As I’ve noted many times in the past, Shakespeare and history have a rather tempestuous relationship. When it suits his dramatic purposes, history becomes a blueprint for structure. When history doesn’t play well with his dramatic purposes, he does what any playwright would do: f(orget) history. We know in Julius Caesar, he left out much, and compressed time greatly. Let’s see what the relationship is like in this pseudo-sequel Antony and Cleopatra.
Before I actually read Antony and Cleopatra, I thought the play took place a long time after the events of Julius Caesar. Boy, was I wrong…
Well, first of all, let’s give some context here.
Though Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, and the play gives the impression of a quick succession of events leading to the deaths of Cassius and Brutus, in actuality, it was 42 BCE, and late in that year (October 23) when the second and final battle of Philippi was won by the triumvirate forces.
After that, Antony decided to take on Caesar’s next planned military campaign, Parthia. While he was doing that, Octavian was back in Rome consolidating power. Antony traveled widely in the region, and in 41 BCE, he was met in Tarsus by Cleopatra, who came in on a barge. Not any ol’ barge, mind you, but the one that left such an impression on Enobarbus (II.ii.201-215). Cleopatra returned to Alexandria with Antony in tow. Meanwhile, Antony’s brother Lucius and wife Fulvia was skirmishing with Octavian’s forces, in an attempt to slow his power; news of this was part of the message delivered to Antony early in the play (I.ii.91).
So, at this point, the beginning of our play, it’s 40 BCE (less than two years from the ending of Julius Caesar), and Antony returned to Rome to mend fences with Octavian. Shakespeare gets that right. What’s wrong is that Antony didn’t know of his wife Fulvia’s death (I.ii.117) at this time…because it hadn’t happened yet. Instead, she died while he was traveling back to Rome. Ol’ Willy, though, decided it was more dramatic to have that be part of what pulls Antony from Rome.
Antony returned to Rome, and in an attempt to seal the relationship with Octavian, married his sister Octavia. Now, Shakespeare makes it sound like: there’s the wedding, the truce is made with Pompey, Octavian reopens the war with Pompey, and then Antony hits the road back to
Cleopatra, er, I mean Syria for the Parthian wars…all fairly quickly.
Not so fast. Literally.
Yes, Antony and Octavia married in 40 BCE. The truce and treaty with Pompey, however, didn’t happen until 39 BCE. Octavian renewed the fight with Pompey in 38 BCE. Antony didn’t leave for war until 37 BCE. He stayed in Athens from 40-37 BCE with Octavia, who bore him two daughters. But Shakespeare skips this. And Octavia returned to Rome (Act Three, Scenes Four and Six) in 36 BCE, after Antony’s departure from Athens himself.
When Antony headed off to war in 37 BCE, he reunited with Cleopatra in Syria (it seems like Act Three, Scene Seven, but really Shakespeare skips it [more on that later]). In history, in Syria, she presented Antony the twins she bore him after he left (Shakespeare skips this, too; though he does reference them later), and he married her (skipped again). With Antony out of the area, Octavian renewed the war with Pompey (III.iv.4). Things went well in Parthia for Antony’s lieutenant Ventidius (Act Three, Scene One) in 38 BCE (before Antony had left Athens), but not so much for Antony, who had to retreat from the area in 36 BCE (skipped by Shakespeare), and returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria (which we hear about as early as III.vi.2).
In Shakespeare, Antony left Athens after the resumption of Octavian’s war with Pompey (III.iv.4), not before; but at least both were in 37 BCE. Shakespeare had Agrippa, Octavian and Lepidus defeating Pompey, and Lepidus arrested (III.v.4-11). All true in 36 BCE (Lepidus died in exile 20 years later); what isn’t true is the seeming immediate death of Pompey (III.v.18). Octavian captured and executed Pompey in 35 BCE.
In 34 BCE, Antony divorced Octavia (again, skipped by Shakespeare), then divided the rule of his portion of the Roman Empire between Cleopatra’s children (referenced in Act Three, Scene Six). By 32 BCE, Rome had declared war on Egypt (again skipped), setting Octavian and Antony on a collision course.
And this collision took place at Actium, in September of 31 BCE. And here we get a weird piece of conflation. Though the reunion between Antony and Cleopatra in Act Three, Scene Seven would fit the timeline of their meeting in Syria as part of the Parthian campaign, it’s not; this scene is actually the lead-up to Actium. The main clue here is Cleopatra’s mention of 60 ships (“sixty sails” [III.vii.49]), which refers to the latter battle, not the former; plus it fits the timeline for a subsequent regrouping and defeat in Alexandria. So basically, Shakespeare skips five years between Act Three, Scene Six and Scene Seven.
Their attempt to regroup in Alexandria in Act Three, Scene Ten fails, and Antony’s defeat there will led him to attempt his own life (Act Four, Scene Fourteen). And the next three scenes, including the death of Cleopatra, took place in a matter of a few weeks, not mere hours.
Again, as in Julius Caesar, there’s quite a bit of jettisoning of events and telescoping of time here in Antony and Cleopatra.