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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Shakespeare Uncovered Antony and Cleopatra

I just watched the great Shakespeare Uncovered documentary about Antony and Cleopatra, hosted by Kim Cattrall.

It's fantastic, and you shouldn't miss it!

Kim Cattrall at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Kim Cattrall, most famous for her role as Samantha in Sex and the City, makes a great host for this episode. In addition to her TV and film roles, she has been very busy on theatre stages.

In the course of the documentary, we get to see clips of Dame Janet Suzman, who was famous in the role of Cleopatra for a 1974 TV version. Dame Janet later would direct Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra in a 2010 stage version and then again in a revival in 2012, co-starring Michael Pennington as Mark Antony, and who was great as King Lear last year -- my review here. It's just a shame there are no video clips of Kim as Cleopatra.

Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra

with Michael Pennington as Antony

There are some nice moments where Ms. Cattrall interviews Dame Janet today, and her insights into the play are quite interesting.

Janet Suzman as Cleopatra, 1974

Of course there are film clips of other famous Marc Antony's and Cleopatras -- especially Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, but of course that was not an adaptation of Shakespeare.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra, 1963

There are some clips of Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart, who performed together for the RSC in 2006. He says that he had more fun playing Antony than any other Shakespeare character, and he has played quite a few. There are even some great shots of him as Enorbarbus in the Suzman 1974 TV version.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter, 2006

He has a great anecdote about how Cleopatra was really bad news for Mark Antony, and he should have just run away from her.

There are some scholars who add insights, such as Jonathan Bate, and Gail Kern Paster.

I really wish there was more of scholars like these, since they have some of the most interesting things to say. 

In this episode, however, I disagree with Jonathan Bate who thinks that the play was Shakespeare letting his hair down and writing about Cleopatra in order to comment on Queen Elizabeth, who had died only a few years before Shakespeare wrote the play. There is much more that Shakespeare is saying about King James and Queen Anne, than about Elizabeth.

King James and Queen Anne, were they the original Antony and Cleopatra?

Also, I was surprised that Jonathan Bate didn't mention the other Elizabethan plays about Antony and Cleopatra. Mary Sidney, one of the greatest and earliest female writers and poets, wrote her own play in 1592. In 1594, Samuel Daniel wrote a play about them, and his artistic patron at the time was the same Mary Sidney.

Mary Sidney

Much of the documentary is a search for the meaning to Shakespeare's play, and how closely Shakespeare modeled his characters after the real historical Cleopatra and Mark Antony. This is very interesting, and it is fun to travel from place to place as Kim Cattrall investigates these questions.

However, it would seem to me that Mary Sidney and Samuel Daniel, and their versions of this story, would seem to be far more worth investigating. I doubt very much that when Shakespeare wrote his own Antony and Cleopatra play, he was that concerned with making his play an authentic history, and was instead telling us something about the reign of King James.

There are also some great moments in the documentary between Kim Cattrall and a few actors at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre as they rehearse a new production of the play. It is one of the few times we get to see Kim Cattrall recite some of Cleopatra's lines, and it is clear how much she loves this character.

The documentary also examines the character of Mark Antony, and compares him to his portrayal in Shakespeare's earlier Julius Caesar play.

Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, in a Julius Caesar film, 1953

My favorite part of the documentary is when Kim Cattrall meets a famous speechwriter and political spinmeister, Alastair Campbell, who wrote speeches for Tony Blair, for example. As much as times may have changed, from the Roman empire, to Jacobean London, to today, political speech has changed very little, and Shakespeare was a master of language.

First, together they watch Mark Antony's "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech. Then they compare it to an early 2008 campaign speech by Barack Obama, who speaks about how his opponents are honourable people with good ideas, while of course he means the opposite. It is striking how much it sounds like Marc Antony when he says "Brutus is an honourable man."

Mr. Campbell says that in order for a speech to be truly moving, or manipulative, the speech has to be a performance, and the audience has to become part of the performance.

Mark Antony's speech, from the Brando film

This, of course, is at the root of my new approach to Shakespeare's plays. In my versions of the plays, the audience is as much a part of the play as the actors on stage, and speak with the actors very frequently.

I strongly recommend this documentary. It is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, and this documentary does an excellent and entertaining job of exploring it.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra

You can buy the DVD here:

And the first season is available here:


David B. Schajer

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