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.