With the production now cast and our first read-through complete, we have crossed an exciting threshold on our journey of staging Daniel’s Cleopatra. It seems pertinent at this point to say a little bit about Daniel’s closet drama. Daniel’s Cleopatra is significant as the first original dramatisation in English of the Antony and Cleopatra story, and as such, it forms an important part of our literary heritage. It was almost certainly a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but Daniel was in turn influenced by Shakespeare and borrowed back from him in his reworked 1607 edition. Although considered obscure now, Daniel’s tragedy was a best-seller in its time, and would have ranked second in the number of editions sold, out-performing Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and doing better than any of Shakespeare’s plays. It is also 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, knowing that she has no option but to commit suicide or be led as a trophy in Caesar’s triumph.
By staging this production, we aim to test the performability of Daniel’s play, and to assert that closet drama is not only performable, but may have been written to be performed in elite country house settings. The portrait of an early seventeenth-century woman depicted as Cleopatra, on which I have been working, is exciting as it may be a record of an actual performance of Daniel’s Cleopatra. At the very least, it shows a woman playing Daniel’s Egyptian Queen in some way. It adds to our knowledge of women and performance, showing that women were involved in private performances long before they were allowed on the public stage.