Although Shakespeare was well acquainted with the history and literature of his day and of preceding centuries, he did not hesitate to amend the known facts of history, if it served his dramatic purposes. Antony and Cleopatra was not well received when it was first produced. Since then, Antony and Cleopatra has grown in favor with both producers and readers. Modern productions have received considerably better reviews, on the whole, than any that were published during the playwright’s lifetime.
Antony and Cleopatra is the second in a trilogy of Roman plays (the first was Julius Caesar; the third, Coriolanus); Shakespeare wrote about an era some 1700 years before his own time. His main source of historical information was Plutarch, whose biographies of great Greeks and Romans has remained a staple of literature for nearly 2,000 years and is still read today.
The famous first triumvirate of Rome—consisting of Julius Caesar, Marcus Crassus, and Pompey the Great—dissolved with the conspiracy of Brutus, Cassius and others against Julius Caesar, and resulted in his assassination. Crassus was murdered by the Parthians, and Pompey the Great was defeated in an uprising against Rome. Following the death of Julius Caesar, the second triumvirate came into being and consisted of Octavius (the adopted son and designated heir of Julius Caesar), Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The members of the second triumvirate defeated the forces led by Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 B.C. The triumvirate’s forces in that battle were led by Mark Antony.
Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, lived in Alexandria, the Egyptian capital city. Mark Antony went to see her, fell in love with her, and remained for a considerable time, much to the disgust of the other two triumvirs. The matter came to a head when Sextus Pompeius, a son of Pompey the Great, became militarily powerful and threatened Rome itself. He maintained his headquarters near Messina (in Sicily); his henchmen were engaged in piracy in and around the Straits of Messina. The pirates become so strong that normal shipping became impossibly dangerous in that area. The three triumvirs met with Sextus Pompeius and offered him the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, if he would cease his piracy of the Straits of Messina and his threat to Rome itself. He agreed.
Later Octavius arrested Lepidus, charging him with treason against Rome. Octavius sailed, with an armada, for Greece and fought a sea battle with Antony near Actium. Octavius won and forced Antony back to Egypt. Finally, Octavius, in Egypt, defeated Antony and added Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony committed suicide, followed by Cleopatra, thus leaving Octavius as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
*Egypt. Located on the outskirts of the vast Roman Empire, the Egypt of 30 b.c.e. is portrayed as an exotic land of mystery, fecundity, extravagance, and unconventional behavior, where the Nile River rises and falls to signal the crudely designed planting and harvest seasons, and open sexual experimentation includes transvestism. Cleopatra embodies Egypt in her wildly extravagant behavior and passion. As one of Rome’s three rulers after the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony has been sent in a period of political instability to govern Egypt but soon wavers in his commitment to Roman values and falls in love with Cleopatra. As the scenes shift rapidly between Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria and various locations in Rome, Italy, and Greece, the shifting of place symbolizes the conflict of values in Antony’s mind. In act 1, Antony feels guilty about his un-Roman behavior and temporarily returns to Rome, where he marries Octavia to strengthen his political power, but he soon quarrels with Octavius, his fellow triumvir, and returns to Egypt in act 3. As Antony battles Octavius for political power, the scenes shift rapidly between Cleopatra’s palace and various battle scenes in the eastern part of the empire until Antony finally loses the...
(The entire section is 2,167 words.)