Antony and Cleopatra

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Fulke Greville (c. 1600-1)

Historical Records

Greville's Dedication to Sir Philip Sidney

Greville comments upon the destruction of his play in his Dedication to Sir Philip Sidney:

Lastly, concerning the tragedies themselves, they were in their first creation three, whereof Antony and Cleopatra, according to their irregular passions in foresaking empire to follow sensuality, were sacrificed in the fire; the executioner, the author himself, not that he conceived it to be a contemptible younger brother to the rest, but lest, while he seemed to look over-much upward, he might stumble into the astronomer’s pit: many members in that creature (by the opinion of those eyes which saw it) having some childish wantonness in them apt enough to be construed or strained to a personating of vices in the present governors and government.

From which cautious prospect I… seeing the like instance not poetically, but really, fashioned in the Earl of Essex then falling (and ever till then worthily beloved both of Queen and people) – this sudden descent of such a greatness, together with the quality of the actors in every scene, stirred up the author’s second thoughts to be careful (Gouws, 93).

Theatrical Provenance

None known. This play was most likely intended for private performance or circulation in manuscript amongst an elite coterie rather than public performance or publication.

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy; Roman play; closet drama.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The most likely source is the biography of Mark Antony in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). Greville’s play can also be considered alongside similar neo-Senecan dramas such as the Countess of Pembroke’s translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc Antoine (Greville may also have had access to the French original), Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra, and Samuel Brandon’s Octavia.

References to the Play

See "Historical Records" above.

Critical Commentary

The account of the destruction of this play has proved itself useful in helping to date Greville’s other works. The fact that it was burnt as a result of the earl of Essex’s rebellion and described as a ‘younger brother’ to the other two tragedies has led critics to agree that his dramatic works must have been completed in their original form before 1601. Rees also bases her conclusions on the grounds that Greville’s interest in ‘the theme of the ill-treated wife and the patience of Octavia suggests that his Letter to an Honourable Lady, and also his lost play dealing with the Antony and Cleopatra story, were written just about the turn of the century’ (Rees, 177).

The fact that Greville was prompted to destroy his tragedy as a result of the Essex rebellion has led some critics to speculate upon the contents of the text. Bullough, for example, proposed that the play may have lent itself to an allegorical reading with Antony representing Essex, Cleopatra Elizabeth, and Caesar the queen’s advisers, particularly Cecil (Bullough, II. 5-7). Rebholz suggests that the same concerns about the ability of Greville’s readers to interpret his works as topical allegories may have motivated him to revise his second tragedy, Alaham, thus explaining why it departs so radically from its source (Rebholz, 132).

There is also the possibility that Greville included the figure of Octavia as an exemplar of stoic virtue in spite of the provocations she faced from her wayward husband. In the Letter to an Honorable Lady, Greville praises such qualities in Octavia, observing that she could be regarded as Antony’s ‘good Angell with Octavius’ (Gouws, 159) and that in her ‘course of moderation, she neither made the world her judge; the market her Theater; but contented her sweete minde with the triumphes of patience, and made solitarinesse the tombe of her fame’ (Gouws, 167). Rees suggests that the Letter represents a ‘prose draft’ of his dramatic work on the subject, or at least ‘a first working out of the ideas which clustered round the story as he understood it’ (Rees, 175). Wilkes, however, dismisses such ideas by suggesting that the references to the work in the Dedication would seem to place more emphasis upon the lasciviousness of the protagonists, as well as arguing that it ‘is a history with a pre-determined end, and there would be no capacity in it to reverse the “declination of monarchy” which Greville had traced in the other two plays’ (Wilkes, I. 307).

Works Cited

Bullough, Geoffrey (ed.), Poems and Dramas of Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke, 2 vols. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1939.

Gouws, John (ed.). The Prose Works of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Rebholz, Ronald A., The Life of Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Rees, Joan. Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, 1554-1628: A Critical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Wilkes, G. A. (ed.). The Complete Poems and Plays of Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628), 2 vols. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008.

Site created and maintained by Daniel Cadman, Sheffield Hallam University; updated 11 May 2010.