Dryden's reworking of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is a great read, especially if you didn't fully comprehend Shakespeare's work. Dryden's language is concise, and his portrayal of historical characters is excellent; especially considering that he had to follow Shakespeare's lead.
This is a Restoration play. There is a myth going around about the Restoration in England after the Cromwell era that pretends they were imitating the French model. First of all it is absurd because the plays, most of those who have survived, or the masques and semi-operas are very often inspired from Shakespeare or Marlowe, hence the Elizabethan period, and not at all the French models. This here play is typical since it is a rewriting of Shakespeare's play Anthony and Cleopatra. We can maybe see in the attempt to unify the tone and genre by getting rid of any witty comic scene of any kind an influence from the classical drama in France at that time and their famous unities of place, time and subject. This version of this drama is more intensely centered on the love and friendship Antony may have experienced in his position and less on Cleopatra per se and her own world. Cleopatra is clearly set in contrast if not opposition with Octavia, Antony's wife, but that does not really bring any more light of any type to Cleopatra. She appears as being a calculating lover who is ready to do anything to retain her Antony. Antony on the other side is shown as a rather weak man who is divided between doing what is right for Rome and being faithful to his love and at the same time to his friends. He is thus manipulated to the utmost by Cleopatra who plays the jealous competition game and by Dolabella who takes advantage of this jealous game to get Cleopatra for himself. Then the play appears to be nothing but a long prologue to the final still life scene with Antony and Cleopatra in their regalia and political paraphernalia sitting dead on their thrones with the dead servants who have accompanied them in that fate at their feet and only Cleopatra's eunuch still alive and who will go to Rome for the Triumph of the Emperor and probably be put to death in some kind of entertaining way afterwards. What's left then after the play? Not much. Even the language of love and friendship is not that lyrical and poetical. It is rather flat. What's more it does not have the beauty of Shakespeare's verse because it is highly irregular. That period will only flourish with music and the semi-operas of Purcell and then the operas of Handel will find some beauty and style, with long and maybe boring plays behind by Dryden or others, but we have completely forgotten those plays and we only know the music of King Arthur or The Fairy Queen. The Restoration was the time when theaters were reopened after forty years or so of closure or limitations but it was not always all that funny and did not produce great plays that have survived their period. Freedom is not always the most inspiring force.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID