Caesar and Cleopatra

by George Bernard Shaw

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Places Discussed

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*Egypt. North African country in which all the play’s action takes place. When Caesar led his Roman troops there in pursuit of his enemy Pompey, he got involved in a power struggle between Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra and her brother and nominal coregent, Ptolemy. Caesar took Cleopatra’s side, and this civil war forms a secondary conflict in Shaw’s play.


*Alexandria. Egypt’s capital city, in which the play’s second through fourth acts are set during the six-month period when Ptolemy’s forces were besieging Caesar and Cleopatra. In the play, Caesar uses this time to teach Cleopatra how to be a more effective leader. Shaw’s description of Cleopatra’s royal palace in Alexandria compares its throne room favorably to the home of a rich British industrialist.

Act 3 opens on the quay in front of Cleopatra’s palace, which the Roman guards will not let her leave. In order to reach Caesar, Cleopatra has herself rolled into a carpet and smuggled by boat to the harbor’s lighthouse, where Caesar has his headquarters. Afterward, Caesar and Cleopatra live together within the palace. The play’s final act returns to the quay, where the victorious Caesar says his good-byes to Cleopatra.


*Lighthouse. Fortress guarding the entrance to Alexandria’s harbor in which Caesar and his soldiers station themselves in act 3 so they can guard their retreat to the sea if they need to leave Egypt.


*Sphinx. Monumental ancient statue of a creature with a human head and a lion’s body near Giza, about one hundred miles south of Alexandria, where Caesar and Cleopatra meet for the first time in the second scene of act 1. One of the world’s oldest human-crafted monuments, the Great Sphinx symbolizes human progress, which Shaw believed requires the existence of “supermen” and “superwomen.” His play depicts Julius Caesar as a superman figure at the height of his powers and Cleopatra as a potential superwoman; it is thus fitting that they first meet at the foot of the Sphinx. After their meeting, Cleopatra takes Caesar back to the throne room of her palace. Not yet realizing who Caesar is, she wants to flee from the Romans. Caesar then begins to teach her how to lead others and reveals to her who he truly is.

Cleopatra’s palace

Cleopatra’s palace. Secondary palace on Egypt’s border with Syria to which Cleopatra retreats when her war with Ptolemy goes badly. The first scene of act 1 takes place in the palace’s courtyard. Shaw uses the scene to make comparisons with Great Britain’s Buckingham Palace and the British army that are unfavorable to the British. This scene is the only one in the play that does not feature either of the play’s two title characters; however, Shaw uses it to set up the situation and to have the guards comment on the dishonorable efficiency of Roman soldiers.


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Crompton, Louis. “Caesar and Cleopatra.” In Shaw the Dramatist. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. Discusses the social, philosophical, and especially historical backgrounds. A clear and accessible presentation of Shaw’s ideas and their sources in the nineteenth century intellectual tradition.

Dukore, Bernard F. “The Center and the Frame.” In Bernard Shaw, Playwright: Aspects of Shavian Drama . Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973. Concentrates on the formal aspects of the play and discusses how certain central scenes contribute to the whole. Deals at length with the prologues (which are seldom played) and Act III, which Shaw had suggested could be omitted but which Dukore claims is important and...

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even necessary.

Evans, T. F., ed. Shaw: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976. A useful collection of generally brief early reviews and notices of Shaw’s plays, including Caesar and Cleopatra. Interesting to compare these early reviews with later scholarly views.

Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw: The Search for Love. New York: Random House, 1988. In this first volume of the standard and indispensable biography of Shaw, Holroyd relates Shaw’s life and thought to his works.

Whitman, Robert F. “Plays for Realists.” In Shaw and the Play of Ideas. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. Discusses the play’s conflict between realist and idealist. Caesar’s grasp of reality makes him immune to the temptations of vengeance and to Cleopatra’s sensuality. Caesar is the representative of the future.


Critical Essays