|Illustration by Rockwell Kent. (Cleopatra: Why is my lord enraged against his love? Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 12)|
Introduction, by John Wilders
_____The First Folio is our sole existing source for the text of Antony and Cleopatra, which was probably completed in the winter of 1606-1607, between Macbeth and Coriolanus. It is therefore the product of a playwright in his early forties who had been writing for the stage for about seventeen years.
Extraordinary as the tragedy is, it has seldom been performed satisfactorily on the stage. This is partly because few actresses have managed to encompass the full range of Cleopatra's personality, but much more damaging has been the ponderous, grandiose style in which, for over a century, it was produced.The Elizabethan and Jacobean stage was "not much more than an empty wooden platform about 43 feet wide and 27 feet deep thrust into the middle of the spectators with no scenery to raise or lower." This made it possible to perform a play like this one swiftly, without pausing for scene changes.
|Johannes DeWitt's 1596 sketch of a play being performed at the Swan Theatre.|
In fact, the division of the play into acts and scenes did not take place until the eighteenth century, starting with Nicholas Rowe's edition of 1709. "In the first printed text, the Folio of 163, there are no act or scene divisions, and it is not difficult to imagine how in a Jacobean playhouse it could be performed as one single, uninterrupted action." It's possible that a production of Antony and Cleopatra, even though it's one of Shakespeare's longest plays, could have lasted on the Jacobean stage not much longer than three hours.
The simplicity of the stage in Shakespeare's time put more emphasis on the performers and on the costumes they wore, which told the audience much about the characters they were playing. Typically, to judge from the drawing by Henry Peacham of a performance of Titus Andronicus, the only known picture of a performance when Shakespeare as alive, the costumes would be a mixture of contemporary dress and that of the period in which the action took place.
Although Cleopatra's command to Charmian, "cut my lace," indicates that she wore the kind of tight bodice recently favoured by Queen Elizabeth and other fashionable lades, there was probably some attempt to provide her and her entourage with "Egyptian" clothes as well as the "divers coloured fans" held by the eunuchs who attend her on her first entrance.The point is that costuming was a way of indicating a character's nationality, rank, social status or occupation. Music was also used to enhance the scene, as in the drums and trumpets and hautboys (a precursor of the oboe) called for in the stage directions. "Hence, although the resources of the Elizabethan playhouse were limited, Shakespeare used them with an expressive variety which nevertheless did not prevent the performance from moving quickly and without interruption."
Antony and Cleopatra is not only one of Shakespeare's longest plays (Richard III, Hamlet, Coriolanus and Cymbeline are the only plays of his that are longer), it also calls for a very large cast. By doubling some roles, the nineteen men called for could be reduced to twelve, with four boys playing the four female roles. The reference by Cleopatra to some boy playing her on stage in the future is a kid of inside joke, but it reminds us that this enormously difficult part was in fact played by a boy. Wilders speculates that the company may have included an exceptionally gifted boy actor for whom the part of Cleopatra was written, as well as those of Lady Macbeth and Volumnia in Coriolanus, the plays that are thought to have been written around the same time.
Our sense of Cleopatra's uniqueness, her power, is created as much by what the other characters -- especially Enobarbus -- say about her as by what she herself says and does. Shakespeare would not have written such accounts of her effect on others, however, unless he had known that the boy could himself convey something of her magic to the audience, and in the prolonged final scene he had to display Cleopatra's greatness more or less on his own.In fact, there is no record of the play having been performed any time before the middle of the eighteenth century, though there are references to a play, not necessarily Shakespeare's, about Antony and Cleopatra, by two early seventeenth century writers.
When the theaters were reopened after the restoration of Charles II, Antony and Cleopatra was rediscovered, but also criticized for its lack of adherence to the "Aristotelian unities," which were in fact "fully formulated in the late sixteenth century by the Italian scholar Castelvetro." The most famous criticism of Shakespeare's breaking the supposed rules came from John Dryden, who admired Shakespeare but decided to write his own version of the story, drawn from Shakespeare's own source, Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. Dryden's All for Love, first performed in 1677, adheres to the "unities" of time and place, and is a fine play in its own right.
The first recorded production of Shakespeare's version was by David Garrick in 1759, and it moved the action behind the proscenium that had replaced the thrust stage as the theatrical norm. It also took advantage of the introduction of movable scenery -- flats and drops. But because scenery changes took up performance time, cuts had to be made in the play. It was not a success, though Garrick's performance as Antony took most of the brunt of the criticism, and was performed only six time. John Philip Kemble revived the play at Covent Garden in 1813, when productions had become increasingly elaborate:
There was an actual sea fight in which galleys were brought on to the stage and, at the conclusion of the performance, a funeral oration delivered by Dolabella ("His legs bestrid the ocean ...") was followed by a "grand funeral procession" and an Epicedium sung by a choir of forty-five singers grouped round the sarcophagus.... To accommodate this additional spectacle, Shakespeare's text had to be substantially cut, but further excisions were needed to make room for extracts from All for Love.This production, too, was a failure, with only nine performances. But even more elaborate productions were to follow, until a critic wrote of a production by Lewis Wingfield in 1890 that because of "an intolerable deal of pomp, procession, ballet, chorus, tableau and general glitter.... The mind slumbers and the eyes, weary of watching, gradually close."
In the twentieth century, much of this excess was swept away, but not before producing a distaste for the play itself in even the most sophisticated of Shakespeare critics, such as A.C. Bradley, who called Antony and Cleopatra "the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies" because it "imposes the necessity of taking frequent and fatiguing journeys over thousands of miles." Even E.K. Chambers, who had studied the Elizabethan playhouse and knew how the play had originally been staged, thought that the play had too many changes of scene and locality. But Chambers's research had opened the eyes of some producers and players to the fact that the elaborate staging of Shakespeare's plays had done them a disservice. One of them was William Poel, who founded the Elizabethan Stage Society and began to perform the plays with stagings that approached the original simplicity. And Harley Granville-Barker, who acted in some of Poel's productions, as well as in performances of Shaw and Ibsen, "took Poel's principles into the professional theatre with his simply staged, largely uncut versions of The Winter's Tale (1912), Twelfth Night (1912) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1914)."
Granville-Barker didn't stage Antony and Cleopatra but he wrote a preface to it that stressed the importance of "fluidity" in staging the play which the introduction of scenery had "sapped." In 1922, Robert Atkins followed the lead of Poel and Granville-Barker with a production at the Old Vic: "The scenery was very simple and consisted chiefly of wooden cut-outs and movable steps set against a cyclorama." And at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1953, Glen Byam Shaw's production caused a critic to write, "Never again dos one want to see the cluttered stage which most productions need to employ to suggest the necessary pomp." Trevor Nunn's production at Stratford in 1972 was transferred to television "where, on the small screen, it became a much more domestic drama." Emrys Jones has suggested that the play may in fact have been written for the smaller, more intimate indoor Blackfriars theater: "Unlike Shakespeare's other Roman plays, it has no crowd scenes: it is in many ways a quiet play, conversational rather than declamatory."
The play is structured similarly to the two Henry IV plays, in which the action shifts from the court to the tavern to the battlefield. The structure gives the audience "several different and conflicting attitudes to the same experience.... Roman attitudes and principles, expressed mainly by Octavius Caesar, are placed in opposition to the Egyptian, represented chiefly by Cleopatra. Anton is in a similar position to Prince Hal, equally at home in either world but compelled eventually to choose between them." Rome is "a predominantly male society" and Alexandria a predominantly female one. In Rome, Caesar praises Antony in Act 1 by recalling him in "a winter landscape in which he survives by exercising the manly virtues of fortitude and endurance," whereas Cleopatra, in Act 5, "places him in a setting of 'immense abundance' with 'no winter in it.'"
Even within individual scenes there are such contrasts and contradictions, a "counterpointing of the poignant, the solemn and the tragic against the ironical, the sceptical and the absurd." Antony's suicide attempt, an exercise of noble Roman virtue, "is both painful and ridiculous.... Even the most transcendentally moving moment in the play, the suicide of Cleopatra towards which the whole of the final scene has been moving, is interrupted by the Clown with his basket of figs." There is an instability of the characters that echoes the disintegration of the Roman world. Shakespeare was influenced toward a vision of the instability and mutability of the world by two of his favorite writers, Montaigne and Ovid.
The ambiguity of the play's moral vision has troubled writers who want to find out what Shakespeare thinks about his characters. "Clearly with a play as paradoxical and self-contradictory as this, any attempt to determine the opinion of the author is necessarily difficult if not impossible." Some see the play as providing "examples of rulers who threw away a kingdom for lust." Others believe the play valorizes the love of Antony and Cleopatra. "Shakespeare's critics, like his characters, tend to interpret this play in accordance with the predispositions they bring to it."
Ultimately the difficulty arises out of Shakespeare's uniquely copious powers of empathy, his capacity not imply to understand people unlike himself but in his imagination to become them.... Shakespeare could identify himself with every kind of ideal, especially the Roman, with which he must have become familiar from his schooldays onward. The two principles on which the play is built are irreconcilable, and to ask which of them Shakespeare favoured (which is what, essentially, some of the critics are doing) is not a question that should be asked.