As the key figures of the century preceding the birth of Christ, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra have received intense scrutiny from Western historians down through the ages. Cleopatra's acknowledged brilliance as a power-broker has always been overshadowed by her personal mystique as the lover of both men. Her motives as queen of an empire under siege have called into question the sincerity of her very public love life.
In various accounts of the tumult in the last days of the Roman Republic she has been portrayed as a debauched voluptuary and as a dedicated ruler with equal vividness, while Octavius Caesar (later to become Caesar Augustus) is generally considered an exemplar of manly Roman virtaw, and Mark Antony is seen as a great man who succumbed to a fatal attraction for Cleopatra's open sexuality. All of these attitudes are apparent in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra , but the attitudes are complicated by the humanit, of his characters and the thrilling beauty o his poetry. In a series of brilliantly jux taposed scenes, Shakespeare contrast Antony and Cleopatra's unabashedly pub lic affair with the closeted intrigue of the Republicans. Political ambition is re vealed as an animal instinct more base thai the erotic love displayed by the titli characters. As always, however, Shakespeare is more interested in character and narrative than in moralizing.
The events in Antony and Cleopatra fol low the assassination of Julius Caesar. They chronicle the intqmal maneuverinj of the new triumvirate composed of An tony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus whose collective urge for global expansioi is heightened by private ambition and in ternal jealousy. The principles of democ racy upon which the Republic had beei founded and which Julius Caesar has been credited with attempting to uphold have degenerated into imperialism and civil disorder.
Cleopatra was well acquainted with Roman corruption. Her father, Ptolemy XII, had managed to stay on his throne by warding off Roman expansionism with extravagant gifts and flattery. She was nineteen when Julius Caesar landed at her capital city, Alexandria, and occupied the palace. Her father dead and her country once more on the defensive, she had herself carried through the palace gates wrapped in a carpet. Unwrapped at Caesar's feet, she became his lover that night. He soon declared her co-regent of Egypt with her brother.
As the guest of Caesar, she resided in Rome and observed the intrigue which resulted in her lover's murder. Her personal experience reflected the perceptions of multitudes of "barbarians" in the Eastern colonies of Rome. All the Asians knew of Roman "culture" were the Centurions who policed them and the merchants and officials who grew rich on their land. Cleopatra's view of Rome is one of sophisticated disdain. Shakespeare has her express it in the very theatricality of her passions.
Cleopatra was in her late twenties when Antony summoned her to Tarsus. She turned him down three times before agreeing to the meeting. Although they had never met, they knew a good deal about each other. Antony needed Cleopatra's wealth to wage his military campaigns. She, of course, needed her Roman ally. Neither had any illusions about the other's motives, but they collaborated with a joy which unnerved the onlooking world. Shakespeare portrays this collaboration in its final stages. As political strife intensifies, their relationship careens accordingly. Their apparent instability is Octavius Caesar's triumph. He defeats Antony and masters the world. Antony and Cleopatra, by speaking directly to each other in their moment of defeat, address the world with a much more powerful message. The Roman Empire will unravel in chaos despite Caesar's strength and efficiency, but Director Michael Kahn declares "In their defeat, Antony and Cleopatra grow in stature and in dignity. Shakespeare has given them the most sublime poetry of love and loss ever written. " Kahn continues, "What attracts me about this tragedy is that in this, his most cinematic of plays, Shakespeare is uniquely able to concentrate on the extraordinary personalities of his leading characters. The progression of their relationship dramatizes the struggle between political realities and individual needs, the conflict between the boardroom and the bedroom. From the frivolous charm of the lovers we are shown at first, we see Antony and Cleopatra attain great depths of passion and grandeur in the last part of the play. "
"I don't know what play will look most central in the twenty-first century, assuming we get there, but Antony and Cleopatra is, I think, the play that looks most like the kind of world we seem to be moving into now. History goes in cycles to a large extent, and in our day we're back to the Roman phase of the cycle again.
Northrup Frye on Shakespeare (New Haven, 1986)