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About this book

This Guide provides a critical survey of the responses to this popular play. Chronologically arranged, the book draws on a rich range of critical writings, including Dr Johnson, Coleridge, Bradley and Leavis. This material is linked to more general issues regarding Shakespearean criticism and scholarship, and the development of literary theory.

Table of Contents

Introduction: ‘Like to a vagabond flag upon a stream’: The Vagaries of Opinion Concerning Antony and Cleopatra

Abstract
Infinite variety’, the phrase famously applied to Cleopatra by Antony’s faithful follower, the professional soldier Enobarbus (2.2.242), may as well describe the responses to the play itself throughout its critical history. Antony and Cleopatra has rarely met with unqualified approval: argument has been dominated by disagreements about what kind of play it is: chronicle history or love story, political drama or romantic tragedy. This Guide will survey some of the most important tendencies in criticism and scholarship, closely discussing the most prominent or indicative of these. It will also, in the notes provided for each chapter, suggest further reading on particular topics, the titles of which are collected for convenience in a select bibliography at the end of the Guide. It cannot be stressed enough that nothing can be taken for granted in a discussion of this play. So various has opinion been and so divided in judgement that only the broadest summaries can hope to do justice to it.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter One. Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion

Abstract
The basic outlook that shapes this Guide is that Shakespeare, taking the story of Antony and Cleopatra as material for a play, was consciously making a contribution to a process of interpretation that had been going on for some time before he joined the discussion and which has continued long after he made his contribution. The story of Antony and Cleopatra had been told and retold already: his contribution complicated the discussion considerably, adding the task of interpreting that contribution to the already difficult business of interpretation to which he had contributed.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Two. Shakespeare’s World Well Lost? Theatre in England during the Interregnum and After

Abstract
Shakespeare’s theatre belongs to the end of an age as much as to the beginning of one. It belongs to the beginning of a ‘modern’ period as distinct from a ‘medieval’ period, in the sense that convincing continuities can be traced between our world and its world, and in the more precise sense that the modernist critics, especially T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis, drew heavily on Shakespeare’s work to justify their critical practice and their theories. However, it belongs to the end of the medieval period in the important sense that the political and religious frameworks within which it operated are more directly continuous with that world out of which it grew than with that world into which it looked forward. The movement from Antony and Cleopatra to All For Love is a movement from that world out of which it grew into the world into which it looked forward, and a clear contrast between the two will help to bring out what Shakespeare was doing. In this sense, All For Love, although a poetic drama and not a critical essay, will perform the function of bringing the earlier play into critical focus.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Three. Dryden’s Revision of Antony and Cleopatra

Abstract
Dryden sets his play in the aftermath of Actium. Antony has withdrawn into the temple of Isis, shunning all company, including Cleopatra’s; Octavius is encamped at the gates of Alexandria, yet there is stalemate:
  • Maecenas and Agrippa, who can most With Caesar, are his foes. His wife Octavia, Driven from his house, solicits her revenge; And Dolabella, who was once his friend, Upon some private grudge now seeks his ruin: Yet still war seems on either side to sleep. ❑ (Act 1 lines 52–7)
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Four. Romantics to Victorians: ‘This enchanting Queen’

Abstract
The stage practice of the eighteenth century with respect to Antony and Cleopatra has its counterpart in the criticism of the nineteenth in that, from the point of view of the modernist critic at least, Shakespeare’s distinctive practice is not being recognised, or, worse still, it is being reinterpreted in such a way as to bring it within acceptable bounds. The strong tendency in the nineteenth century is to see the play as very much about Cleopatra, whose charms influence even the most judicious and excite the less judicious into extravagance.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Five. Modernists: ‘No more but e’en a woman’

Abstract
One strong feature of the modern period was a renewed interest in the drama and theatre practice of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras and one of the great figures in this revival was Harley Granville-Barker. Granville-Barker sits astride the divisions and complications of this period in which the modern is struggling to be born out of the remains of the Victorian. Granville-Barker’s own plays show much of the tastes of the time but his talents and interests are shown to best advantage in his contribution to A Companion to Shakespeare (which he edited with G.B. Harrison) and in the Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927–45). In his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, Harley Granville-Barker writes against Dr Johnson’s assertion that the events are narrated ‘without any art of connection or care of disposition’. His master trope contrasts music and architecture: • We should never, probably, think of Shakespeare as sitting down to construct a play as an architect must design a house, in the three dimensions of its building.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Six. The Editions: ‘The varying shore o’ the world’

Abstract
So far the narrative of this Guide has been a mixture of simple chronology and a suggestion that modernism, in the shape of F.R. Leavis, has a pivotal role in turning simple chronology into a history. This chapter marks out briefly a third option: the dispassionate scholarly survey of various attempts to turn simple chronology into history. The various editions of single plays considered here each take upon themselves the responsibility for a survey, however brief that may be, of opinion, of ‘the varying shore o’ the world’ of views of this play.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Seven. The Romanness of the Roman Plays (1)

Abstract
Mungo MacCallum was the first to propose the specific category, ‘Roman play’. Dr Johnson had expressed a widely held although not always openly expressed view that the plays were histories, and that this was not to their advantage. MacCallum regarded the common source as significant.
Nicholas Potter

Chapter Eight. The Romanness of the Roman Plays (2)

Abstract
Coppélia Kahn’s focus is on virtus (Latin for courage, manhood, military skill, goodness, moral perfection) as a defining characteristic; for her analysis, virtus is the essence of the works based upon Roman subject matter. She describes her claim succinctly: • That Shakespeare’s Roman works articulate a critique of the ideology of gender on which the Renaissance understanding of Rome was based.1
Nicholas Potter, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. Postmodernists: Antony and Cleopatra: ‘A child o’ the time’?

Abstract
The critics of Antony and Cleopatra discussed in this chapter may be thought of as ‘postmodernist’ in the general sense that they are not ‘modernist’, just as the ‘modernists’ may be thought of as ‘modernists’ in the sense that they are not Edwardians or Victorians. Chronological divisions must be approximate: methodological categorisations are unreliable. The critics discussed here do share some concerns: they have a broadly common understanding of the nature and significance of language and they are suspicious of the views of society, history and the self of many of the critics whose work precedes theirs. These critics came to prominence in the 1980s but there are interesting precursors; one is Linda Fitz, whose 1977 essay breezily summarises a critical tradition in a lighthearted tone that should not deceive as to the seriousness of the intent.1
Nicholas Potter

Conclusion: ‘Infinite variety’?

Abstract
This Guide has surveyed a range of critical accounts of Antony and Cleopatra, and if there has been a discernible thread running through those accounts, it has been an unwillingness to stake a claim for the status of the play unqualified by doubts and reservations (with the notable exception of Coleridge). Jonathan Dollimore’s hard but fair view of romantic illusion suggests a possible line of argument that may be taken up in future.
Nicholas Potter
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