The 37-year-old actor will wear handmade costumes to play the role - the first time in living memory a mature male has played it for an internationally famous company.
Mr Rylance's decision to play the passionate Egyptian queen will have considerable reverberations in theatrical and scholarly circles. It will also be seized upon with differing levels of approval by actors and actresses in Britain.
Leading actresses may be furious they are being deprived of one of Shakespeare's greatest roles, while a number of actors will see Mr Rylance's initiative as a sign that attitudes to gender on the stage may be undergoing a significant change.
The Royal Shakespeare Company actor Antony Sher, 49, says he is also keen to play Cleopatra, but was told by RSC artistic director Adrian Noble that he would be lynched by a dozen leading actresses if he was allowed to do so."Cleopatra used to be played by a chap," said Mr Sher, "and it is a fantastic role."
Mr Rylance, who is not officially announcing the Globe 1999 season until February when the box office opens, refused to comment. But a close associate said: "Mark will certainly be dressed up as a woman and the costume will be authentic, made by hand. It's a part he has always wanted to play. But it will be difficult to find the right Antony. He is going to have to be the right kind of macho. They are such a passionate couple.
"But Mark has a sensitivity about him that will help, and a voice that is not very low."
A spokeswoman for the Globe said: "It is part of the policy of the Globe that we explore original playing practices."
However, while it is often cited that males played females on the stage in Shakespeare's time, they were boys, not men - as in the Globe's Henry V this summer. And those were not large roles. To have a 37-year- old man play Cleopatra is a major theatrical departure.There have been some rare occasions in the 20th century of men playing women in Shakespeare. The company Cheek by Jowl put on an-all male As You Like It three years ago, with Adrian Lester playing Rosalind. There was also an all-male As You Like It at the National Theatre in the late Sixties when Laurence Olivier was director.
But actresses often resent the parts being taken from them. Dame Maggie Smith once said the all-male production was one of the reasons she left the National Theatre. "I had been promised Rosalind,' she said. "I hung on there to play it. Then they gave it to a man! So I took the hint and left."
Mr Rylance, who is a cult figure among theatregoers, is likely to draw record audiences to Shakespeare's Globe next summer.
No one has yet been cast to play his Antony. Whoever he is, it will be a performance to remember. A Globe source said that despite the unusual casting, the production will be "extremely passionate".
Mis-leading Ladies and Gentlemen
A piece of cross-dressing too far. The Hollywood actress stretched audience tolerance beyond the limit when she played Hamlet on stage in 1971 at the age of 73. In New York she was booed off.
Sarah Bernhardt Played Hamlet in West End in 1899 at the age of 55. Audiences sat in silence but critic Max Beerbohm said he refrained from laughing only out of concern for "the national reputation for good manners".
Played King Lear to acclaim last year, saying it was a fantasy fulfilled. "I've had this wish since I was 13 to play Lear ... when I heard my teacher read the play; she had this vast bosom heaving with emotion."
The 6ft actor, now in the film Primary Colors, played Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl's all male As You Like It in 1995. The late critic Jack Tinker enthused about his transformation into "a capricious schoolgirl".
Award-winning Irish-born actress played Richard II with great success at the National in 1995, but said she would never play character of opposite sex where a passionate relationship was involved.
Frances de la Tour
Soon to play Cleopatra, she took on Hamlet in 1979, but not to explore her male side. "I just wanted to play the universal person, a young, vulnerable, screwed-up
rebel without a cause."Reuse content