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About this book

This handbook offers a way in to reading Anthony and Cleopatra theatrically. Through analyses of key productions, an account of the historical conditions in which the play was first produced, and a scene-by-scene account of how the play might be approached in performance, this book focuses on the challenges of staging the notorious lovers.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
The reviewer above is delighted at the simplicity of Robert Atkins’s 1945 production of Antony and Cleopatra. Here, he is relieved to note, are none of the extravagant scene changes that, during the previous century, had broken the smooth transition from one fictional location to another that the play suggests. But this is not the only thing that pleases. The reviewer is also happy not to be distracted by any ‘struggling with ropes’. A struggle, however, is something that the text itself appears to require. As Cleopatra remarks herself, a smooth transition from ground to monument, one that would permit the smooth delivery of a good speech, would be possible were she a goddess. But the queen and her attendants — and the young men that would have played them in Shakespeare’s theatre — are only foolish, wishing humans; to dispense with the struggle with ropes here would seem to necessitate dispensing with the speech.
Bridget Escolme

2. Commentary

Abstract
Antony refuses to hear messengers from Rome and is taunted by Cleopatra.
Bridget Escolme

3. The Play’s Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
Shakespeare’s primary source for the play is Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, written around the first century AD, translated into French by James Amyot and thence into English by Thomas North in 1579. There are passages in the play — Enobarbus’s Cydnus speech for example — very close to Plutarch’s ‘Life of Marcus Antonius’, and a selection of the more direct adaptations are included here. Shakespeare developed, from Plutarch, his explorations of ‘the role of the great individual in the destiny of the state’ and the ‘problematic ideal of heroic selfhood’, themes also to be found in two other plays with Plutarchian sources, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus (see Neill, Antony and Cleopatra, p. 7). Shakespeare also took selective inspiration from some of Plutarch’s characterisation, and in other cases changed and adapted the ancient historian’s figures and narrative radically. Plutarch’s brave and morally upright Octavia, for example, is much reduced in Shakespeare (see below, pp. 107–8); Antony’s magnanimity is the quality from Plutarch’s history that Shakespeare emphasises over the cruelty to be found in the source.
Bridget Escolme

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
Antony and Cleopatra has had an irregular performance history until the twentieth century. As we have seen in Chapter 1, little is known about performances in Shakespeare’s time. The Restoration and eighteenth centuries were dominated by formal, heroic versions of the story, following the dramaturgical principles of Seneca and the dramatic unities. Dryden’s All for Love, with its emphasis on love and honour, proved the most popular. Where Shakespeare’s play was performed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, drastic cuts and transpositions were made to accommodate extravagant pictorial scenery, and collations of Dryden and Shakespeare were produced (see Bevington, pp. 47–51, Madelaine, pp. 26–74, Deats, pp. 37–8). Spectacular productions, with their concomitant reorganisations of the text, continued into the early twentieth century. Accounts of the play’s performance history are full of entertaining details of extravagant processions and allegorical dances, enormous Sphinxes and working barges. The early twentieth century also saw, however, a revived interest in ‘Elizabethan’ production and Shakespeare’s simple, fluid staging. Productions influenced by the 1920s’ fascination for Egypt after discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb may still seem distractingly pictorial by today’s standards, but a growing acceptance of an open stage as the best place to perform Shakespeare allowed for fuller productions of the Folio Antony and Cleopatra from this time onwards.
Bridget Escolme

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
Antony and Cleopatra has not been particularly successful on film or television. The film image most likely to come to mind in association with the story is of Cecil B. de Mille’s film, or Elizabeth Taylor in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Hollywood epic Cleopatra, an extravaganza that inspired Carry On Cleo, one of the series of low-budget, British seasidepostcard-style comedies. None of these have much relationship to Shakespeare. The fact that more film directors have not considered making a large-cast epic of the Shakespeare play itself suggests, perhaps, that the kinds of public intimacies the play offers do not lend themselves to a film vocabulary. As Richard David has suggested, ‘to switch to and fro between one and another of the elements in a crowded scene, destroys a characteristic Shakespearean effect, which derives from the simultaneous contemplation of opposing forces and their interactions’ (David, in Bulman and Coursen, Shakespeare on Television, pp. 139–40). His critique is of the limitations of television Shakespeare, but a similar point could be made about film. Though film clearly facilitates crowd scenes in a way the small screen does not, it deals with tensions and confrontations in the presence of a large groups by cutting from figure to figure, so that the sense of a battle for theatrical status and space is lost.
Bridget Escolme

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
Here are extracts from four critical accounts of the ending of Antony and Cleopatra. It seems logical and tidy to place them in chronological order. I do not want to suggest that critical opinion of the play has somehow progressed from the romantic views of Schlegel in the early nineteenth century to the materialist ones of Dollimore in 1984, via Wilson Knight’s close reading and Shaw’s arch cynicism in the thirties. Though critical ideas and vocabulary such as Dolllimore’s are distinctively late twentieth-century, arguments not unlike Schlegel’s are still echoed in work published as late as 1992, as Sara Munson Deats has pointed out in her survey of Antony and Cleopatra in criticism (Deats, p. 2). However, placing criticism in its historical moment enables the scholar better to explore how it can be used and developed, engaged with and argued against. In examining critical writing on Antony and Cleopatra, it is worth considering not only what the critics have found in play, but what they wanted to find and what it was possible for them to find at the time their opinions were formed.
Bridget Escolme
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