Antony and Cleopatra Context


Shakespearean Context 1

•Some critics argue that with her flair for stagecraft, her power over men, and political use of her sexuality, Cleopatra owes some of her characterisation to Elizabeth I

•The apotheosis of Cleopatra - the glorification of a subject to divine level – perhaps mirrors attitudes towards Elizabeth I at the time. Playgoers might have been reminded on hearing Cleopatra's boast that she will 'Appear there for a man' at the battle of Actium, of Elizabeth's masculine language when she faced the Spanish Armada.

•During a patriarchal time when men held a disproportional share of power, Shakespeare succeeded in portraying Cleopatra as a commanding presence; the theatrical part of Cleopatra challenges patriarchal conduct and questions the dynamics of gender equality

•A more negative idea of Antony was the more common Renaissance understanding of the historical figure before Shakespeare’s portrayal

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Shakespearean Context 2

•Shakespeare renders the two thousand year old story of Antony and Cleopatra more tragic than its original audience might have perceived it to be, because even in the drunken and hedonistic Antony at the start of the play, we see a great man

•There are Biblical allusions throughout the play; Jacobeans would potentially recall Christ's last supper in Antony's farewell to his servants (Act 4, scene 2) and would hear in Antony's death scene echoes of the Bible's vision of the end of the world

•There was enormous poverty in England, in part due to the passing of ‘The Poor Law Act’; perhaps the depiction of the decadent Egyptian court would have made a Jacobean audience more on the side of the Romans

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Ancient History Context

•The action of the play takes place during the end of the Roman Triumvirate; Caesar later becomes the sole ruler and changes his name to Emperor Augustus

•Shakespeare is aware of the Roman codes of ‘virtus’: where a person’s actions should be governed by the public estimation of others (‘virtue’ closely aligned to ‘virility’: what it means to be a male)

•In limiting the eight year marriage between Octavia and Antony to only two scenes, Shakespeare weighs against the Jacobean inclination to pity Octavia to the exclusion of feeling any of the sympathy for Antony which is so important to the play

•Shakespeare draws on Greek and Roman mythology heavily. Typically, he portrays Gods/heroes with all their contradictions (e.g Hercules as both a warrior and effeminate slave)

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Literary Context

•Shakespeare's chief source for Antony and Cleopatra was Plutarch's 'Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans' translated by Thomas North

•Plutarch mainly presented mark Antony as vain and a desolate character, juxtaposed against the heroism and virtues of his compatriots; Shakespeare plays down these attributes for a more dramatic effect, choosing to make Antony more complex, three-dimensional and flawed character

•Shakespeare adapted the character of Enobarbus, who, according to Plutarch’s account, was a traitor to Antony who died in battle, to create a focal point for the theme of loyalty and to build to the tragic climax of the play

•Like Shakespeare, Plutarch portrays Octavius as being guided by fate; predestined to govern the world. Shakespeare, however, offers a darker side to Caesear’s Machiavellian tendencies, ignoring playful aspects of his character observed by Plutarch, such as that he enjoyed sports and fishing

•Though in Plutarch, Enobarbus is a minor character who is simply a traitor to Antony, Shakespeare significantly changes the role so that Enobarbus becomes a foil to Antony’s own tragedy

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