Historical Background of Shakespear's Antony and Cleopatra

Chanchal Chauhan

Shakespeare lived in a time of great transformation for Western Europe. New advances under the emerging mercantile capitalism in the fields of  science and thoughts were radically changing  ancient ideas about life and the universe. The discovery of the Americas and new lands had transformed the European conception of the world. After the invention of the printing press more and more knowledge of the ancient classical works could be available to readers.  Increasingly available translations of classical texts were a powerful influence on English literature and art. Christian and pagan worldviews interacted with each other in rich and often paradoxical ways, and signs of that complicated interaction are present in many of Shakespeare’s works. England, having undergone the experiences of civil strife for long, was in the middle of a long period of stability and peace under the reign of Elizabeth.

    Queen Elizabeth came to power in 1558, six years before Shakespeare’s birth. England was a weak and unstable nation before she came to power. Torn by internal strife between Catholics and Protestants, its economy was in a bad shape. The country earlier was vulnerable to invasion by her stronger rivals on the continent. By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, England had turned into a power of the first rank, when mercantile capitalism developed rapidly after formation of many companies such as East India Company. Then the country poised to become the mightiest nation in the world. When the young Shakespeare came to London looking to make a life in the theatre, England’s capitol was an important center of trade, learning, and art. In the few decades that he made his career there, the city’s financial, intellectual, and artistic importance became still greater, as London continued its transformation from unremarkable centre of a backwater nation to one of the world’s most exciting metropolises. Drama was entering a golden age, and the young Shakespeare was to be that age’s greatest writer.
    Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607, following the most productive period that shaped plays such as  Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. Although classified sometimes as a tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra is unique and difficult to classify. That is how it is also put into the category of problem plays. Some include it in the category of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, the Roman plays: all three use Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans as their primary source. The translation of this book by North (1579) was available to Shakespeare. Those three plays have concerns  rooted  in historical and political situations. In all three of these plays, Shakespeare shows an impressive (although sometimes overstated) ability to assimilate the classical world on its own terms. While Hamlet and King Lear are basically characters of Renaissance humanism, far removed from the original settings of the source materials Shakespeare used. But the characters of the Roman plays are, to a large extent, Romans moving in a Roman world. Partly, this phenomenon is a tribute to the strength and vitality of Plutarch’s writing.  Shakespeare uses the material provided by Plutarch freely to match his own dramatic purposes, Plutarch’s power to speak for his time and place shines through Shakespeare’s adaptations. And while Shakespeare remains true to the essence of his source, he also adds literary beauty to the texts he created.
    Historically, the events of Antony and Cleopatra take place in the late first century BC. Julius Caesar ends in victory for Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony, who defeat Caesar’s assassins and divide the world between themselves and thus form an alliance, known as the ‘triumvirate’.  Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra  picks up the story years later. In the course of the play, the triumvirate, falls apart. The demands of history and power decree that Rome must be ruled by one man alone. At that point it is the feudal system that is emerging. Lepidus, the weakest of the three generals, is not a serious contender for ultimate power. The final contest is seen between Antony and Octavius.
     As regards the various sources of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Kenneth Muir wrote exhaustively long back on this play also.  Shakespeare may have known an early version of Daniel’s play titled  Cleopatra, which was originally published in 1594. He probably also used the Countess of Pembroke’s Antonius of 1590, a translation of Garnier’s Marc Antoine, as pointed out by John Dover Wilson. However, his main source is Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antony’, a part of a larger work entitled Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans (1579). Shakespeare used this source earlier also in writing his play, Julius Caesar. In Antony and Cleopatra, he follows the source closely.
    It is obvious that Shakespeare used that source heavily. For instance, in Enobarbus’ famous speech describing Cleopatra on her barge, Shakespeare borrows almost verbatim the description by Plutarch in  North’s translation of the Lives, neither adding nor omitting much from that text. Even though the order remains largely the same as in the Plutarch’s narrative, Shakespeare does condense the time for the dramatic propriety. The entire play is based upon history, even though time is distorted. Lepidus, Caesar and Antony were, indeed, the three mighty Triumvirs of Rome. The Battle of Actium was actually fought, taking place in 21 B.C. Antony and Cleopatra die in 30 B.C.
    Kenneth Muir, however,  comments: ‘Although Shakespeare follows North’s translations very closely, his additions make all the difference… The character of Enobarbas is virtually Shakespeare’s own creation.’ (The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays, p.223) He has referred to other writers also who traced other sources. He writes, ‘Professor Ernest Schanzer in Shakespeare’s Appian (1956) and again in The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (1963) has convincingly argued that Appian was another source.’ (ibid, p.224)  He has also referred to Jodelle’s Cleopatra Captive as a probable source.
    Whatever may be the sources of the play, it is one of the masterpieces of English drama. Many critics consider Antony and Cleopatra as a mere continuation of the earlier play, Julius Caesar. Since many things are transacted in the background or simply alluded to in this play, it seems Shakespeare assumes that the reader is familiar with his earlier play. It is important to know that Pompey, the Great had died nearly eight years ago, and his political opponent, Julius Caesar, had been assassinated. As a result, the Roman Empire had been carved between his successors Octavius Caesar, Antony and Lepidus. By the time the play opens, Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompeius, had led a successful uprising against Octavious Caesar, and his popularity was steadily increasing among the tax-burdened populace. All of this information comes directly from Plutarch’s study on the noble Greeks and Romans.

    That is the historical background of Shakespeare’s famous play, Antony and Cleopatra