(Shakespearean Criticism)

Antony and Cleopatra

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.

Frederick Turner (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Ania Loomba (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Jacqueline Vanhoutte (essay date spring 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Cristina León Alfar (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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David Murray (review date 22 October 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 entire section is 595 words.)

Kate Kellaway (review date 30 October 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Alastair Macaulay (review date 3 August 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 6 August 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Ian Shuttleworth (review date 21 January 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Alastair Macaulay (review date 25 April 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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John Michael Archer (essay date spring-summer 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Arthur Lindley (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)