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The most influential writer in
all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to
a successful middle-class glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded
no further. In 1582 he married an older woman,
Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he
left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor
and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and
Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England
and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns
of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and
James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite
of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the
greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title
of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford
and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two.
At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as
Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various
editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century
his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was
well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works
led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth
of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s
personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded
from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s
plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the
Earl of Oxford are the two most popular -candidates—but the support
for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory
is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary,
Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays
and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy
of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays
seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming
so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature
and culture ever after.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Antony
and Cleopatra in 1606, immediately
after Macbeth, and it is one of the last great tragedies
that Shakespeare produced. The most geographically sweeping of Shakespeare’s
plays, Antony and Cleopatra’s setting is the entire
Roman Empire, its backdrop the well-documented history of Octavius
Caesar, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s primary source
for Antony and Cleopatra was the Life of Marcus
Antonius contained in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians
and Romans, which was translated into English by Sir Thomas North
in 1579. North’s language was so rich that
Shakespeare incorporated large, relatively unchanged excerpts of
it into his text. The plot of the play also remains close to North’s
history, although characters like Enobarbus and Cleopatra’s attendants
are largely Shakespearean creations.
The action of the story takes place roughly two years
after the events of Shakespeare’s earlier play about the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar. At
the beginning of that tragedy, Caesar has triumphed over his rival
Pompey the Great, the father of young Pompey in Antony and
Cleopatra, and aspires to kingship. Caesar is then assassinated by
Cassius and Brutus, who hope to preserve the Roman Republic. Instead,
Cassius and Brutus are defeated by Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar,
Julius’s nephew, who then join Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to create
a three-man government, or triumvirate, over the empire.
Historically, the action of Antony and Cleopatra takes
place over a ten-year span, whereas in the play the story is compressed
to fit the needs of the stage. Antony is clearly much older than
he was in Julius Caesar, and his political instincts
seem to be waning. Octavius Caesar was only a minor character in
the earlier play, but here he comes into his own as the man who
will rise to become the first Roman emperor. Most of the political
battles and machinations depicted are historically accurate, as
is the romance of the title characters.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Antony and Cleopatra!