Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's best known later tragedies. Written about ten years after Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra portrays actual events and persons from Roman history, but unlike Julius Caesar it also embodies the love story of its title characters. For the historical background, plot and intimate details of the affair between the Roman general Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, Shakespeare drew upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives; in fact, the description of Cleopatra upon her barge presented by the character Enobarbus in the play (II.ii.190-225) is nearly a word-for-word translation of a passage from Plutarch.
In Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar, Shakespeare depicts characters that are larger than life, all three of the main figures commanding "planetary" status as rulers of the world and instruments of its destiny. Antony and Cleopatra is a very involved play, featuring rapid shifts between Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, Egypt and Antony's homeland in Rome, along with two major battlefield sequences. There are in fact thirteen scenes in Act III and fifteen in Act IV. While some nineteenth and early twentieth century critics complained about the awkward structure of the play, recent interpretation has argued that this relentless movement in the middle of the play creates dramatic tension and reinforces the global scope of what is occurring on stage.
Antony and Cleopatra stands as one of Shakespeare's most poetic plays. It is noted for its evocative word paintings and vivid hyperbole. It is also regarded by many as a problem play, presenting as it does the ambiguity and ambivalence of life without providing clear or comfortable answers. The two lovers presented in the play may be world leaders, but they are also, after all, only human beings—flawed and aging ones at that. We as human beings share their mortality; many of us recognize their strong feelings of jealousy, love, shame, and insecurity. Despite their historical grandeur and thanks to Shakespeare's sensitive portrayal of them, Antony and Cleopatra are no more—and no less—extraordinary than we are.
Summary of the Play
After the battle at Philippi, Antony went to Egypt and began a romance with Cleopatra. Messengers from Rome arrive at Cleopatra’s court, demanding Antony’s immediate return to Rome to aid in the fight against Sextus Pompeius and upbraiding him for his dereliction of the official duties of a triumvir. Antony argues that he is not needed in Rome, but he does return and marries Octavius’ sister Octavia. A meeting between Pompey (Sextus Pompeius) and the triumvirs results in a standoff, in which Pompey gets the islands of Sicily and Sardinia in return for ceasing the attack on Rome and the piracy in the Straits of Messina. Antony and Octavia move to Athens. Later, Octavia, aware a serious controversy is arising between her husband and her brother, returns to Rome to try to heal the breach.
Octavius, seeking to become the sole emperor, puts Lepidus in prison and dares Antony to fight him on the sea. Antony, against the advice of all his advisers, accepts the dare, counting on Cleopatra’s ships to assist him. Cleopatra’s ships turn tail and run. Antony chases the ship carrying Cleopatra and deserts his own troops at the front, giving Octavius a major victory.
Octavius offers munificent terms of surrender to Cleopatra, with promises that he has no intention of keeping once he has taken over Egypt. Dolabella, one of Caesar’s henchmen, warns Cleopatra that Octavius will parade her and her attendants through the streets of Rome as booty of war.
An angry Antony, wrongly informed that Cleopatra is dead, tries to commit suicide but succeeds only in severely wounding himself. His personal guardsmen carry him to the queen, and he dies in her presence. Cleopatra and her two closest attendants, Charmian and Iras, commit suicide by allowing asps to bite them. Octavius (Caesar) finds the three women dead. He orders a huge state funeral for the pair to be attended by all Octavius’ army before he sails for Rome.
Estimated Reading Time
This is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays, so reading time should be at least one hour for each of the five acts. Many students will require seven hours for the entire play. This is a play that rewards careful, unhurried reading. Ideally, it should be read in one or two sittings, with occasional referral to the text notes and this study guide, but three or even four sittings is entirely feasible.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After the murder of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire is ruled by the noble triumvirs Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius (Caesar’s nephew). Antony, given the Eastern sphere to rule, goes to Alexandria and there he sees and falls passionately in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. She is the flower of the Nile, but she is also the mistress of Julius Caesar and many others. Antony is so enamored of her that he ignores his own counsel and the warnings of his friends. As long as he can, he also ignores a request from Octavius Caesar that he return to Rome. Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, and a powerful leader, is gathering troops to seize Rome from the rule of the triumvirs, and Octavius Caesar wishes to confer with Antony and Lepidus. At last the danger of a victory by Sextus Pompeius, coupled with the news that his wife Fulvia is dead, forces Antony to leave Egypt and return to Rome.
Because Antony is a better general than either Lepidus or Octavius, Pompeius is confident of victory as long as Antony stays in Egypt. When Pompeius hears that Antony is returning to Rome, he is reduced to hoping that Octavius and Antony will not mend their quarrels but continue to fight each other as they did in the past. Lepidus does not matter, since he sides with neither of the other two and cares little for conquest and glory. Pompeius is disappointed, however, for Antony and Octavius join forces in the face of common danger. To seal their renewed friendship, Antony marries Octavia, Octavius’s sister. Pompeius’s scheme to keep Antony and Octavius apart fails, but he still hopes that Antony’s lust for Cleopatra will entice him back to Egypt. To stall for time, he seals a treaty with the triumvirs. Antony, accompanied by his new wife, goes to Athens to deal with matters relating to the Roman Empire. There word reaches him that Lepidus and Octavius had waged war in spite of the treaty they signed and that Pompeius was killed. Octavius next seizes Lepidus on the pretext that he aided Pompeius. Now the Roman world has but two rulers, Octavius and Antony.
Antony cannot resist the lure of Cleopatra. Sending Octavia home from Athens, he hurries back to Egypt. By so doing, he ends all pretense of friendship between him and Octavius. Both prepare for a battle that will decide who is to be the sole ruler of the world. Cleopatra joins her forces with Antony’s. Antony’s forces are supreme on land, but Octavius rules the sea and lures Antony to fight him there. Antony’s friends and captains, particularly loyal Enobarbus, beg him not to risk his forces on the sea, but Antony is confident of victory, and he prepares to match his ships with those of Octavius at Actium. In the...
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Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Philo: friend of Mark Antony
Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt
(Mark) Antony: triumvir of Rome
Messenger: one of several carrying messages between Rome and Egypt. Other messengers appear during the play; none are named
Demetrius: friend of Mark Antony
Charmian: attendant of Cleopatra and, apparently, the queen’s favorite attendant
Alexas: friend of Cleopatra and Mark Antony and sometimes the unofficial representative of Antony when he cannot be present at Cleopatra’s court
Soothsayer: accurately predicts the future and warns Antony to beware of Octavius
Iras: attendant of Cleopatra
(Domitius) Enobarbus: Roman soldier and friend of Mark Antony
Mardian: a eunuch attendant of Cleopatra
Other attendants, soldiers, etc., sometimes unnamed
In Scene 1 at Cleopatra’s court in Egypt, Demetrius and Philo are discussing the idle behavior of their beloved friend and general. Cleopatra and her attendants enter with Antony. A message arrives from Octavius and Lepidus demanding Antony return and help them in their fight against the son of Pompey the Great. Antony refuses to receive the messengers, but Cleopatra urges him to hear the message. He refuses. She knows that Fulvia (Antony’s wife) is a rival, with a greater claim on Antony than she has, even though she is the queen.
In Scene 2, which takes place the next day at Cleopatra’s court, the Soothsayer’s comments in lines 4 and 5 suggest that Antony will fall before the onslaught of Octavius. The messengers return and deliver their message from Octavius and Lepidus. They demand Antony’s return to Rome. Antony learns that Fulvia has died of wounds received in military action.
Octavius was not the son of Julius Caesar but rather was the son of his niece. Julius Caesar “adopted” him when he was 18 years old and named him his heir. Shakespeare calls him “Caesar” throughout Antony and Cleopatra. In this study guide, he is usually referred to as “Octavius,” because he really had not achieved the position of caesar, regardless of his adopted name, until both of the other two triumvirs were dead and he had consolidated the Roman Empire under his rule as emperor.
Shakespeare understood and vividly portrayed the willful and impetuous nature of Mark Antony. Antony had been wildly successful in defeating Brutus and Cassius at Philippi to secure control of the Roman Empire for the triumvirate. Unfortunately, his success at Philippi led to both arrogance and the belittling of aid given to him there by Octavius and by the third triumvir, Lepidus.
Shakespeare considered Lepidus too weak a man to seriously consider as a leader, either military or civil. His actions in the play add to the audience’s opinion of him as weak and lacking in personal discipline. The playwright knew that a man lacking in personal discipline was unlikely to be a...
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Act I, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis
Scene 3 takes place later that day in Cleopatra’s court. Cleopatra is talking of taunting Antony; Charmian warns her against antagonizing him. Antony enters, talks with Cleopatra and tries to find a way to tell her he must go to Rome, at least for a short time. Suspecting the worst, she accuses him of “treason,” although possibly with tongue in cheek. She feigns sickness, hoping to keep him in Egypt and asks him why she should think he’d be true to her when he was false to his wife. Antony has trouble getting even a word in edgewise, as Cleopatra continues her tantrum. Finally he is able to explain that he must return to Rome because his wife is dead. Sextus Pompeius’ forces, which hold Sicily, and...
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Act I, Scenes 4 and 5: Summary and Analysis
Octavius (Caesar): triumvir of Rome, later to become Augustus Caesar
Lepidus: triumvir of Rome
Scene 4 takes place at Octavius’ house in Rome, before Antony returns from Cleopatra’s court. Octavius (Caesar) and Lepidus discuss Sextus Pompeius’ challenge. Pompeius’ pirates control the Straits of Messina and nearby waters between Sicily and the Italian peninsula. Octavius condemns Antony for his wanton behavior and dereliction of his duties as a triumvir, but Lepidus attempts, weakly, to defend him.
In Scene 5, at Cleopatra’s court after Antony’s departure to Rome, Cleopatra and her attendants discuss the existing situation. Cleopatra is...
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Act II, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Pompey: Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, and now the leader of a rebellion against the triumvirate that is sufficiently serious to cause great concern among the triumvirs
Menecrates: friend of Pompey
Menas: friend of Pompey
Varrius: friend of Pompey
Mecenas: friend of Octavius. Occasionally confused with Menas
Agrippa: friend of Octavius (Caesar)
Ventidius: friend of Antony and commander of one of Antony’s armies
Octavia: sister to Octavius, wife of Antony
Scene 1 takes place at Pompey’s home in Messina, Sicily. The scene opens with Pompey’s men discussing the situation...
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Act II, Scenes 3, 4, and 5: Summary and Analysis
Scene 3 takes place in Rome, at the home of Octavius. The Soothsayer who made the oblique predictions in Egypt of Octavius’ rise and Antony’s fall makes that prediction explicit. He tells Antony that in every instance where he and Octavius are involved in any controversy, Octavius will always win, and he urges Antony to return to Egypt as soon as possible and keep away from Octavius. Antony sends his officer, Ventidius, to Parthia to enter into a campaign that will prove successful and convince the world of the futility of opposing the triumvirate.
Scene 4 takes place on a street of Rome just as the triumvirs are about to leave for the campaign against Pompey in Sicily. Lepidus tells Agrippa and...
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Act II, Scenes 6 and 7: Summary and Analysis
Boy: a singer
Scene 6 takes place near Messina, Sicily, where Pompey’s ships are anchored. The triumvirate talks with Pompey, hoping to negotiate peace and thus save both sides from losing thousands of men in the fighting. Antony agrees to negotiate with Pompey “on the sea,” where Pompey is especially strong, so as not to threaten him during the negotiations.
Both sides have taken some hostages to prevent treachery by either side. The triumvirate has offered Pompey the islands of Sicily and Sardinia if Pompey agrees to call off his pirates and give up his designs on Rome itself. Pompey reminds Antony that Antony is living in Pompey’s father’s house,...
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Act III, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis
Silius: friend of Antony and soldier in Antony’s army commanded by Ventidius
Scene 1 takes place in Syria, probably on a plain near the battlefield. Ventidius, commanding Mark Antony’s army, has won a significant battle against Orodes, king of Parthia. His troops bear the body of Pacorus, Orodes’ son, as a symbol of victory. (The battle constituted revenge against the Parthians for the treacherous murder of Marcus Crassus, a member of the first triumvirate of Rome.) Ventidius is urged to pursue his triumph to conquer adjacent regions, but he refuses, citing the danger of promoting himself and possibly eclipsing his general, Antony. Doing that has proved dangerous...
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Act III, Scenes 2, 3, and 4: Summary and Analysis
In Scene 2 at Octavius’ house in Rome, Agrippa and Enobarbus are discussing Lepidus. They comment about how greatly Lepidus loves Octavius (Caesar), how greatly he loves Antony, and then on which he loves more. Octavia and her husband Antony are taking leave of Octavius, enroute to Athens. Octavius weeps at the parting; Octavia is his sister, and he is concerned for her welfare. Octavius’ lines tell Antony that he does not trust him. Antony asks Octavius not “to offend him with distrust,” but Octavius does not back down. Octavia cannot reconcile her emotions with her speech, as Antony himself points out. Antony and Octavia depart for Athens.
Scene 3 takes place at Cleopatra’s palace in...
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Act III, Scenes 5, 6, and 7: Summary and Analysis
Eros: friend and servant of Mark Antony
Towrus: second in command of Octavius’ army
Camidius (Canidius): second in command of Antony’s army
In Scene 5 at Antony’s house in Athens, somewhat later in the day than the previous scene, Enobarbus and Eros discuss the existing political situation, primarily as it concerns Octavius and Antony. Octavius has seized and imprisoned Lepidus—that after the two triumvirs had fought a successful campaign against Pompey.
Scene 6 takes place in Rome, just after Octavia has arrived from Athens. Octavius (Caesar) receives Octavia and tells her that Antony has greatly wronged her and has enlisted...
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Act III, Scenes 8-11: Summary and Analysis
Scarrus: Roman soldier and friend of Mark Antony
Scene 8 takes place in Greece near Actium. Octavius warns his commander, Towrus, not to strike Antony by land until after the battle at sea. The future of the conflict depends on this battle plan. Nearby, in Scene 9, Antony gives some military orders to Enobarbus concerning the placement of troops so that the sea battle can be observed.
In Scene 10 , which takes place at Actium, several hours later, Enobarbus and Scarrus discuss the total rout of the ships. All of Cleopatra’s navy has turned tail and run southward toward Peloponnesus and the battle appears lost. Even loyal Scarrus says that Antony’s actions...
(The entire section is 548 words.)
Act III, Scenes 12 and 13: Summary and Analysis
Dolabella: friend of Octavius (Caesar)
Thidias: friend of Octavius
Scene 12 takes place at Octavius’ camp. Antony has sent his children’s schoolmaster to Octavius—perhaps a final insult to the victor, whom Antony always has called a mere boy. The emissary asks that Antony be allowed to live in Egypt, or, if not Egypt, as a private man in Greece. Cleopatra agrees to submit to Octavius’ rule. Octavius refuses to grant Antony’s request but gives the emissary a favorable answer to Cleopatra, providing only that she drive Antony from Egypt or kill him. Then he sends his own emissary, Thidias, to Antony and Cleopatra. Thidias is authorized to offer...
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Act IV, Scenes 1, 2, and 3: Summary and Analysis
Scene 1 takes place at the camp of Octavius and his forces, near Alexandria. Octavius (Caesar) receives the letter from Antony, resents that Antony has called him “Boy,” and refuses to fight a duel with him. Mecenas wisely suggests that Octavius take full advantage of Antony’s angry and irrational behavior and be careful not to become angry himself. Octavius mentions that enough men have defected from Antony’s forces to assure Octavius’ victory.
In Scene 2 at Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Antony learns from Enobarbus that Octavius will not fight a duel with him. He discusses the coming land battle and invites his friends to a lavish dinner. He bids his leaders farewell and alludes to...
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Act IV, Scenes 4, 5, and 6: Summary and Analysis
In Scene 4 at Cleopatra’s palace in Egypt the next morning, Eros and Cleopatra are helping Antony don his armor as they discuss the prospects of the day. Cleopatra retires to her chamber, and Antony and his men go forth into battle.
Scene 5 takes place on the battlefield just before the battle begins. Antony learns that his close friend Enobarbus has deserted to Octavius. With a show of magnanimity, he sends Enobarbus’ trunk and “treasure” to him in Octavius’ camp.
At Octavius’ camp in Scene 6, Octavius orders his men to take Antony alive. Octavius also has ordered his commanders to put the men who have deserted to him from Antony’s forces into the front lines, so that they...
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Act IV, Scenes 7, 8, and 9: Summary and Analysis
Scene 7 takes place on the battlefield. Several hours have passed since the last scene, and Octavius’ forces are in retreat before the victorious forces of Antony. Scarrus, although wounded, is game for more of the battle. His courage and enthusiasm greatly encourage Antony, who responds as the great military commander he once was and appears to be again now.
Scene 8 occurs a bit later, when the forces loyal to Antony realize that they have won the battle (although not yet the war). Antony sends messengers to Cleopatra to tell her of the victory and ask her to prepare to receive the heroes, particularly Scarrus, as her guests. Cleopatra appears and embraces Antony in a manner befitting a great and...
(The entire section is 391 words.)
Act IV, Scenes 10, 11, and 12: Summary and Analysis
Scene 10 takes place near Antony’s headquarters, the following morning. Antony is surveying the situation to determine how to handle the second day of the battle. He notes that Octavius is preparing for a sea battle. Antony is fighting his battle on earth and water and wishes he also could fight Octavius in air and in fire. Scene 11 has only four lines as Octavius (Caesar) views the situation from a point near his camp. Octavius tells his troops his best advantage, after yesterday’s defeat, is to attack by sea.
In Scene 12 at a vantage point overlooking the sea where the battle is to be joined, Antony and Scarrus see Cleopatra’s ships desert and go to Octavius’ side. Antony knows that their...
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Act IV, Scenes 13 and 14: Summary and Analysis
Diomedes: attendent of Cleopatra
Decretas (Dercetus): friend of Mark Antony
Scene 13 takes place in Cleopatra’s palace. Cleopatra tells Charmian that Antony has gone insane. Indeed, this is a reasonable conclusion, considering the emotional manner in which Antony has been speaking. Then, at Charmian’s suggestion, she tells Mardian to tell Antony that she is dead and to report back to her, at her monument (which was built as her tomb), how Antony takes this news.
Scene 14 takes place on a promontory near Cleopatra’s palace, overlooking the battlefields and probably also the harbor where the sea battle took place. Antony discusses with Eros...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
Act IV, Scene 15: Summary and Analysis
This scene takes place in Alexandria, at Cleopatra’s monument, which contains the tomb she has built for herself. Antony has been brought to the monument. He begs Cleopatra to come down and kiss him before he dies, but she refuses, saying it’s too dangerous. But she and her attendants manage to hoist Antony up to where Cleopatra is. Antony and Cleopatra exchange a few lines before he dies. In his typical spirit of magnanimity, Antony tells Cleopatra to seek both her honor and her safety with Octavius. She protests that, here, honor and safety are incompatible. Cleopatra vows to give Antony a real Roman funeral.
In Scene 15, Cleopatra protests, after Antony has told her to...
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Act V, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Proculeius: friend of Mark Antony
Seleucus: attendant to Cleopatra (and her treasurer)
Clown: brings the deadly asps to Cleopatra
Scene 1 takes place in Octavius’ camp outside Alexandria. Octavius (Caesar) learns from Decretas that Antony is dead, the message verified by Decretas’ presentation to Octavius of Antony’s sword, stained with the triumvir’s own blood. Octavius weeps for him, uttering another of the famous Shakespearan passages: “The Breaking of so great a thing should make/a greater Crack.” He says that the world should shake to its very foundations and everything in it be upset by the death of so great a man as Antony....
(The entire section is 1301 words.)