Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is another of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies (like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus). These Roman plays, irrespective of their historicity, are not numbered among the history plays. As in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare is here working with a reasonably well-established historical narrative, largely garnered from Plutarch, but in the process he uses the fabric of ancient history as a sounding board for contemporary ideas and thoughts about a range of things from abstract philosophy to Tudor and Stuart political reality.
The part of Cleopatra is widely considered to be the best single female role in the whole of the Shakespearean corpus. By this, I do not mean that she is the best person — she obviously has monumental faults: she is desperately capricious and changeable from moment to moment, and a fanatical schemer into the bargain. Rather I mean that her character is expressed in complex and nuanced dialogue that gives an actress (or, in Shakespeare’s day, a young actor) enormous range for exploration of the part. The task of capturing her changeability is considered one of the greatest challenges an actress can confront.
Antony and Cleopatra spans an historical period of about ten years, and the action oscillates between Rome and Egypt, and a quick side trip to Syria. As such, it’s worth comparing with other of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of its adherence (or non-adherence) to the classical dramatic unities outlined by Aristotle.
It’s worth noting George Bernard Shaw’s response to Shakespeare’s vision of Julius Caesar, appended, inexplicably, to the DVD of the Macbeth production by George Schaefer (1954).