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Shakespeare's Interest in the Subject of Antony and Cleopatra

From Shakespeare's Roman Plays by M.W. MacCallum. London: Macmillan.

It may be taken as certain that Shakespeare did not at once set about continuing the story which he had brought to the end of one of its stages in Julius Caesar and of the future progress of which he had in that play given the partial programme. Antony and Cleopatra belongs to a different phase of his development.

Though not published, so far as we know, till it appeared in the Folio Edition of 1623, there is not much difficulty in finding its approximate date; and that, despite its close connection with Julius Caesar in the general march of events and in the re-employment of some of the characters, was some half-dozen years after the composition of its predecessor. The main grounds for this opinion, now almost universally accepted, are the following:

1. We learn from the Stationers Register that the publisher, Edward Blount, had entered a "booke called Antony and Cleopatra" on May 20th, 1608. Some critics have maintained that this could not be Shakespeare's in view of the fact that in November, 1623, license was granted to the same Blount and the younger Jaggard, with whom he was now co-operating, to include in the collected edition the Shakespearean piece among sixteen plays of which the copies were "not formerly entered to other men." But the objection hardly applies, as the previous entry was in Blount's favour, and, though he is now associated with Jaggard, he may not have thought it necessary, because of a change of firm as it were, to describe himself as "another man." Even, however, if the authorship of the 1608 play be considered doubtful, its publication is significant. For, as has often been pointed out, it was customary when a piece was successful at one theatre to produce one on a similar subject at another. The mere existence, then, of an Antony and Cleopatra in the early months of 1608, is in so far an argument that about that time the great Antony and Cleopatra was attracting attention.

2. There is evidence that in the preceding years Shakespeare was occupied with and impressed by the Life of Antony.

(a) Plutarch tells how sorely Antony took to heart what he considered the disloyalty of his followers after Actium.
He forsooke the citie and companie of his frendes, and built him a house in the sea, by the He of Pharos, upon certaine forced mountes which he caused to be cast into the sea, and dwelt there,- as a man that banished him selfe from all mens companie; saying he would live Timons life, bicause he had the like wrong offered him, that was affore offered unto Timon : and that for the unthankefulnes of those he had done good unto, and whom he tooke to be his frendes he was angry with all men, and would trust no man.
In reference to this withdrawal of Antony's to the Timoneon, as he called his solitary house, Plutarch inserts the story of Timon of Athens, and there is reason to believe that Shakespeare made his contributions to the play of that name just before he wrote Macbeth, about the year 1606. 1 (b) In Macbeth itself he has utilised the Marcus Antonius probably for one passage and certainly for another. In describing the scarcity of food among the Roman army in Parthia, Plutarch says:
In the ende they were compelled to live of erbes and rootes, but they found few of them that men doe commonly eate of, and were enforced to tast of them that were never eaten before: among the which there was one that killed them, and made them out of their witts. For he that had once eaten of it, his memorye was gone from him, and he knewe no manner of thing.
Shakespeare is most likely thinking of this when after the disappearance of the witches, he makes Banquo exclaim in bewilderment:
Were such things here as we do speak about?
Or have we eaten on the insane root
That takes the reason prisoner. (i. iii. 83.)
In any case Macbeth contains an unmistakable reminiscence of the soothsayer's warning to Antony.
He . . . told Antonius plainly, that his fortune (which of it selfe was excellent good, and very great) was altogether bleamished, and obscured by Caesars fortune: and therefore he counselled him utterly to leave his company, and to get him as farre from him as he could. "For thy Demon," said he (that is to say, the good angell and spirit that kepeth thee), "is affraied of his, and being coragious and high when he is alone, becometh fearefull and timerous when he commeth neere unto the other."
Shakespeare was to make use of this in detail when he drew on the Life for an independent play.
O Antony, stay not by his side:
Thy demon, that's thy spirit which keeps thee, is
Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable
Where Caesar's is not; but, near him, thy angel
Becomes a fear, as being o'erpower'd: therefore
Make space enough between you. (II. iii. 18.)
But already in Macbeth it suggests a simile, when the King gives words to his mistrust of Banquo;
There is none but he
Whose being I do fear: and, under him,
My Genius is rebuked; as, it is said,
Mark Antony's was by Caesar. 2 (iii. i. 54.)
More interesting and convincing is a coincidence that Malone pointed out in Chapman's Bussy d'Ambois, which was printed in 1607, but was probably written much earlier. Bussy says to Tamyra of the terrors of Sin:
So our ignorance tames us, that we let
His 3 shadows fright us: and like empty clouds
In which our faulty apprehensions forge
The forms of dragons, lions, elephants,
When they hold no proportion, the sly charms
Of the Witch Policy makes him like a monster. (III.i.22)
Compare Antony's words:
Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish:
A vapour sometimes like a bear or lion . . .
.... Here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape. (iv. xiv. 2 and 13.)

It is hard to believe that there is no connection between these passages, and if there is Shakespeare must have been the debtor; but as Bussy d'Ambois was acted before 1600, this loan is without much value as a chronological indication.

3. Internal evidence likewise points to a date shortly after the composition of Macbeth.

(a) In versification especially valuable indications are furnished by the proportion of what Professor Ingram has called the light and the weak endings.

By these terms he denotes the conclusion of the verse with a syllable that cannot easily or that cannot fully bear the stress which the normal scansion would lay upon it. In either case the effect is to break down the independence of the separate line as unit, and to vest the rhythm in the couplet or sequence, by forcing us on till we find an adequate resting-place.

It thus has some analogy in formal prosody to enjambement, or the discrepancy between the metrical and the grammatical pause in prosody when viewed in connection with the sense. Now the employment of light and weak endings, on the one hand, and of enjambement on the other, is, generally speaking, much more frequent in the plays that are considered to be late than in those that are considered to be early. The tendency to enjambement indeed may be traced farther back and proceeds less regularly. But the laxity in regard to the endings comes with a rush and seems steadily to advance.

It is first conspicuous in Antony and Cleopatra and reaches its maximum in Henry VIII. In this progress however there is one notable peculiarity. While it is unmistakable if the percentage be taken from the light and weak endings combined, or from the weak endings alone, it breaks down if the light endings be considered by themselves. Of them there is a decidedly higher proportion in Antony and Cleopatra than in Coriolanus, which nevertheless is almost universally held to be the later play. The reason probably is that the light endings mean a less revolutionary departure from the more rigid system and would therefore be the first to be attempted. When the ear had accustomed itself to them, it would be ready to accept the greater innovation.

Thus the sudden outcrop of light and weak endings in Antony and Cleopatra, the preponderance of the light over the weak in that play, the increase in the total percentage of such endings and especially in the relative percentage of weak endings in the dramas that for various reasons are believed to be later, all confirm its position after Macbeth and before Coriolanus.

(b) The diction tells the same tale. Whether we admire it or no, we must admit that it is very concise, bold and difficult. Gervinus censures it as "forced, abrupt and obscure"; and it certainly makes demands on the reader. But Englishmen will rather agree with the well-known eulogy of Coleridge: "Feliciter audax is the motto for its style comparatively with that of Shakspere's other works, even as it is the general motto of all his works compared with those of other poets. Be it remembered, too, that this happy valiancy of style is but the representative and result of all the material excellences so expressed." But in any case, whether to be praised or blamed, it is a typical example of Shakespeare's final manner, the manner that characterises Coriolanus and the Romances, and that shows itself only occasionally or incompletely in his preceding works.

(c) A consideration of the tone of the tragedy yields similar results. It has been pointed out 4 that there is a gradual lightening in the atmosphere of Shakespeare's plays after the composition of Othello and Lear. In them, and especially in the latter, we move in the deepest gloom. It is to them that critics point who read in Shakespeare a message of pessimism and despair. And though there are not wanting, for those who will see them, glimpses of comfort and hope even in their horror of thick darkness, it must be owned that the misery and murder of Desdemona, the torture and remorse of Othello, the persecution of Lear, the hanging of Cordelia, are more harrowing and appalling than the heart can well endure. But we are conscious of a difference in the others of the group.

Though Macbeth retains our sympathy to the last, his story does not rouse our questionings as do the stories of these earlier victims. We are well content that he should expiate his crimes, and that a cleaner hand should inherit the sceptre: we recognise the justice of the retribution and hail the dawn of better times. In Coriolanus the feeling is not only of assent but of exultation. True, the tragedy ends with the hero's death, but that is no unmitigated evil. He has won back something of his lost nobility and risen to the greatest height his nature could attain, in renouncing his revenge: after that what was there that he could live for either in Corioli or Rome?

Antony and Cleopatra has points of contact with both these plays, and shows like them that the night is on the wane. Of course in one way the view of life is still disconsolate enough. The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eye and the pride of life: ambitious egoism, uninspired craft and conventional propriety; these are the forces that clash in this gorgeous melee of the West and the East.

At the outset passion holds the lists, then self-interest takes the lead, but principle never has a chance. We think of Lucifera's palace in the Faerie Queene, with the seven deadly sins passing in arrogant gala before the marble front, and with the shifting foundations beneath, the dungeons and ruins at the rear. The superb shows of life are displayed in all their superbness and in all their vanity. In the end their worshippers are exposed as their dupes. Antony is a cloud and a dream, Cleopatra no better than "a maid that milks and does the meanest chares": yet she sees that it is "paltry to be Caesar," and hears Antony mock at Caesar's luck.

Whatever the goal, it is a futile one, and the objects of human desire are shown on their seamy side. We seem to lose sight of ideals, and idealism would be out of place. Even the passing reference to Shakespeare's own art shows a dissipation of the glamour. In Julius Caesar Brutus and Cassius had looked forward to an immortality of glory on the stage and evidently regard the theatre as equal to the highest demands, but now to Cleopatra it is only an affair of vulgar makeshifts that parodies what it presents.
I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.' (v. ii. 219.)
In so far the impression produced is a cheerless one, and Gervinus has gone so far as to say: "There is no great or noble character among the personages, no really elevated feature in the action; of this drama whether in its politics or its love, affairs." This is excessive: but it is true that, as in Timon, the suggestion for which came from the same source and the composition of which may be dated a short time before, no very spiritual note is struck and no very dutiful figure is to the fore. And the background is a lurid one. "A world-catastrophe!" says Dr. Brandes, "(Shakespeare) has no mind now to write of anything else. What is sounding in his ears, what is filling his thoughts, is the crash of a world falling in ruins. . . . The might of Rome, stern and austere, shivered at the touch of Eastern voluptuousness. Everything sank, everything fell - character and will, dominions and principalities, men and women. Everything was worm-eaten, serpent-bitten - poisoned by sensuality everything tottered and collapsed."

Yet though the sultry splendours of the scenes seem to blast rather than foster, though the air is laden with pestilence, and none of the protagonists has escaped the infection, the total effect is anything but depressing. As in Macbeth we accept without demur the penalty exacted for the offence. As in Coriolanus we welcome the magnanimity that the offenders recover or achieve at the close. If there is less of acquiescence in vindicated justice than in the first, if there is less of elation at the triumph of the nobler self than in the second, there is yet something of both. In this respect too it seems to stand between them and we cannot be far wrong if we place it shortly after the one and shortly before the other, near the end of 1607.

And that means too that it comes near the end of Shakespeare's tragic period, when his four chief tragedies were already composed and when he he was well aware of all the requirements of the tragic art. In his quartet of masterpieces he was free to fulfil these requirements without let or hindrance, for he was elaborating material that claimed no particular reverence from him. But now he turns once more to authorised history and in doing so once more submits to the limitations that in his practice authorised history imposed. Why he did so it is of course impossible to say. It was a famous story, accessible to the English public in some form or other from the days of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, and at an early age Shakespeare was attracted by it, or at least was conversant with Cleopatra's reputation as one of the world's paragons of beauty.

In Romeo and Juliet Mercutio includes her in his list of those, Dido, Hero, Thisbe and the rest, who in Romeo's eyes are nothing to his Rosaline; compared with that lady he finds "Cleopatra a gipsy." 5 And so indeed she was, for gipsy at first meant nothing else than Egyptian, and Skelton, in his Garland of Laurel swearing by St. Mary of Egypt, exclaims:
By Mary gipcy
Quod scripsi scripsi.
.... He accepts the fact of her charm, and, in As You Like It, among the contributions which the "Heavenly Synod" levied on the supreme examples of womankind for the equipment of Rosalind, specifies "Cleopatra's majesty." 6 It is not the quality on which he was afterwards to lay stress, it is not the quality that Plutarch accentuates, nor is it likely to have been suggested by the gipsies he had seen. But there was another source on which he may have drawn.

Next to the story of Julius Caesar, the story of Antony and Cleopatra was perhaps the prerogative Roman theme among the dramatists of the sixteenth century 7 and was associated with such illustrious personages as Jodelle and Garnier in France, and the Countess of Pembroke and Daniel in England. It is, as we have seen, highly probable that Shakespeare had read the versions of his compatriots at any rate, and their dignified harangues are just of the kind to produce the impression of loftiness and state.

Be that as it may, Cleopatra was a familiar name to Shakespeare when he began seriously to immerse himself in her history. We can understand how it would stir his heart as it filled in and corrected his previous vague surmises. What a revelation of her witchcraft would be that glowing picture of her progress when, careless and calculating, she condescended to obey the summons of the Roman conqueror and answer the charge that she had helped Brutus in his campaign.
When she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius him selfe and also from his frendes, she made so light of it, and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, citherns, vioUs, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her selfe: she was layed under a pavillion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddesse Venus, commonly drawen in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretie faire boyes apparelled as painters doe set forth god Cupide, with little fannes in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphes Nereides (which are the mermaides of the waters) and like the Graces, some stearing the helme, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of which there came a wonderfull passing sweete savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharfes side pestered 8 with innumerable multitudes of people. 'Some of them followed the barge all alongest the rivers side: others also ranne out of the citie to see her comming in. So that in thend, there ranne such multitudes of people one after an other to see her, that Antonius was left post alone in the market place, in his Imperiall seate to geve audience: and there went a rumor in the peoples mouthes that the goddesse Venus was come to play with the god Bacchus, 9 for the generall good of all Asia. When Cleopatra landed, Antonius sent to invite her to supper with him. But she sent him word againe, he should doe better rather to come and suppe with her. Antonius therefore to shew him selfe curteous unto her at her arrivall, was contented to obey her, and went to supper to her: where he found such passing sumptuous fare that no tongue can expresse it.
Only by a few touches has Shakespeare excelled his copy in the words of Enobarbus: but he has merely heightened and nowhere altered the effect.
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold:
Purple the sails and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them: the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster.
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion - cloth-of-gold of tissue -
O'er picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool.
And what they did undid. . . .
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides
So many mermaids, tended her i' the eyes
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs: and Antony,
Enthroned i' the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling the air: which, but for vacancy.
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too.
And made a gap in nature. . . .
Upon her landing, Antony sent to her.
Invited her to supper: she replied
It should be better he became her guest;
Which she entreated: our courteous Antony,
Whom n'er the word of "No" woman heard speak.
Being barber'd ten times o'er, goes to the feast
And for his ordinary pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only. (ii. ii. 196.)
And the impression of all this magnificence had not faded from Shakespeare's mind when in after years he wrote his Cymbeline. Imogen's chamber
is hang'd
With tapestry of silk and silver ; the story
Proud Cleopatra, when she met her Roman,
And Cydnus swell'd above the banks, or for
The press of boats or pride. 10 (II. iv. 68.)
.... And there was another point of contact between the author and the hero of the tragedy. It is stated in Plutarch's account of Antony: "Some say that he lived three and fiftie yeares: and others say six and fiftie." But the action begins a decade, or (for, as we shall see, there is a jumbling of dates in the opening scenes like that which we have noted in the corresponding ones of Julius Caesar) more than a decade before the final catastrophe.

Thus Shakespeare would imagine Antony at the outset as between forty-two and forty-six, practically on the same niveau of life as himself, for in 1607-1608 he was in his forty-fourth year. They had reached the same stadium in their career, had the same general outlook on the future, had their great triumphs behind them, and yet with powers hardly impaired they both could say,
Though grey
Do something mingle with our younger brown, yet ha' we
A brain that nourishes our nerves, and can
Get goal for goal of youth. (iv. viii. 19.)
There would be a general sympathy of attitude, and it even extends to something in the poet himself analogous to the headlong ardour of Antony. In the years that had elapsed since Shakespeare gave the first instalment of his story in Julius Caesar, a certain change had been proceeding in his art. The present drama belongs to a different epoch of his authorship, an epoch not of less force but of less restrained force, an epoch when he works perhaps with less austerity of stroke and less intellectualism, but - strange that it should be so in advancing years - with more abandonment to the suggestionss of imagination and passion. In all these respects the fortunes of Antony and Cleopatra would offer him a fit material. In the second as compared with the first Roman play, there is certainly no decline. The subject is different, the point of view is different, the treatment is different, but subject, point of view and treatment all harmonise with each other, and the whole in its kind is as great as could be.

Perhaps some such considerations may explain why Shakespeare, after he had been for seven years expatiating on the heights of free tragic invention, yet returned for a time to a theme which, with his ideas of loyalty to recorded fact, dragged him back in some measure to the embarrassments of the chronicle history. It was all so congenial, that he was willing to face the disadvantages of an action that straggled over years and continents, of a multiplicity of short scenes that in the third act rise to a total of thirteen and in the fourth to a total of fifteen, of a number of episodic personages who appear without preparation and vanish almost without note.

He had to lay his account with this if he dramatised these transactions at all, for to him they were serious matters that his fancy must not be allowed to distort. Indeed he accepts the conditions so unreservedly, and makes so little effort to evade them, that his mind seems to have taken the ply, and he resorts to the meagre, episodical scene, not only when Plutarch's narrative suggests it, but when he is making additions of his own and when no very obvious advantage is to be secured. This is the only explanation that readily presents itself for the fourth scene of the second act, which in ten lines describes Lepidus' leave-taking of Mecaenas and Agrippa. 11 There is for this no authority in the Life; and what object does it serve? It may indicate on the one hand the punctilious deference that Octavius' ministers deem fit to show as yet to the incompetent Triumvir, and on the other his lack of efficient energy in allowing his private purposes to make him two days late at the rendezvous which, he himself has advocated as urgent.

But these hints could quite well have been conveyed in some other way, and this invented scene seems theatrically and dramatically quite otiose. Nevertheless, and this is the point to observe, it so fits into the pattern of the chronicle play that it does not force itself on one's notice as superfluous.

It is partly for this reason that Antony and Cleopatra holds its distinctive place among Shakespeare's masterpieces. On the one hand there is no play that springs more spontaneously out of the heart of its author, and into which he has breathed a larger portion of his inspiration; and on the other there is none that is more purely historical, so that in this respect it is comparable among the Roman dramas to Richard II in the English series. This was the double characteristic that Coleridge emphasised in his Notes on Shakespeare's Plays: "There is not one in which he has followed history so minutely, and yet there are few in which he impresses the notion of angelic strength so much - perhaps none in which he impresses it more strongly. This is greatly owing to the manner in which the fiery force is sustained throughout, and to the numerous momentary flashes of nature counteracting the historical abstraction." The angelic strength, the fiery force, the flashes of nature are due to his complete sympathy with the facts, but that makes his close adherence to his authority all the more remarkable.


1. See Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy.

2. I have said nothing of other possible references and loans because they seem to me irrelevant or doubtful. Thus Malone drew attention to the words of Morose in Ben Jonson's Epicoene: "Nay, I would sit out a play that were nothing but fights at sea, drum, trumpet and target." He thought that this remark might contain ironical allusion to the battle scenes in Antony and Cleopatra, for instance the stage direction at the head of Act III., Scene 10: "Canidius marcheth with his land army one way over the stage: and Taurus, the lieutenant of Caesar the other way. After their going in is heard the noise of a sea-fight." But even were this more certain than it is, it would only prove that Antony and Cleopatra had made so much impression as to give points to the satirist some time after its performance: it would not help us to the date. For Epicoene belongs to 1610, and no one would place Antony and Cleopatra so late.

3. i.e. Sin's.

4. Bradley, Shakespearian Tragedy

5. II.iv.44

6. II.ii.154

7. Besides the plays discussed in the Introduction as having a possible place in the lineage of Shakespeare's, others were produced on the Continent, which in that respect are quite negligible but which serve to prove the widespread interest in the subject. Thus in 1560 Hans Sachs in Germany composed, in seven acts, one of his home-spun, well-meant dramas that were intended to edify spectator or reader. Thus in 1583 Cinthio in Italy treated the same theme, and it has been conjectured, by Klein, that his Cleopatra was known to Shakespeare. Certainly Shakespeare makes use of Cinthio's novels, but the particulars signalised by Klein, that are common to the English and to the Italian tragedy, which latter I have not been able to procure, are, to use Klein's own term, merely "external," and are to be explained, in so far as they are valid at all, which Moeller...disputes,' by reference to Plutarch.

An additional one which Moeller suggests without attaching much weight to it, is even less plausible than he supposes. He points out that Octavius' emissary, who in Plutarch is called Thyrsus, in Cinthio becomes Tireo, as in Shakespeare he similarly becomes Thyreus; but he notes that this is also the name that Shakespeare would get from North. As a matter of fact, however, in the 1623 folio of Antony and Cleopatra and in subsequent editions till the time of Theobald, this personage, for some reason or other as yet undiscovered, is styled Thidias; so the alleged coincidence is not so much unimportant as fallacious. A third tragedy, Montreuil's Cleopatre, which like Cinthio's is inaccessible to me, was published in France in 1595; but to judge from Moeller's analysis and the list of dramatis personae, it has no contact with Shakespeare's.

8. obstructed.

9. Antony had already been worshipped as that deity.

10. It is rather strange that Shakespeare, whose "accessories" are usually relevant, should choose such a subject for the decoration of Imogen's room. Mr. Bradley, in a note to his essay on Antony and Cleopatra says: "Of the 'good' heroines, Imogen is the one who has most of [Cleopatra's] spirit of fire and air." This is one of the things, one sees to be true as soon as one reads it: can it be that their creator has brought them into association through some feeling, conscious or unconscious, of their kinship in this important respect? I regret that Mr. Bradley's admirable study, which appeared when I was travelling in the Far East, escaped my notice till a few days, ago, when it was too late to use it for my discussion.

11. Of course the division into scenes is not indicated in the Folio, but a new "place" is obviously required for this conversation. Of course, too, change of scene did not mean so much on the Elizabethan as on the modern stage, but it must always have counted for something. Every allowance made, the above criticism seems to me valid.

How to cite this article:
MacCallum, M. W Shakespeare's Roman Plays. London: Macmillan, 1910. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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