The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular -candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, immediately after Macbeth, and it is o...
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... of love, makes it difficult for him to “hold this visible shape” (IV.xv.14).
Cleopatra’s Fleeing Ships
The image of Cleopatra’s fleeing ships is presented twice in the play. Antony twice does battle with Caesar at sea, and both times his navy is betrayed by the queen’s retreat. The ships remind us of Cleopatra’s inconstancy and of the inconstancy of human character in the play. One cannot be sure of Cleopatra’s allegiance: it is uncertain whether she flees out of fear or because she realizes it would be politically savvy to align herself with Caesar. Her fleeing ships are an effective symbol of her wavering and changeability.
One of the most memorable symbols in the play comes in its final moments, as Cleopatra applies deadly snakes to her skin. The asps are a prop in the queen’s final and most magnificent performance. As she lifts one snake, then another to her breast, they become her children and she a common wet nurse: “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” (V.ii.300–301). The domestic nature of the image contributes to Cleopatra’s final metamorphosis, in death, into Antony’s wife. She assures him, “Husband, I come” (V.ii.278).
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