Sources for Antony and Cleopatra

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Shakespeare’s main source for Antony and Cleopatra was Plutarch’s Lives, which was translated by Thomas North in 1579. Shakespeare ignored many of the historical events reported in Lives, so that he could concentrate on the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Plutarch spends much time elaborating on Cleopatra’s charms and, while Shakespeare does make a few changes to create a more fast-paced and exciting story, he follows Plutarch’s text very closely in this regard. Compare the following excerpt from Plutarch’s Lives with Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra and her pavilion:

She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal; while the word went through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus, for the common good of Asia. On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equalled for beauty.

Compare also Enobarbus’ description of the feast Antony held for Ceopatra with Plutarch’s text:

The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savoured more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve. For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian. Antony was so captivated by her that, while Fulvia his wife maintained his quarrels in Rome against Caesar by actual force of arms, and the Parthian troops, commanded by Labienus (the king’s generals having made him commander-in-chief), were assembled in Mesopotamia…

Note that this particular translation of Plutarch was written by the master wordsmith, John Dryden. North’s translation is not as flowery, but he reports exactly the same scenario as we see above.

Moreover, in the Lives, Antony is the only tragic character. Plutarch was not concerned with Cleopatra’s thoughts or feelings in their own right; they were merely responses to Antony’s suffering. Shakespeare, however, makes Cleopatra every bit as tragic a character as Antony, and gives her beautiful and moving soliloquies befitting a queen. For this development of Cleopatra’s character, Shakespeare likely consulted Samuel Daniel’s play, Cleopatra, written in 1594. In particular, Shakespeare emulated Daniel’s treatment of Cleopatra’s final moments and ultimate suicide. Click here to read Cleopatra’s soliloquy and here to read the Chorus from Act IV of Daniel’s text.