Antony and Cleopatra Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 81)
by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Antony and Cleopatra Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 78,737 words.)