Antony and Cleopatra Criticism
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespeare for Students)

Walter Cohen
[In this introduction, Cohen places Antony and Cleopatra within its literary context—with Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar as its prequel and the writing of Plutarch as its source. Cohen also remarks on the dualism and eroticism that pervade the play, and notes that Shakespeare is asking us to consider whether heroic acts can survive in the "post-heroic world" of Octavius Caesar's Rome or in the "private terrain" of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Finally, Cohen briefly examines Shakespeare's characterizations of Octavius, Antony, and Cleopatra.]

Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) picks up where Julius Caesar leaves off. It presupposes familiarity not only with events dramatized in that play but also with earlier Roman conflicts. During the first century B.C., Rome, the overwhelming military power throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, entered into a protracted civil war that culminated in its transition from a republic (rule by a senatorial aristocracy) to an empire (monarchical power). As Julius Caesar opens, Caesar has already defeated his archrival Pompey the Great and governs Rome as dictator. The play recounts the republican assassination of him, led by Brutus and Cassius, and the assassins' subsequent defeat and death at the hands of Mark Antony (Caesar's lieutenant) and Octavius (Caesar's young grand-nephew and adoptive son, who took the name of "Caesar" upon Julius Caesar's death and turned it to political use). Antony and Cleopatra, which covers the period from 40 to 30 B.C., completes the narrative of Roman civil war and the final destruction of the republic. Rome and its vast holdings are now ruled by the triumvirate of Lepidus, Octavius Caesar, and Mark Antony, who govern, respectively, the Mediterranean portions of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Yet Shakespeare's tragedy shifts the focus from the struggle over Rome's internal political system to Rome's external imperial domination of the East (the present-day Middle East) and to affairs of the heart. Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar contend for political supremacy, but the love between Antony and Cleopatra occupies center stage.

Much of the play's fascination arises from this intertwining of empire and sexuality. The issue is already present in Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes—Shakespeare's favorite source, with the exception of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and one that he follows closely here. Plutarch and other writers of Greek and Latin antiquity were preoccupied with the opposition between the conquering West, often thought by them to stand for political and moral virtue, and the older civilizations it subjugated in the East, frequently supposed to represent luxury and decadent, feminized sexuality. This particular understanding of empire re-emerged in the Renaissance during a new era of Western expansion, as Europe entered the path to genuine global domination armed with an increasingly racialized and still sexualized view of the peoples it sought to subdue. Antony and Cleopatra is one response to European expansion, and the play's subsequent fortunes testify to its connection with the imperial enterprise of the West.

Long supplanted onstage by John Dryden's All for Love (1677), a rewriting of Shakespeare's story as a tragedy of private life, Shakespeare's version came into its own only after 1800, when England became the world's leading power. During the last two centuries, both Cleopatra and the East with which she is identified have seemed female, dark, colonized, available, animalistic, exotic, and excitingly dangerous. Comments on the text or on its performance have stressed the play's "strange pervasive influence of Oriental luxury and vice," its "effect of Oriental repose," Cleopatra's "corrupt and half-barbarous Oriental court." "Just as Antony's ruin results from his connection with Cleopatra," one critic argued, "so does the fall of the Roman Republic result from the contact of...

(The entire section is 61,924 words.)