Anthony & Cleopatra (1604-5?)

This largely “Roman Play” was intended as a possible sequel to Julius Caesar (1599) first presented at the newly constructed Globe Theatre but was delayed in actual performance by the onset of the plague in London. Among the watershed events that took place at that time were the Essex Rebellion, the death of Queen Elizabeth 1st, the Gunpowder Plot and eventually the succession of King James 1st. The topical allusions in the play reflect the attempts of the Earl of Essex to fill a power vacuum, Cleopatra’s suicide born out of sheer vanity coincides with the Queen’s own death probably through using lead-based cosmetics over a very long period.

Supposedly written sometime around 1606-7 Anthony & Cleopatra was a first folio play of some 3,000 lines based on the historical love-story or infamous seduction of Mark Anthony, an idealised Roman Commander, by Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (Serpent of the Nile). It was recorded anonymously in the Stationer’s Register on the 20th May, 1608 and no quarto versions exist of the play. It was entered again as one of “William Shakspeers plays” for the Folio on the 8th November 1623 (it is among those eighteen plays not previously published). The narrative of the play was derived from an Elizabethan translation by Sir Thomas North “The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” which was in turn derived from a French translation of Plutarch‘s “Parallel Lives”. This consisted of 23 pairs of the biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen in which the life of Anthony is twinned with that of Demetrius. Certain aspects of the play suggest the author also had access to a translation of Plutarch’s “Of Isis & Osiris”. Veiled allusions to these two Egyptian gods and their mythological relationships also appear in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Queen Cleopatra would have been synonymous with the Moon Goddess, Isis and presumably Anthony or Augustus Caesar would have been the god Osiris. The result of their sacred union was the hawk-headed god-child Horus. Unfortunately, there is no record of an actual performance of this play until 1759. The possible reason why this play was never performed might be due to the onset of plague or social and political conflict at the time of composition.

It clearly would have been a marvellous sequel to Julius Caesar, the first play to be performed at the newly built Globe Theatre but something might have occurred to delay its inclusion and public performance. During Shakespeare’s career it was overshadowed by John Dryden’s own play on the same theme “All for Love, or the World Well Lost” (1677). The cultural climate had also changed as London audiences seemed tired of theatrical references to the noble Greeks and Romans. But obviously Shakespeare relished the task of bringing the pomp and mythic elements of Egyptian culture and romance to the London stage through the medium of historical romance and tragedy. It may have been that the double suicide, the subject also of Romeo & Juliet, had a special appeal to Shakespeare as well as its exotic setting. The play was entered at the Stationer’s Office in May 20th 1608 but never went to print until the publication of the 1623 Folio. This suggests that the entry was made to prevent anyone else with an illegal draft or copy assuming the copyright. The convention of dividing the play into scenes and acts was a later revision not found in the original text.

As already mentioned, this extraordinary play was intended to follow on both historically and thematically from the play Julius Caesar, where an heroic and popular general assumes the powers of a monarch within a divided and troubled democratic republic. In that instance Pompey is overthrown amidst civil war and the empire comes under the control and dominion of Julius Caesar who is then assassinated by Brutus and Cassius in order to preserve the democracy of the republic.

William Etty, Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia; Lady Lever Art Gallery

But Shakespeare must have been aware that the Roman Empire, as it then stood, had already reached the zenith of its expansion east and west and was actually in the process of decline. From the internal wrangling of internecine conflicts portrayed in Julius Caesar the scene switches in Anthony & Cleopatra dramatically to imperial political problems posed by its expansions to the east. Furthermore, it suggests that the cause of the Fall of Rome lay not in the internal instability but in its colonial expansions into Asia Minor and beyond. To Elizabethan society and intelligentsia the orient (Middle East) was perceived as a decadent if not a culturally degenerate sphere, although in many ways it simply mirrored the English and European royal courts albeit with a surreal and exotic twist. What made it so was the presumed absence of any monotheistic religion or morality in the Nile Delta. Although Egypt was an extremely ancient, sophisticated high civilisation it remained a pagan one which worshipped a variety of “strange gods”. In actual fact the lavish and culturally elevated court of the Ottoman Muslim ruler Suleiman the Magnificent would not have been too different to that of say Elizabeth or Phillip of Spain. In both spheres east and west there was a sense of a great cultural hiatus taking place and yet tales and news of the orient excited the apparently monochromatic status quo of English society and led later to the play’s popularity. The obvious parallels of a beautiful femme fatale in a position of power suggests allusions to the power and influence wielded by Elizabeth Ist when she herself was seeking a suitable male regent. Perhaps the role of Anthony was mirrored in the role of the then exiled Henry of Navarre or some other character, for example the Duke of Alencon who can say? Mark Anthony (83-31 BC) had proved himself in Gaul under Julius Caesar and later during the civil war in Rome under Octavius (41 BC). He revenged the assassination of Julius Caesar in 42 BC when he defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi and out of political expediency he left his first wife Fulvia and married Octavius’s sister, Octavia. His relations with Rome came to an end around 33 BC. Ostensibly, this was signalling the end of a male heroic age and heralding the introduction of what we might perceive as a feminised society, which stereotypically suggested inherent weakness and decay. It was against this historical background that the messiah Jesus Christ was to appear a little later in the Middle East.

In real terms, there is no word in Egyptian for Queen, as female rulers in Egypt’s past were either the mothers or consorts of Pharaohs too young or infirm to assume rulership. Popular images of Queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) seen reclining surrounded by eunuchs, serving maids, black panthers and leopards all assist towards an idea that she was an alluring, seductive, ruthless, insatiable, cunning and libidinous creature. She had been after all the mistress of Pompey, Octavius Caesar and Mark Anthony and co-ruler of Egypt with her brother Ptolemy XIII (61-48). After giving birth to a son Caesarion to Julius she returned to Egypt and then later encountered Anthony. He in turn abandoned his second wife Octavia (Octavius’s sister) and had three sons by Cleopatra. When Rome declared war on Egypt, their military encounter against Octavius at Actium was lost in 30 BC and rather than surrender they both committed suicide. Octavius (63 BC-14 AD) later became known as Gaius Julius Augustus Caesar Octavianus and restored the empire after the disintegration of the republic. He had initially formed a triumvirate with Mark Anthony and Lepidus but the rejection of his sister Octavia led him to challenge and defeat Anthony and afterwards formed a principate. Augustus Caesar proved to be an outstanding administrator and consolidated the Pax Romana and with the help of Maecenas and Agrippa went on to expand the empire from Spain, N. Africa and into Asia.

The Marriage of Heaven & Earth

The play opens with Anthony, one of three Triumvirs of the Roman Empire wasting his time and office in Alexandria besotted with the love of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. He then learns that matters at Rome are in turmoil and of his wife, Fulvia’s sudden death. Much against the advice of his officer Enarbus he decides to leave and return to Rome. Cleopatra taunts and rebukes him for his false conscience. When he arrives he discovers that Octavius Caesar has charged him with negligence in replying to his messages and that Agrippa has proposed a marriage between him and the Caesar’s sister Octavia. Anthony reluctantly agrees to the match and then discusses the problem of a threat by Pompey. Meanwhile, his officer Enarbus describes some of his impressions and lifestyle in Egypt and of course the wonder, mystery and beauty of Cleopatra. Soon after Anthony is visited by an Egyptian soothsayer to whom he declares his longing to return to Cleopatra’s court, however, by this time Cleopatra has received news of Anthony’s marriage to Octavia. In Rome Pompey is resolved to a treaty with the Triumvirs and a festival is arranged in celebration. Towards the end of act II Pompey is tempted by an officer to do away with the Triumvirs of Rome and thereby become “the master of the world”, to which he respectfully declines. Anthony and Octavia then leave Rome for Athens in Greece, only to hear that Octavius has broken his treaty with Pompey. Octavia returns to Rome hoping to heal the breach, while Anthony takes this opportunity to return to Egypt and become enthroned, dividing the Eastern Empire between himself and her sons. When Octavia returns to Rome she hears of Anthony’s betrayal and that Octavius has killed Pompey and imprisoned his officer Lepidus. A sea battle is then contemplated by Anthony against the Western Empire led by Octavius despite the Emperor’s naval superiority.

In Alexandria Anthony rebukes himself for his folly, decides to offer tributes in reconciliation which Octavius, landing in Alexandria rejects. However, Anthony is still in love with Cleopatra and the scene ends with their reconciliation. Anthony decides that the matter can be resolved by single combat challenging Octavius to fight. The Emperor resolves however to separate Anthony from Cleopatra by sending Thyreus as an alternative suitor. Despite a jealous scene Cleopatra retains Anthony’s affections and loyalty. Then Anthony learns that his officer Enarbus has left him declining his parting offer of gold and returned to the service of the Emperor. However, Octavius declines single combat and instead orders a battle in which Anthony’s men will serve as fodder for the frontline. At first the battle goes well for Anthony and Enarbus regrets having left his master and dies in remorse.

In the ensuing battle Cleopatra surrenders the Egyptian fleet to Octavius, to Anthony’s annoyance and Cleopatra retires telling her staff to inform Anthony that she has committed suicide. She instructs Eros to kill Anthony in the hope that they will meet in the afterlife, but Eros declines. Equally remorseful Anthony then falls on his sword and is carried by Eros in a last meeting with his love. In the final scene Octavius is distraught to hear of the death of Anthony, and sends Proculeuis to allay Cleopatra’s fears of an invasion or retribution from Rome as he hopes to display her in triumph at the Roman capital. Roman soldiers are instructed to break into the palace and prevent Cleopatra from stabbing herself. Despite pleas from Octavius’ official Dolabella Cleopatra delivers a monumental speech and forthwith kills herself with an asp concealed in a basket of figs. Her remaining attendants also ritually kill themselves leaving Octavius to pay tribute to their courage.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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