Antony and Cleopatra

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Antony and Cleopatra



Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare's presentation of one of the most famous stories the ancient world has to offer: the tempestuous love affair between the great Roman warrior and the infinitely seductive queen of Egypt; the quarrel between Antony and Octavius Caesar; the climactic battle of Actium, and the resulting suicides of the two lovers. The play covers a period of about ten years, from 40 b.c.e., shortly after Antony first met Cleopatra, until 30 b.c.e., the year of their deaths.

Antony and Cleopatra was first listed for publication in 1608, but evidence strongly suggests that the play was written and performed one or two years earlier. No evidence exists to indicate that Antony and Cleopatra appeared in print before its inclusion in the First Folio of 1623; therefore, the First Folio version of the play is considered authoritative.

The principal source for Antony and Cleopatra is Thomas North's "The Life of Antonius" in his The Lives of the Noble Grecianes and Romans (1579), an English translation of a work by Plutarch. Shakespeare followed North's translation of Plutarch closely for his play; this can be seen, for example, by a comparison of Shakespeare's poetic rendition of Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra on her barge and North's own prose translation of the episode. Critics, however, are divided on whether Shakespeare's characterizations of Antony and Cleopatra are more or less flattering than they are in North's translation of Plutarch.

Scholarly debate over Antony and Cleopatra has centered around Antony's "dotage," or decline, and the relative nobility of his character; Cleopatra's contradictory behavior and the significance of her death; the nature of the lovers' passion for each other; and the comparative wisdom or rashness of their actions. Some scholars have focused on the connections between Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and John Dryden's seventeenth-century version of the play, All for Love (1677). Other issues of interest include the play's language, imagery, structure, and political context, as well as its treatment of the mores and politics of a changing Rome versus those of Egypt. Thematic concerns include the relationship in the play between reason and imagination or passion, the nature of love, the choice between love and empire, and political or social disintegration.


Act 1, Scene 1

Antony and Cleopatra begins in Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria. Demetrius and Philo, two of Antony's veteran soldiers, complain that Antony's infatuation with Cleopatra has had a bad effect on his qualities as a general. They see him as a great warrior transformed by his passion into a harlot's slave. Antony enters with Cleopatra and her maids, and a messenger from Rome arrives. Cleopatra taunts Antony, saying that maybe his wife, Fulvia, is angry with him, or perhaps the young Octavius Caesar has some orders for him. But Antony will not even hear the messenger. He appears only to be interested in indulging his love for Cleopatra and seeking out pleasure. He has forgotten his role as a Roman general.

Act 1, Scene 2

Cleopatra's two maids-in-waiting, Charmian and Iras, ask a Soothsayer to tell them their fortunes. When he ominously suggests that they will not live long, the women misinterpret his warnings and instead joke about their good luck. Meanwhile, Antony hears of separate battles being waged against Octavius Caesar—one of which was started by Antony's wife, Fulvia. That war is now over, but another warrior, Labienus, leader of the Parthians, is making widespread conquests while Antony idles his time away in Egypt, neglecting his duty as one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire.

After another messenger tells him of Fulvia's death, Antony berates himself for being enchanted by Cleopatra and decides to return to his duties in Rome. He tells his man Enobarbus that he regrets ever setting eyes on Cleopatra and informs him of the dire military situation. Sextus Pompeius is in full rebellion against Caesar and has control of the seas. The common people are flocking to him in support, and the empire may be in danger.

Act 1, Scene 3

Cleopatra is hurt and angered by this news. She rails at Antony for betraying her while he tries to explain the dire situation in Rome. When he tells her calmly of Fulvia's death, thinking she will be pleased with this news, she taunts him, saying that his lack of grief at the death of his wife shows her how coldly he will react to her own death, when it comes. Antony insists that even though he is returning to Rome, his heart remains with Cleopatra. Cleopatra, although obviously distressed at the prospect of his imminent departure, relents and affectionately bids him farewell.

Act 1, Scene 4

Back in Rome, Octavius Caesar tells his fellow triumvir, Lepidus, that he is disgusted with Antony's infatuation with Cleopatra and with his dissipation in Egypt. Word comes that Pompey is gathering more and more support in his military campaign against Caesar. A second messenger brings news that two more rebels in alliance with Pompey, Menecrates and Menas, are also having success at sea and are making inroads on Caesar's power in Italy, rebelling against the triumvirate; Octavius once more laments that Antony is wasting his time and his reputation in Egypt. He and Lepidus announce that they will assemble a council and decide on a way to counter Pompey by sea and on land.

Act 1, Scene 5

In her palace in Alexandria, Cleopatra whiles away the time in Antony's absence. She thinks of what he must do doing, and also recalls that in the past, she was the lover of Julius Caesar, and of one of the sons of Pompey the Great. Alexas, a messenger from Antony, arrives with the news that Antony has promised Cleopatra many lands in the east to rule over. Cleopatra is delighted to hear from Antony, and prepares to send him a greeting in return. She resolves to write to him several times a day.

Act 2, Scene 1

In Messina, at Pompey's house, Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas discuss the military situation. Thinking that Antony will remain in Egypt, and having a low opinion of both Caesar and Lepidus, Pompey is confident of success. He is disturbed, however, when Menas informs him that Caesar and Lepidus have assembled a powerful army, and then outright concerned when Varrius brings the news that Antony is expected back in Rome shortly. However, Pompey knows that Antony and Caesar are not on good terms, and he keeps an open mind about whether they will patch up their differences and unite against him.

Act 2, Scene 2

Antony and Caesar meet in Rome at the house of Lepidus. Octavius Caesar complains that Antony's wife and his brother made war on him, and that Antony supported them. Antony denies the charge, saying that he had as much cause to resent the rebellion as Caesar did. But Caesar then accuses him of remaining in Alexandria and breaking his oath to provide Caesar with military support when it was required. Antony responds by blaming Fulvia, his wife, claiming that she made war on Caesar with the purpose of enticing Antony away from Egypt. He seeks pardon from Caesar for this, even though it was none of his doing. Caesar seems unwilling to budge in his distaste for Antony until Agrippa proposes that Antony marry Octavia, Octavius Caesar's sister. This will cement an alliance between Antony and Octavius. Both men agree to the match and are reconciled. After they exit, the followers of Antony and of Octavius chat among themselves, and Enobarbus predicts that despite his marriage to Octavia, Antony will never abandon Cleopatra.

Act 2, Scene 3

In Caesar's house, Antony, who is now married to Octavia, pledges that from now on, he will behave more correctly. The Soothsayer warns Antony that Octavius will eclipse him in greatness as long as he stays with him in Rome. Antony knows this is true, and when he is alone he admits that he has married Octavia only to keep the peace; he is still enamored of Cleopatra and resolves to return to her.

Act 2, Scenes 4-5

As members of the triumvirate make preparations for war against Pompey, Cleopatra in Egypt hears of Antony's marriage to Octavia. She is furious and beats the messenger who brought the news. Then she sends a messenger to Rome to find out whether Octavia is beautiful.

Act 2, Scene 6

Pompey meets with the triumvirate. Antony says they do not fear his formidable naval strength, and points out that on land Pompey's forces are greatly outnumbered. Pompey agrees to accept the offer the triumvars have earlier presented him with. He is allowed to keep Sicily and Sardinia and agrees to rid the sea of pirates. He also agrees to send wheat to Rome.

Act 2, Scene 7

The triumvars and Pompey celebrate their successful negotiations with a feast aboard Pompey's galley. Pompey's ally, the pirate Menas, offers to assassinate the triumvirs while they are celebrating, which would then leave Pompey as the dominant force in the empire. Pompey rejects the idea. The celebrants, especially Lepidus, become increasingly drunk, and Octavius Caesar, who does not enjoy such occasions, suggests that it is time to go home.

Act 3, Scene 1

On a plain in Syria, Ventidius, one of Antony's subordinates, and Silius, a soldier in Ventidius's army, discuss their victory over the Parthians. Ventidius plans to write to Antony informing him of their success, but he does not want to appear to be too successful, because Antony may then regard him as a threat.

Act 3, Scene 2

As Antony and his new wife, Octavia, prepare to leave Rome, Octavius makes it clear to Antony that he still distrusts him. Antony promises that he will give no cause for distrust.

Act 3, Scene 3

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra's messenger returns from Rome with the reassuring news that Octavia is unattractive. Cleopatra convinces herself that Antony will not stay with her for long.

Act 3, Scene 4

Meanwhile, now settled in Athens, Greece, Antony complains to Octavia that her brother has resumed warring with Pompey and has also begun slandering Antony. Octavia, torn with distress at this conflict between her brother and her husband, returns to Rome to mediate between Antony and Octavius. In the meantime, Antony says, he will raise an army that will be more than a match for any forces Octavius can muster.

Act 3, Scene 5

In the same house in Athens, Enobarbus reports to Eros that Octavius and Lepidus defeated Pompey and that thereafter, Octavius rid himself of Lepidus by accusing him of treason and imprisoning him.

Act 3, Scene 6

Back in Rome, Octavius is outraged at news that Antony has abandoned Octavia and returned to Cleopatra. He reports that in a great public ceremony, Antony made Cleopatra absolute queen not only of Egypt but also of Lower Syria, Cyprus, and Lydia. He gave other countries to his sons. Octavius also reports that Antony has accused Octavius of not giving him sufficient spoils from the defeat of Pompey, and of not returning some ships he loaned him. Antony is also unhappy about the deposing of Lepidus. Octavius has already replied to Antony's complaints, offering him a share of some territory he has conquered, but demanding that Antony do the same with regard to the kingdoms he has conquered. Octavius also justifies his conduct in respect of Lepidus, saying that the latter deserved his fate.

Octavia arrives to mediate between her brother and husband. She believes Antony is still in Athens, but Octavius informs her that he is in fact in Egypt with Cleopatra, and is preparing for war against his brother-in-law. Octavius tells his sister that Antony has formed a coalition with many powerful kings in order to defeat Octavius.

Act 3, Scene 7

At Antony's camp near Actium, in Egypt, Cleopatra rejects Enobarbus's protests that her presence on the battlefield will distract Antony rather than help him. She insists she will not stay behind. Antony enters, announcing that Octavius Caesar has challenged him to a sea battle at Actium. Enobarbus warns against it, saying that neither Antony's ships nor his men are a match for Octavius's battle-hardened veterans and nimble ships. When Antony insists, Enobarbus tries to convince him to fight on land, for which he is better prepared. But neither Antony nor Cleopatra will listen. Antony says that if they lose at sea, they can then defeat Octavius on land.

Act 3, Scenes 8-10

The warring fleets engage in battle, and Antony's side gains the upper hand until Cleopatra's ships retreat and Antony's follow hers. His men are ashamed of what has happened, and many of them have deserted Antony and joined Caesar's forces. Enobarbus says he will stick with Antony, although this goes against his better judgment.

Act 3, Scene 11

At Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, Antony is filled with shame for his retreat. He tells his attendants to desert him and make their peace with Octavius, but they affirm their loyalty to him. When Cleopatra enters, he bitterly reproaches her. She asks him to forgive her, saying that she never expected his ships to follow hers in retreat. He forgives her, even though he knows he is now humiliated, powerless and virtually at the mercy of Octavius.

Act 3, Scene 12

At Caesar's camp, Antony's messenger reports that Antony requests to be allowed to retire to Egypt or, if that not be granted, to live as a private citizen in Athens. Cleopatra requests that her sons be allowed to succeed her. Caesar rejects Antony's proposal and instead sends his ambassador, Thidias, to bribe Cleopatra so that she will betray Antony.

Act 3, Scene 13

Antony sends a message to Octavius, challenging him to single combat. Enobarbus knows Octavius will not accept the challenge and comments that Antony has lost his judgment. Thidias arrives and tries to persuade Cleopatra to leave Antony. Cleopatra tells Thidias to convey to Caesar that she lays her crown at his feet; she then allows Thidias to kiss her hand. When Antony enters and sees this, he becomes enraged; he orders Thidias to be whipped and then berates Cleopatra. His men bring back Thidias, who has been whipped, and Antony sends him back to Octavius with a defiant message. He confesses to Cleopatra, however, that his fall is imminent. Cleopatra reassures him of her love, which encourages him. He resolves to fight again with Octavius's forces on land and at sea. They go off to celebrate before resuming battle. Meanwhile Enobarbus, who has witnessed what has happened, confirms his judgment that Antony has lost his reason and thus makes plans to desert him.

Act 4, Scene 1

Octavius Caesar scoffs at the challenge sent by messenger from Antony to fight with him in a duel. He tells Maecenas that he is ready for battle and is confident of victory; many of Antony's soldiers have already deserted him and are ready to fight on Caesar's side.

Act 4, Scene 2

Antony's camp makes its own preparations with foreboding. Before supper, Antony speaks warmly to his servants, but also remarks that the next day they may find themselves with a new master. The servants all weep with sorrow. Questioned by Enobarbus, Antony says that he was trying to cheer his followers up and hopes to lead them all to victory in the battle.

Act 4, Scene 3

Outside Cleopatra's palace, three of Antony's soldiers discuss their prospects in the upcoming battle. They hear some mysterious music and do not know where it comes from. They decide that it is a sign that the god Hercules is leaving Antony.

Act 4, Scenes 4-6

The next day, Eros brings Antony his armor, and Cleopatra affectionately helps him put it on. At first Antony protests at her interference, but then says that she has done better at it than Eros. His captains and some soldiers enter, and Antony greets them confidently. He kisses Cleopatra goodbye. At Antony's camp, word comes that Enobarbus has deserted to Octavius, and Antony generously forgives his old friend and sends his belongings after him. Meanwhile, Octavius gives word for the battle to begin; his instructions are that Antony be taken alive. Enobarbus regrets his decision to leave Antony, and when he learns of his former leader's generosity, he is heartbroken.

Act 4, Scenes 7-9

The fighting begins; Antony is at first victorious, and he and his men are jubilant. Caesar's forces are in retreat. Antony returns in triumph to Cleopatra's palace, saying that they will finish the job the following morning before dawn. He thanks his soldiers for their efforts, and greets Cleopatra joyfully. Meanwhile, back at Caesar's camp, Enobarbus continues to repent for his betrayal of Antony, and calls out for Antony to forgive him. He falls into a swoon and dies. Two Roman sentries observe this and carry his body away.

Act 4, Scenes 11-12

During another sea battle, Cleopatra's forces yield to Caesar, and Antony's forces are routed. A furious Antony blames Cleopatra for the defeat and vows to be revenged on her. When she enters, he tells her to go away or he will kill her.

Act 4, Scene 13

Fearing Antony's rage, Cleopatra takes refuge in a monument and sends her servant Mardian with a message to Antony that she has killed herself. She asks Mardian to tell her how Antony reacts to this news.

Act 4, Scene 14

A distraught Antony laments to Eros that Cleopatra betrayed him. When Antony, who is already ashamed of his military dishonor, receives word of Cleopatra's apparent suicide, he resolves to end his own life. He reminds Eros of the oath the soldier swore that he would kill Antony when ordered to do so. The devoted Eros protests that he cannot do such an act, and Antony repeatedly tries to cajole him into obeying his command. Finally, Eros, having asked Antony to turn his face away, draws his sword, but instead of killing his master, he plunges the sword into his own body. Even more ashamed than before, Antony responds to Eros's death by falling on his own sword. But he succeeds only in wounding himself. He calls in his guards and begs them to finish him off, but they all refuse. When Diomedes, a messenger from Cleopatra, appears with news that Cleopatra only pretended that she was dead because she feared his rage, the dying Antony asks to be carried to her monument.

Act 4, Scene 15

At Cleopatra's monument, Antony and Cleopatra are lovingly reunited. He tells her to make her peace with Caesar and gain assurances for her safety. He also warns her that out of all of Octavius Caesar's entourage, only Proculeius can be trusted. Antony dies, and the grief-stricken Cleopatra faints. When she revives, she tells Charmian and Iras that after they have buried Antony, they will take their own lives.

Act 5, Scene 1

At Caesar's camp in Alexandria, Antony's man Decretas brings Antony's sword as proof of his leader's death. He tells Caesar that Antony killed himself. Octavius seems genuinely distressed by this news, and he laments the destruction of a great warrior. Octavius sends Proculeius to Egypt to meet with Cleopatra and tell her that Caesar means her no harm. Caesar wants to avoid giving Cleopatra any excuse to take her own life, since he intends, as he clearly informs Proculeius, that she should be brought back alive to Rome as captive.

Act 5, Scene 2

In a room in the monument, Cleopatra has calmly resolved to take her own life. When Proculeius arrives, she asks to be allowed to give Egypt to her son. Proculeius assures her that she has nothing to fear from Caesar. But then Gallus and some other soldiers enter and seize Cleopatra, who quickly draws a dagger. Proculeius prevents the queen from stabbing herself—a move that would have foiled Caesar's plan to parade her in captivity through Rome. Cleopatra resolves to starve herself to death if necessary. After Proculeius exits, Cleopatra tells Dolabella of her vision of Antony's greatness, and Dolabella confirms her fears that Caesar will exhibit her to the crowds in Rome as his conquest.

Octavius himself goes to Egypt to meet with Cleopatra, who kneels to him. He assures her that she will be well treated. He warns her not to take her own life, threatening to kill her children if she does. She gives him a list of all her worldly riches, but when Seleucus, her treasurer enters, it transpires that she has listed only half of what she owns. Caesar is not angry with her, but Cleopatra is furious with Seleucus for betraying her secret. She claims that she has only failed to divulge a few small items, as well as some larger pieces that she intended as gifts for Livia (Caesar's wife) and Octavia. Caesar continues to speak respectfully to her, assuring her of his care and concern for her, but Cleopatra is not fooled. Dolabella enters and informs her Caesar will depart for Syria, and that within three days, she and her children will be sent away, their ultimate destination Rome. Cleopatra has already made arrangements for her own suicide, and now a Clown, or comical rustic, arrives and supplies her with poisonous serpents, or asps, hidden in a basket of figs. The queen's maids, Charmian and Iras, bring Cleopatra her robe, crown and other jewels. Just before she puts the asp to her breast, she says farewell to her maids, and Iras faints and dies. Cleopatra then puts another asp to her arm and dies calling out Antony's name. Charmian follows Cleopatra's example by poisoning herself with an asp bite. Octavius Caesar enters, and when he finds Cleopatra dead, he orders that her body be buried with Antony's.



Agrippa is a friend and follower of Octavius Caesar. It is Agrippa who suggests that the differences between Antony and Octavius might be resolved through marriage between Antony and Caesar's sister, Octavia. Later, Agrippa leads Octavius Caesar's forces against Antony.


Alexas is an attendant to Cleopatra. He jokes with Cleopatra's maids, Charmian and Iras, at the beginning of the play. Late in the play, Alexas is reported to have joined with, and then been executed by, Octavius Caesar.


Antony is the Roman triumvir, or coleader, and lover of Cleopatra. He spends a great deal of his time in Alexandria with Cleopatra, much to the disgust of his younger fellow triumvir, Octavius. After his first wife, Fulvia, dies while rebelling against Octavius, Antony marries Octavius's sister, Octavia, to achieve reconciliation with the Roman triumvirate. Antony, however, soon returns to Cleopatra, and Octavius angrily declares war against them both. After losing the battle at Actium, Antony asks to be allowed to retire to Egypt with Cleopatra, but Octavius refuses to grant his request. Antony resumes his war with Octavius, winning one skirmish but badly losing another. In despair over his lost honor and the apparent death of Cleopatra, Antony mortally wounds himself. He goes to Cleopatra's monument and the two lovers are reconciled before he dies.

While there is critical consensus that Antony functions as a tragic hero in the play, there is disagreement concerning exactly when he becomes a tragic figure and what it is that transforms him. Those commentators who describe Antony as torn between his Roman values of duty and valor and his Egyptian obsession with sex and dissipation assert that he achieves tragic status when he reclaims his honor through the Roman death of suicide. Similarly, critics have suggested that, as long as Antony allows himself to be treated in Egypt as "a strumpet's fool" (act 1, scene 1, line 13), he remains a ridiculous figure. After he is defeated at Actium, however, Antony's shame is so intense that his fate becomes tragic. Some critics regard Antony's own "weakness" as the source of his tragedy. In essence, these critics argue that Antony's tragedy is that he sacrifices everything—physical strength, honor, political power, respect—simply to indulge his senses with Cleopatra in Egypt. Finally, some scholars assert that Antony stumbles tragically when he tries to have it all—power and respect in Rome alongside ease and love in Egypt.


  • There are several versions of the play available on DVD and VHS. Charlton Heston directed a film version of Antony and Cleopatra in 1972. Heston plays Antony, Hildegard Neil plays Cleopatra, and Eric Porter plays Enobarbus. The film is available only on VHS.
  • Jon Scoffield directed a version of the play in which Richard Johnson played Antony and Janet Suzman played Cleopatra. It was released on DVD in 2004 by Lions Gate.
  • The Plays of William Shakespeare, Vol. 1, Antony and Cleopatra (1981) stars Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. It was released on DVD in 2001 by Kultur video.

An alternative view of Antony's tragic status is that he operates according to a moral code different from the one followed by Octavius. According to this view, the public-oriented Octavius adheres to a standard Roman code of honor that takes into account such issues as political expediency. Antony, on the other hand, defines honor in more personal terms. Loving Cleopatra and enjoying himself in Egypt at the expense of his duties in Rome do not impinge on his sense of honor. However, retreating during the sea battle at Actium is, according to Antony, a cowardly act and is therefore highly dishonorable. In light of this assessment, Antony's role in the play is a tragic one because he is unable to reconcile his private concept of honor with the general one exemplified by the activities of the triumvirs in Rome.

Antony's tragic status has also been discussed in tandem with Cleopatra's role. Commentators who view the lovers as equals argue that, at the beginning of the play, both are self-absorbed despite their love for each other and thus, they are continually in conflict. These critics note that toward the close of the play, Antony and Cleopatra transcend their selfishness as a result of their suffering, and then they learn to recognize each other's worth and together achieve status as tragic heroes.


Canidius is lieutenant-general to Antony. Along with Enobarbus, Canidius advises Antony against engaging Octavius Caesar in a sea battle at Actium. After the defeat at Actium, Canidius decides to desert Antony and join Octavius.


Charmian is an attendant or maid-in-waiting to Cleopatra. She and Iras are Cleopatra's closest servants. A soothsayer predicts that she will outlive the lady whom she serves, which proves true, if only by a few minutes. Charmian attends Cleopatra in the monument where the queen commits suicide; after mournfully straightening Cleopatra's crown, Charmian follows her example by poisoning herself to death with the bite of an asp, a type of venomous serpent, possibly an Egyptian cobra.


Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt and lover of Antony. Although she is aging, Cleopatra is celebrated in the play for her beauty and sexual magnetism. She is jealous of Antony's connections with Rome and of his apparent subservience to Octavius Caesar. She and Antony join forces to fight Octavius, but when they are ultimately defeated by him, Antony accuses Cleopatra of betrayal. She responds to Antony's anger by locking herself away in her monument and feigning suicide. Antony himself commits suicide as a result of her apparent death, and Octavius arrives claiming victory over Egypt. Mourning Antony, and afraid of being led in captivity back to Rome, Cleopatra uses asps, to kill herself in her monument.

Critical reaction to Cleopatra has been strong and often negative. Early commentators in particular characterized the Egyptian queen as self-indulgent, self-pitying, capricious, and treacherous. They considered the character Philo's description of her in act 1 as a lustful "strumpet," or whore, to be appropriate. They found her taunting of Antony cruel, and her apparent acceptance of Octavius Caesar's bribe in act 3 reprehensible. They roundly blamed her for Antony's downfall. Today, scholarly evaluations of Cleopatra are more moderate. Increasingly, commentators have come to regard Antony and Cleopatra as mutually responsible for their fates. Several critics have described the earlier assessments of Cleopatra as extreme and sexist; they emphasize the importance of objectivity to any discussion of the Egyptian queen; further, they observe that she deserves no more and no less sympathy than does, for example, a tragic hero like King Lear or Othello.

Those commentators who view Cleopatra in a negative light usually insist that she is too self-absorbed to qualify for tragic status. There are those, however, who regard her selfish ignorance as the very source of her tragedy. A more temperate version of this argument is that Cleopatra acts out of self-interest until she witnesses Antony's death. At that point, some critics assert, she recognizes, too late, Antony's worth and the extent of her love for him; as a result, she achieves tragic status. Cleopatra's tragedy has also been ranked as commensurate with Antony's. Scholars contend that both characters are initially self-interested and untrustworthy in love: Cleopatra is jealous of Antony's preoccupation with Rome; at the same time, Antony tries to satisfy political ambitions through marriage with Octavia. Neither, some commentators assert, achieves tragic status until both reach mutual understanding and love before their deaths at the close of the play.

Some commentators dispense with any discussion of Cleopatra's qualification as a tragic hero and concentrate instead on the lines accorded to her in the play. She is, they observe, the vehicle for some of Shakespeare's most eloquent poetry. Her remembrance in act 1, scene 5, for example, of her youth as her "salad days, / When [she] was green in judgment, cold in blood," (lines 73-74) and her vision of Antony in act 5, scene 2, as someone so remarkable as to be "past the size of dreaming" (line 97) are evocative, and justifiably famous.


The Clown is a comical, rustic character. At Cleopatra's command, the Clown brings her venomous serpents, or asps, hidden in a basket of figs. Thus, the Clown delivers to Cleopatra her means of suicide in act 5.


Demetrius is a friend and follower of Antony who discusses Antony's decline with Philo in the first scene of the play.


Diomedes is an attendant to Cleopatra. He is sent by a worried Cleopatra to tell Antony that she is not really dead. But her message comes too late, and the dying Antony asks Diomedes to deliver the final deathblow with his own sword. Diomedes refuses and instead helps deliver Antony to Cleopatra in her monument.


Dolabella is a follower of Octavius Caesar. In act 5, Dolabella warns Cleopatra that Octavius Caesar plans to humiliate her by parading her in disgrace back to Rome. Thus Dolabella precipitates Cleopatra's decision to commit suicide.

Domitius Enobarbus

Enobarbus is a friend and follower of Antony. He delivers the famous description of Cleopatra on her barge and accurately predicts that Antony will never be able to leave the Egyptian queen for Octavia. After the sea battle of Actium, Enobarbus decides to desert Antony, whom he thinks is overly influenced by Cleopatra. When Antony learns of his betrayal and generously sends him his belongings, Enobarbus is stricken with guilt and dies of remorse.


Eros is a servant to Antony. In act 3, Eros announces the resumption of war between Octavius and Pompey as well as Octavius's imprisonment of Lepidus. In act 4, Antony (who is in despair over his losses to Caesar and the apparent suicide of Cleopatra) orders Eros to kill him. The devoted Eros responds to this command by killing himself instead.


Iras is an attendant or maid-in-waiting to Cleopatra. She and Charmian are the Egyptian queen's closest servants. Along with Charmian, Iras waits upon Cleopatra in the monument. Iras helps to dress Cleopatra, then dies of grief shortly before the queen commits suicide.


Lepidus is the third and weakest member of the Roman triumvirate. Lepidus tries to act as conciliator between the two rival members of the triumvirate—Antony and Octavius. He has a minor role in the peace negotiations with Pompey. Afterward, Lepidus becomes the most drunken participant in the celebration on Pompey's galley. In act 3, it transpires that Lepidus has been accused of treason and imprisoned by Octavius, who intends to have him executed.


Mardian is a eunuch in attendance at Cleopatra's court. Mardian entertains Cleopatra with sexually suggestive jokes in act 1. In act 4, the queen sends him to Antony with false news of her death, thus precipitating Antony's own suicide.


Menas is a pirate and supporter of Pompey. In act 1, it is reported that Menas is having great success at sea and making raids on the coasts of Italy. Menas believes that Pompey is too cautious in his dealings with the triumvirate. After Pompey refuses to follow Menas's advice to assassinate the triumvirs while they are celebrating on his galley, Menas deserts him.


Octavia is the sister of Octavius Caesar. Octavia's marriage to Antony is meant to result in reconciliation between the two antagonistic triumvirs. Although devoted to her brother, Octavia is loyal to Antony once she becomes his wife, and thus she tries—unsuccessfully—to mediate between the two men and their disagreements. In personality, Octavia is the opposite of Cleopatra. Whereas Cleopatra is lively and flirtatious, Octavia is worthy, dutiful, and dull. Enobarbus sums up Octavia when he predicts that the newly married Antony will soon leave his wife for Cleopatra: "Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation."

Octavius Caesar

Octavius Caesar is the Roman leader and head of the triumvirate that includes himself, Antony, and Lepidus. Octavius is younger than Antony, and Cleopatra calls attention to his youth in act 1, when she refers to him as "the scarce-bearded Caesar." Octavius is disgusted with Antony's love for Cleopatra and condemns Antony for luxuriating in Alexandria while there are wars to be fought in the empire. Octavius and Antony are briefly reconciled through Antony's marriage to Octavius's sister, Octavia. Octavius imprisons Lepidus—the weakest member of the triumvirate—and declares war on Antony, claiming that he has betrayed Rome by deserting Octavia and returning to Cleopatra. Octavius ultimately defeats Antony and Cleopatra's forces, and becomes sole emperor of the known world. But Octavius is saddened by Antony's suicide, and is prevented from parading Cleopatra in triumph back to Rome by her suicide.

While earlier critics regarded Octavius Caesar primarily as a representative of Imperial Rome, today most commentators look to the play for what it reveals about Octavius as a character. Significantly, it has been noted that this leader of the triumvirs delivers no soliloquies or personality-revealing asides. Octavius is so terse in his remarks that several commentators are in disagreement concerning such details as whether or not he becomes drunk along with the other triumvirs on Pompey's galley in act 2.

Most scholars agree that Caesar is cold and self-restrained. Some argue that he is thus meant to function as a foil to the extravagant lovers, Antony and Cleopatra. Others consider his prudish criticism of Antony as hypocritical in light of the fact that he cruelly betrays the weakest triumvir, Lepidus. There is a general consensus that Octavius carefully calculates each move he makes and that he is a manipulator. Thus he exploits Antony's sensitivity about his honor by challenging his competitor to a sea battle in act 3. Similarly, Octavius sends Thidias to Cleopatra in act 3, hoping to bribe and flatter her away from Antony. After Antony's death, Octavius lies to Cleopatra, telling her she has nothing to fear from him, when he is in fact planning to capture her and exhibit her in Rome.

An alternative perspective on Octavius Caesar is that he lacks imagination and empathy and is therefore vulnerable to faulty judgment. So, for example, he is unable to prevent either Antony or Cleopatra from committing suicide and as a result is robbed of the satisfaction of parading them—and their defeat—through Rome. According to this view, Octavius is less in control than he thinks he is or than he wishes to be.


Philo is a friend and follower of Antony. As the play opens, Philo tells Demetrius of his disgust with Antony's "dotage" or infatuation with Cleopatra.


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Sextus Pompeius

Sextus Pompeius, known as Pompey, is a rebel against the triumvirate. Pompey feels secure in the strength of his forces as long as the strongest member of the triumvirate—Antony—is luxuriating in Egypt. Once Pompey hears of Antony's return to Rome, he decides to seek peace with the triumvirate, and the negotiated settlement is celebrated on board Pompey's galley. During the celebration, Pompey rejects Menas's dishonorable offer to assassinate the members of the triumvirate while they are drunk on board his galley. Pompey and the triumvirate are at war again later in the play, and in act 3, we hear that Pompey has been murdered.


Proculeius is a friend and follower of Octavius Caesar. When Antony is dying, he tells Cleopatra that Proculeius is the only follower of Octavius whom she can trust. Proculeius in fact proves unreliable: on orders from Caesar, he lies to Cleopatra and prevents her from committing suicide so that she can be brought back to Rome in humiliation.


Scarus is a friend and follower of Antony. In act 3, a distressed Scarus describes Antony's retreat at Actium; unlike Enobarbus and Canidius, Scarus remains faithful to Antony throughout his defeats.


Seleucus is a treasurer to Cleopatra. In act 5, Seleucus contradicts Cleopatra, claiming that she has purposely lied to Caesar regarding the extent of her wealth. An angry Cleopatra berates him and cites his betrayal as an example of her ebb in fortune.


The Soothsayer is an Egyptian fortune-teller. He predicts that Charmian's fortunes are in decline; her best days are behind her. He says the same about Iras. The Soothsayer travels to Rome with Antony where he declares that Caesar's fortunes will rise higher than Antony's, and that Antony should not stay close to him. Whenever they are close, the Soothsayer says, Caesar has more luck than Antony.


Thidias is a follower of Octavius Caesar. After Antony's defeat at Actium, Octavius sends Thidias to bribe Cleopatra to abandon Antony. When Antony catches sight of Thidias kissing Cleopatra's hand, he orders that the man be whipped and returned to Octavius.


Varrius is a friend and follower of Pompey. He informs Pompey of Antony's return to Rome, thus setting in motion the peace treaty between Pompey and the triumvirate.


Ventidius is a subordinate of Antony who commands an army that triumphs over the Parthians in Syria.


Rome versus Egypt

The play focuses on the personal relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, and in doing so it juxtaposes two value systems, Rome and Egypt. Rome, the West, as embodied in Octavius Caesar, is a guardian of moral restraint, personal responsibility, social order, reason, and military discipline. Further, Rome places a high value on honor and duty toward one's country. By contrast, Egypt, the east, Cleopatra's realm, is seen as a magnet for decadence, desire, lust, and indolence. Egypt, according to this view, places a high value on physical enjoyment and luxuriant fertility. Egypt is the place to have fun; Rome is the place to work. Egypt equals private life, the sphere of the personal and the individual; Rome equals public life, affairs of state, and politics. Rome is reason; Egypt is emotion. Other pairs of opposites can be applied to this basic duality. The rational world (Rome) and the irrational (Egypt is the realm where dreams and fortune-telling have their place). Masculine self-assertion is opposed by feminine sweetness. Antony, the great Roman warrior who conceives an overwhelming passion for Cleopatra, is torn between these two worlds. He must try to reconcile these two aspects of his own being. As the play opens, he is clearly divided against himself; he has failed to integrate the sensual nature with the martial aspect. When a messenger brings him news from Rome in act 1, he seems to reject it completely, opting instead for passionate personal experience:

    Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
    Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
    Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
    Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
    Is to do thus …

He then embraces Cleopatra. In this speech, Antony declares his desire that Rome, the solid, fixed world of clearly defined obligations and boundaries, should melt into the waters of the river Tiber, which represents the fluidity and boundlessness of the emotional life fully and passionately lived. All he wants at this moment is to be alone with Cleopatra. In the next scene, however, Cleopatra reports that Antony was enjoying himself "but on the sudden/A Roman thought hath struck him." He becomes the Roman general again, realizing that he must break "these strong Egyptian fetters" or lose himself "in dotage." Antony is aware that this is a struggle within himself between opposing values, and throughout the play, he vacillates between one or the other, unable to harmonize the two.

This conflict between opposites also suggests the traditional astrological opposition between warlike Mars—in the first speech in the play, Antony in battle is compared to Mars—and loving Venus. In Roman myth, Mars and Venus, Mars's paramour, come together and produce a daughter, Harmony. Many Renaissance paintings depict this harmony between Mars and Venus by showing Venus playing with Mars's armor. Interestingly, in act 2, scene 5, Cleopatra recalls an incident in which she did exactly this. She tells her maid Charmian that one night following drunken revelry, she put Antony to bed and placed her clothes on him, while she wore his sword Philippan, the very sword that Antony wielded in the battle against Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. The difference in the symbolism is that the incident recalled in the play suggests an inappropriate reversal of roles rather than a harmonious interchange between the two. As such, it is typical of the play as a whole. When Antony forgets his Roman role, disaster strikes; similarly, when Cleopatra tries to take on a Roman role—playing a leading part in the battle of Actium, for example—the result is equally disastrous. It appears that the two opposing values are never reconciled. Just as Octavius can never be anything other than the embodiment of all the Roman qualities (including the duplicity of the politician), Cleopatra can never be anything other than the volatile, sensual, bewitching queen, and poor Antony is destroyed because he is inextricably caught between the two.

On the other hand, many critics have argued that analyzing the play in terms of an opposition between the values associated with Rome and Egypt is too simple. They suggest that the elements at work in the play cannot be so neatly grouped into rigid pairs because, just as the political alliances in the play shift, so do the groupings in the play's structure. For example, Antony's dilemma has been described as involving a choice between love and war; between, that is, his life with Cleopatra in Egypt and his profession as a soldier in Rome. In contrast, critics have argued that Antony's dilemma is solved when love and death are paired through his and Cleopatra's suicides. Commentators have observed that, when Octavius commands the burial of the lovers in the same grave in act 5, he acknowledges that death has immortalized the love of "a pair so famous" as Antony and Cleopatra.

Recent criticism has suggested that Rome and Egypt are alike to the degree that they are both in decline, and that the love of Antony and Cleopatra does not reflect the opposition between the two countries or the conflict endured by Antony, but the temporary triumph of imperialism. The love shared by Antony and Cleopatra, some critics argue, is as imperious and undemocratic as the new government in Rome. The lovers themselves describe their feelings in imperial terms; Antony, for instance, claims that his affection is capable of conquering whole worlds and of blotting out geographical formations.

Scholars have also remarked that the decline of Rome and Egypt is the result of changes in both nations: Republican Rome is now Imperial Rome; Egypt is ruled by an unpredictable and aging queen. Rome is prey to shifting alliances and political betrayal by Octavius, who bickers with one triumvir (Antony) and jails another (Lepidus); Egypt is subject to the flooding of the Nile and the unpredictable fortunes of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Both Egypt and Rome, one critic has observed, are pagan nations, which will soon give way to Christianity. Some commentators suggest that ultimately, it is less constructive to view Rome and Egypt as separate entities than as shifting and intermingling locations of waxing and waning power that affect, and are affected by, the two lovers.

Morality and Transcendence

One way of reading the play is to see it as the downfall of a great man through his self-indulgence, his failure to resist temptation and pleasure, and his consequent neglect of his duty. This is certainly how the Roman world viewed the historical Antony, who was contrasted with the "good" Roman, Aeneas, who resisted the temptation to stay with his lover Dido in Carthage and went on to found Rome. (The story of Aeneas is told in Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid.) Seen in this light, Antony and Cleopatra becomes something of a morality play, in which the two lovers pay a deadly price for their moral transgressions. Antony is weak; Cleopatra selfish; and their deaths are both inevitable and appropriate.

There is plenty of material in the play that would support such a reading. The first thirteen lines, spoken by Antony's disillusioned man Philo, gives the audience, before they have even seen Antony, a devastating picture of the decline of the great general, who has now reached his "dotage" (line 1):

    Take but good note, and you shall see in him
    The triple pillar of the world transform'd
    Into a strumpet's fool.


  • Research the life of Octavius Caesar, who later became known as Augustus Caesar. Write a paper that describes his principal achievements in building the Roman Empire. Was the peace he brought a fair price for the autocratic form of government he developed?
  • Compare Antony and Cleopatra to Shakespeare's earlier play about two fated lovers, Romeo and Juliet. What do the two plays have in common, and how do they differ? Make a class presentation with your findings.
  • Write a paper in which you contrast Antony and Octavius. What qualities does Octavius possess that enable him to triumph over Antony? Which character do you prefer, and why?
  • Watch any film version of Antony and Cleopatra you can obtain and compare it to the stage play. How faithful is it to Shakespeare's text? What scenes and characters are cut? What does the film emphasize that a stage performance cannot? Make a class presentation, using video clips from the film to illustrate your points.

To this can be added the appearance of Antony in the next scene, when he struggles to break away from Cleopatra. He is clearly a man in great psychic turmoil, torn between two opposing and apparently irreconcilable worlds. Furthermore, Octavius's harsh words about his fellow triumvar, in act 1, scene 4, add to the picture of a man in a steep decline through lack of self-discipline. According to Octavius, Antony drinks and spends his nights in revelry, and has allowed himself to become feminized by his Egyptian lover: He "is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he." Caesar concludes that Antony is "a man who is the abstract of all faults / That all men follow" (lines 8-9).

But in spite of this apparent degeneration of a great hero, audiences and readers often find themselves unwilling to condemn the lovers, even though Antony and Cleopatra's recklessness, their irresponsibility, and their cruelty towards each other is plain for everyone to see. Judgments are suspended because Antony and Cleopatra's love seems to transcend all narrow moral boundaries. They have a vision of each other that makes them seem transfigured. Their love cannot be contained within a mundane sphere but leaps towards a visionary and poetic transcendence. Cleopatra sees Antony as a godlike being, and just before his death, Antony envisions that he and Cleopatra will be together again in Hades, "Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand, / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze." At the end of the play, Cleopatra, full of "immortal longings," dons her robe and crown and goes to meet Antony in some spiritual realm of experience that is beyond the ability of the prosaic Roman world to understand.


Language and Imagery

Antony and Cleopatra is distinguished among Shakespeare's plays for its lush, evocative language. Some critics have even suggested that it should be classified with Shakespeare's long poems rather than ranked alongside his plays. Scholarly discussion has focused on Enobarbus's vividly detailed depiction of Cleopatra on her barge and on the lovers' continual use of hyperbole, or exaggerated language, to describe each other as well as their affection for one another.

Some critics have argued that the hyperbolic language in Antony and Cleopatra makes it a highly problematical play to stage. What actor, for example, is so physically fit that he can portray a character like Antony, whose "legs bestrid the ocean" and whose "rear'd arm / Crested the world"? What actress is charismatic enough to play Cleopatra, who is described as more seductive than Venus, the goddess of love? Other critics have observed that Shakespeare was well aware of this conflict between language and reality and that he makes this clear in act 5 when the defeated Cleopatra imagines that plays written in Rome about the former lovers will feature Antony as a drunk and herself as a "whore" played—as was the custom in Renaissance England—by a "squeaking … boy."

Scholars have identified a variety of reasons for the existence of heightened language and vivid imagery in Antony and Cleopatra. Some have demonstrated its usefulness in highlighting the changing moods or fortunes of particular characters. Thus Antony's men effectively display their disappointment in their leader and his noticeable transformation when they complain that Antony has been reduced from acting like the god of war to behaving like the mere fawning servant of a lustful woman. Similarly, it has been pointed out that while Antony describes his love for Cleopatra in hyperbolic terms, he does not lose sight of his own importance in the world of politics. For instance, even as he asserts that his love for Cleopatra renders everything else in the world unimportant, he demands that the people of the world take note of his love or else face punishment from him. Thus we are introduced to the conflicting feelings—romantic love versus honorable renown—that plague Antony and that ultimately destroy him.

Several critics have suggested that Antony and Cleopatra's hyperbolic poetry mirrors the paradoxes at work in the play: love versus death, and immortality versus aging, for example. In connection with this, several scholars have noted the frequent use of images that link death, love, and immortality. The preponderance of death imagery intensifies the tragic nature of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Death imagery also emphasizes the fact that both lovers are aging. Aging and death are things that the extraordinary Antony and Cleopatra have in common with ordinary people, all of whom must come to terms with their mortality; therefore, some critics conclude that the imagery and hyperbole in Antony and Cleopatra are intended to reinforce the fact that all human beings are by their very nature extraordinary.

Katherine Vance MacMullan is one critic who has closely examined the frequent appearance of death imagery in the play. Noting that the image of death as a bridegroom was commonplace to Renaissance audiences, Mac-Mullan asserts that Shakespeare developed the image beyond this familiar cliché. In Antony and Cleopatra, MacMullan contends, death imagery is meant to symbolize Antony's overpowering passion for Cleopatra, his diminishing political powers, and "the weakening of his judgment in the command of practical affairs." MacMullan also demonstrates how Shakespeare connects the image of death with those of sleep, darkness, and light to emphasize the inevitability of the lovers' tragic fate.


The Rise of Mark Antony

The Roman general Mark Antony was born in Rome in approximately 83 b.c.e. As a young man he distinguished himself as a cavalry commander in Judea and Egypt. He was a military leader in the Gallic Wars of 58–50 b.c.e. and a staunch supporter of Julius Caesar. During the civil war against Pompey (49–45 b.c.e.), Antony was Caesar's second in command.

Following Caesar's assassination in March 44 b.c.e., the Roman republic had three rivals for power: Antony, Marcus Lepidus, and Caesar's great-nephew Octavian Caesar (historically, he is known as Octavian rather than Octavius as in Shakespeare's play). Antony was defeated in one battle but escaped to Gaul and then marched with Lepidus to Rome, where the eighteen-year-old Octavian had taken power. In 43 b.c.e., the three men called a truce and became a ruling triumvirate. Octavian and Antony then set out for the east in pursuit of Caesar's assassins. Octavian was sick and did not participate in the battle at Philippi in Macedonia in 42 b.c.e., in which Antony triumphed over Cassius and Brutus, both of whom committed suicide. The territories controlled by Rome were then split up amongst the triumvars. Antony received Gaul and the east; Lepidus was given Africa; and Octavian was given Sardinia, Spain, and Sicily.

Antony was not only an effective military leader, he was also extremely popular with his troops. He was warm-hearted and not aloof; he would sit down to eat and drink with his men from the common soldiers' tables. He was also known for his generosity to his friends, and for his good humor. Resourceful in adversity, Antony was an inspiration to his men. After being defeated at a battle at Modena, for example, Antony and his army encountered famine on their retreat. But Antony, who was used to luxurious living, made no fuss about having to drink foul water and feed on wild fruit, roots, and even the bark of trees. This incident is recorded by the Roman historian Plutarch, in his work The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which is Shakespeare's source for Antony and Cleopatra. Antony's stoic acceptance of this difficult situation is mentioned in the play in act 1, scene 4, when Octavius, complaining about Antony's dalliance with Cleopatra, recalls his rival's former greatness.

Plutarch described Antony's physical appearance in this way: "He had also a very good and noble appearance; his beard was well grown, his forehead large, and his nose aquiline, giving him altogether a bold, masculine look that reminded people of the face of Hercules in paintings and sculptures." Although Antony's virtues were many, Plutarch also comments that he was given to folly and extravagance. It appears that Antony was known for his love of luxury and his penchant for self-indulgent amusement when times were easy.

The establishment of the triumvirate did not result in universal peace. In 41–40 b.c.e., Antony's ex-wife, Fulvia, was coleader, with Antony's brother, of a rebellion against Octavian. Fulvia was forced to surrender and was exiled to Sicyon, where she died awaiting Antony's return.

Antony, meanwhile, traveling to the east to subdue rebellions and conquer Parthia, met Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 41 b.c.e. He summoned her to meet him in Cilicia, ready to accuse her of aiding Cassius and Brutus in the war against him. Cleopatra sailed up the river Cydnus adorned as the goddess Aphrodite, and Antony immediately fell under her spell. She quickly became his mistress, and in December 40 b.c.e. bore him twins, Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene (moon).

Not long after this, Octavian was faced with a rebellion by Sextus Pompeius (Pompey). Antony returned to Rome and patched up his uneasy relations with Octavian by marrying Octavian's sister, Octavia. Antony then traveled to Greece with his new wife, intent on continuing his campaign against the Parthians. But Octavian, still dealing with the threat from Pompey, was unable to send him any forces, so in 37 b.c.e., Antony returned to Alexandria, hoping that the wealthy Cleopatra would support his cause. Antony then settled in Alexandria and married Cleopatra (even though he was still married to Octavia). She bore him another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.


Cleopatra was born in 69 b.c.e. in Alexandria, the third daughter of the king Ptolemy XII. She became queen in 51 b.c.e., at first sharing the throne with her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. After a civil war, in which Julius Caesar aided Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIII was drowned and a younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, became coruler.

During his stay in Egypt, from 48 b.c.e. to 47 b.c.e., Caesar took Cleopatra as a lover, and she gave birth to his child, Caesarion. As Cleopatra says in the play of Caesar, "When thou wast here above the ground, I was/Amorsel for a monarch." Cleopatra wanted Caesar to name Caesarion as his heir, but Caesar named Octavius instead.

Although she was queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was, in fact, Macedonian. The Romans called her Egyptian as a term of abuse. Cleopatra's language and culture was Greek; she was a highly educated woman who spoke seven languages and was one of the few of the Ptolemies to learn the Egyptian language. Her subjects considered her to be the daughter of the sun god, Re, and some saw her as the future leader of a great uprising of Asia against Rome. Plutarch, while presenting a largely negative view of Cleopatra, did acknowledge her as a fascinating woman: "The attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice."

Struggle between Antony and Octavian

In Rome, Octavian deposed of Lepidus in 36 b.c.e., and after that his relations with Antony steadily deteriorated. Eager to remove his one remaining rival, Octavian systematically defamed Antony's character, saying he was a drunkard who had fallen under the sway of a wicked woman and had forgotten his Roman duties. The Roman senate unleashed an attack on Cleopatra, calling her a sorceress who had bewitched Antony with drugs, sold herself out of a lust for power, and worshipped bestial gods. As Chester G. Starr puts it in A History of the Ancient World, "Cleopatra was magnified into a threat to the survival of Roman ways and Roman mastery, and so assumed the image of femme fatale which has ever since been her memory."

In 34 b.c.e., in a public ceremony in Alexandria, Antony distributed the kingdoms of the east to his children. Cleopatra was named Queen of Kings and Queen of Egypt, and her son Caesarion was declared the legitimate son and heir of Caesar. Needless to say, this was not well received in Rome, since the claim made for Caesarion was a threat to the legitimacy of Octavian as Caesar's rightful heir.

War between the two sides now became only a matter of time. Antony accused Octavian of usurping power, while Octavian countercharged Antony with treason. In 32 b.c.e., the senate stripped Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra. Both Roman consuls and three hundred of the one thousand Roman senators declared their support for Antony and went to meet him and Cleopatra in Greece. In that year also, Antony divorced Octavia.

Battle of Actium

On September 2, 31 b.c.e., the decisive naval battle of Actium took place near the Roman colony of Actium in Greece, on the Ionian Sea. Octavian's fleet was commanded by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Antony, supported by Cleopatra's fleet, attempted to lead 220 warships out of the gulf to the open seas, where Octavian's fleet attempted to block them. Antony's ships were large but undermanned because of an outbreak of malaria, and morale was low because supply lines had been cut. In contrast, Octavian possessed smaller, nimbler ships that could out-maneuver Antony's, and his men were better trained and in better condition.

When it became clear that Octavian's fleet was gaining the upper hand, Cleopatra's fleet retreated. Antony followed her lead and deserted the battle, while the ships he left behind were either captured or sunk. Antony fled to Egypt, but his military strength was reduced by massive desertions. Octavian pursued him, invading Egypt. Although Antony managed to win a skirmish at Alexandria on July 30, 30 b.c.e., he again suffered from desertions, leaving him with no means of resisting Octavian's advance. Believing that Cleopatra was dead, Antony decided to take his own life. Plutarch records how Antony died in Cleopatra's presence, after the two were reconciled, and Shakespeare closely follows Plutarch's account. Cleopatra attempted to negotiate terms of surrender with Octavian, but then, after learning from Cornelius Dolabella that Octavian intended to take her as a captive to Rome, she committed suicide on August 12, 30 b.c.e. According to Plutarch, Octavian was disappointed by her death, "yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her


  • First century b.c.e.: In 27 b.c.e., Octavian becomes known as Caesar Augustus. He will live until c.e. 14. The era he inaugurates embodies the highest achievements of Roman civilization in arts and letters. Augustus also creates a new, autocratic system of government that leads to several centuries of peace in the Roman Empire.
    Early seventeenth century: The Roman Empire no longer exists. Italy is not an independent nation but a collection of principalities, many of them under foreign domination. Rome forms part of the Papal States which are controlled by the Catholic Church and stretch from the central to the northern parts of what will later become the nation of Italy.
    Today: Italy is an independent, unified nation and is a member of the European Community. The nation is in the forefront of European economic and political unification. There are many ancient Roman structures and artefacts in Italy, and many of these are popular tourist attractions.
  • First century b.c.e.: The Romans build solid, long-lasting roads throughout the empire. The speed of travel and communications therefore increases. The Romans operate an efficient postal service. The cursus publicus, state-sponsored post roads, is founded by Augustus to carry official mail; a relay of horses is able to carry mail quickly, covering about 170 miles in twenty-four hours.
    Early seventeenth century: The efficiency of the Roman cursus publicus has not yet been matched in post-Roman Empire Europe. However, a network of private postal services carries mail across the continent. These include the Thurn and Taxis service, which operates a network of postal routes in Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and the Low Countries from 1512 to 1867.
    Today: Global communication by fax and email is virtually instant. Paper documents are delivered via express airmail to all parts of the world within a few days.
  • First century b.c.e.: Ancient Rome has a well-established tradition of drama, dating from the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and the tragedies of Accius, in the second century, b.c.e. In 55 b.c.e., Pompey erects the first permanent stone theater in Rome. Roman drama is heavily influenced by the Greek dramatic tradition.
    Early seventeenth century: During the Italian Renaissance there is a movement known as Neoclassicism, which is based on a renewed interest in the classical drama of Rome. Drama follows what are thought to be the rules of classical drama; plays must conform to the three unities of time, place, and action, and must not mix comedy with tragedy.
    Today: The Theatre of Marcellus, completed by Augustus in 11 b.c.e., is the only surviving ancient theater in Rome. It is named after Marcus Marcellus, Augustus's nephew. Originally it could hold eleven thousand spectators. Its surroundings are now used for summer concerts.
  • First century b.c.e.: The various tribes in prehistoric Britain are in the late stages of what is known as the Iron Age. The population is larger in the south than the north because of a more hospitable climate. Julius Caesar makes two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 b.c.e., following his conquest of Gaul. Caesar conquers no territory but coerces many tribes into paying tribute to Rome.
    Early seventeenth century: Queen Elizabeth I dies in 1603 and is succeeded by King James I. The golden age of English drama continues, and Shakespeare's later plays are written during the Jacobean era. England's sailors continue to explore the world and England lays the basis for its rapid rise as a major European and world power.
    Today: The English people treasure Shakespeare as the greatest figure in their literary history. His plays have been translated into almost every language and are performed regularly throughout the world.

body hould be buried by Antony with royal splendour and magnificence."


Antony and Cleopatra has never been as popular or as frequently performed as the four major tragedies of Shakespeare: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. In the nineteenth century, however, the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was also one of the foremost critics of the age, regarded the play as the "most wonderful" of the history plays and argued that it might be, in its "exhibitions of a giant power in its strength and vigour of maturity, a formidable rival" of the four great tragedies. Coleridge admired the quality of "angelic strength" conveyed in the play.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the most influential of all Shakespearean critics, A. C. Bradley, refuted Coleridge's view. He argued that Antony and Cleopatra was not as dramatic as the other four great tragedies, especially in the first three acts, and claimed that the third and fourth acts were "very defective in construction." He noted the number of scenes in these acts and how difficult they are to present on stage. (There are more scenes in Antony and Cleopatra—forty-two—than in any other Shakespeare play.) Bradley's verdict that Antony and Cleopatra, while a great tragedy, was not the equal of the other four, remained influential throughout the twentieth century. Toward the end of that century, Stanley Wells argued that Antony and Cleopatra may be less universal in its appeal because the "central characters invite us not so much to identify with them as to wonder at them;… they are given virtually no soliloquies in which to reveal themselves to the audience."

Much of the commentary on Antony and Cleopatra has been devoted to the play's numerous thematic pairings: Antony and Cleopatra; love and war; Antony and Octavius; self-restraint and luxury; reason and emotion. Scholars customarily argue that all, or at least a large portion of, this dualism flows from one essential pairing—Rome (under the guardianship of the strictly disciplined Octavius Caesar) versus Egypt (under the sway of the flamboyantly unpredictable Cleopatra). Antony is traditionally regarded as the go-between or victim of the Rome/Egypt dualism. As such, commentators have remarked, Antony must deal with his own set of internal conflicts: his Roman honor giving way to dishonor in Egypt; his youthful warrior's physique diminishing with age and dissipation; and his love for Cleopatra undermining his loyalty to Rome.

There has also been much critical debate in recent times about the true nature of Shakespeare's Cleopatra. The traditional view was of Cleopatra as a negative force. Richard C. Harrier, for example, argues that Cleopatra's "selfish and capricious domination of Antony" ruins him. Writing in the 1950s, Austin Wright reflects a view typical of that period. He criticizes Cleopatra for her failure to be supportive of Antony during his time of trouble; he also condemns her lack of virtue and modesty and calls her opportunistic, lubricious, and common. At the same time, Wright concludes that Cleopatra is irresistible to men.

Later scholars, including L. T. Fitz and Ruth Nevo provide more sympathetic portraits of Cleopatra. After asserting that the Egyptian queen is complex enough to elicit a variety of interpretations, Nevo suggests that Cleopatra behaves unpredictably toward Antony because she is afraid of losing him to Rome, to his first wife, Fulvia, and later to Octavia. Fitz argues that the misogynistic views of critics, and not Shakespeare's characterization, are the source of negative attitudes toward Cleopatra. Fitz asserts that male critics are particularly virulent in their dislike of Cleopatra and that they find her behavior in the play incomprehensible. Fitz contends that Cleopatra's actions are no more confusing than those of an equally complex Shakespearean character such as Hamlet, and that in order to judge her fairly, scholars must dispense with their "sexist bias."

Recent scholarship has also discussed the nature of the play's mythological and supernatural elements. Of particular interest to critics today are the patterns of irony and paradox that pervade Antony and Cleopatra and that render much of the play's action and many of its themes problematic. There appears to be a growing consensus that Shakespeare intended that this drama of love, politics, aging, and death be both ambivalent and ambiguous.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many essays on drama. In this essay, he emphasizes the transcendental aspects of the love between Antony and Cleopatra rather than the moralistic view that censures the lovers for foolish and immoral behavior.

At the end of Antony and Cleopatra both lovers are dead, and the victorious Octavius, finally respectful of them now they are no longer either a threat or a challenge, gives instructions for a solemn funeral and announces that they will lie next to each other in death. Moralists in the audience (should there be any) will conclude that the downfall and suicide of such a reckless pair was not only inevitable but just. Others may feel unwilling to identify with the triumph of a man as cold and calculating as Octavius, the consummate politician who never wavers in his command of statecraft but who never reveals his heart. Octavius's victory seems to represent the triumph of prudence, reason, and practicality over the unruly world of passion and love. However, few in the audience are likely to embrace such a resolution with much enthusiasm because these two tragic lovers seem, through the imaginative, visionary, poetic language that Shakespeare grants them, to have propelled themselves in death into a transcendental realm of transfigured perception, an eternal sacred marriage that seems to dwarf their earthly incarnations and render them almost god-like. It is this startling metamorphosis of the lovers that most members of the audience will likely be contemplating as they leave the theater after a vibrant performance of this play, rather than an image of two corpses soon to be laid in a tomb.

How does Shakespeare accomplish this astonishing transformation? At the beginning of the play, such an outcome seems unlikely because the lovers are not presented in a very positive light. They seem quarrelsome and possessive, and it is hard to shake the negative portrayals that the Roman world insists on pinning on Antony. His greatness seems all in the past, recalled by others such as Philo or Octavius only to strike a note of regret about the man he has become. However, the very first words Antony speaks in the play, immediately after Philo has encouraged the audience to see "The triple pillar of the world transform'd / Into a strumpet's fool," are certainly not ignoble. After Cleopatra asks him to tell her how much he loves her, he replies, "There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd". When Cleopatra responds that she will set a boundary to love, Antony replies, "Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth". If Antony is taken at his word (and why should he not be?), he has dared to conceive a love for this bewilderingly volatile and complex woman that reaches for the infinite. It is an intense, expansive, boundary-breaking love that seems entirely fitting for one whose vitality, generosity and power has raised him to pre-eminence in the competitive world of Roman wars and politics. Antony is not a man who does things by half-measures. Cleopatra is not exactly an easy woman to deal with, yet Antony, still in the first scene of the play, shows his appreciation and understanding of her in a very perceptive manner: "How every passion fully strives / To make itself, in thee, fair and admired". This is a remarkable tribute to Antony's willingness to love qualities in Cleopatra that may not appear on the surface to be lovable. It also hints at the indefinable attractiveness of Cleopatra, in whom the expression of emotions that might be ugly in others—and which she fully demonstrates in this first scene—become simply an expression of the infinite range of her divine womanhood.

Although Antony's feelings are as volatile as Cleopatra's, and there is no denying the force of his outrage when he believes she has betrayed him at the battle of Actium—"triple-turn'd whore" is quite an insult—he nonetheless sees Cleopatra through transfigured eyes as the "day o' the world", the very light by which he lives. Hyperbole this may be (as many critics point out regarding the language in which the lovers describe themselves and each other), but Antony is completely genuine in his adoration of his beloved, his ability to see in her an infinite treasure more precious to him than, well, the entire Roman Empire.

It is when Antony hears the false news that Cleopatra is dead that the first intimations of immortality and sacred marriage in death are sounded in the play. "I come, my queen," Antony calls out to Cleopatra as he summons his servant Eros to give him a death blow in act 4. Continuing to address Cleopatra, he says, "Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand, / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze".

Just as Antony sees Cleopatra through the eyes of love, she too possesses a unique vision of him. To most people, Antony is a man with two selves, the martial, Roman self and the "Egyptian" pleasure-seeking, sensual self, but in Cleopatra's eyes he possesses what might be called a third or transcendental self, a vast cosmic presence that inspires in her nothing less than awe. In the dream vision of Antony that she relates to an uncomprehending Dolabella in act 5, for example, she says of her lover: "His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck / A sun and moon, which kept their course, and lighted / This little O, the earth".

This imagery of the lover as embodying a kind of cosmic light occurs also at Antony's death. For Cleopatra, his fall is associated with the extinguishing of light: "O sun / Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in, darkling stand / The varying shore o' the world". Antony was her light, as she was for him, and now that light is gone: "Our lamp is spent, it's out".

It is this imagery of light and vastness that sets the stage for the translation of the lovers from the earthly to the spiritual realm. Theirs is a love so vast that it cannot be vanquished by death. It is at this point, when the lovers face their own deaths, that the play seems to take flight into the realm of myth; Antony and Cleopatra seem not so much two humans in despair who commit suicide but more like larger-than-life beings in the process of transformation, ready to fulfill their innermost longings for each other in an eternal union not touched by time or change and yet retaining all the delight and ecstasy they knew on the earthly plane of life.

This process of transformation reaches its fulfillment in Cleopatra's final speech. In her determination to join Antony in death and transfiguration she attains a calm strength that has eluded her up to this point in the play. But what is remarkable about this speech is that, even as Cleopatra transcends her fear of death and is fixed in her new resolve, she remains utterly herself; she is still the mercurial, volatile Cleopatra we have known, and she shows herself in all her many guises, from queen and quasigoddess to sexual temptress and jealous woman. First, as she calls for her royal garments, she stands before us as queen, aspiring to eternity: "Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me". But the lines that follow remind the audience of the sensual life of which Cleopatra has been the embodiment throughout the play: "Now no more / The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip". Next we see her at once visionary and vengeful, sensing Antony's presence and exulting over her defeat of Caesar, a thought that occurs with greater force later in the speech. Now, as she identifies herself explicitly, for the first time in the play, as wife to Antony, she also reveals another side to her nature. No longer the female enchantress, the "triple-turn'd whore" of Antony's invective, it is her masculine qualities which predominate:

    Husband, I come!
    Now to that name, my courage prove my title!
    I am fire, and air; my other elements
    I give to baser life.

But then as Iras falls after being kissed by Cleopatra, the simile that immediately occurs to Cleopatra is a sexual one: "If thou and nature can so gently part, / The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, / which hurts, and is desir'd. She is once more the lusty Cleopatra we have known, and this is confirmed by her sudden jealousy, even in death, of Iras: "If she first meet the curled Antony, / He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss / Which is my heaven to have." But as Cleopatra takes the asp to her breast and once more sneers defiantly at Caesar, Charmian interjects the expansive image, "O Eastern star!" (line 308) thus reminding us not only of the hyperbolic language that Antony used of his lover, but also the status accorded to her by her subjects.


  • Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (first performed in 1599, and available in many modern editions) dramatizes the assassination of the Roman dictator by Brutus and Cassius and shows Antony, in his funeral oration, at the height of his rhetorical powers.
  • The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (Dover Books on Literature & Drama, 2005) edited by J. Bedier and translated by Hilaire Belloc, is the legendary medieval story of the forbidden love between Tristan, a knight from Cornwall, England, and Iseult, an Irish princess. Tristan was escorting Iseult from Ireland as a bride for his uncle, King Marke, when he and Iseult discovered they were in love with each other. As the story of a fatal, overwhelming love affair, the story of Tristan and Iseult has many elements in common with the story of Antony and Cleopatra.
  • The Reign and Abdication of King Edward VIII by Michael Block (new edition, 1991) tells the story of Britain's King Edward VIII who, in 1936, abdicated the throne because he wished to marry an American divorcée, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Mrs. Simpson was not considered a suitable match for the king by the British establishment. Edward insisted that he could not carry out his duties as king without the support of the woman he loved, and he abdicated after less than a year on the throne. Since at the time the British Empire was still in existence, Edward VIII, like Antony, might be considered to have renounced an empire for love.
  • Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw was first published in 1901 and first produced in 1906. Regarded as Shaw's first great play, it tells the story of Julius Caesar's arrival in Egypt and his relationship with Cleopatra, whom he helps become sole ruler of Egypt. Cleopatra is presented as a spoiled sixteen-year-old girl, while Caesar receives more sympathetic treatment than Shakespeare gives him in Julius Caesar. Shaw also uses the opportunity to comment on the politics of his own day. Caesar and Cleopatra is available from Penguin Books (reprint edition, 1950).
  • All for Love, or the World Well Lost (1677), by John Dryden, is a version of the Antony and Cleopatra story by one of the leading Restoration dramatists. It is written in blank verse and, unlike Shakespeare's play, observes the unities of time, place and action. Also, while Shakespeare creates ambiguity about whether Antony and Cleopatra should be condemned for their passion, in Dryden's version the lovers are clearly presented as being in the wrong, even though the dramatist creates a certain sympathy for them in the audience. All for Love is available in a modern edition published in 2005 by Dodo Press.
  • The Letters of Abelard and Heloise by Peter Abelard and Heloise, edited by Michael Clanchy, translated by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics, 2004) tells the story of the tragic love between Peter Abelard (1079–1142), a medieval scholar and teacher, and his young student Heloise. The story has become one of the most famous love stories in Western literature. Their intense, forbidden love resulted in scandal, pregnancy and a secret marriage before the lovers sought refuge from their passion in the church. Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. Their letters convey the full range of their romantic and sexual ardor for each other.

And finally, as Cleopatra calmly takes the asp to her breast, she presents herself as tender mother and nurse, a side of her nature that has not been glimpsed up to this point: "Peace, peace! / Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?"

After her death, the final image of Cleopatra is spoken by Octavius, who remarks on the apparently easeful manner of her death: "she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / in her strong toil of grace". The word "catch" recalls Cleopatra's earlier comment, in Antony's absence, about going fishing and imagining the fish she caught as "every one an Antony.". "Grace" is perhaps a term that could be applied to Cleopatra only at this point in the play, suggesting that she has attained a final serenity, while "strong toil" evokes the Roman world of masculine effort, work and commitment. Thus the final image of Cleopatra in repose hints that at last those two mighty opposites, Rome and Egypt, have been brought together in an idealized moment of stillness and repose. The "serpent of old Nile" for so, Cleopatra tells Mardian in act 1, Antony calls her, is at one with that formidable figure whose "rear'd arm / Crested the world". In the literal sense, these two lovers may well have been brought down by their own folly, but the language Shakespeare gives them is surely enough to lift them, at least in the imagination of the audience, to an altogether finer plane.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Antony and Cleopatra, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Patsy Hall

In this essay, Hall explores the themes of love and war in Antony and Cleopatra. The critic notes that throughout the play, the character of Antony is associated with Mars, the god of war, while the character of Cleopatra is associated with Venus, the goddess of love. The interplay between love and war finds frequent expression in the relationship between the two title characters, who repeatedly "contend with each other in a battle of words and wills."

The world presented in Antony and Cleopatra is one of friction, division and disagreement. In this world of impending and actual war, even the eponymous lovers frequently contend with each other in a battle of words and wills. Antony came to Alexandria to subjugate Cleopatra. Instead, she captivates him. It should be no surprise, then, that images of love and war go hand in hand throughout the play.

From the outset, Antony is associated with Mars, god of War, while Cleopatra in her barge is described as resembling Venus, goddess of Love, surrounded by 'smiling Cupids'. These images of the pair are so potent that the eunuch Mardian, attempting to gratify his queen's yearning for the absent Antony, deliberately sets her thinking 'what Venus did with Mars'.

Venus and Mars are opposites. In classical mythology, Venus is associated with passion, joy, mirth and love of life. Her husband Mars is given to wrath, destruction and death. This attraction of opposites makes for a volatile affair, a union of unlikely bedfellows. Shakespeare's Romans certainly think the same is true of Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony's 'goodly eyes', that once 'glow'd like plated Mars', now turn from war to gaze on the 'tawny front' of Cleopatra. His 'captain's heart', which could 'burst the buckles on his breast', is now 'the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy's lust'. The martial Antony is spoken of in the past tense. This 'new' Antony is the pleasure-seeking follower of Venus, whose love is considered to be 'lust', and his devotion 'dotage' by his compatriots.

Cleopatra is the queen of 'sport', who turns even serious circumstance into an opportunity for entertainment. When Antony remembers his imperial persona he becomes exasperated by her lack of seriousness: 'But that your royalty/Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself' Cleopatra's idleness, however, is a pretence that masks a deeper purpose. As long as Antony enjoys his Alexandrian revels, he remains distanced—both physically and emotionally—from the serious 'business' of imperial Rome. To detain him, Cleopatra becomes the 'wrangling queen' of 'infinite variety' who laughs him out of patience and into patience, who fascinates and confuses him. By adopting various dispositions, no-one, least of all Antony, is ever quite sure where her allegiance lies.

Cleopatra employs sport, pleasure, play, and levity to entangle Antony in her 'strong toil of grace'. She rejoices when he declares, 'There's not a minute of our lives should stretch /Without some pleasure now'. Such a statement is the antithesis of Caesar's declaration at the drunken banquet: 'our graver business /Frowns at this levity'. In short, Cleopatra knows her man better than he knows himself, and rightly mocks Charmian's advice to give him his own way: 'Thou teachest like a fool: the way to lose him. Antony is a hedonist, a sensualist; rather than lose him, she'd prefer to nourish his vices, emasculate him, and transform him from an 'earthly Mars' into a creature of pleasure-loving Venus.

It is this weakening of Antony which Philo and Demetrius discuss at the beginning of the play. Antony himself acknowledges the change when his good soldiership deserts him at the Battle of Actium. Savagely, he addresses Mardian, 'O, thy vile lady! / She has robb'd me of my sword'. In metaphorical terms this is precisely what Cleopatra has done, by emotionally castrating the soldier within him. Antony's sword, his prowess, which were once so central to his being, are now merely accessories to their relationship. This is illustrated earlier in the play when Cleopatra triumphantly recalls the night her power transformed Antony from Mars to Venus: 'ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst/I wore his sword Philippan'.

Conquered by her, Antony tries to ignore his Roman critics. But there remains enough of Mars in him to make sparks fly when he and his earthly Venus disagree. The early scenes of the play accentuate the war of wiles and wills which constitutes this explosive relationship. Cleopatra is merciless in her public teasing and testing of Antony's love:

CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.

ANTONY: There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.

CLEOPATRA: I'll set a bourn how far to be beloved.

ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

Here, she deliberately appropriates language more suited to the mercantile values of Rome by implying that she can determine love's boundaries. By discussing love in quantitative terms ('tell me how much'), she mocks the Roman pursuit of world domination, just as she ridicules Caesar's commands: 'Do this, or this / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that; / Perform't or else we damn thee.'

By his earnest declaration about seeking 'new heaven, new earth', Antony shows how removed he now is from Rome's sphere. Philo's concern is justified. This is no earthly Mars but a man already discounting the value of war. Unlike Caesar, Antony no longer feels the need to conquer the world. The influence of Venus has brought a new reality: 'Kingdoms are clay'. From such a position, Caesar and all he stands for seems transient: 'Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall!' Eternity and immortality are not to be found in all-conquering Rome but in the bliss of 'lips and eyes'. Antony does not see his transformation as 'dotage' but as 'the nobleness of life'. Cleopatra is not 'a gypsy' but his 'space'. By publicly rejecting military Rome, Antony declares allegiance to 'the love of Love and her soft hours'—in other words, the hedonistic Egyptian lifestyle captured in his question, 'What sport tonight?'

Cleopatra recognises that she is in competition with Caesar for Antony's attention. 'Roman thought' is dangerous, but by drawing his anger she may defeat it:

CLEOPATRA: […] Good now, play one scene/Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honour.

ANTONY: You'll heat my blood: no more.

CLEOPATRA: You can do better yet; but this is meetly.

ANTONY: Now, by my sword,—

CLEOPATRA: And target. Still hemends, / But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Chairman, / How this Herculean Roman does become / The carriage of his chafe.

This merciless harassing of Antony, which he is powerless to check, illustrates how utterly this Venus overwhelms her Mars. Yet beneath the wit and banter lies a dynamic sexual energy which transforms every situation into an opportunity to excite and arouse each other, a private and intimate linguistic foreplay which stimulates the body of their passion. Gentler exchanges seem merely a temporary truce, an opportunity to draw breath before the next offensive.

The conflict at the core of this play may be seen as operating on two principal levels: the personal and the public. At the opening of the play, on the personal level, Antony and Cleopatra (Mars and Venus) engage in a well-matched and mutually satisfying battle of the sexes. In the public arena, however, they are both seen by Rome as creatures of Venus. In Roman terms, Caesar is now perceived as a more powerful and ruthless Mars than the epicurean and dissipated Antony. Thus, as the action unfolds, the contention between Venus and Mars moves inexorably from the personal to the public arena.

Caesar's is a world of politics, business and action. Antony's is a world of domesticity, leisure and inaction. While Antony relies on his past reputation to define his honour, Caesar pays lip service to honour but rates political acumen more highly. The differences between the two ways of viewing the world are illustrated by the conversation between Pompey and Menas on board the galley. When Menas suggests murdering the triumvirate, Pompey replies:

    Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
    And not have spoke on't! In me, 'tis villainy;
    In thee't had been good service.
    […] Being done unknown,
    I should have found it afterwards well done […]

To Antony, honour equates with personal integrity: 'If I lose mine honour, I lose myself'. To Pompey—and by association Caesar—it equates with political convenience.

An earthly Mars like Caesar has no room for such a purposeless emotion as human affection. What matter if Octavia becomes a pawn in the power struggle between himself and Antony? The sacrifice of his sister is worth the risk if it results in the elimination of his rival. By contrast, after the defeat at Actium, when Antony has every right to be angry, he comforts Cleopatra: 'Fall not a tear […] one of them rates / All that is won and lost'.

Caesar is no soldier, but has learned the more devious arts of 'the brave squares of war'. Antony has military superiority, but he is warned by the Soothsayer: 'If thou dost play with him at any game / Thou art sure to lose'. Swayed by Cleopatra's tendency to seize every opportunity for sport, Antony fatally begins to adopt her mind-set. War itself becomes a game to play with Caesar. His decision to fight by sea is quite clearly wrong, undertaken because Caesar 'dares us to't' and to impress Cleopatra.

Enobarbus recognises at once that when a general's judgement is overruled by whim, his fate is sealed. Charisma and bravado are not enough. Antony's conduct at Actium proved that 'The itch of his affection should not […] Have nick'd his captainship', a fact which Antony himself recognises when he tells Cleopatra:

    You did know
    How much you were my conqueror, and that / My sword, made weak by my affection, would / Obey it on all cause.

When Antony challenges Caesar to fight him 'sword against sword, ourselves alone', Enobarbus sees it as a further sign of Antony's diminution and soon decides, 'When valour plays on reason, it eats the sword it fights with'. Antony is living on borrowed time.

It is only Cleopatra's supposed death which persuades Antony to admit to military defeat. As he removes his armour with the words, 'No more a soldier', he finally accepts the inevitable. He belongs henceforth to another sphere, to a 'new heaven, new earth' with his immortal Venus: 'Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand, / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.' His acceptance of death is stoical—he recognises the sport in her latest act of deception and lacks rancour or bitterness. Instead, he feels justified in reclaiming his honour: 'Not Caesar's valour hath o'erthrown Antony, / But Antony's hath triumphed on itself.' In death, Antony's spirit once more mounts to its destiny: 'Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable.'

To Cleopatra, Antony now seems truly 'godlike', and to match him she too must embrace death in 'the high Roman fashion'. Her earthly yearnings for her 'noblest of men' are replaced with 'Immortal longings'. Yet even at the point of death she displays her old levity. Given her sensuality and love of sport, there is a poignant resonance in her assertion that 'The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch /Which hurts and is desired'. By her suicide, Cleopatra defeats Caesar. Venus gains ultimate ascendancy over Mars. There is a triumphant note of celebration in her address to the asp which brings her 'liberty': 'O, couldst thou speak / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied'. Caesar may have the Empire, but when the choice is between 'new heaven, new earth' or 'this vile world', Antony and Cleopatra are no longer in dispute: there's simply no contest.

Source: Patsy Hall, "Antony and Cleopatra: Venus and Mars in a 'Vile World,'" in The English Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, November 2001, pp. 4-8.

Walter Cohen

In this introduction, Cohen places Antony and Cleopatra within its literary context—with Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar as its prequel and the writings of Plutarch as its source. Cohen also remarks on the dualism and eroticism that pervade the play and notes that Shakespeare is asking us to consider whether heroic acts can survive in the "post-heroic world" of Octavius Caesar's Rome or in the "private terrain" of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Finally, Cohen briefly examines Shakespeare's characterizations of Octavius, Antony, and Cleopatra.

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Source: Walter Cohen, "Antony and Cleopatra," in The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 2619-27.

David Daiches

Daiches demonstrates how Shakespeare uses vivid imagery and point of view to depict the various roles of both Antony and Cleopatra. In the language of his soldiers, for example, Antony is a great general who has been made foolish by love. By contrast, the metaphors exchanged between Antony and Cleopatra depict them as magnificent lovers whose affection for each other surpasses boundaries and inspires our admiration. Daiches remarks further that the contrasting imagery in the play coalesces as each lover commits suicide but that it also leaves us wondering whether the play is about "human frailty or human glory."

Antony and Cleopatra is at once the most magnificent and the most puzzling of Shakespeare's tragedies. Its magnificence resides in the splendour and amplitude of its poetry, in the apparently effortless brilliance with which language is employed in order to search and illuminate the implications of the action; it puzzles because the action itself seems to be of no moral interest yet it compels a kind of wondering attention which would normally be given only to a play with a profoundly challenging moral pattern. Bradley sensed this paradox when he asked, 'Why is it that, although we close the book in a triumph which is more than reconciliation, this is mingled, as we look back on the story, with a sadness so peculiar, almost the sadness of disenchantment?' And he added: 'With all our admiration and sympathy for the lovers we do not wish them to gain the world. It is better for the world's sake, and not less for their own, that they should fail and die.' This is surely to simplify the problem to the point of distortion, for it is not that Anthony and Cleopatra arouse our admiration while doing wrong, so that we thrill to them yet cannot in conscience wish them success. It is rather that in this play Shakespeare seems to be building a moral universe out of non-moral materials. Yet I do not think that we can answer Bradley merely by making a spirited defence of the characters of the hero and heroine, as Dover Wilson does, convincingly enough, if not altogether relevantly.

Shakespeare's play is not, of course, as Dryden's was to be, about 'All for Love, or the World Well Lost', though this is one strand woven into the total fabric. It is—to summarize it crudely—about the different roles that man can play on the various stages which human activity provides for him, and about the relation of these roles to the player's true identity. Shortly before his suicide, when Antony sees events as having cheated him out of his role both of lover and of conqueror, he expresses his sense of the dissolution of identity:

    Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
    A vapour sometime, like a bear, or lion,
    A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock,
    A forked mountain, or blue promontory
    With trees upon 't, that nod unto the world,
    And mock our eyes with air.
    He goes on to say that he
    made these wars for Egypt, and the queen, Whose heart I thought I had, for she had mine,

and having, as he believes, lost Cleopatra's heart, he no longer has a real identity either as lover or as man or action. The melancholy music of the lines rises up to involve us in this sad sense of loss of self. When however, he is informed by Mardian that Cleopatra has killed herself for love of him, his identity as lover is immediately re-established and he assumes this role again with a new confidence:

    I will o'ertake thee, Cleopatra, and
    Weep for my pardon. So it must be, for now
    All length is torture: since the torch is out,
    Lie down and stray no farther. Now all labour
    Mars what it does: yea, very force entangles
    Itself with strength: seal then, and all is done.
    Eros!—I come, my queen:—Eros!—Stay for me,
    Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in hand,
    And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze:
    Dido, and her Aeneas, shall want troops,
    And all the haunt be ours.

At first it seems that the re-establishment of his identity as lover means the abandonment of his identity as soldier—'No more a soldier', he exclaims; but soon it becomes clear that in his resolution to follow Cleopatra to death he is at last adequately uniting both roles. Cleopatra has now assumed the role of conqueror, and he will imitate her:

    I, that with my sword
    Quarter'd the world, and o'er green Neptune's back
    With ships made cities, condemn myself, to lack
    The courage of a woman, less noble mind
    Than she which by her death our Caesar tells
    'I am conqueror of myself.'

When he discovers that Cleopatra has not killed herself after all, he does not fall back into his earlier state of disillusion with her; he remains the lover and the loved, ready to act out the last of love's gestures:

    I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
    I here importune death awhile, until
    Of many thousand kisses, the poor last
    I lay upon thy lips.

Finally, at the moment of death, he reassumes the character of conqueror also:

    but please your thoughts
    In feeding them with those my former fortunes
    Wherein I liv'd: the greatest prince o' the world,
    The noblest; and do now not basely die,
    Not cowardly put off my helmet to
    My countryman: a Roman, by a Roman,
    Valiantly vanquish'd.

Cleopatra's great cry of grief at his death is the equivalent from her side of Antony's speech about the changing shapes of the clouds: no identities are now left in the world, no distinction between mighty and trivial; she is overwhelmed in a patternless and so meaningless world in which all roles are interchangeable:

    O, wither'd is the garland of the war,
    The soldier's pole is fall'n: young boys and girls
    Are level now with men: the odds is gone,
    And there is nothing left remarkable
    Beneath the visiting moon.

Her love for Antony, we now realise, had been what gave meaning to reality for her; it had been the top in a hierarchy of facts, and when Antony is gone there is no hierarchy, no order, and so no significance in reality. Her own position as queen equally becomes meaningless: she is

    No more but e'en a woman, and commanded
    By such poor passion as the maid that milks,
    And does the meanest chares.

At the end of the play Cleopatra re-establishes order by the culminating role-taking of her death.

There are many ways in which Shakespeare uses poetic imagery to establish his main patterns of meaning. The opening lines give us with startling immediacy the stern Roman view of Antony's love for Cleopatra, separating at once the Roman from the Egyptian world:

    Nay, but this dotage of our general's
    O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
    That o'er the files and musters of the war
    Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
    The office and devotion of their view
    Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
    Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
    The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
    And is become the bellows and the fan
    To cool a gipsy's lust.

The word 'dotage' strikes hard in the very first lines—a damning and degrading word. But note that it is 'this dotage of our general's'. Antony is still, to the Roman onlooker, 'our general': there is a shared pride in that word 'our' and a deliberate placing in the hierarchy of command in the word 'general'. The general is a general, but his observed behaviour is to be described by this viewer as dotage. This viewer, because when Philo says 'this dotage' he is pointing at what he sees, drawing his companion's attention to the visible paradox, a general, yet in his dotage. Antony is seen by Philo as playing two contrary roles at the same time—and this is not in accordance with the proper proportions of things, it 'o'erflows the measure'. It would be proportionate for a general to love, but not for him to dote. For a general to dote 'reneges all temper', that is, it renounces all decent self-restraint, it is disproportionate, an improper placing of a particular kind of behaviour in the hierarchy of human activities and emotions.

A general has his proper 'office and devotion', his appropriate service and loyalty. For a general's eyes—'goodly eyes', it is emphasised, that have in the past appropriately and suitably 'glowed like plated Mars'—now to turn

    The office and devotion of their view
    Upon a tawny front

is again outrageous indecorum, wild disproportion. This disproportion is emphasized again and brought to a climax in the lines about 'a gipsy's lust'. What has military glory to do with such domestic objects as a bellows and a fan? The juxtaposition is deliberately outrageous. Similarly, the captain's heart put at the service of a gipsy's lust reiterates the disproportion, the total scrambling of that hierarchy which gives people and objects their proper virtue and the proper meaning. As the spectacle of the two lovers moves across to the middle of the stage to Philo's cry of 'Look, where they come'—the lovers are now before our eyes as well as his—Philo's sense of the disproportion involved becomes agonizing:

    Take but good note, and you shall see in him
    The triple pillar of the world transform'd
    Into a strumpet's fool.

And he invites his companion, in biblical-sounding language, to 'behold and see'.

But it is we, the audience or the reader, who now both see and hear. And what is it that we hear?

    Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
    Antony: There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd.
    Cleopatra: I'll set a bourn how far to be belov'd.
    Antony: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

We move at once from the Roman soldier's view of Antony's behaviour to the view of the lovers themselves. Here, too, is disproportion, but disproportion of a very different kind from that seen by Philo. Antony declares that there is no limit to his love, that to measure it would involve going beyond the confines of both heaven and earth. To part of the audience—Philo and Demetrius, the shocked Roman soldiers—the role represents a monstrous confounding of categories; to the actors themselves, it is a glorious extravagance and subsumes everything else; to us who read or watch the play—well, what is it to us? Whose side are we on? We are jolted from Philo's offensively debasing comments to the sight and sound of the two lovers protesting their love. 'All the world loves a lover', the proverbs goes, and one naturally takes the lovers' side. But with Philo's words ringing in our ears we remain watchful, eager, interested: what is the true identity of this pair?

No pause for speculation is allowed. At once an attendant enters, saying

News, my good lord, from Rome

—from that Rome whose representative has just so devastatingly described Antony's behaviour. The brisk official announcement crashes into the world of amorous extravagance that the lovers' dialogue has been building up. Antony's barked, annoyed response—'Grates me, the sum'—shows him forced suddenly out of one role into another which he is most reluctant to play. At this Cleopatra suddenly changes too, quite unexpectedly yet wholly convincingly, into the playful, teasing mocker of her lover:

    Nay, hear them, Antony:
    Fulvia perchance is angry; or who knows
    If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
    His powerful mandate to you, 'do this, or this;
    Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that;
    Perform't, or else we damn thee.'

This shocks Antony out of his second role—the lover whose love-making is broken into by the claims of business—into yet a third, the surprised and puzzled lover:

How, my love?

With what wonderful economy does Shakespeare capture this third movement of mind and feeling in Antony. He is surprised out of his annoyance with the interrupter, wondering what Cleopatra is up to. She soon shows him, as she goes on:

    Perchance? nay, and most like:
    You must not stay here longer, your dismission
    Is come from Caesar, therefore hear it, Antony.
    Where's Fulvia's process? Caesar's I would say. Both?
    Call in the messengers. As I am Egypt's queen,
    Thou blushest, Antony, and that blood of thine
    Is Caesar's homager: else so thy cheek pays shame
    When shrill-tongued Fulvia scolds. The messengers!

She ends, note, by brusquely telling him to attend to the messengers: but she has made sure that, for the time being at least, he won't. Her mocking references to Fulvia, Antony's deserted wife, sting Antony into rejection of all that Rome means. In his next speech he confirms Philo's view of the monstrous disproportion of his behaviour in a remarkable outburst which gains our sympathy not by any explicit or implicit justification but by its taking in all of human existence by the way and then including and surpassing it:

    Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
    Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
    Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
    Feeds beast as man; the noblenesss of life
    Is to do thus: when such a mutual pair,
    And such a twain can do't, in which I bind,
    On pain of punishment, the world to weet
    We stand up peerless.

All nobility of action is subsumed in the embrace of 'such a noble pair'. If the two poles between which Antony moves are Rome and Egypt, for the moment the Roman pole is annihilated. But Antony has a long way to go before he can find a role which combines his character of man of action and lover, which justifies him (not perhaps in a moral sense but in the sense that it accommodates his full psyche): the chain of events which finally drives him to suicide is made, in virtue of the poetic imagery in the play, to be the only way in which his various roles can come together in the same act. At this stage, we see him changing parts, but every change is accompanied by some awareness of what is being given up by not participating in other kinds of human action. How compelling and inclusive is the phrase 'our dungy earth alike / Feeds beasts as man', taking as it does into its purview in one sweep of perception the very basis of human and animal life and their common dependence on the 'dungy earth'. And how that phrase 'dungy earth' stresses the coarse and common, yet rich and life-giving, elements that link the highest with the lowest in any hierachy. In a sense Antony is not here abandoning everything in the world by his and Cleopatra's mutual love: he is taking it all with him. But only in a sense: as the play moves on Shakespeare develops more and more ways of taking all life with him in presenting the adventures of this couple. Between this speech and the recurrence of the image in a different context in Cleopatra's speech in Act V, scene II, whole worlds of meaning have been established:

    My desolation does begin to make
    A better life: 'tis paltry to be Caesar:
    Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
    A minister of her will: and it is great
    To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
    Which shackles accidents, and bolts up change;
    Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
    The beggar's nurse, and Caesar's.

Here the search for a timeless identity, 'which shackles accidents, and bolts up change', is movingly linked to a profound sense of the common necessities of all human existence. And when the dying Cleopatra, with the aspic at her breast, exclaims

    Peace, peace!
    Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
    That sucks the nurse asleep?

the imagery takes on yet another new dimension, so that not only does Cleopatra establish herself at the end as combining the roles of mistress and wife, of courtesan and queen, of Egyptian and Roman, of live-giver and life-taker, but this final unification of roles is linked—in ways that go far beyond the actual story—to a compassionate awareness of the sad yet satisfying realities of human needs and human experience.

But to return to the dialogue in Act I, scene I. Antony's moment of abandon to his vision of his and Cleopatra's mutual love cannot be sustained, for it cannot at this stage correspond to all the demands of his and Cleopatra's nature. He again repudiates his Roman business and then, by associating love with pleasure and pleasure with mere sport, modulates rapidly from the lover to the mere hedonist:

    There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
    Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?

Cleopatra with continuing provocativeness acts the part of his Roman conscience—'Hear the ambassadors' is her only reply to the speech just quoted—but Antony, who has moved from passion to hedonism to joviality, insists on taking this as simply part of her attractive variety:

    Fie, wrangling queen!
    Whom everything becomes, to chide, to laugh,
    To weep: how every passion fully strives
    To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!

This topic of Cleopatra's infinite variety is to sound again and again, in many different ways, throughout the play before the hero and the heroine come to rest in the final and fatal gesture that can make variety into true identity. At this stage in the play Shakespeare deftly moves the royal lovers off the stage to let us hear again the two tough Roman soldiers whose comments had opened the action.

    I am full sorry
    That he approves the common liar, who
    Thus speaks of him at Rome,

says Demetrius, giving another shake to the kaleidoscope so that we now see Antony neither as the debauched general nor as the passionate lover but simply as a nasty item in a gossip column.

We move straight from this splendid opening, with its shifting points of view and provocative contrasts between the former and the present Antony and between the Roman and the Egyptian view, to be given what Granville-Barker calls 'a taste of the chattering, shiftless, sensual, credulous Court, with its trulls and wizards and effeminates'. The queen enters, seeking Antony, aware that 'A Roman thought hath struck him', and worried. She prepares her tactics, bidding Enobarbus fetch Antony and then sweeping out as Antony enters. Antony, when he appears, is purely Roman: the blank verse he speaks is brisk and business-like, moving in short sentences. The news from Rome shames him. He is shaken into wishing to hear Cleopatra named 'as she is call'd in Rome' and to see himself through Fulvia's eyes. He has changed roles very thoroughly, and the atmosphere of the Egyptian Court, to which we have just been exposed, helps to make us sympathize. When Cleopatra reappears she has already been diminished, not only by the Court atmosphere and by Antony's Roman speech, but—and most of all—by Enobarbus' sardonic commentary on her behaviour and motives. Her tricks are all in vain, and after trying out a variety of moods and responses she is firmly shut up by Antony's Roman 'Quarrel no more, but be prepared to know / The purposes I bear'. She then tries the pathetic—

    Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
    Sir, you and I have lov'd, but there's not it;—

and in the end, unable to deflect him from his 'Roman thought', she acts the goddess of Victory and leaves him with the memory of an impressive parting:

    Upon your sword
    Sit laurel victory, and smooth success
    Be strew'd before your feet!

But Antony has already come to see himself as Philo and Demetrius had seen him at the play's opening; we have heard him repeat Philo's very word, 'dotage'—

    These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
    Or lose myself in dotage.

At this point it looks as though the play is to be a tug-of-war comedy, with Antony being pulled now by Egyptian sensuality, now by Roman duty. And indeed, there is an element of this in the play, and some critics have seen this element as its main theme. But any attempt to see the play as merely a balancing of opposites, geographical and psychological, impoverishes it intolerably and also results in the sharpening of the dilemma I described at the beginning. Antony and Cleopatra is a play about ways of confronting experience, about variety and identity.

In Act I scene IV we suddenly see Antony in yet another light, when Octavius Caesar refers to him as 'our great competitor', and this is followed by further images of disproportion applied to Antony—'tumble on the bed of Ptolemy', 'give a kingdom for a mirth', and so on; yet with these words still in our ears we are brought back to Alexandria to hear Cleopatra, seeing Antony's meaning for her more clearly at a distance, describe him as

    The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
    And burgonet of men

—a first foretaste of the grand mythological description she gives of him after his death to Dolabella:

    His legs bestrid the ocean, his rear'd arm
    Crested the world: his voice was propertied
    As all the tuned speres, and that to friends:
    But when he meant to quail, and shake the orb,
    He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
    There was no winter in 't: an autumn 'twas
    That grew the more by reaping: his delights
    Were dolphin-like, they show'd his back above
    The element they lived in: in his livery
    Walk'd crowns and crownets: realms and islands were
    As plates dropp'd from his pocket.

These tremendous images of power, benevolence and sensuality—or of greatness, love and joy—sum up the different aspects of Antony's identity, which are seen together, as co-existing, at last after his death. In life they interfered with each other, and can only be described separately. Nevertheless, the introduction of the figure of 'the demi-Atlas of this earth' so soon after Octavius Caesar's complaints about what Antony has declined to, is deliberate and effective. We should note, too, that even Caesar shows himself fully aware of the heroic Antony, though he sees him as the Antony who was and who may be again, not as the present Antony:

    Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
    Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew'st
    Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
    Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against,
    Though daintily brought up, with patience more
    Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
    The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
    Which beasts would cough at: thy palate then did deign
    The roughest berry, on the rudest hedge;
    Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
    The barks of trees thou browsed. On the Alps
    It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
    Which some did die to look on: and all this—
    It wounds thine honour that I speak it now—
    Was borne so like a soldier, that thy cheek
    So much as lank'd not.

This is not only imagery suggestive of almost super-human heroism: it is also violently anti-sensual imagery. The contrast between 'lascivious wassails' and 'thy palate then did deign' / The roughest berry' is absolute. Victory in Egypt is associated with riotous celebration; in Rome, with endurance. Cleopatra at the end of the play combines both these notions in her death, which is both a suffering and a ceremony.

When Caesar and Antony confront each other in Rome, Antony admits the most important charge—that in Egypt he had not sufficiently known himself:

    And then when poisoned hours had bound me up
    From mine own knowledge.

Caesar, cold and passionless, never has any doubt of his own identity; that is one of the advantages of having such a limited character. Lepidus' character consists in wanting to like and be liked by everybody; he has no real identity at all. Not that Shakespeare presents all this schematically. The presentation teems with life at every point, and some of the situations in which Lepidus is involved are richly comic.

Meanwhile, Antony acts out his re-acquired persona of the good Roman leader and dutiful family man. He marries Caesar's sister Octavia, and is all courtesy and affection. But Enobarbus has been with the back-room boys satisfying their eager curiosity about Egypt. In replying to their questions, this sardonic realist with no illusions tells the simple truth about Cleopatra's irresistible seductiveness. It is into his mouth that Shakespeare puts the magnificent and well-known description of Antony's first meeting with Cleopatra (from Plutarch, but how transmuted!), thus guaranteeing its truth; it is Enobarbus too who evokes her quintessential sex appeal with the brief but brilliant account of her captivating breathlessness after hopping 'forty paces through the public street', and above all it is Enobarbus who replies to Maecenas's 'Now Antony must leave her utterly' with

    Never; he will not:
    Age cannot wither her: nor custom stale
    Her infinite variety: other women cloy
    The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry,
    Where most she satisfies. For vilest things
    Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
    Bless her, when she is riggish.

This is not role-taking: it is the considered opinion of a hard-boiled campaigner, and in the light of it we know that Antony has a long way to go before his different personae can unite.

If we are never allowed to forget Cleopatra, how can Antony? It takes only a casual encounter with an Egyptian soothsayer to turn him to Egypt again:

    I will to Egypt;
    And though I make this marriage for my peace,
    I' the east my pleasure lies.

Mere sensuality is drawing him, it appears. Never up to this point has the love theme, as Antony reflects it, seemed so tawdry. It almost seems as though there is an obvious moral pattern emerging, with Rome on the good side and Egypt on the bad. This is further suggested by the following scene in Alexandria showing Cleopatra's reaction to the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia. Yet, after all her tantrums, with her

    Pity me, Charmian,
    But do not speak to me,

a new note of quiet genuineness emerges in Cleopatra's love for Antony. And if we have come to feel that the political world of Roman efficiency represents the moral good in this conflict between Rome and Egypt, we are soon brought to the scene in Pompey's galley in which power and politics are reduced to their lowest level. Antony fools the drunken Lepidus by talking meaningless nonsense in reply to Lepidus' questions about Egypt; Menas tries to persuade Pompey to slaughter his guests and so secure the sole rule of the world, and Pompey replies that Menas should have done it first and told him about it afterwards; the reluctant Caesar is persuaded to join in the heavy drinking. Lepidus has already been carried off drunk, the man who bears him away carrying, as Enobarbus points out, 'the third part of the world'. And finally Enobarbus persuades Caesar to join in a dance with Antony and Pompey while a boy sings a drinking song. The utter emptiness of this revelry is desolating, and it casts a bleak light on the whole Roman world.

In the light of this dreary and almost enforced celebration we think of Enobarbus' description of Cleopatra's first welcome to Antony or the later presentation (Act IV, scene VIII) of Antony's response to temporary victory and realise that there is another aspect to Egyptian revelry than the dissolute chatter of Act I, scene II. Egyptian celebration has a humanity and a fullness wholly lacking on Pompey's galley.

    Enter the city, clip your wives, your friends,
    Tell them your feats, whilst they with joyful tears
    Wash the congealment from your wounds, and kiss
    The honour'd gashes whole,

exclaims Antony in genial triumph to his men and, to Cleopatra when she enters:

    My nightingale,
    We have beat them to their beds. What, girl, though grey
    Do something mingle with our younger brown, yet ha' we
    A brain that nourishes our nerves, and can
    Get goal for goal of youth. Behold this man,
    Commend unto his lips thy favouring hand:
    Kiss it, my warrior: he hath fought to-day
    As if a god in hate of mankind had
    Destroy'd in such a shape.

And Antony goes on to proclaim a victory celebration:

    Give me thy hand,
    Through Alexandria make a jolly march,
    Bear our hack'd targets like the men that owe them.
    Had our great palace the capacity
    To camp this host, we all would sup together,
    And drink carouses to the next day's fate,
    Which promises royal peril. Trumpeters,
    With brazen din blast you the city's ear,
    Make mingle with our rattling tabourines,
    That heaven and earth may strike their sounds together,
    Applauding our approach.

Kissing, touching and shaking of hands are frequent where Antony is the center of a celebratory scene; it is the human touch, the contact, the insistence on sharing feeling. So against 'I' the east my pleasure lies' we must set on the one hand Roman pleasure as symbolized by the scene in Pompey's galley and on the other the warm human responsiveness to environment which Antony evinces in so many of his Egyptian moods. The latter part of the play is not simply a psychological study of the decline of the sensual man in intellectual and emotional stability as his fortunes decline (as Granville-Barker, brilliant though his study of the play is, seems to imply). If it were that, it would be merely pathetic, and it would be hard to account for the note of triumph that rises more than once as the play moves to its conclusion. The play is in fact both triumph and tragedy; Antony, and more especially Cleopatra, achieve in death what they have been unable to achieve in life: the triumph lies in the achievement, the tragedy in that the price of the achievement is death. In the last analysis the play rises above morality to strike a blow in vindication of the human species. Queen or courtesan or lover or sensualist, or all of these, Cleopatra in her death does not let humankind down.

Antony's emotional vagaries in the long movement of his decline exhibit him as beyond the control of any stablishing self; it is almost as though Shakespeare is making the point that in order to gain one's identity one must lose it. Antony is seen by his friend Scarus, whose military advice he rejects as he rejects everybody's except Cleopatra's, as 'the noble ruin of her (i.e., Cleopatra's) magic', and Shakespeare makes it clear that this is one aspect of the truth. Antony's military judgment is overborne by Cleopatra's reckless desires and intuitions. Even Enobarbus breaks out of his sardonic acquiescence in whatever goes on, to expostulate with Cleopatra herself in a tone of rising anxiety. Soldier and lover are here contradictory roles, which must be acted separately. To attempt to act them out simultaneously is to risk ruining both. Shakespeare spares us nothing—the bickering, the infatuate action, the changes of mood, the melodramatic gesturing. Yet the poetic imagery works in another direction, not so much in its actual verbal suggestions as in its rising energy and human comprehensiveness. And at least Antony acts all his own parts. His chief reason for scorning Octavius Caesar is that he plays simply the role of cunning policy spinner and refuses to prove himself in any other capacity.

The richness of Antony's humanity increases with the instability of his attitudes. His rage with the presumptuous Thidias, who dares to kiss Cleopatra's hand, is of course partly the result of Thidias' being Caesar's messenger and of Cleopatra's looking kindly on him—he himself shortly afterwards gives Cleopatra Scarus's hand to kiss. But more than that, it is a release of something humanly real within him, and his expression of it has a ring of appeal about it, appeal to our understanding of his emotional predicament, of the human-ness of his situation:

    Get thee back to Caesar,
    Tell him thy entertainment: look thou say
    He makes me angry with him. For he seems
    Proud and disdainful, harping on what I am
    Not what he knew I was. He makes me angry,
    And at this time most easy 'tis to do 't:
    When my good stars, that were my former guides,
    Have empty left their orbs, and shot their fires
    Into the abysm of hell.

The phrase 'harping on what I am / Not what he knew I was' has no equivalent in Plutarch. Antony's consciousness of his different selves represents an important part of Shakespeare's intention. At the same time Antony's almost genial acknowledgement of his own weakness has not only an engaging confessional aspect but also draws on its rhythm and movement to achieve a suggestion of human fallibility which increases rather than diminishes Antony's quality as a man:

    He makes me angry,
    And at this time most easy 'tis to do 't: …

When Cleopatra approaches him, hoping that his angry mood has passed, he is still talking to himself:

    Alack, our terrene moon
    Is now eclips'd, and it portends alone
    The fall of Antony!

It is Cleopatra who is the moon—the changeable planet. (We recall Juliet's reproof to Romeo:

    O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon,
    That monthly changes in her circled orb …)

But while he is lamenting Cleopatra's changeableness, she is awaiting the change in him that will bring him back to a full recognition of her love for him: 'I must stay his time'. He accuses her of flattering Caesar, and she replies simply: 'Not know me yet?' To which in turn he replies with another simple question: 'Coldhearted toward me?' Her answer to this, beginning with the quietly moving 'Ah, dear, if I be so,…' brings him round at once. 'I am satisfied', is all he says to conclude the dispute, then proceeds at once to talk about his military plans. Having declared these, he suddenly realises just who Cleopatra is and where he stands in relation to her:

    Where hast thou been, my heart? Dost thou hear, lady?
    If from the field I shall return once more
    To kiss these lips, I will appear in blood,
    I, and my sword, will earn our chronicle:
    There's hope in't yet.

He is both warrior and lover now, and well may Cleopatra exclain 'That's my brave lord!' This in turn encourages Antony to move to his third role, that of reveller:

    I will be treble-sinew'd, hearted, breath'd,
    And fight maliciously: for when mine hours
    Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
    Of me for jests: but now, I'll set my teeth,
    And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
    Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me
    All my sad captains, fill our bowls once more;
    Let's mock the midnight bell.

More role-taking now takes place on a very simple and moving plane. Cleopatra adjusts herself to Antony's recovered confidence:

    It is my birth-day,
    I had thought t' have held it poor. But since my lord
    Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.

Cleopatra's reference to her birthday is almost pathos, but it rises at once to grandeur with 'But since my lord / Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra'. The question posed by the play is, What do these two characters finally add up to? When Antony is Antony again and Cleopatra Cleopatra who are they? One cannot give any answer less than the total meaning of the play.

Enobarbus, the 'realist', gives his comment on this dialogue. He knows his Antony; his shrewd and knowing mind give its ironic diagnosis:

    Now he'll outstare the lightning; to be furious
    Is to be frighted out of fear, and in that mood
    The dove will peck the estridge; and I see still,
    A diminution in our captain's brain
    Restores his heart; when valour preys on reason,
    It eats the sword it fights with: I will seek
    Some way to leave him.

But it is the realist who does not see the reality, and Enobarbus' death in an agony of remorse for having deserted Antony in the name of Realpolitik is Shakespeare's final comment on this interpretation.

The death of Antony leaves a whole act for Cleopatra's duel with Caesar before she finally outwits him and dies in her own way and in her own time. It is an act in which she plays continuously shifting roles, and while these are obviously related to the exigencies of her conflict with Caesar and the fluctuations in her position, they also show her exhibiting varied facets of her character before deciding on the final pose she will adopt before the world and before history. She is not fooled by Caesar but plays a part designed to fool Caesar into thinking that she wants to live and make the best bargain possible for herself, exclaiming contemptuously to her ladies in waiting: 'He words me, girls, he words me'. Caesar is not an accomplished actor—he is not used to role-taking—and he gives himself away. 'Feed and sleep', he tells Cleopatra, thinking that the exhortation will disarm and soothe her. But the words suggest the treatment one gives to a caged beast and give away, what Dolabella is easily charmed by Cleopatra into confirming, that Caesar intends to lead Cleopatra and her children as captives in his triumphal procession. This role, for all her infinite variety, is one Cleopatra will never play. If she does not arrange her last act properly, the Romans will put her in their play:

    Nay, 'tis most certain, Iras: saucy lictors
    Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
    Ballad us out o' tune. The quick comedians
    Extemporally will stage us, and present
    Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
    Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
    Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
    I' the posture of a whore.

The pageant of her death which she arranges is a sufficient antidote to this. Preceded as it is by the characteristically enlarging dialogue with the clown who brings the figs—enlarging, that is, the human implications of the action—she goes through death to Antony whom at last she can call by the one name she was never able to call him in life—'Husband, I come'. The splendour and dignity of the final ritual brings together in a great vindication the varied meanings of her histrionic career and temperament:

    Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
    Immortal longings in me.

It is both a subsuming and a sublimating ritual. Love and loyalty and courage and queenliness are here together at last. And so is sexyness and sensuality, for this is a vindication through wholeness not through a choice of the proper and the respectable elements only. Iras dies first and Cleopatra exclaims:

    This proves me base:
    If she first meet the curled Antony,
    He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss
    Which is my heaven to have.

This almost flippant sensuality has its place in the summing up, which transcends morality. Charmian, who dies last, lingers to set her dead mistress's crown straight:

    Your crown's awry,
    I'll mend it, and then play.

'Play' means play her part in the supreme pageant of ceremonial death and at the same time refers back, with controlled pathos, to Cleopatra's earlier

    And when thou hast done this chare, I'll give thee leave
    To play till doomsday: …

When Caesar arrives, the striking and moving spectacle of the dead queen in all her regal splendour flanked by her two dead handmaidens forces even this cold schemer to see her in the great inclusive role she has arranged for herself. Love, which in the Roman view of the matter has hitherto been opposed to history, the enemy of action and dignity and honour, is now at last, and by the very epitome of Roman authority and efficiency, pronounced to be part of history and of honour:

    Take up her bed,
    And bear her women from the monument:
    She shall be buried by her Antony.
    No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
    A pair so famous: high events as these
    Strike those that make them: and their story is
    No less in pity than his glory which
    Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
    In solemn show attend this funeral,
    And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
    High order, in this great solemnity.

'Famous', 'high', 'glory', 'solemn', 'order', 'solemnity'—these are the terms which Caesar now applies to a love story which earlier he had dismissed as 'lascivious wassails'. Is the play about human frailty or human glory? We are left with the feeling that one depends on the other, an insight too subtly generous for any known morality.

Source: David Daiches, "Imagery and Meaning in Antony and Cleopatra," in English Studies, Vol. 43, No. 5, October 1962, pp. 343-58.


Bradley, A. C., Oxford Lectures on Poetry, Macmillan & Co., Limited, 1909, p. 283.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, "Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection, with an introduction by D. Nichol Smith, Oxford University Press, 1934, pp. 279-80.

Fitz, L. T., "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers: Sexist Attitudes in Antony and Cleopatra Criticism," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer 1977, pp. 297-316.

Harrier, Richard C., "Cleopatra's End," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter 1962, pp. 63-5.

MacMullan, Katherine Vance, "Death Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn 1963, pp. 399-410.

Nevo, Ruth, "Antony and Cleopatra," in Tragic Form in Shakespeare, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 306-55.

Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, The Dryden Translation, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1987, pp. 749, 757, 779.

Shakespeare, William, Antony and Cleopatra, edited by M. R. Ridley, Arden Shakespeare, Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1978.

Starr, Chester G., A History of the Ancient World, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 550.

Wells, Stanley, Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, W. W. Norton & Company, 1995, p. 300.

Wright, Austin, "Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare: Lectures on Five Plays, Carnegie Series in English, Number Four, by A. Fred Sochatoff et al., Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1958, pp. 37-51.


Barroll, J. Leeds, "Cleopatra and the Size of Dreaming," in Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in Antony and Cleopatra, Associated University Presses, 1984, pp. 130-87.

Barroll analyzes the wide variety of responses to Cleopatra's character. He acknowledges that Cleopatra's lack of self-understanding or of feelings of guilt might disqualify her for tragic status. Barroll locates Cleopatra's tragedy in the destruction of all of her "grandiose" plans—for herself and for Antony—and in her genuine grief at Antony's death.

Bevington, David, "Introduction" in Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 1-70.

Bevington provides a detailed overview of the play, including date and source material and critical assessments of the characters. Bevington also focuses on the use of irony—in particular, how irony sets the play's dialogue at odds with the play's action. Finally, Bevington evaluates the numerous ways in which Antony and Cleopatra has been performed before live audiences and includes a discussion of the difficulties of staging so elaborate a play, with its barges, battles, and monuments.

Cantor, Paul A., "Part Two: Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire, Cornell University Press, 1976, pp. 127-208.

Cantor argues first, that the play cannot be divided neatly into private versus public life; second, he asserts that Antony is not "bewitched" away from Rome by Cleopatra, but that he is already aware and disapproving of Rome's faults; third, Cantor argues that the love between Antony and Cleopatra is made possible through its very originality and tendency toward exaggeration, and that "the guiding principle of [the two lovers] in both public and private life is open hostility to stale custom." Incidentally, Cantor also argues that Antony and Cleopatra achieve marriage through death—thus turning a potentially tragic play into a comedy.

Doran, Madeleine, "'High Events as These': The Language of Hyperbole in Antony and Cleopatra," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 1, Spring 1965, pp. 26-51.

Doran interprets the play in the context of the Elizabethan fascination for hyperbolic language, or the expression of things as grandiose, perfect, and ideal. Doran concludes by suggesting that Shakespeare used hyperbole not only to satisfy his audience's tastes but also to demonstrate that the "true wonder" of human beings—of Antony and Cleopatra, for example—exists not in exaggeration but in the story of their lives.

Honigmann, E. A. J., "Antony versus Cleopatra," in Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1976, pp. 150-69.

Honigmann discusses the ways in which the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra changes halfway through the play. Honigmann contends that in the first half, Cleopatra dominates the action and Antony is the butt of her jokes; however, in the second half, Antony, newly ashamed by his military losses, achieves moral and theatrical superiority over Cleopatra.

Kuriyama, Constance Brown, "The Mother of the World: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 7, No. 3, Autumn 1977, pp. 324-51.

In this Freudian interpretation, Kuriyama argues that Antony and Cleopatra should not be read merely as a moral lesson or for its poetry. Instead, she asserts that critics should acknowledge that the play functions as a sexual fantasy which provides us the pleasure of knowing that when Antony and Cleopatra are at last "united in death," they achieve "honor," "selfhood," and "immortality."

Williamson, Marilyn, "The Political Context in Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer 1970, pp. 241-51.

Williamson evaluates Antony and Cleopatra as "rulers as well as lovers." Williamson focuses on the play's politics, arguing that much can be learned about Antony and Cleopatra from their treatment of their subordinates, as well as from the manner in which their subordinates view them.

Wolf, William D, "'New Heaven, New Earth': The Escape from Mutability in Antony and Cleopatra," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn 1982, pp. 328-35.

Wolf acknowledges the opposing forces at work in the play: politics versus love, public versus private, Rome versus Egypt. Wolf then proceeds to point out that despite these differences, the worlds of Rome and Egypt share an important element: both are subject to violent fluctuations. With regard to Rome, Wolf observes, the change is political; with regard to Egypt, it is emotional. In both cases, Wolf asserts, the changes revolve around Antony.