As a historical romance, the story of Antony and Cleopatra has it all: royal intrigue, picturesque empires, sex, debauchery (reportedly, the two starting a drinking club for regular high-quality binge-boozing) and stupid suicidal deaths. The pair were also the unfortunate subject of a very interesting play by William Shakespeare and an excruciatingly poor movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Cleopatra first came to leadership at the age of 18 in tandem with her brothers Ptolemy XII and Ptolemy XIV, though naturally, royal families being what they are, this triumvirate did not last long. Within a year of their father Ptolemy XII’s death, Cleopatra was chased out of Egypt by XIII’s followers.
However, Cleopatra had a cunning plan: She had herself smuggled in to Caesar’s palace (the real one, not the Las Vegas casino), at some point seduced the leader of the Roman Empire, and soon had an army at her side to reconquer Egypt. Cleo also bore Caesar a son, Ptolemy Caesarion, and groomed him as the future rightful ruler of Egypt so as to maintain the support of Rome.
A few years later, Caesar was assassinated and Mark Antony found himself as part of another triumvirate of rulers. Cleopatra met with Antony and made short work of his affections as well, convincing him to ditch his wife and, effectively, his power in Rome, to come to Egypt.
Well, they certainly shared a lot of earthly pleasures together. The drinking club they founded was known throughout Egypt (and much of Rome, probably) and it seems the seven years between 41 BCE and 34 BCE were fantastic for them. Cleopatra gave birth to Antony’s twins at this time.
Back in Rome, Antony was nearly forgotten by the populace and discredited among the ruling classes. The final straw was Antony’s proclamation in 34 BCE that Caesarion was to be officially recognized as the son of Caesar, therefore potential heir to empires Egyptian *and* Roman.
Oh, yes. Naturally, the Roman leadership wasn’t too thrilled with the rogue Antony’s ideas about lines of succession and thus declared war on Cleopatra’s land. The Romans destroyed the slack Egytpian armies and within two years Egypt was yet another state under Roman law. After one battle, Antony committed suicide based on an untrue rumor that Cleopatra had been killed; had he waited a few more minutes, a messenger bringing contrary news might have saved his life. Upon hearing of Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra committed suicide, ostensibly by the bite of an asp.
For at least a couple hundred years, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra was the young person’s first introduction to the story of Cleopatra. Though like most of Shakespeare’s dramas and comedies, Antony and Cleopatra was an adaptation of earlier works, in this case Plutarch’s Lives, those without a “classic education” steeped in Latin would be unlikely to encounter the historical Cleopatra before getting to Shakespeare’s work.
First performed in 1606-07, Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s 33rd work; it is uncertain whether the play was performed at the Globe Theatre. The play is an early example of a spiritual sequel, in that Antony and Cleopatra takes place in the same narrative universe as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar of 1599.
Essentially the entire play takes place in Egypt and Rome, and much scholarly work has been done on the scintillating manipulation of language Shakespeare used so as to approximate these locales – neither of work featured lots of iambic pentameter-using native English speakers…