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Antony and Cleopatra – Introduction to play

Date:

Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy, the first known performance was by The King’s Men in 1607 in either the Blackfriar’s Theatre or The Globe. It was first published as part of the First Folio in 1623.

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The Plot and historical context:

The play tells the story of the love affair between Antony, one of the triumvirs ruling the Roman Empire, and Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt.

Their love affair takes place in the context of the conflict between the young Caesar, an administrator and also a triumvir,  and the ageing hero, Antony, which ends with the overthrow and deaths of Antony and Cleopatra.

Caesar (aka known as Octavius Caesar, and later Augustus) and Antony (aka as Mark Antony) had previously overthrown Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar.

Caesar went on to become the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus.

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Major interests of the play:

There are a number of interesting features of the play.

The play is set in Alexandria, in Egypt, and the Roman Empire, mostly Rome, but also further afield.

The contrast between the sensual, imaginative, ambience of Egypt and the more pragmatic, political, style of Rome, and particularly Caesar, is a major part of the play’s interest.

Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s more complex, fully-drawn female characters. Vain and histrionic, she also reveals a tragic grandeur.

A personal delight is the contrasting scenes demonstrating Elizabethan / Jacobean views of male and female behaviour:

In Act 3 Scene 3, where Cleopatra finds out as much as she can about her rival, Octavia, and she and her maid-servants run Octavia down.

In Act 2 Scene 7, where the competing Roman leaders get drunk together, and Antony tells them of the wonders of Egypt, as well as Enobarbus’ description of the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra in Act 2 Scene 2, with the Roman officers response.

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The Cast:

The play has a huge cast, including 59 speaking roles. However, there are only perhaps 7 principal roles, so the play can be read with 7 (or more) readers.

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Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’,
Players-Shakespeare.com
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