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Caesar and Cleopatra, a play by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), premiered on Broadway in 1906 and debuted on the West End in London in 1907. George Bernard Shaw, an Irish-born playwright, wrote for the English stage in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. He wrote over 60 plays and remains one of the most influential and remembered voices to write for the English-language theatre. Some of his major works include Arms and the Man (1894), Man and Superman (1902), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1913), and Saint Joan (1923). In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. His plays are known for their witty dialogue, a style of language that has been dubbed “Shavian.”
Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator are two of the most fictionalized figures in world history. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in particular have worked to shape the way they are remembered in the collective imaginary. In Caesar and Cleopatra, Shaw defies the Shakespearean constructions of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s Caesar is a leader whose ambition brings him to an end at the hands of traitors. Shaw’s Caesar is even-tempered and mundane, conspicuously self-conscious about baldness and growing older. He is a brilliant strategist but tends to orate and repeat his own speeches. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is an archetypal temptress. Shaw’s Cleopatra, on the other hand, is a teenager, sometimes silly and desperate for attention, afraid of being punished by her nurse, and sometimes petulant and cruel.
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The historical Cleopatra and Julius Caesar had a love affair, although Caesar already had a wife. Cleopatra gave birth to a son who was most likely fathered by Caesar, although Caesar never claimed him and named his great nephew his successor to the throne in Rome. Shaw’s play is about more than romance. It is a critique of violent imperialism during a period when Britain was at the height of empire and domination. Shaw’s Caesar sees the wonders of Egypt along with its vulnerabilities under the leadership of two rivalrous children. Instead of crushing and conquering, he teaches Cleopatra to rule and leaves a reasonable system of governance in place. The play suggests that Rome (or, by implication, Britain) can create civilization without destroying a people.
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Outside of Cleopatra’s palace, guards receive word that Caesar and the Romans are marching into Egypt. Sixteen-year-old Cleopatra and her 10-year-old brother Ptolemy are fighting for the Egyptian throne. Cleopatra’s nurse, Ftatateeta, informs the guards that the girl is missing. Elsewhere, Caesar happens upon Cleopatra, who is sleeping on the paws of the Sphinx. She is terrified of Caesar and the Romans but befriends him without knowing his identity. Caesar urges her to protect herself from the Romans by acting like a queen and she does, and she is surprised and relieved to discover that the helpful man is Caesar.
At the palace, Ptolemy gives a speech, relying on the help of Pothinus, his guardian, and Theodotus, his tutor. Caesar enters with his officer Rufio and his British slave, Britannus, and attempts to negotiate a shared throne between Cleopatra and her brother, but no one will agree. Cleopatra wants attention from Caesar and tells him about a Roman named Mark Antony, who she had met and fallen in love with when she was younger. Caesar promises to send Mark Antony to her.
Caesar is appalled to learn that the Egyptians have beheaded his enemy, Pompey, as a gesture of goodwill. The Egyptians threaten a military fight, and Caesar is currently outnumbered but unconcerned. He plans to burn his own boats and maneuver his way to the island of Pharos, where he will take control of the lighthouse. As he prepares, Theodotus enters to give news that the Library of Alexandria is on fire. Caesar and his men have taken the lighthouse.
Cleopatra, captive in the palace, rolls herself up in a rug and sends it to Caesar as a gift. The Egyptians are attacking, and the Romans must jump into the sea and swim to their ship. Cleopatra follows; Caesar swims with her on his back.
Six months later, Cleopatra is surrounded by her ladies and her nurse, Ftatateeta. She learns that Pothinus, now a prisoner, has been attempting to bribe his way into a meeting with her. She agrees to see him, and Pothinus tries to negotiate, but underestimates Cleopatra. On the roof of the palace where Cleopatra has invited them for a feast, Rufio brings Pothinus to speak privately to Caesar. Cleopatra enters, and Caesar urges him to speak anyways.
Pothinus claims that Cleopatra wants Caesar to return to Rome so she can have full control of the throne. Caesar dismisses Pothinus without punishment, but Cleopatra sends Ftatateeta to kill him. As they continue the feast, they hear a scream; Pothinus has been assassinated. The people are angry and forming a mob in the street. Ftatateeta returns, bloody, and prays to a statue of Ra. Caesar rebukes Cleopatra for destroying the peace he created, and she begs him to help.
The Roman reinforcement troops that they have been waiting for arrive in Egypt. Energized, Caesar runs off to meet them. Rufio is shocked to learn that Ftatateeta is the assassin who Cleopatra sent to kill Pothinus. Rufio kills Ftatateeta, and Cleopatra finds her body.
After the Roman army has won, Caesar prepares to return to Rome amid high-spirited celebrations. He appoints Rufio to be the Roman governor and nearly leaves. He is stopped by Cleopatra, dressed in black and mourning Ftatateeta. Caesar refuses to punish Rufio, since he sees the killing as necessary for defense, but he promises again to send her Mark Antony. They say goodbye, and Caesar sails away.
By George Bernard Shaw