Antony and Cleopatra
Likely written and first performed between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra is generally considered one of Shakespeare's finest tragic dramas. Focused on the passionate love of the Roman general Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the play spans an approximately ten-year period of historical conflict between the Mediterranean powers of Egypt and Rome in the first century b.c. and culminates in the deaths by suicide of its eponymous figures. John Wilders (1995) surveys the structure, characters, themes, and language of Antony and Cleopatra and highlights Shakespeare's dramatic juxtaposition of Egypt and Rome, which has long been considered the major structural element in the play. Critics, including Wilders, have remarked that Shakespeare's Rome is a masculine, pragmatic, martial, and public culture that eagerly strives to fulfill its virtues of military conquest and peaceful, ordered rule. His Alexandrian Egypt, in contrast, is feminine, domestic, decadent, and individualistic, linked with pleasure—specifically Antony's dalliance with the beautiful Cleopatra. Scholars are also interested in the drama's extraordinary characters, including the historical personages Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar, whose stories Shakespeare culled from various sources in order to make them his own. Usually regarded as unstable, mutable, or inconsistent, these figures have proved notoriously resistant to categorization. Although it is one of Shakespeare's more difficult dramas to successfully stage, Antony and Cleopatra has been widely performed since the second half of the nineteenth century and remains popular with audiences, in large part due to the allure of Shakespeare's Cleopatra.
Contemporary critical interest in Cleopatra, especially among feminist scholars, attests to the continued status of this enigmatic historical queen as one of the most fascinating female characters in the Shakespearean canon. L. J. Mills (1960) regards Cleopatra as the central focus of the play. Analyzing Cleopatra's renowned contradictory manner and behavior, egocentrism, extravagance, and her essential mystery, Mills suggests that by winning control of Antony without care or recognition of his character, military virtue, or complete devotion to her, Cleopatra precipitates her own tragedy and prompts Antony's despair and self-destruction. Clare Kinney (1990) links Cleopatra's fundamental strength to her mutable identity. For Kinney, Cleopatra is a human embodiment of Egypt to such a degree that she subsumes its multiplicity and vast internal differences. Unlike the Roman figures with whom she is contrasted—individuals like Antony or Octavius Caesar, both associated with masculine virtues and a competitive drive to dominate—Cleopatra represents an all-inclusive potentiality that embraces the feminine and the masculine, refusing to be subsumed by one or the other. Feminist critic Mary Ann Bushman (1991) analyzes Cleopatra's status as the “tragic hero” of the play. Unlike Kinney and other critics who have viewed Cleopatra as a mingling of feminine and masculine principles, Bushman argues that Shakespeare's Cleopatra is neither masculine nor feminine, but instead defines herself through theatrical spectacle, and locates her shifting identity within the mutable realm of staged performance. Susan Muaddi Darraj (2001) concentrates on Shakespeare's efforts to fashion Cleopatra into a believable “violent and intimidating” character in an age when women had little political power. According to Darraj, Shakespeare made Cleopatra a convincing villain to Jacobean theatergoers by locating her in a foreign realm, inverting her gender role with that of her masculine lover Antony, obliterating her maternal nature, and allowing her to be redeemed only through death.
Antony and Cleopatra is considered to be one of the more difficult Shakespearean dramas to successfully stage. An extremely long piece with numerous abrupt changes in locale—from Egypt to Rome to Misenum to Athens—Antony and Cleopatra presents considerable challenges to directors, actors, and audiences. Reviewing a 1999 all-male production of the play directed by Giles Block and performed at the open-air Globe Theatre in London, Kristin E. Gandrow (2000) praises Mark Rylance's campy but nuanced portrayal of Cleopatra. Gandrow notes that Block's eccentric staging and Rylance's camp-inspired performance were a proper tribute to the spirit of William Shakespeare's original play. Reviewing the same 1999 production, critic Sheridan Morley finds its comic turn, including Rylance's near drag queen interpretation of Cleopatra, appropriate to the open-air environment and touristy nature of the Globe. Alvin Klein reviews the 2000 staging of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Bonnie J. Monte for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Klein notes the difficulties in staging this “most unplayable play,” which crosses the boundaries between tragedy, comedy, and history, but finds the essential failure of this production was the lack of passion between Robert Cuccioli's subdued Mark Antony and Tamara Tunie's modernized Cleopatra. Critics were not much more favorably disposed to director Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon. Juliet Fleming notes several flaws in this production, including bungled verse that often degenerated into shouting and the lackluster male cast; however, she lauds several performances by women, principally Sinead Cusack's Cleopatra. Rex Gibson (2002) remarks on Attenborough's extensive cuts to the text of Antony and Cleopatra, and finds that the cuts highlighted two of the play's themes: “the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.” Lisa Hopkins (2002) contends that Attenborough's production was both “unfocused” and “alarmingly short” and criticizes the textual cuts, simple set, and bad casting. While she praises several key members of its supporting cast—in the roles of Charmian, Enobarbus, and Octavius Caesar—Hopkins finds their work unable to redeem the unconvincing Egyptian queen and her theatrically constrained Roman lover.
Critics continue to examine the thematic oppositions in Antony and Cleopatra. Joan Lord Hall (see Further Reading) surveys a selection of dualistic conflicts and themes in Antony and Cleopatra, including the play's representation of love in opposition to military leadership, the antagonism between artistic imagination and nature (a favorite subject of Renaissance criticism), the futility of action in the face of capricious fortune, the essential mutability of the sublunar world, and the enormous power of theatricality and role-playing to destabilize perception and reality. William D. Wolf (1982) maintains that Antony and Cleopatra contrasts radically with Shakespeare's other tragic dramas, noting that the play's essential ambiguity is one of its defining characteristics. While acknowledging a pivotal dichotomy between the opposing cultural values associated with Egypt and Rome, Wolf claims its central symbolic conflict involves the tension between change and permanence—a tension that prompts Antony and Cleopatra to escape from this mutable world. J. Robert Baker studies the gender reversals in Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “Shakespeare figures movement out of one's own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death, tragedy or comedy.” Paul Yachnin (1993) views Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of absolutist loyalty to the divinely appointed sovereign. Yachnin also investigates the dynamic of master and servant relations and the tensions between “command and response” that pervade the drama, as well as their political implications in the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods. Arthur Lindley (1996) adapts Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque to his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, noting the play's comic subversion of the tragic and Egypt's status as a carnival-like parody of Roman culture. Lastly, Alf Sjöberg (2002) concentrates on the theme of transformation in Antony and Cleopatra as a force born from the drama's “world of ruinous oppositions.” In Sjöberg's broad-ranging study, the play privileges change as the only constant in a reality defined by struggle, and as an ameliorative to the human impulse toward degeneration, loss of identity, and self-annihilation.