Introduction: Antony and Cleopatra

November 19, 2009 in Introduction

Antony and Cleopatra is possibly the grandest of the tragedies and the greatest of Shakespeare’s Classical plays. Offering the playwright’s own slant on Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Markus Antonius, and written probably in 1606–7, its epic sweep covers the fall of Mark Antony, one of the triumvirate of triumvirate of Rome’s leaders and a “third part of the world”. Antony evades his governing duties in the arms of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, angering his supposed ally, the young “scarce-bearded” Octavius Caesar. The powerful imagery of the play gives full force to the scale of the tragedy and the enormity of its characters’ personalities. Cleopatra, queen of “infinite variety”, presents a whirlwind of ideas, visions, and faces onstage, and Shakespeare’s most magnetic, compelling and independent female character.

Ideas about the play have varied: is Antony and Cleopatra the tragedy of a once-fine military hero weakened and disempowered by his love for a fickle woman, his power misdirected to “cool a gypsy’s lust”? Or is it the story of a middle-aged Romeo and Juliet, who are fixed on “the nobleness of love” and are condemned for it? When watching, or reading the play, both realities swim into view. The opposing forces of land and sea, Rome and Egypt, male and female, logic and passion, war and love struggle and combine in this play to paint a landscape for the reader to get lost in.

Contributed by Colette Sensier

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