Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 58)


Antony and Cleopatra

Most likely written between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra relates the struggles of love, passion, and power endured by the two titular characters and is considered by many to be among Shakespeare's finest achievements. Interpretation of the tragedy is often cast in terms of the polar oppositions dramatized in the play, perhaps most notably the conflict between Rome and Egypt, and war and love. What critics and audiences often find so engaging about Antony and Cleopatra is that these polarities remain in opposition throughout, without any one winning primacy by the play's end. Modern critics explore the way these polarities inform political, linguistic, and structural analyses of the play. Another critical approach focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's relation to traditional Renaissance emblems and iconography. The characterization of Antony and Cleopatra continues to be a source of scholarly discussion and debate as well.

While the play's unresolved oppositions contribute to its interest and appeal, such ambiguity makes Antony and Cleopatra difficult to interpret. Maynard Mack (1993) surveys these polarities, identifying some of the conflicts as: Rome versus Egypt; war versus love; nature versus art; austerity versus indulgence; loyalty versus self-interest; and sincerity versus affectation. Paul Yachnin (1991) focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's Rome/Egypt opposition, comparing the play's shift from Egyptian past to Roman future to the transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule that was taking place at the time the play was composed. Taking another approach, Michael Payne (1973) studies the way in which the play's theme of opposition informs the structure of the play. This theme is introduced in Act I by way of the comparison between the Roman desire to set boundaries and the Egyptian cultivation of freedom and ecstasy. Payne goes on to explore the way this opposition is examined in sexual terms and further developed through the remaining acts of the play. In summary, Payne states that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic. Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (1993) finds a dramaturgical analogue to the play's theme of polarity in the relationship between diegesis (narration lacking explanation or judgment) and mimesis (direct imitation or representation). The critic concludes that Egyptian mimesis is victorious over Roman diegesis by the play's end.

Other critics are interested in the influence that Renaissance emblem tradition and iconography had on the play. Christopher Wortham (1995) studies this emblem tradition and its relation to Shakespeare's use of classical mythology, as well as biblical imagery, in order to suggest how Shakespeare's audiences may have responded to Antony and Cleopatra. For example, Antony is repeatedly associated with Mars, the god of war. Mars, Wortham explains, received a negative portrayal from emblem writers, whose values included peaceability, a trait in line with the thinking of the monarch, King James. Similarly, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1994) employs the iconographic approach in analyzing Shakespeare's language and stage imagery in order to offer a Renaissance reading of the play.

The characters of Antony and especially Cleopatra are the focus of many critical analyses of the play. J. Leeds Barroll (1984) argues that Shakespeare's portrayal of Antony is based on Shakespeare's examination of desire, a feature of the play that cannot be reduced to dualistic terms. Cynthia Lewis (1997) maintains that the Christian traditions surrounding Saint Antony of Egypt fueled Shakespeare's presentation of Antony. Understanding this analogue, stresses Lewis, helps to clarify the play's central issues and illuminates the perceptions of other characters in the play. Lewis concludes that like his namesake, Antony appears to trade earthly “glory” for the purity of love, and for his “pardon.” A Christian parallel has also been found to correspond with Cleopatra. Laura Severt King (1992) identifies the prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages as similar to Cleopatra's character, in that like the prostitute-saint, Cleopatra personifies the linking of sexual incontinence and supernatural power. Richard A. Levin (1997) is primarily concerned with discovering when Cleopatra resolves to commit suicide. Levin examines three unresolved problems of the text that highlight the struggle between Caesar and Cleopatra, which help to inform his understanding of Cleopatra's decision to kill herself. Mary Floyd-Wilson (1999) offers a different approach to analyzing Cleopatra. Floyd-Wilson begins by examining the direct correspondence between geography and gender (in which Egypt is associated with femininity and Rome with masculinity). The critic then introduces another layer to this type of examination by studying the way Renaissance climate theory—the notion that climate determines one's complexion, coloration, and temperament—informs the understanding of Cleopatra's character. Emphasizing that the play is largely concerned with regional differences as well as the shifting nature of gender roles, Floyd-Wilson illustrates that Cleopatra's “racial” status, determined by her climate, challenges the traditional, northern ideas about gender: as a woman, she should possess a “soft and impressionable” complexion, yet as an Egyptian, Cleopatra is mysterious and resists interpretation.

Criticism: Character Studies

J. Leeds Barroll (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Mark Antony and the Tournament of Life,” in Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in Antony and Cleopatra, Folger Books, 1984, pp. 83-129.

[In the following essay, Barroll examines the way in which desire and its “strangeness” inform the characterization of Antony.]


Mark Antony is one of Shakespeare's most complexly imagined tragic heroes. For this we thank, of course, Shakespeare's human empathy and genius. But the compelling quality of Antony's humanity owes as much to strategy as to genius. And if, in the end, these are perhaps the same thing, then the strategy by which genius brings Antony to life, makes him...

(The entire section is 17736 words.)

Laura Severt King (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Blessed When They Were Riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes,” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 429-49.

[In the following essay, King suggests that Shakespeare portrays competing images of the “penitent prostitute” in the characterization of Cleopatra, who resembles prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages. Like these women, Cleopatra is associated with both sexual incontinence and supernatural power.]

All eroticism has a sacramental character.

—Georges Bataille, Erotism1

Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved...

(The entire section is 7687 words.)

Richard A. Levin (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “That I Might Hear Thee Call Great Caesar ‘Ass Unpolicied,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 244-64.

[In the following essay, Levin studies three conundrums appearing in the negotiations of Cleopatra and Caesar, and examines how these episodes illuminate the battle of wits between the two characters. This examination helps to inform Levin’s understanding of Cleopatra's decision to commit suicide.]

Near the end of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen apostrophizes the deadly asp which she takes to her bosom: “O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass /...

(The entire section is 7229 words.)

Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “‘The World's Great Snare’: Antony, Cleopatra, and Game,” in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1997, pp. 116-53.

[In the following essay, Lewis identifies a Christian analogue to Antony's character and argues that understanding this parallel puts into perspective the various attitudes professed in the play regarding Antony's self-sacrificial love.]

From the moment that Antony believes Cleopatra to have given him cause to kill himself—her suspected treachery in 4.12—Antony is repeatedly subjected to the ridicule normally reserved for the most foolish of Shakespeare's fools....

(The entire section is 15881 words.)

Mary Floyd-Wilson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Transmigrations: Crossing Regional and Gender Boundaries in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, edited by Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 73-96.

[In the following essay, Floyd-Wilson observes the correspondence between geography and gender that is often examined in the play (for example, the association of Egypt with femininity and Rome with masculinity), and explores the way in which Renaissance climate theory adds another dimension to these relationships. Specifically, the critic demonstrates how Cleopatra's association with gypsies suggests that she possesses an “indecipherable”...

(The entire section is 9978 words.)