A history of Cleopatra in the Theatre

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, has captured the imagination of more than one genereation of theatre-goers. She has been the central figure of many plays. Here are just a few:

  • Cleopatra, a tragedy by Samuel Daniel, based on the narrative by Plutarch, and printed first in 1594, and, again, with alterations, in 1623. "It seems not to have been acted, and it is very unfit for representation, many of the speeches being of an enormous length.... The merit of it consists chiefly in the language. It is deficient in action. Even the death of Cleopatra is related by a messenger" (Genest). The story begins after the death of Antony, "and the imagination," says A.W. Ward, "is touched by the grandiose isolation of the opening situation, where the Queen is discerned alone in the Monument, face to face with her destiny."
  • Antony and Cleopatra, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, entered in the Stationers' Register on May 20, 1608, and first printed in the folio of 1623. Coleridge doubted "whether the Antony and Cleopatra is not, in all exhibitions of a giant power in its strength and vigour of maturity, a formidable rival of Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello." Of Shakespeare's Cleopatra, Hazlitt says that her character "is a masterpiece ... She is voluptuous, ostentatious, conscious, boastful of her charms, haughty, tyrannical, fickle.... Cleopatra's whole character is the triumph of the voluptuous, of the love of pleasure and the power of giving it, over every other consideration."
  • The False One, a tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. "The False One is Septimius, a profligate Roman who is employed to kill Pompey. He is scouted by Caesar's officers, and even by three poor soldiers to whom he had given money. He seems penitent, but turns rascal again. In the fifth act he offers to betray Photinus, etc., to Caesar. Caesar orders him to be hanged. Cleopatra figures in the play, which, in Hazlitt's view, is 'an indirect imitation of Antony and Cleopatra.' We have Septimius for Enobarbus and Caesar for Antony. Cleopatra herself is represented in her girlish state, but she is made divine in "youth that opens like perpeutal spring" and promises the rich harvest of love and pleasure that succeeds it. This, of all Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, comes the nearest in style and manner to Shakespeare."
  • Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, her Tragedy, by Thomas May, acted in 1626 and printed in 1639. "The play begins before the open rupture between Octavius Caesar and Antony.... In the fourth act Cleopatra wavers between Caesar and Antony. In the fifth, Antony stabs himself.... Cleopatra enters in robes of state. Antony's hearse is brought in. She applies the asp" (Genest).
  • All for Love; or, The World Well Lost, a tragedy by John Dryden, adapted from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, and first acted and printed in 1678. The original cast included Hart as Antony and Mrs. Boutell as Cleopatra.
  • Caesar in Egypt, a tragedy by Colley Cibber, first acted at Drury Lane on December 9, 1724, with Booth as Julius Caesar, Wilks as Antony, Cibber as Achoreus, Cibber jr. as Ptolemy, Mrs. Oldfield as Cleopatra, and Mrs. Porter as Cornelia. "The plan of this tragedy," says Genest, "is chiefly borrowed from The False One ... Fletcher's play is a very good one, Cibber's is dull and uninteresting."
  • Cleopatra, an adaptation by H. Rider Haggard of his story so named, produced at the Windsor Theatre, New York, in March, 1891; it had been performed originally at Louisville in September, 1890, under the name of Harmachio.
  • Cleopatra, a play translated from the French of Emile Moreau and Victorien Sardou (Porte St. Martin, Paris, October, 1890), and first performed at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York.
  • Great Caesar, a burlesque in two acts, written by George Grossmith jr., Paul Rubens, and Harold Ellis. Composed by Paul and Walter Rubens, and first performed at the Comedy Theatre, London, April 29, 1899, with Edouin as Caesar, F. Emney as Cicero, G. Grossmith as Lucia, and Miss Ada Reeve as Cleopatra.
  • Caesar and Cleopatra, a chronicle play in five acts by George Bernard Shaw, first performed at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle-on-Tyne, March 15, 1899, with Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Cleopatra. Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra is vastly different from its prototype. His Cleopatra is not a voluptuous temptress but a vixenish child with a streak of cruelty. His Caesar is a world-weary philosopher-soldier who is as much a stranger in Rome as in the barbaric court of Egypt. In place of grandeur and melodrama, Shaw gives us wit and irony and an undertone of sadness that makes this work the most affecting of his plays: an enduring vision of a great man hemmed in by the smallness of his age and by the impossibility of his own longings.


Home · Theatre Links · Monologues · One Act Plays · Bookstore · © 2006