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There are several sources for Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare may have known an early version of Daniel's play titled "Cleopatra," which was originally published in 1594. He probably also used the Countess of Pembroke's "Antonius" of 1590, a translation of Garnier's "Marc Antoine." However, his main source is undoubtedly North's version of Plutarch's "Life of Antony." It is obvious that Shakespeare used this source heavily. For instance, in Enobarbus' famous speech describing Cleopatra on her barge, Shakespeare works almost verbatim by the North translation of Plutarch, neither adding nor omitting much from Plutarch's text. Even though the order remains largely the same as the Plutarch work, Shakespeare does condense the time.
The entire play is based upon history, even though time is distorted. Lepidus, Caesar and Antony were, indeed, the three mighty Triumvirs of Rome. The Battle of Actium was actually fought, taking place in 21 B.C. Antony and Cleopatra die in 30 B.C.
The Importance of Drama
Drama was the prime means of public entertainment during Shakespeare's time. Travelling actors went around the countryside and were hired by those who wanted their services. In the cities, permanent theaters, like the Curtain and the Fortune, were established and well attended. Shakespeare's company owned the Globe Theater, which was patronized by Lord Chamberlain and became successful.
The Globe was an open-air theater, where plays were staged in the afternoon since there was no artificial lighting. The stage jutted out into the audience, the majority of which stood on the ground around the stage and were called groundlings. Other spectators paid higher prices to sit in the galleries. There were three openings at the back of the stage--one in the center and one on each side--hidden by a thick curtain. The stage-floor often had one or more trap-doors, which were useful for the speedy disappearance or re-appearance of characters, especially ghosts. Above the stage was a balcony, usually used for love scenes. There was no stage scenery, though props were widely used. Black stage hangings were used for tragic plays, and colorful curtains were used for comedies or light plays. Actors on the Shakespearean stage were often youths. Boys with high-pitched voices were trained from early years to take women's parts, since women were not allowed on the stage. Most of Shakespeare's plays were performed at the Globe Theater.
Shakespeare's main source for the play is Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's "Life of Antony," a part of a larger work entitled Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans (1579). Shakespeare used this source earlier in writing his play, Julius Caesar. In Antony and Cleopatra, he follows the source closely.
Many critics consider Antony and Cleopatra as a mere continuation of the earlier play, Julius Caesar. Since many things are transacted in the background or simply alluded to in this play, it seems Shakespeare assumes that the reader is familiar with his earlier play. It is important to know that Pompey the Great had died nearly eight years ago, and his political opponent, Julius Caesar, has been assassinated. As a result, the Roman Empire has been carved between his successors Octavius Caesar, Antony and Lepidus. By the time the play opens, Pompey's son, Sextus Pompeius, has led a successful uprising against Caesar, and his popularity is steadily increasing among the tax-burdened populace. All of this information comes directly from Plutarch's study on the noble Greeks and Romans.