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Romans, Greeks and a Wedding
Shakespeare returned to Roman history for the subjects of his next three plays. Julius Caesar had been successful a few years earlier, so the company probably thought that it would be a good idea to continue the story. Shakespeare’s source for that play had been the Greek historian, Plutarch, who wrote in the second century. There was a very good translation of his work in English, which Shakespeare used. So towards the end of 1606 or early in 1607, he wrote the first of these plays, Antony and Cleopatra.
In Shakespeare’s time, people thought that the Romans were the most important people who had ever lived. Latin was not needed in Protestant churches, but boys still studied it at school so they could read Roman literature. The work of writers like Plutarch helped them form their ideas about society and politics. Above all, they were interested in the lives of great men like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Shakespeare followed his source more closely than in other plays. But he did not always share Plutarch’s opinion of the characters, and by this time he was able to turn the excellent translation into the form of language that was best for the subject. For this reason, the language of Antony and Cleopatra, a play about two of the most famous lovers in the history of the world, is perhaps the finest and most romantic that he ever wrote.
Cleopatra’s wonderful speeches make it a very difficult part for an actress. There were no actresses in the theatre at that time, so all the women’s parts were played by boys. It is hard to believe that a boy appeared as Cleopatra. But Shakespeare always wrote with his company in mind. In comedies like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the story gave him the excuse to dress the heroine in boy’s clothes for most of the play and so the boy could use his own voice. But Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and Volumnia, the hero’s mother in Coriolanus, are much older women. It seems likely that between 1606 and 1608, there was a boy in the company with the ability to play such parts.
Shakespeare shows that he is confident in the actors by reminding the audience that they are seeing a play. When Brutus and Cassius have killed Caesar in Julius Caesar, Cassius says that the scene of the murder will be acted in countries (like England) that do not yet exist and in languages (like English) that are not yet known.
In Antony and Cleapatra, Shakespeare is even more daring. Cleopatra realizes after Antony’s death that Octavius will take her to Rome and show her to the ordinary people. Actors, she says, will make fun of her and of Antony, and she will see a boy with a high voice playing the part of Cleopatra and making her, a great queen, look cheap.
Some writers have imagined that when he wrote this, Shakespeare was apologizing to the audience. It can be argued, though, that the opposite is true. He was so sure of himself and the actors that, at the most important moments in the play, he was saying: ‘We are good enough to show you the greatest people who have ever lived.’
Today people have very different opinions about Antony and Cleopatra. Romantics would like to give the play the title that John Dryden gave his play about the lovers some years later - All for Love (or the World Well Lost). Others see it as mainly political - like Plutarch, who said that Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra destroyed him. This second group cannot understand why Shakespeare allows Cleopatra to compare Antony to Octavius, his rival for power in Rome, at the end of the play and to say that Octavius’s success means nothing. Shakespeare is suggesting that greatness is a personal quality that Antony had and Octavius will never have.
Shakespeare does not take sides in the argument. He knew from his own experience that in politics the cool head of a man like Octavius will always beat the warm, generous heart of a man like Antony. He had seen this happen when Lord Burghley’s son, Cecil, was too clever for the more popular Earl of Essex.
The play is really about being a star. For Shakespeare and his audience stars were not, as they are today, actors, pop singers and footballers. They were people with power - kings and queens, lords and ladies. It is interesting that when Antony believes that Cleopatra is dead and decides to kill himself, he imagines that the two of them will meet again after death. He is not looking forward to making love for ever. It is important for him that the other great lovers in history will recognize them as the greatest of all.
In the same way, Cleopatra kills herself at the end of the play because this proves that she is a queen. She will not let any ordinary person have the opportunity to destroy her. We do not feel sorry for Antony and Cleopatra at the end of the play as we do when young lovers like Romeo and Juliet die. We can only admire them because the truly great are beyond pity.
After this, Shakespeare probably worked on another story from Plutarch, Timon of Athens. The play seems unfinished, and there is no report of a performance in his lifetime. In the story of Timon the Greek general, Alcibiades, appears. In the war between Athens and Sparta, Alcibiades was driven out of Athens and in revenge led a Spartan army against it. But when Shakespeare decided to write a play about a man like that, he chose a similar story about a Roman, Coriolanus, instead.
Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most political play. In it he compares the attitudes of different social classes, and so most readers today understand it according to their own political beliefs. This is a mistake because society has changed so much since Shakespeare’s time - and had already changed when he wrote the play in comparison with the Rome of his source.
When Rome was still a small city state, fighting against its neighbours, it needed a special group of professional soldiers in time of war. They were similar to the men in films about Japanese history like The Seven Samurai. In the play, Coriolanus is the bravest of them. At the end of a war, men like these were often chosen to govern the city in peacetime. Coriolanus is proud and has no political skill. The ordinary people’s leaders attack him; they do not need him now, and he is not willing to tell lies to get their votes. In his opinion, only people from his own class, who have fought for the city, should have the right to vote.
None of the characters in Coriolanus is admirable. Shakespeare gives the people a better reason for disliking Coriolanus than Plutarch did, but shows that they are easily tricked. In all his plays, ordinary people are generally kind and sensible, but when they form a crowd, they stop thinking and become violent. In some ways Coriolanus himself is like Antony and Timon. They are all men who do not obey the customs of their society and in the end are destroyed for this reason.
We can only guess Shakespeare’s own political views. But they were probably the same as the views of the parliamentary leaders who rebelled against the King forty years later and executed him in 1649. Unlike the King, they believed that the people should have the right to choose their leaders. But they also believed that only property owners should vote because other people had nothing to lose. Shakespeare, who owned quite a lot of property, almost certainly agreed.
During this time, there were two important events in Shakespeare’s private life. In June 1607 his older daughter, Susanna, married Dr John Hall. Susanna was now twenty-four and her husband was thirty-two. Hall had studied at Cambridge University and moved to Stratford a few years earlier. He became well known in the medical profession, using plants to cure his patients. He was a serious man and almost certainly the most intelligent in Stratford, except for Shakespeare himself. It is clear that Shakespeare liked him and was pleased that his favourite daughter had found such a good husband. From this time, the main subject of his plays is the relationship between parents and children, especially between fathers and daughters.
Shakespeare was probably serious about his responsibilities as a father and was probably a better father than he was a husband or son. Some writers have suggested that when he invented powerful female characters like Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, he was thinking of his own mother, Mary Arden. She died in September 1608. Perhaps he waited until after her death before publishing his Sonnets the following year because he was unwilling to let her know the details of his private life.
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