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An Analysis of Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra’ in Historical Context

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After early retirement the writer studied for an Open University B.A.(Hons) in English Literature, majoring in the works of Shakespeare

James I  Portrait by Daniel Mytens, 1621

James I Portrait by Daniel Mytens, 1621

Shakespeare and Contemporary Politics

Shakespeare appears to have been a risk-taker. The consequences for performers who displayed disloyalty to the Crown were serious, sometimes life-threatening but the King’s self-promotion as the new Augustus, his politico-economic ambitions, and his suppression of religious dissent were tempting topics for Shakespeare to mine when writing his play Antony and Cleopatra.

The Greatest Fan of Augustus Caesar: James VI of Scotland

  • James VI of Scotland acceded to the English throne as James I in 1603 and for the first time England, Scotland and Ireland became united under one ruler.
  • James presented himself as a universal peacemaker, drawing parallels between himself and Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor, an absolute ruler who instigated the Pax Romana, which lasted for approximately 207 years.
  • James was a man who could be fascinated by lofty ideals and sublime aspirations; and no ideal attracted him more strongly than that of unity, in the sense of universal agreement and concord (Brown and Johnson, 2000, p.154).
  • An example of James’s self-image as the new Augustus is a coronation medal which was minted for distribution to his new subjects, depicting James ‘wearing a laurel leaf, while a Latin inscription proclaimed him Caesar Augustus of Britain, Caesar the heir of the Caesars’ (ibid. p.150).

Shakespeare wrote the following lines for Octavius Caesar:

The time of universal peace in near.

Prove this a prosperous day, the three-nooked world

Shall bear the olive freely –

[4.6.4-6, Norton, 2nd edn. p.2698]

This would no doubt have resonated pleasingly with James I who, along with other classically educated members of Shakespeare’s audience, would have grasped the analogous reference of consolidation of the Roman triumvirate under one Emperor with the consolidation of the three kingdoms of the British Isles under James.

Coronation Medal of James I (1603)

Coronation Medal of James I (1603)

Shakespeare Carefully Avoided Censorship

Shakespeare avoided censorship by the Master of the Revels by writing under the guise of past history. His carefully ambiguous text may have referenced Plutarch’s history of the Roman Empire as a basis to dramatise the thorny issue of vice among the powerful.

The Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament had been uncovered shortly before the play was first performed. Shakespeare avoided giving overt offence when writing his script but oblique allusions to the Plot appear in the text.

The outcome, according to Neville-Davies was ‘an opalescent fusion of ancient history and Jacobean observations’ (Brown and Johnson, 2000, p.161), a statement which suggests that against the background of the Roman Civil wars and imperial ambitions the main characters in the play are depicted as complex changing figures with some similarities to powerful contemporary people.

A Memorial to Augustus Caesar, the model for James I

A Memorial to Augustus Caesar, the model for James I

Shakespeare's Octavius Caesar: The Dissembler

Kettle has said, ‘Words, with their ability to reveal and to deceive, are the play’ (Ryan, 2000, p.140). Whilst on the surface Shakespeare's Octavius Caesar appears to be honourable and noble he reveals himself as a dissembler when assuring Cleopatra’s messenger that he intends to deal honourably with her and not be ‘ungentle’ [5.1.57-61, Norton, 2nd edn], then telling Proculeius immediately after the messenger has departed to do his best to ensure that Cleopatra does not ‘by some mortal stroke’ [5.1.61-66, ibid], meaning suicide, defeat him. Caesar is determined to parade her in his triumphal procession in Rome.

Similarly, James VI, as future king of England, dissembled in the audience granted to the Catholic recusant Thomas Percy, who later participated in the Gunpowder Plot because James’s promises were not kept. James had given Percy assurances that Catholic recusants would be free to worship openly without fear of penalty, but was attempting to please both sides at the same time by giving every possible public reassurance to Protestants.

Cleopatra’s perceptive remark about Octavius, ‘He words me girls, he words me’ [5.2.188, Norton, 2nd edn.], could also be applied to James.

Was William Shakespeare a Roman Catholic?

The historian Michael Wood has written that whilst Shakespeare was unlikely to have been a recusant Catholic there is a body of evidence suggesting that he was raised in the Catholic faith:

  • In an extant signed testament, in the form of a will found in 1757 in the walls of his childhood home, his father, John Shakespeare, ‘solemnly beseeched his nearest and dearest[…] to have masses said for him after his death, and to pray for his soul in purgatory’ (Wood, 2003, pp.75-78).
  • In episcopal records discovered in 1964 the name ‘Susanna Shakespeere’, William’s daughter, is included in a list of avowed Catholics and church papists who ‘did not appear’ at Protestant Easter communion in Stratford during May 1606, in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot (ibid.p.78).

It seems probable, in the light of this evidence, that Shakespeare would at the least have been sympathetic to English recusants and possibly, by extension, to other oppressed minority groups, such as the Irish and other indigenous victims of Jacobean colonisation; and that his feelings are reflected in Antony and Cleopatra.

"Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot"

Let's take a look at the following lines:

…such as have not thrived

Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten;

And quietness, grown sick of rest, would purge

By any desperate change.

[1.3 1-54]

An historicist reading interprets the words as a warning about the future and an indirect reference to the recent Gunpowder Plot (1605). It’s interesting to consider the significance of this plot. Catholics had ‘not thrived /Upon the present state’; ‘quietness’ might be interpreted as the covertness essential to the practice of Catholicism in Jacobean England, of which those involved in the Plot had grown tired and so hatched the ‘desperate’ plan to ‘purge’ England of the establishment of King, Parliament and Church, most of whom would have been blown up in the Houses of Parliament if the plan had succeeded.

It seems that Shakespeare was a dissembler: An examination of the ambiguity of the ‘open’ text of Antony and Cleopatra suggests that Shakespeare may, in the manner of A Myrroure for Magistrates (1559), have been presenting the possible outcomes for rulers who demonstrate vices such as tyranny, ambition and pride. Pompey rebukes Menas not for a treacherous plan to murder ‘These three world sharers, these competitors’ [2.7.67, Norton, 2nd edn.p.2763] but for not going ahead without revealing the plot to himself: Reputation is more important to the great than ethics or morality.

Kettle writes that this ‘reveals the whole nature and flavour of Roman politics’ (Ryan,2000, p.134), revealing Shakespeare’s views about the relationship of great men to those who do their work and about ‘what the highly prized concept ‘honour’ means to the great ones’. It suggests that, providing the details remain hidden from them, powerful men are happy for their supporters to employ whatever means they deem necessary in support of their position. A position consistent with the views expressed by James VI/I in the Basilikon Doran (1599), where he seems to suggest that in the final analysis violence and tyranny in support of the lawful 'good' king is acceptable.

'Antony and Cleopatra' Is a Theatrical Expression of the Ambitions of James I

Both Augustus Caesar and James I became absolute rulers. James expressed his strong belief in the supreme power of the king in The True Law of Free Monarchies (1598) and insisted on the divine right of kings in his opening address to Parliament. The final triumph of Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra is a theatrical expression of the ambitions of James inasmuch as it united the Roman Empire under a single leader, just as James fulfilled his ambitions to join England, Scotland and Ireland into Great Britain.

Antony’s words ‘Equality of two domestic powers/Breed scrupulous faction’ (1.3.47-48) could be seen to reflect James’s thoughts on unification or they could be interpreted as a reference to relations with Spain, which had deteriorated after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605

James I and Suppressive Autocracy

The objective of unity and peace may have been noble but James’s policies and practices were not. In 1605 the Lord Deputy of Ireland began to restrict the power of the Gaelic aristocracy, leading to, in 1607, two prominent earls, fearing arrest, fleeing to the continent with 90 family members (Civil War and Revolution, BBC History).

Attempts to subdue dissent and enforce submission to autocratic rule were made by terror tactics. Hence the torture of the captured participants in the Gunpowder Plot followed by their hanging, drawing, and quartering served as both a punishment and a warning to other recusants.

‘Universal peace’ was evidently not a naturally occurring state of affairs in the newly united kingdom of Great Britain.

Shakespeare seems to offer a warning against despotism in Antony and Cleopatra. For example, in lines 1.4.37-39 (Norton, 2nd edn, p.2653) the Messenger reports that people who have ‘only feared Caesar’ have defected to Pompey, towards whom they feel love. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting the possibility of insurrection if James’s policy persists.

Shakespeare's Concerns About the Suppression of Dissidents Played Out in 'Antony and Cleopatra'

Caesar’s words in the final scene indicate how important it is to him that Cleopatra be taken as a captive to Rome

‘Lest in her greatness, by some mortal stroke/She do defeat us; for her life in Rome/Would be eternal in our triumph’ (5.1.61-68, Norton, 2nd edn. p.2711).

In other words, Cleopatra’s presence alive in Rome would bring eternal renown to Caesar and his triumphal procession but he suspects that she may attempt to subvert his plan by committing suicide, which Romans regarded as an honourable course of action following defeat.

Throughout the play Octavius has encouraged fear of, and antipathy towards, Cleopatra to gain support for war against her and Antony. This seems to have been a strategic ploy to dispose of Antony and gain sole control of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra does indeed take her own life and therefore in the last scene of the play undermines Octavius to some extent. He has not had the satisfaction of leading her as a captive in his triumphal procession, but he has achieved his objective of controlling a united Roman Empire. In this respect his character gave expression to the ambitions of King James; which is not to say that Shakespeare approved of those ambitions.

I suggest that Shakespeare’s objective was not to offer a flattering picture of James, applauding his objective of unity. A historicist reading of the play suggests that Shakespeare had serious concerns about an expansionist autocracy which suppressed dissidents, and that the text of Antony and Cleopatra is subtly subversive.


  • Brown R.D. and Johnson, D. (eds.) (2000) A Shakespeare Reader: Sources and Criticism, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan
  • Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J.E. and Maus, K.E. (eds) (2008) The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edn., New York and London, W.W. Norton.
  • Ryan, K. (ed.) (2000) Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts, Basingstoke, Macmillan
  • Wood, M. (2003) In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Worldwide Ltd., London

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Glen Rix