Tragedie of Cleopatra – The Premiere?

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On Sunday, 3rd March, University College London’s Centre for Early Modern Exchanges will be presenting a performance of  Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra at the Great Hall of Goodenough College. This may well be the first such staging of Daniel’s play in four hundred years and certainly the first in modern times. Published in 1594, Daniel’s tragedy is significant as the first original drama about Cleopatra in English and, as such, it forms an important part of our literary heritage. It was a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606), but Daniel was in turn influenced by Shakespeare and borrowed back from him in his reworked 1607 edition.

Daniel’s play is unexpected for those who come to it for the first time: this is not a play about the sweet, sultry seductress that we have come to expect in representations of the Egyptian Queen. Instead, Daniel’s tragedy focuses on the final hours of Cleopatra’s life, showing a great queen struggling to negotiate some form of mercy for her children, while knowing that she has no option but to commit suicide or be led as a trophy in Caesar’s triumph. Written as a companion piece to his patron Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke’s translation from the French The Tragedie of Antonie, Daniel’s play is part of the genre of plays that have traditionally been classified as closet drama. These neo-Senecan plays were thought written only for reading aloud in a coterie setting and not intended for performance. Recent scholarship has shown that our understanding of closet drama may not be complete and that they may have been performed in elite private settings.

The idea for this production is based on research on a portrait of a Jacobean lady depicted as Cleopatra holding the asp, with an inscription. The lines can be identified as coming from the 1607 Cleopatra and the sitter as possibly being Lady Anne Clifford, who was tutored by Daniel. The painting is exciting as it may be a record of an actual performance of a closet drama, and at the very least it is a remarkable image of an early modern woman ‘playing’ Daniel’s Cleopatra in some way. This production aims to test the performability of Daniel’s closet drama and to assert that closet plays were fully staged in private elite settings. It also aims to change the commonly held perception that there was no female participation in drama in Daniel’s time. Women were not only writing closet drama, but may well have been performing in these plays in country homes, using them to explore models of female heroism.

The production will also explore early modern attitudes to race and national identity. The play centres on tensions between Egypt and Rome and on a non-European heroine who is fascinatingly different from Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in her nobility and stoicism.

 

Booking information can be found here.

This event needs to be pre-booked.

 

To learn more about the production and to view rehearsal photos, please visit our blog.

 

A DVD of the performance will be available shortly: details will be posted on the blog and on the UCL Centre for Early Modern Exchanges website.

 

For more on women’s participation in drama in Shakespeare’s time, see Helen Hackett, A Short History of English Renaissance Drama (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), pp. 175-88.

For more on the portrait of a Jacobean lady in role as Daniel’s Cleopatra, see Yasmin Arshad, ‘The enigma of a portrait: Lady Anne Clifford and Daniel’s Cleopatra’, The British Art Journal 11.3 (Spring 2011), pp.30-37.

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Author:YasminArshad

Yasmin Arshad is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at University College London, working on Cleopatra in the Early Modern period.

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