Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Shakespeare always observed the world around him , the people of his day, the politics of his day. But he also spent a lot of time reading. His education stayed with him. And whenever he got the opportunity, he loved to immerse himself in the great stories of the past. His school friend, Richard Field, had been the printer of an English translation of a great collection of biographies of the giant figures of classical Greece and Rome. It was called Lives of the Most Noble Grecians and Romans by a writer called Plutarch. The English version, which went through several editions, was by a man called Sir Thomas North. And he was actually translating from an intervening French version.
Skip to 1 minute and 1 second But this was the book that Shakespeare went to when he decided to dramatise a number of key stories from the history of the ancient world. First of all, there was Julius Caesar in 1599, the story of the assassination of Caesar, the civil war that followed, the foundation of the Roman Republic. But some years later, quite early in the reign of King James, Shakespeare returned to his Plutarch and told the story of the life of Mark Antony and, in particular, of what happened when he met the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s audience had, of course, already met the figure of Mark Antony. He was the one who spoke the great speech, “Friend, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears,” in Julius Caesar.
Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds Antony had opposed Brutus and Cassius who had assassinated Caesar. And what then followed was a Civil War, the battle of Philippi, was at the climax of Julius Caesar. So when the play Antony and Cleopatra begins, Rome is being ruled by three men, a so-called triumvirate, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian, Octavius Caesar as he was also known, and a man called Lepidus. This is the story that Shakespeare picks up in Antony and Cleopatra. And here, in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I’m standing beside a copy of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, open at the beginning of the life of Marcus Antonius.
Skip to 2 minutes and 50 seconds What’s interesting is Plutarch always tells the story from the point of view of the great hero, the warrior, the politician, the leader, but Shakespeare doesn’t call the play Mark Antony. He calls it Antony and Cleopatra. He gives just as much weight to Cleopatra as he does to Antony. Shakespeare is always as interested in the woman’s point of view as the man’s. And indeed, questions of masculinity and emasculation, we will see, become central themes in the play. But the initial impression we get of Antony is of a great warrior. Plutarch’s Life tells of his great military exploits, and Shakespeare picks up on this in the presentation of the character.
Skip to 3 minutes and 42 seconds Towards the end of the play, Cleopatra, as everything is going wrong– because this is a tragedy– as everything is going wrong, she thinks back on her first image of Antony, her ideal of Antony, the great warrior hero. And this is what she says. “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony. O, such another sleep that I might see but such another man. His face was as the heavens and therein stuck a sun and moon which kept their course and lighted the little of the earth. “His legs bestrid the ocean. His reared arm crested the world. His voice was propertied as all the tuned spheres, and that to friends.
Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds “But when he meant to quail and shake the orb, he was as rattling thunder. For his bounty, there was no winter in it. An autumn it was that grew the more by reaping. “His delights were dolphin-like. They showed his back above the elements they lived in. In his livery walked crowns and crownets. Realms and islands were as plates dropped from his pocket.” It’s beautiful, complex poetry. Shakespeare has invented this sequence himself. He hasn’t taken this out of Plutarch. But the ideas are complicated, and we need to analyse them for a moment. The crucial point that Cleopatra makes is that she’s dreaming now, as power is ebbing away from Antony, that he might have become Emperor.
Skip to 5 minutes and 22 seconds “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony.” Antony’s tragedy is that he never becomes Emperor. He’s only ever one of the triumvirate. They managed to get rid of Lepidus quite early in the play and so then two men are left with power, Antony and Octavius Caesar. When the play ends, Octavius is the one who becomes the first Roman Emperor. So Cleopatra is imagining an ideal of Antony becoming Emperor of the whole world, becoming an almost god-like figure, imagining him bestriding the ocean, cresting the world, being like rattling thunder is a comparison to Jove, the chief of all the gods. The sense that an Emperor or a Monarch is like a god was a very powerful idea in Shakespeare’s time.
Skip to 6 minutes and 18 seconds What about that image, “His delights were dolphin-like. They showed his back above the element they lived in.” The idea there is of an extraordinary power to transcend the normal element, that’s to say human beings are normally creatures of the land, not of the sea, let alone of the air. But Antony here is imagined being like a dolphin that can both gracefully go through the air as well as swim under the sea. The idea of the four elements, earth and air, fire and water, were of tremendous importance to the Elizabethans. This is an image of Antony’s god-like ability to move from one element to another.
Skip to 7 minutes and 7 seconds And then, at the climax of the speech, we have the idea of him giving away realms and islands, just as if they were loose change. The notion there is of the magnanimity of the great man. Throughout Antony and Cleopatra is a strong contrast between the splendour, the generosity, perhaps also the ostentation, the showiness of Antony and Cleopatra, on the one hand, and the seemingly more mealy-mouthed approach of Octavius Caesar on the other.
Skip to 7 minutes and 46 seconds So Antony is introduced to us, but what about Cleopatra?
North’s Plutarch: the life of Mark Antony
Featured SBT item: Plutarch’s Lives, translated by Thomas North
- Reference no: 83022066
Find more online: Plutarch’s: lives of the noble Grecians and Romans
© The University of Warwick and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust