After opening the Globe Theatre with his popular Julius Caesar in 1599, William Shakespeare spent the next few years writing his great tragedies Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. When he returned to finish his Roman saga with Antony and Cleopatra in late 1607, much had changed, both in the theatre and in England. Plays were increasingly moving indoors, and technological advances in lighting and sets allowed companies to produce on an epic scale. Antony and Cleopatra, with its 40 short scenes and international sweep, seems tailor-made for the Blackfriars, the indoor theatre where Shakespeare’s company moved the following winter. And despite the smooth 1603 succession of King James I to the throne, several major conspiracies threatened to overthrow him in the years following (most famously the 1605 “Gunpowder Plot”). The King reacted by consolidating his power, and the ensuing conflict with Parliament may be mirrored in Shakespeare’s depiction of Rome’s transformation from Republic to Empire in Antony and Cleopatra.
The play first appeared in print in the posthumous 1623 folio of Shakespeare’s works, but perhaps because of its unusual structure and technical requirements, it took longer to attain the status of “classic.” The British actor/manager David Garrick produced one of the first early revivals at his Drury Lane theatre in 1759, but it lasted only six performances. When Antony and Cleopatra returned to the stage again, it was largely as an extravagant epic; John Philip Kemble’s 1813 production featured elaborate sets to depict the varying locations, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1906 spectacular employed dozens of extras and hundreds of costumes.
More recent productions of Antony and Cleopatra have depended more on star power than on spectacle. In 1951, the celebrity couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh brought a version to Broadway, and Peter Hall’s 1987 production at London’s National Theatre starred Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench as aging and human lovers. Perhaps the most successful modern production was Trevor Nunn’s 1972 staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Janet Suzman as a strong and sexy Cleopatra. This production also featured a sly Enobarbus from Patrick Stewart, who would return to the company and the play in 2006, this time as Antony.
This is the third time the Shakespeare Theatre Company has produced Antony and Cleopatra. In 1988, Michael Kahn directed Kenneth Haigh and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as the title lovers, and in 1996 Ron Daniels directed Tom Hewitt and Helen Carey in the roles.