's participation in competitions for power associated with masculinity. According to Goneril, Albany's distaste for what she sees to be the inherent ruthlessness of rule makes him “milk-liver'd” (4.2.50) and forces her to “change names at home, and give the distaff / Into [her] husband's hands” (17-18). As in Macbeth power is masculinized, weakness feminized, so that both plays seem to construct traditional gender roles and to condemn women's...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Murray, David. “Shakespeare's Unique Voice Disappears into Rickman's Beard.” Financial Times (22 October 1998): 16.
[In the following review, Murray censures Sean Mathias, the director of the 1998 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra, for his lack of respect for the play's poetry. He describes Alan Rickman's delivery of Antony's speeches as “a disaster,” but he extends kudos to Helen Mirren for her evocation of a vital, energetic, and ambiguous Cleopatra.]
Many people have been saying for months that the National Theatre's new Antony and Cleopatra was bound to be worth seeing just for Helen Mirren. Sadly, that proves to be the literal truth.
Mirren is eminently worth hearing, too; and Samuel West's Octavius Caesar at least boasts faultlessly audible diction, like several actors in lesser roles. Most of them surmount the notorious acoustic hazards of the Olivier Theatre with credit.
As Antony, however, grizzled Alan Rickman's delivery is a disaster, almost devoid of recognisable landmarks. In whole speeches there might be not one intelligible line, and only a dozen or so words. Perhaps it was the droopy moustache—or perhaps the kazoo he seemed to have concealed in it: a strange, nasal drone on one note often protruded through his fudgy consonants and warped vowels. Yet his lofty frame, swaying, teetering, flapping and...
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SOURCE: Kellaway, Kate. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. New Statesman (30 October 1998).
[In the following excerpted review of Sean Mathias's 1998 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra, Kellaway suggests that Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren are not credible as lovers. She characterizes Mirren's Cleopatra as both capricious and scheming, and disparages Rickman's Antony as understated and tight-lipped.]
At the beginning of Sean Mathias's production of Antony and Cleopatra it seems we are witnessing the morning after a golden night before. Antony (Alan Rickman) has an exhausted look and his voice hasn't woken up properly; it is as though his very character were crushed linen. Cleopatra (Helen Mirren) is also languid, displaying herself on a bank of carpet-covered bolsters amid resting soldiers and beautiful girls—accessories to her majesty.
Playing either Antony or Cleopatra must be like trying to fill larger-than-life gold goblets to the brim. It is essential that the actors cast in these roles are innately regal because they are going to need their personal charisma before they have even said a word. It may have seemed a safe bet casting Rickman and Mirren—but it turns out that the bet was much too safe. Rickman and Mirren at no point seem as dangerous as they should, nor do they ever convince me that they loved each other.
It is a...
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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Rylance's Cleopatra Fails to Match His Female Peers.” Financial Times (3 August 1999): 14.
[In the following review of Giles Block's 1999 production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe, Macaulay commends Mark Rylance's performance as Cleopatra for its liveliness and spontaneity. Although the critic lauds Block's movement of the host of characters around the stage, he laments what he sees as the lack of any new perspective on the play itself.]
Well, OK. The new production at Shakespeare's Globe of Antony and Cleopatra—with the much-anticipated casting of Mark Rylance as Cleopatra—really does have its merits. Not only is the Egyptian queen the best role that Rylance has yet given the Globe audience, but more importantly, Giles Block's staging comes nearer than anything hitherto to managing to make that audience take Shakespeare seriously.
You wonder in advance, of course, if Rylance will be either too effeminate in Shakespeare's greatest female role, or too butch. In the event, he is neither. Straightaway, it proves easy to accept the “travesty” convention of man-as-woman. And, by speaking the whole role with a bright tenor delivery, he makes his voice—a wonderfully expressive instrument, but so much better suited to closed auditoria than to this open space—project more successfully than it has in any male role at the Globe. His...
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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Caught in the Coils of Old Nile.” Times Literary Supplement (6 August 1999): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Duncan-Jones comments on two productions of Antony and Cleopatra. She expresses disappointment in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1999 staging for its lack of connection to the play's dramatization of important historical events; she also faults Frances de la Tour's lack of charisma in playing Cleopatra, but commends Guy Henry for the depth of his performance in the role of Octavius Caesar. By comparison, Duncan-Jones praises Giles Block's 1999 production of the play at the Globe—which featured male actors in every role—for its rapid pace as well as Mark Rylance's portrayal of Cleopatra.]
Hearing the news of Antony's death, his rival and brother-in-law Octavius Caesar exclaims: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack. The round world / Should have shook lions into civil streets / And citizens to their dens.”
The RSC's Antony and Cleopatra, too, should have made a greater crack. For all its noise and visual busyness, Stephen Pimlott's production feels disappointingly empty and meaningless. Instead of suggesting that “High events as these / Strike those that make them”, Yolanda Sonnabend's vast set, with three outsize perspex panels which mirror and diminish what is acted out in the Shakespeare...
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SOURCE: Shuttleworth, Ian. “Actors Survive the Gimmicks.” Financial Times (21 January 2000): 9.
[In the following review of Stephen Pimlott's 1999 staging of Antony and Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shuttleworth describes the performances of the four principal actors as “first-rate,” but he judges the production itself to be unimaginative.]
Steven Pimlott's RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra, which has now entered the Barbican repertoire from Stratford, shows all the defects of Director's Theatre: its strengths are almost entirely those of acting, its weaknesses those of conception.
Alan Bates rumbles and shambles wonderfully as a bibulous Antony who is all too conscious that he has seen better days. So insecure is he, even about his place beside Cleopatra, that Bates's Antony not only has the messenger from Octavius whipped rather than accept his terms of surrender, but then tortures him with repeated, sadistic attentions to the stripes on his back.
Frances de la Tour is a playful, self-dramatising Cleopatra, but maturely sardonic rather than coquettish. Malcolm Storry's Enobarbus speaks with the licensed bluntness of a long-serving lieutenant, but is plainly a man even more ill-at-ease with himself than Antony. Guy Henry's Octavius begins with tedious aridity and rapidly metamorphoses into a cold, hard warrior-politician....
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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “A Stunning Queen, But Where Is the Chemistry?” Financial Times (25 April 2002): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Macaulay reviews Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Antony and Cleopatra. The critic has high praise for Sinead Cusack's representation of Cleopatra, noting the freshness of her delivery, her devotion to the language of the play, and the variations in her tone and demeanor.]
Sinead Cusack is surely the most beautiful woman I've seen playing Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and her speaking of the lines—though here the competition is yet stiffer—may well be the most beautiful I've heard. In truth, I can't quite believe in her as the Egyptian queen—in voice and looks she is, even with dark wig and glamorous raiment, so very Celtic—but she's so intelligent and skilful an actress that it's impressive how often I suspend disbelief. Shakespeare, indeed the Royal Shakespeare Company, used to be her home terrain some 20 years ago, and she returns now to both playwright and troupe with only more authority, wisdom and style than before.
How many of Cleopatra's lines she sends winging out into the air with fresh impact as both sound and sense: “Now I feed myself / With most delicious poison”, “Then is it sin / To rush into the secret house of death / Ere death dare come to us?” and “O, such another sleep,...
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SOURCE: Archer, John Michael. “Antiquity and Degeneration: The Representation of Egypt and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.” Genre 27, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1994): 1-27.
[In the following essay, Archer addresses racial and gender issues in Antony and Cleopatra in the context of classical and early modern writers' representations of Egypt as both a principal origin of European civilization and a prototype of cultural degeneration. As he discusses these themes, the critic evaluates the significance of the play's associations of the protagonists with mythological figures and the question of Cleopatra's racial ambiguity; Archer also asserts that the play does not represent Rome and Egypt as antithetical.]
In the first volume of Black Athena, Martin Bernal persuasively demonstrates that before the eighteenth-century Egyptian learning and its antiquity were venerated by Europeans (1:151-64). What he calls the “Ancient Model” of Egyptian colonization in Greece remained untouched by the “Aryan Model” of subsequent centuries; the racism of academic discourse had yet to eclipse the Hermetic Renaissance. His brief chapters confirm that the period understood classical antiquity to be broader than the Graeco-Roman paradigm that the nineteenth-century disciplines of classics and national literary history have left us with. Yet in his brilliant presentation of the evidence for the...
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SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “Antony, Cleopatra, the Market, and the End(s) of History.” In Shakespeare Matters: History, Teaching, Performance, edited by Lloyd Davis, pp. 62-73. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003.
[In the following essay, Lindley argues that Antony and Cleopatra associates Octavius with the centralization and monopolization of trade—that it shows he wants, in effect, to be the sole proprietor of the world, fixing the value of every commodity, including time. By contrast, the critic suggests, Cleopatra is linked not only with the festivity and unrestraint of carnival but also with the idea of free trade, for she believes that the value of commodities, even sexual love, is negotiable and constantly changing.]
Commerce is the dirty secret of Bakhtin's theory of carnival. Throughout his definitive (if fictive) account in the first chapter of Rabelais and His World and elsewhere, he marginalizes what in practice is as inescapably central to carnival as is its hostility to outsiders: the normal activities of the marketplace and its inhabitants. Carnival is the festivity of the market, after all, and its celebration of change, its projection of values as negotiable and identities as reversible, as well as its reduction of life to appetite and everything spiritual or abstract to the material bodily level, all reflect its origins. A ruthlessly successful character, who...
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Barfoot, C. C. “News of the Roman Empire: Hearsay, Soothsay, Myth and History in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, pp. 105-28. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
Analyzes the thematic and structural functions of the many messages, second-hand accounts, reminiscences, and self-memorializing that occur in Antony and Cleopatra. Barfoot suggests that the principal characters' reliance on other people's reports for information about each other underscores the lack of direct and trustworthy communication between them; the critic also notes that because many of these reports are distorted, the audience cannot make definitive judgments about the characters and the dramatic action.
Brown, Elizabeth A. “‘Companion Me with My Mistress’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Their Waiting Women.” In Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, pp. 131-45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Focuses on the roles that Charmian and Iras play as Cleopatra's attendants, with an emphasis on their loyalty and devotion. Brown points out that, unlike the women who provided service and companionship to England's Elizabeth I, Charmian and Iras have no political or family connections outside their queen's court, and...
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