Bursary Funded Research: Staging Daniel’s Cleopatra

This post is the second in our series of guest-authored posts written by scholars who have been awarded funding for their research by the Society. This post was written by Yasmin Arshad, a PhD Candidate at University College London.


I was awarded a 2013 Malone Society Bursary to mount a production of Samuel Daniel’s neo-Senecan closet drama, The Tragedie of Cleopatra. The performance, with Emma Whipday as director and Professor Helen Hackett as executive producer, was held on Sunday, 3 March at the Great Hall of Goodenough College. This may well have been 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. Written as a companion piece to his patron, Mary Sidney’s Antonius (a translation of a French play by Robert Garnier), it portrays a strikingly different Egyptian Queen from the usual representations of the scheming seductress we have come to expect. Daniel’s play focuses on the final hours of Cleopatra’s life, showing a great queen in defeat as she struggles 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.

Charlotte Gallagher as Cleopatra
Charlotte Gallagher as Cleopatra. Photo credit: Yi Ling Hunag

Daniel’s closet drama is important also as a play that is in dialogue with Shakespeare. It was almost certainly a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but Daniel was in turn influenced by Shakespeare in his much-revised 1607 edition. Although considered obscure today, Daniel’s play was a best-seller in its time, going through nine editions and five sets of alteration. Malone Society bibliophiles will be interested to know that in his study of early English plays, Peter W. M. Blayney has pointed out that Cleopatra would have ranked second in the number of editions published, out-performing Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and doing better than any of Shakespeare’s plays.

The idea for this production is based on my research on a portrait of an early-seventeenth century English aristocratic woman depicted as Cleopatra holding the asp, accompanied by an inscription. The painting has remained relatively unknown and was misidentified and misdated, with little work done on its inscription. The lines can be identified as coming from the 1607 Cleopatra (or the 1611 reprint) and the sitter as possibly being Lady Anne Clifford. The portrait is exciting as it may be a record of an actual performance of a closet drama. Until recently it was thought that such plays were written to be read aloud in coterie circles, but recent scholarship has suggested that they may have been fully staged in elite country house settings. The painting, which last came up for sale at Christie’s in 1948, has disappeared during the last sixty-five years. Its only visual record is the photograph the National Portrait Gallery had taken at the 1948 auction. Although more light can only be shed on the questions surrounding the portrait with its location, the painting itself provides us with a remarkable visual image of a Jacobean lady ‘playing’ Daniel’s Cleopatra in some way. It adds something new to our knowledge and understanding of early modern closet drama and female agency.

The aim of our production was to test the performability of Daniel’s closet drama, and to change the commonly held perception that there was no female participation in drama in Shakespeare’s time. Women were not only writing closet drama, but may well have been performing in these plays in the great country houses, using them to explore models of female heroism. As much as possible we wanted to replicate the probable conditions of a Jacobean country house performance.

We used Daniel’s 1607 Cleopatra as our play-text, primarily because the lines in the portrait’s inscription come from this edition. We decided to keep the play to about two hours for audience comfort, and as we were preparing the script and reading it out loud to time it, we began to realise that Daniel’s closet drama with its implicit performance cues, make it very performable. We also decided to follow the inscription’s lines in the script rather than those from the play text itself. If the portrait is a record of a performance then the excerpted inscription may suggest that an abridged version of the closet play was staged to make Cleopatra’s final 36-line speech more manageable for the actor –this also set a precedent for our cutting some lines. By moving beyond a staged reading with script in hand, we are satisfied that we have demonstrated that Daniel’s closet drama is fully performable. We were fortunate to have a cast and production team of extraordinary talents, and to have Charlotte Gallagher as our impressively mesmerisng Cleopatra and the talented Beth Eyre as our coldly ambitious Caesar. Both, alumni of UCL’s English Department, are now professional actors.

The cast of Cleopatra
The cast of Cleopatra. Photo credit: Yi Ling Hunag

It has been an exciting and wonderful experience to produce Daniel’s Cleopatra and to show how fantastic this moving and fascinating play is in performance. Staging this production has provided valuable insights into Daniel’s play and into understanding the workings of closet drama in general. I am very grateful to the Malone Society for their generous support of this project and in helping make the magnificent costumes and the DVD of this production possible.

Malone Society editions have formed an important part of my PhD research, particularly Daniel’s Hymen’s Triumph and Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam.

DVDs of the production can be purchased at: http://thetragedieofcleopatradvd.eventbrite.co.uk

To learn more about the production please visit: http://thetragedieofcleopatra.wordpress.com

The Cleopatra team will be discussing the research that led to this production and performing scenes from the play at Knole House in Kent, on Saturday, 9 November, and at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford on Tuesday, 12 November. Details will be posted on our blog and on the UCL Centre for Early Modern Exchanges website (www.ucl.ac.uk/eme).

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.30-36.

Elizabeth Sharrett, manning the Malone Society table at the Great Hall, Goodenough College, March 2013.
Elizabeth Sharrett, manning the Malone Society table at the Great Hall, Goodenough College, March 2013. Photo credit: Yi Ling Hunag

3 thoughts on “Bursary Funded Research: Staging Daniel’s Cleopatra”

  1. Thanks for posting this information; I’m particularly interested in the connection to Shakespeare’s work and the effect of closet drama on Elizabethan theater. Michael Dobson has done some work on amateur performance (Shakespeare and Amateur Performance, 2013), but I think it’s clear more work needs to be done.

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