Shakespeare lived in a time of great transformation for Western Europe. New advances in science were overturning ancient ideas about astronomy and physics. The discovery of the Americas had transformed the European conception of the world. Increasingly available translations of classical texts were a powerful influence on English literature and art. Christian and pagan worldviews interacted with each other in rich and often paradoxical ways, and signs of that complicated interaction are present in many of Shakespeare's works. England, having endured centuries of civil war, was in the middle of a long period of stability and peace.
Not least of the great changes of Shakespeare's time was England's dramatic rise to world power. When Queen Elizabeth came to power in 1558, six years before Shakespeare's birth, England was a weak and unstable nation. Torn by internal strife between Catholics and Protestants, an economy in tatters, and unstable leadership, England was vulnerable to invasion by her stronger rivals on the continent. By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1603, she had turned the weakling of Western Europe into a power of the first rank, poised to become the mightiest nation in the world. When the young Shakespeare came to London looking to make a life in the theatre, England's capitol was an important center of trade, learning, and art. In the few decades that he made his career there, the city's financial, intellectual, and artistic importance became still greater, as London continued its transformation from unremarkable center of a backwater nation to one of the world's most exciting metropolises. Drama was entering a golden age, and the young Shakespeare was to be that age's greatest writer.
Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607, following the incredible period that gave us Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Although classified sometimes as a tragedy, the play is unique and difficult to categorize. Some put it with Julius Caesar and Corialanus, the Roman plays: all three use Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans as their primary source, and all three have concerns steeped in historical and political questions. In all three of these plays, Shakespeare shows an impressive (although sometimes overstated) ability to assimilate the classical world on its own terms. While Hamlet and Lear are basically Renaissance characters, far removed from the original settings of the source materials Shakespeare used, the characters of the Roman plays are, to a large extent, Romans moving in a Roman world. Partly, this phenomenon is a tribute to the strength and vitality of Plutarch's writing. Although Shakespeare alters Plutarch freely to match his own dramatic purposes, Plutarch's power to speak for his time and place shines through Shakespeare's adaptations. And while Shakespeare remains true to the essence of his source, he also deepens what he finds there.
Historically, the events of Antony and Cleopatra took place in the late first century BCE. Julius Caesar ends in victory for Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony, who defeat Caesar's assassins and divide the world between themselves. Antony and Cleopatra picks up the story years later. In the course of the play, the three-member alliance, called the triumvirate, will fall apart. The demands of history and power decree that Rome must be ruled by one man alone. Lepidus, the weakest of the three generals, is not a serious contender for ultimate power. The final contest will be between Antony and Octavius.
Because Shakespeare took no interest in the publication of his plays, his dramas got into print in uncertain and unreliable ways. Certain plays do not come to us straight from Shakespeare's manuscripts, and corrupt texts abound. Fortunately, Antony and Cleopatra seems free of these difficulties. The play was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1607, a step normally preceding publication, but in this case the play remained unpublished until 1623. In this year, it was included amongst the tragedies in the First Folio. The play's First Folio printing is the basis of all following editions. The evidence suggests that this printing comes to us directly from Shakespeare's own manuscript.