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Type of Work
Composition and First Performance
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016 ©
Antony and Cleopatra is tragic stage play about a doomed love affair. It is also a history play, since it is based on real events in ancient times. Scholars often group it as one of Shakespeare’s “Roman plays,” along with Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.
Composition and First Performance
The play was published in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare's main source for the play was the Life of Marcus Antonius, by Plutarch (46? BC-AD 120?). This biography is part of a larger Plutarch work, Parallel Lives, focusing mainly on famous Greek and Roman government and military leaders. Shakespeare used the English translation of Parallel Lives by Sir Thomas North (1535-1601). North's translation, based in part on a French translation, was published in 1579 under the title The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes [Romans]. Shakespeare may also have reviewed the 1578 French play Marc Antoine, by Robert Garnier, which was translated into English in 1595 by Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke; the 1543 tragedy Cleopatra, by Giambattista Giraldi, known as Cinthio; and the 1599 play The Tragedy of Cleopatra, by Samuel Daniel.
overall tone of the play is deeply serious and
tragic. The language is at times lofty and
highly poetic. Romantic passion drives the main
characters, Antony and Cleopatra. This passion
is mixed with Cleopatra's fierce possessiveness
and jealousy. Thirst for power drives Octavius
Caesar. Because the story of the love affair
between Antony and Cleopatra is well known to
most theatergoers and readers, suspense does not
play a major role in the tone of the play.
People see and read the play not to find out
what happened, but how it happened and how the
events affected the characters.
Antagonist: Octavius Caesar
Mark Antony: Roman general and one of the three men (triumvirs) who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. After visiting Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, he falls passionately in love with her, abandoning the strict self-control and restraint expected of Roman rulers and embracing the relaxed morality and lifestyle of the Egyptians. Eventually, he provokes the wrath of one of his co-rulers, Octavius Caesar. The two men become enemies and go to war.
Cleopatra: Seductive and cunning Queen of Egypt in the Macedonian dynasty. She was the seventh Cleopatra, having the full title of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (Goddess Who Loves Her Father). Cleopatra, in her late twenties during her affair with Antony, was born in 69 BC as the second daughter of King Ptolemy XII. Ptolemy was a descendant of a Macedonian serving under Alexander the Great during Alexander's conquests in Egypt. After her father died in 51 BC, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, became teenage co-rulers and, by custom, married, although they later became enemies and fought for control of the government. Before her affair with Mark Antony, she had an amorous relationship with Julius Caesar, who helped her defeat her brother and claim the throne. She gave birth to a child believed to have been fathered by Caesar; she named him Caesarion.
Octavius Caesar (Octavian): One of the three men (triumvirs) who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, Octavius is cunning and ambitious, an altogether formidable opponent for Antony. After he and Antony become enemies, Octavius leads his forces against Antony, pursuing him relentlessly.
Octavia: Octavius's sister. Antony marries her after his first wife dies.
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus: One of the three men (triumvirs) who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Lepidus is weak and ineffectual. Eventually, Octavius Caesar kicks him out of office.
Sextus Pompeius (Pompey): Son of the late Pompey the Great. Sextus (called Pompey in the play) threatens war against Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, but agrees to a peace treaty that averts conflict. However, ambitious Octavius later attacks and defeats Pompey, thereby provoking war with Antony.
Domitius Enobarbus: Antony's faithful right-hand man. Enobarbus is honest, down-to-earth and full of common sense—which, of course, Antony fails to heed.
Ventidius, Eros, Scarus, Dercetas, Demetrius, Philo: Friends of Antony.
Agrippa: Important military commander and advisor of Octavius. He suggests that Antony marry Octavia. Agrippa also masterminds Octavius's victories over Sextus Pompeius and Antony.
Dolabella: Friend and attendant of Octavius. He is the first to notice the asp's marks on Cleopatra's lifeless body.
Mecaenas, Thyreus, Menas: Friends of Octavius.
Menecrates, Varrius: Friends of Sextus Pompeius.
Taurus: Lieutenant-general of Caesar.
Canidius: Lieutenant-general of Antony.
Silius: Officer in Ventidius's army.
Euphronius: Ambassador from Antony to Caesar.
Seleucus: Cleopatra's treasurer.
Alexas, Mardian the Eunuch, Diomedes: Cleopatra's attendants.
Charmian, Iras: Maids of honor attending Cleopatra.
Clown: Man who fetches the asp that bites Cleopatra.
Gallus, Proculeius: Men charged with carrying a message from Octavian to Cleopatra.
Marcus Octavius, Marcus Justeius, Publicola, Cælius: Strategists in Antony's army who support his plan to fight Octavius at sea.
Officers, Soldiers, Sentinels, Messengers, and other Attendants
Kings Whom Antony Petitions to Fight With Him Against Octavius
King of Libya
Shakespeare's play assumes that the audience is familiar with events that took place before Mark Antony's affair in Egypt with Cleopatra. These events include the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 BC) and the formation of a ruling Roman triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. When the armies of the triumvirate track down the armies of the assassins during a civil war, Egypt refuses to participate on the triumvirate's side. Antony summons Queen Cleopatra to Tarsus, Cicilia (present-day Turkey), to explain Egypt's position. But Antony falls in love with her and returns with her to Alexandria, Egypt. Shakespeare's play begins there, in Alexandria, four years after Julius Caesar's assassination.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
The great military commander Mark Antony is one of the three who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar at the hands of conspirators. His co-rulers are Octavius Caesar, called Octavian (to be known in later history as Augustus Caesar), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Because Antony is a seasoned leader—a leader with charisma, experience and resolve—he enjoys the admiration of his soldiers and the Roman citizens. But Antony’s popularity is shortlived, as Shakespeare’s audience discovers when Act I opens in Alexandria, Egypt, where Antony languishes under the spell of Cleopatra’s incomparable beauty and charm. She spends her every wile and witchery on binding his heart to hers—and the world and Rome be damned. In a room in Cleopatra’s palace, one of Antony’s friends, Philo, observes that Antony’s love affair with Cleopatra has turned him into “the bellows and the fan / to cool a gipsy’s lust” (1.1.11-12). So captivated is Antony by Cleopatra that he forgets all else—Rome, duty, his wife Fulvia. Philo says,
Take but good note, and you shall see in himWhen Cleopatra enters the room with her ladies in waiting and eunuchs fanning her, she asks Antony how much he loves her. He replies that she will need to find “new heaven, new earth” (1.1.20) to set the boundaries of his love. An attendant arrives to alert Antony that news has arrived from Rome. Jealous of anyone who would turn Antony’s attention away from her, Cleopatra says—perhaps in a pouting yet mocking tone—that the message is probably from Antony’s peevish wife, Fulvia, or from “scarce-bearded Caesar” (Octavius: 1.1.26) commanding Antony to do his bidding. Antony pacifies her, saying,
Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours,Although Antony’s passion for Cleopatra seems all-consuming, there remains in him a spark of propriety, responsibility, duty. Cleopatra has not yet captured the whole of his soul. Thus, while with Cleopatra later, he suddenly gets up and leaves when his sense of duty seizes him. When she goes looking for him, she tells Enobarbus, “He was dispos’d to mirth; but on the sudden / A Roman thought hath struck him” (1.2.58-59). At that moment, Antony is meeting with the messenger from Rome, who bears bad news: Antony’s wife has died. What is more, civil war is about to erupt. Antony tells his right-hand man, Enobarbus, to make ready to depart for Rome. Enobarbus observes that news of his departure will devastate the queen: “Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly; I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying (1.2.120). Antony replies, “She is cunning past man’s thought” (121).
Quick-tempered Cleopatra does protest at first, but then yields to his plan. After all, Fulvia is dead; she cannot vie against Cleopatra for Antony’s affections. While Antony returns to Rome, Octavian and Lepidus plan their defense against their enemy, Sextus Pompeius (the son of the late Pompey the Great), who is massing troops in Sicily. Upon Antony’s arrival in Rome, Octavian quarrels with him over his inattention to duty. In the end, though, calm prevails when Antony agrees to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia, to firm up political ties between the two men.
In Alexandria, time passes slowly for Cleopatra as she awaits news of Antony. When a messenger finally arrives and tells her Antony has married Octavia, she flies into a paroxysm of rage. Perhaps, if browbeaten, the messenger will change his story; perhaps he will tell her what she wants to hear—that Antony is coming back. But, of course, the messenger cannot and does not, for Antony is in Rome on government business. He and the other two triumvirs are concluding an agreement with Pompeius (who, like his father, is usually addressed as Pompey) that will avert war and bring peace.
The agreement grants Pompey control of Sicily and Sardinia in exchange for his pledge to rid the sea of pirates and to send cargoes of wheat to Rome. In celebration of the treaty, Pompey throws a lavish party on one of his ships. Drinks flow. Enemies are reconciled.
However, one of Pompey’s men, Menas, tells Pompey that he knows how to make his master “lord of the whole world” (2.7.52). When Pompey inquires further, Menas suggests a plot to murder the triumvirs. But Pompey says such a path to glory would dishonor him, and he orders Menas to repent his sinful thoughts. Little does Pompey know that one of the triumvirs, Octavius, has plans of his own to become lord of the world.
In the days that follow, Antony and his new wife go to Athens. There, Antony takes command of the eastern armies in a campaign against the Parthians. But while Antony is gone, Octavius begins to act like a dictator. First Octavius makes war anew on Pompey but refuses to share the glory and spoils after defeating him. Then he kicks Lepidus out of power, claiming “Lepidus was grown too cruel; that he his high authority abused” (3.6.39). Lepidus is imprisoned, and his property is confiscated. When word of Octavius’s actions reaches Antony, he tells his wife Octavia that he is greatly displeased. Octavia then goes to Rome to patch things up between her brother and her husband.
Meanwhile, Antony returns to his real love, Cleopatra, and prepares his army for war against Octavius. When the report of Antony’s return to Egypt reaches Octavius, he asserts that Antony has abandoned not only his wife but also Rome itself by allying himself with Cleopatra. He tells Mecaenas:
I’ the market-place, on a tribunal1 silver’d,Octavius and Antony then mobilize for war against each other. By late summer of 31 BC, Antony makes camp at Actium on the western coast of Greece with 70,000 foot soldiers and a fleet of several hundred ships. With the support of Cleopatra, Antony decides to fight a sea battle even though Octavius has superior naval forces, commanded by Marcus Agrippa. Enobarbus protests Antony’s plan, urging his leader to fight on land where he will have the advantage. But Antony pays no heed.
ENOBARBUS: Your ships are not well mann’d;When the two Roman fleets clash, Cleopatra and her fleet are there also. But at the height of the fighting, she withdraws with her fleet, having had enough of war. It is not entirely clear whether she withdraws because she is afraid of the horror of battle or because she is considering abandoning Antony in favor of reaching a concord with Octavius. To his great shame, Antony also abandons the fight to follow her. Octavius then completes the rout. As victor, he dictates terms to Cleopatra: Keep your kingdom but expel Antony from it.
Enraged, Antony challenges Octavius to a duel. Octavius scoffs at the challenge. Fearing the worst, Antony’s forces begin to desert him. Even Enobarbus flees. But when Antony sends a mule train of treasure after him as a parting gesture of goodwill, Enobarbus repents his action and dies of a broken heart. In renewed war, Antony and his remaining forces fight Octavian’s army on land and win a victory. But when the fighting shifts back to the sea with the Egyptian fleet again participating, the Egyptians surrender and disaster follows.
Suspecting Cleopatra has betrayed him, Antony renounces her:
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me:To soften his heart, Cleopatra, now hiding in a funeral monument reserved for her, sends a messenger to tell Antony a lie: Queen Cleopatra has taken her own life; she thought and spoke only of Antony at the end. Devastated, Antony orders one of his men, Eros, to kill him. But Eros commits suicide rather than strike down his beloved master. Antony then tries to kill himself by falling on his sword. He wounds himself but does not die. Cleopatra, worried that her little trick may have backfired, sends word to Antony that she is still alive. Racked as much by the pangs of love as by the pangs of his wound, Antony has attendants carry his body to her. There, in her arms, he dies. After Octavius arrives, Cleopatra decides to follow Antony to eternity. However, her motive does not necessarily spring from a broken heart; in fact, it seems likely that she chooses death rather than the humiliation of becoming Octavian’s captive. She tells her attendant Iras that both of them will be paraded in Rome like trophies. When Iras replies, “The gods forbid!,” Cleopatra says that
saucy lictors2At her command, two asps are brought to her in a basket. She then dresses in her royal attire, and Iras places her crown on her head. Finally, she bids farewell to her attendants and puts one snake on her breast and another on an arm. They do their work, and death follows quickly. Octavius orders Antony and Cleopatra to be buried together, saying, “No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous. . . .” (5.2.418).
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climax of a play or another narrative work, such
as a short story or a novel, can be defined as
(1) the turning point at which the conflict
begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or
as (2) the final and most exciting event in a
series of events. The climax of Antony and
Cleopatra occurs, according to the first
definition, in Act 3, Scene 7, when Antony
decides to wage naval warfare against Octavius,
a grave mistake that signals the beginning of
Antony's military downfall. According to the
second definition, the climax occurs over an
extended period in which Antony and Cleopatra
English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that Shakespeare executed vivid character portrayals in Antony and Cleopatra. In Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (London: C. H. Reynell, 1817), Hazlitt said:
As in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's prequel to Antony and Cleopatra, prophecies foreshadow tragic developments. In Act I, Scene I, a soothsayer in Egypt reads the palm of Cleopatra's attendant, Charmian, and tells her that she will outlive her mistress. In Act II, Scene II, a soothsayer in Rome advises Antony that the fortunes of Octavius will rise higher than Antony's..
Blind passion mutes the voice of reason and leads to the death of two mighty leaders. Antony and Cleopatra both pay with their lives for their scandalous, all-consuming love affair. Antony, once a wise leader, allows his emotions to gain sway over his reason. Consequently, he makes bad decisions, including his foolhardy decision to fight the forces of Octavius at sea. Cleopatra likewise allows her emotions—including jealousy and anger—to rule her.
Beware of young men of ambition. Octavius Caesar is quick to depose Lepidus and turn against Sextus Pompeius and Antony for the prize of power. Normally, excessive ambition is a flaw that destroys the people that it infects. But Octavius—a well disciplined, highly intelligent, politically astute leader—knows the secret to achieving and holding supreme authority: Control your emotions. And he is a master at that task.Though twenty years younger than Antony, he defeats him through the sang-froid of brutal dispassion, logic, and aquiline predation.
Headstrong, selfish acts can alienate and victimize even the best of friends. Antony's behavior ruptures his friendship with Enobarbus, his most devoted friend, who dies of a broken heart.
Only the fittest survive. This is a Machiavellian, as well as a Darwinian, law. In Antony and Cleopatra, Lepidus is unfit because he is weak, tending to pacify his rivals and seek compromise rather than sally forth with a closed fist. Consequently, the ambitious Octavius easily pushes him aside.
Deception ends in disaster. To win Antony's sympathy, Cleopatra sends word to him that she has died. Antony then falls on his sword, mortally wounding himself.
The greater the civilization, the greater its problems. Rome was the greatest civilization of its time. But because of its size and complexity and because of the size and complexity of the egos that controlled it, it was also a troubled civilization.
Overweening pride leads to a downfall. Ostensibly, Cleopatra commits suicide because she cannot endure life without Antony. However, the Queen of the Nile is no Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) or Desdemona (Othello), heroines motivated only by selfless love. Rather, she is a complex woman. Love for Antony burns in her breast, to be sure, but so do other emotions. One of them is great pride that renders her incapable of undergoing ridicule. So, after Octavius defeats Antony, Cleopatra commits suicide rather than allow Octavius to take her back to Rome and display her like a caged animal or a circus freak.
Lofty, sumptuous imagery characterizes much of the dialogue in the play. For example, in the opening lines, Philo says that in battle Mark Antony's eyes "glow'd like plated Mars" (a simile that alludes to the Roman god of war) and that in hand-to-hand combat Antony "hath burst the buckles on his breast." In one of the most memorable passages, Domitius Enobarbus, the normally plain-speaking soldier who is Antony's best friend, describes in soaring imagery Cleopatra's arrival at Tarsus on the Cydnus River for her first meeting with Antony. Following is his description:
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,The passage begins with an alliteration (barge, burnish’d, Burn’d) and a simile comparing the barge to a throne burning on the water. It then uses personification: The winds were love-sick with them (comparison of the winds to a person in love). The paradox in the last two lines of the passage, saying that the fans both cool and heat Cleopatra’s cheeks, resembles one in the opening passage of the play in which Philo says Antony has become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust (1.1. 11-12)—that is, he both heats and cools her passion.
Earlier, Shakespeare uses another type of contrast—the brightness of fire against the blackness of night—when Lepidus defends Antony against Octavius’s charge that Antony is “the abstract [summary] of all faults that men follow” (1.4.11). Lepidus says,
I must not think there areCrude Imagery
Not all the imagery in the play is elegant and dignified. For example, when Enobarbus and Agrippa are discussing Cleopatra, Agrippa observes:
Royal wench!And, when a soothsayer tells Charmian that she will outlive her mistress—Cleopatra—Charmian replies, "O excellent! I love long life better than figs" (1.2.27).
Following are examples of figures of speech in Antony and Cleopatra. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Bliss in our brows bent (1.3.47)Anaphora
His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d armApostrophe
Be witness to me, O thou blessed moon,Hyperbole
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn [boundary] how far to be belov’d.Metaphor
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide archOnomatopoeia
The wife of Antony should have an army for an usher, and
The neighs of horse to tell of her approach (3.6.54-55)
Excellent falsehood! (1.1.48)Personification
Purple the sails, and so perfumed thatSimile
Like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,Fear of Ridicule
Ostensibly, Cleopatra commits suicide because she cannot endure life without Antony. However, fear of ridicule as a captive of the Romans also plays an important role in her decision to kill herself. She especially recoils at the thought of being put on public display in Rome, like a puppet manipulated by the hand of a slave. In the following passage, she speaks of her fears to Iras, one of her maids.
Now, Iras, what think’st thou?Staging the Play
Antony and Cleopatra contains forty-two scenes in far-flung settings. Some scenes—such Scene I of Act II, in which Sextus Pompeius, Menecrates, and Menas convene at the house of Pompeius in Messina, Italy—last only a few minutes. Then the action shifts to another part of the world. Therefore, staging the play can pose great difficulties for theater companies. One way to overcome these difficulties is to have sets with props that can be easily moved—or to rely primarily on lighting to suggest scene changes.
what extent does Shakespeare embellish or alter
historical accounts of Antony’s relationship
Seat or bench of an important person, such as a