Today: Art CLOSED

Antony and Cleopatra

Playbill for Antony and Cleopatra

Playbill for Antony and Cleopatra, a Tragedy. 1677.

Antony and Cleopatra is William Shakespeare’s most noted and highly acclaimed tragedy. The tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra was entered in the Stationers' Register (an early form of copyright for printed works) in May 1608, but it does not seem to have been actually printed until the publication of the First Folio in 1623. Many scholars believe it was written in 1606–07 although some have argued for an earlier period of 1603–04. The play was probably performed first circa 1607 by the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre or the Globe Theatre. The plot is based on Thomas North's translation of Plutarch’s Lives and follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Sicilian revolt to Cleopatra's suicide during the Final War of the Roman Republic. Critics have often used the opposition between Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra to set forth defining characteristics of the various characters.  The play can best be described as a history play (though it does not completely adhere to a historical account), as a tragedy (though not completely in Aristotelian terms), as a comedy, and as a romance. Some critics, have classified it as a problem play because of its many human issues erupting and becoming a volcanic flow all at the same time.

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra

Mark Antony was once a fierce and feared soldier who ruled the Roman Empire as a member of the Triumvirate, along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus.  In the play, Antony feels the need to reaffirm the honor that has made him a celebrated Roman hero, but he is madly in love with Cleopatra. His conflict and torrid love affair has him torn between reason and passion, the sense of duty versus desire to seek pleasure.

Antony and Cleopatra by Rockwell Kent 1936

Antony and Cleopatra by Rockwell Kent 1936

When the play opens, Antony has neglected his duties as a ruler in order to live in Egypt, where he has carried on an unabashed and tempestuous love affair with Cleopatra. Mark Antony’s desire to be close to Cleopatra shows that he is a man without self-control. Shakespeare makes it clear that the queen does love the general, even if her loyalty is sometimes misplaced. Antony’s loyalty is divided between the Western and Eastern worlds. He soon finds himself torn between the Western world of duty and reason—represented by Rome—and the Eastern world of desire and pleasure—reflected in Egypt.

Antony and Cleopatra at a Banquet

Banquet of Cleopatra by Giambattista Tiepolo

Mark Antony was born Marcus Antonius between 52 and 50 B.C. He was assigned as a staff officer to Julius Caesar in Gaul and was instrumental in helping bring the province under Rome’s control. Antony is one of three members of the triumvirate that jointly ruled the Roman Empire. With Octavian ruling western Rome and Lepidus governing Africa, Antony stationed himself in southern Turkey and pursued Egypt’s queen.  Antony is a politician and a great general, beloved by his men. At this point in the play He is middle-aged and is also a lover of pleasure, far less single-minded than Octavius, one of the other tribunals. He is a complicated and fatally divided man, failing to rise to the task of generalship at key points. In 36 B.C. Mark Antony resumed his alliance and romance with Cleopatra and feels the need to reaffirm the honor that has made him a celebrated Roman hero seeking to gain enough funds from Cleopatra to support his campaign in Judea. He cannot deny the love that continually draws him to Cleopatra.

Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra by Jan de Bray

Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra by Jan de Bray

Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt and Mark Antony’s lover. She is a highly attractive woman who once seduced Julius Caesar. Cleopatra delights in the thought that she has caught Antony like some little puppet.  Her character is by far the most accomplished creation of Shakespeare’s written work. She is an intriguing woman who wraps great men around her finger. She is possessive, commanding, and dramatic and at the same time she is complicated and fickle.  Cleopatra’s emotions are of supreme importance to her and exposes her disdain with her violent temper. Her charisma far exceeds her talents as a strategist, and her interference partly causes Antony's defeat. Her final act and performance is her suicide, not done according to the precepts of a Roman conception of honor, but rather because she will allow no fundamental compromise to her personal desires.

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur (1892)

Plutarch represents Antony’s love for Cleopatra as the cause of his doom, and Shakespeare shares this view, but the play also shows their love as a kind of triumph, beautiful and wonderful on its own terms.  Although Cleopatra has more often than not been portrayed by white actresses, Shakespeare envisioned her as a North African queen whose skin is either tawny or black.

Henrietta V. Davis (1860-1941) First African American woman to play the role of Cleopatra

Henrietta Davis was a pioneer of African American actresses. She was an elocutionist, dramatist, impersonator and activist. She was the first to perform the role of Cleopatra. Her success stimulated and encouraged others to follow. “While she has many imitators, she has no superiors.” (Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities by Monroe A. Majors, 1893) Despite Shakespeare’s envisioning of Cleopatra as black, there is no history of a Black Cleopatra in the way there has been of Black Othellos. Henrietta Davis embodies this resistance, staging many public readings of scenes from Antony and Cleopatra. Henrietta Davis was considered the first African American woman who attempted Shakespearean delineations after Ira Aldridge, but was never permitted to play Cleopatra in a full production. She formed her own drama company in Chicago and traveled to all of the major east coast cities in the United States and to the Caribbean countries and Africa doing readings.

Henrietta Davis was greatly admired for her skills as an actress and for her activist work. She was considered to be the link between the abolitionist movement of Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey’s African American Redemption Movement of the UNIA-ACL. At one of her productions here in Washington, D.C. she was introduced by Frederick Douglass himself, Maryland’s favorite abolitionist.


William Shakespeare in Art: A Desire for Diversity Introduction

More about Shakespeare

Timeline: Significant Dates in the Life of Shakespeare

Further Reading on Shakespeare and Race

List of People of Color in Shakespearean Roles

Titus Andronicus

Merchant of Venice