Study Guide

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra Essay - Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 70)

Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 70)


Antony and Cleopatra

For further information on the critical and stage history of Antony and Cleopatra, see SC, Volumes 6, 17, 27, 47, and 58.

Regarded as one of Shakespeare's most compelling love stories, Antony and Cleopatra is often seen as an anomaly among critics because, despite its apparently tragic ending, the play ends on a triumphant note. Although Antony and Cleopatra both die at the play's end, they deny Octavius Caesar victory and achieve immortality as lovers. The tragedy of the play is also undercut by the comic elements that appear throughout the course of the drama. The play's genre, which encompasses the comic, heroic, tragic, and romantic, comprises one area of intense critical analysis. Critics are also concerned with the language used in Antony and Cleopatra, and examine the rhetorical styles of the characters as well as Shakespeare's use of metaphor and imagery. Investigations of the characters in the play are concerned to some degree with the Elizabethan understanding of the characters as fictional entities and as historical personages. In modern stage productions of Antony and Cleopatra, the dynamic relationship between the two lovers is typically of most interest to spectators as well as reviewers.

Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar are the most heavily scrutinized characters in Antony and Cleopatra. Some critics focus their character analyses on the way in which these characters might have been received by Elizabethan audiences. Robert P. Kalmey (1978) argues that the Elizabethan conception of Octavius Caesar was two-pronged. According to Kalmey, Elizabethans praised Caesar as an ideal prince only after he was crowned emperor. Prior to this event, Kalmey maintains, Caesar was condemned by Elizabethans who saw him as a tyrant who fueled the fires of civil war to further his own ambitions. Like Kalmey, Theodora A. Jankowski (1989) is interested in the Elizabethan take on Shakespeare's characters, specifically Cleopatra and her resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. Jankowski notes that although both women used their bodies for political purposes, Cleopatra should not be taken as an allegorical representation of Elizabeth. Jankowski states that the similarities between the women suggest Shakespeare's awareness of the fact that a successful female sovereign was an anomaly in a patriarchal society, and of the particular problems Elizabeth faced in ruling England. Taking a similar approach to the issue of Cleopatra's characterization, Imtiaz Habib (2000) also finds a connection between Cleopatra and Elizabeth. Habib, however, suggests that Cleopatra's blackness and seductive nature, in conjunction with the indolence of Egypt as a nation, is contrasted with the nobility of England, and the white and virginal Queen Elizabeth. Habib also comments on the black woman of Shakespeare's Sonnets and her relationship to Cleopatra. Additionally, Habib maintains that the critical connection between Cleopatra's political impotency and her sexual power is her race, which Habib demonstrates was understood to be black and ethnic in the eyes of historians and of Shakespeare. Coppélia Kahn (see Further Reading) centers her study on the rivalry between Octavius Caesar and Antony. Kahn contends that Caesar campaigns against Antony not only to demonize Cleopatra and paint her as Rome's archenemy, but to completely discredit Antony as a rival. Kahn goes on to examine the relationship between Caesar and Antony from Antony's point of view, commenting on what Antony hoped to accomplish through his suicide, and also discussing how his death would have been interpreted according to Renaissance ideas regarding suicide.

The sense of triumph at the play's end is an important element of modern stage productions of Antony and Cleopatra. In her review of the 1999 production of the play staged at the Southmark Globe Theatre in London and directed by Giles Block, Lois Potter (1999) comments that the director's vision of the play emphasized the victory of “a gloriously human couple.” Potter additionally singles out members of this all-male cast for praise; she finds that Mark Rylance's Cleopatra offered new insights into the character and the play as a whole, and that John McEnery's performance as Enobarbus was exceptional as well. Patrick Carnegy (1999) and Russell Jackson (2000) review another recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon and directed by Steven Pimlott. Although Carnegy criticizes Alan Bates, as Antony, for stumbling over many of his lines, he gives high praise to Frances de la Tour's performance as Cleopatra, and to the production as a whole. Likewise, Jackson is equally taken with de la Tour's Cleopatra and finds Bates's Antony to be likeable and energetic, but decidedly unheroic.

Many aspects of the language, style, and generic structure of Antony and Cleopatra fascinate modern critics. Robert D. Hume (1973) offers a detailed examination of the ways in which language, rhythm, and rhetorical habit are used for the purposes of character differentiation and development. For example, Hume observes that Antony's language reflects his vacillation between the worlds of Rome and Egypt, and that Cleopatra's imaginative language and varied rhythms are contrasted with Caesar's straightforward and regular verse. In another comparison between the language of Caesar and Cleopatra, Hume comments that the melodiousness arising from Cleopatra's use of assonance is set against the cacophony generated by Caesar's alliteration. Like Hume, Rosalie L. Colie (1974) explores the styles of speech used in Antony and Cleopatra. Colie focuses on the contrast between the Attic and Asiatic styles of speech and how these styles were understood in the Renaissance as encompassing not just rhetorical patterns, but moral and cultural differences as well. Colie explains that Atticism, the style preferred by Caesar, is characterized by plain, direct speech, while Asianism, which is more sensuous, self-indulgent, and imaginative, is the style used by both Cleopatra and Antony. Furthermore, Colie examines the language Antony and Cleopatra use with each other, commenting that their love transcends conventional hyperbole; in their creation of new forms of overstatement, the lovers employ a language reflective of the instability of their love. Donald C. Freeman (1999) uses the theory of cognitive metaphor to evaluate the figurative language found in Antony and Cleopatra. Freeman identifies the major image schemes used in the play and demonstrates the way these inform our understanding of the play's treatment of Antony, Cleopatra, and Rome. In terms of genre, Antony and Cleopatra encompasses elements of the comic, heroic, tragic, and romantic. J. L. Simmons (1969) demonstrates the ways in which the structure of the play follows the pattern of other Shakespearean comedies. Simmons finds that the contrast between Rome and Egypt is mirrored by the contrasts between court and tavern in the Henry IV plays, between Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice, and between court and forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Taking another approach to the debate over the play's genre, R. J. Dorius (see Further Reading) discusses the interaction between the tragic, heroic, and romantic elements of the play, arguing that Shakespeare's treatment of love and of Cleopatra is at the center of the controversy regarding the relationship between tragedy and romance in Antony and Cleopatra.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Turner, John. Introduction to The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Turner, pp. 13-29. New York: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

[In the following essay, Turner examines Shakespeare's treatment of Rome in Antony and Cleopatra, suggesting that his view of the empire was fueled by an imaginative return to the “honour culture” of late medieval aristocrats. Turner also comments on the major relationships within the play, and on the love poetry of Antony and Cleopatra.]

The stage upon which The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra is enacted is a site upon which competitors meet. …

I am using the word ‘competitor’ in that precise but ambiguous sense which it enjoys throughout the play, and which, according to the OED, it enjoyed for the century between 1579 and 1681: a sense fluctuating between ‘rival’ and ‘associate’, and implying both the competition and collaboration that today—though we still speak of ‘fellow-competitors’ in a race—are usually thought to be mutually incompatible.

It is no accident that the period of the word's ambiguity coincides so closely with the period of the greatest efflorescence of court society in Britain, as succeeding monarchs sought to ‘gentle’ their aristocracy and disarm their code of honour by drawing them to court, where their behaviour might be overseen and their energies directed towards an honours system managed by the crown.1 Here was a society alive and anxious with ‘the ebb and flow of friendships and rivalries, alliances and ruptures, loyalties and betrayals’ as courtiers vied incessantly for prestige, now competing with and now competing against one another.2 The slipperiness of the word, that is, precisely mirrored the slipperiness of court society: what Wyatt at the start of our period called ‘the slipper top / Of court's estate’, and what Marvell at its end called ‘giddy favour's slippery hill’.3

Yet although the structural ambiguity of the term ‘competition’ belongs to the contemporary world of court society, aristocratic life had previously been characterised by an even greater sense of political instability. The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, in its attempt to imagine the Rome of the triumvirate, returns to the honour culture of the late mediaeval aristocracy, before it had yielded to the power and ideology of a centralised monarchy with a providentialist view of history. It returns to an honour culture haunted by the belief ‘that Fate, irrational, incomprehensible and uncontrollable, rules over human history’.4 To the man of honour, all the critical moments of his life had seemed ‘hag-ridden by Fate’; and it is no accident that the chief focus of Shakespeare's play, in describing the competitiveness of the life of honour, should fall upon the instability of its alliances, the unpredictability of its military encounters and, more generally, upon the mutability of all earthly fortunes. It is not that Shakespeare ‘was using the Roman Empire as a symbol for the sublunar world’ unsustained by divine order and love.5 His point, I think, was political rather than theological: he was depicting the endemic instability of a dying culture and the determined efforts of Caesar to bring about a new order, centralised and stabilised under his own imperial power.

There is something of the play's sense of mutability in North's Plutarch, where we find that Anthony had ‘oftentimes proved both the one and the other fortune’ and that he was ‘throughly acquainted with the divers chaunges and fortunes of battells’.6 But as the poems of Wyatt and Marvell intensify Seneca's sense of the slipperiness of court society, so too does Shakespeare's play intensify Plutarch's picture of the fickleness of Fortune. Its swirling sequences of short scenes, with their peripateias, their multiple perspectives, their giddy rangings across the globe and their collapsing of a decade's history into a three-hour entertainment, all enhance this effect—especially in the Folio text before us, where the absence of division into acts and scenes casts us adrift from our familiar bearings.7 Throughout the play we witness the human attempts to make meaning, and to win an honourable place in history, under the threat of constant erasure from the fluxes and refluxes of fortune. The power that makes is the power that mars: in Anthony's own words, ‘That which is now a Horse, even with a thoght / the Racke dislimes, and makes it indistinct / As water is in water’. It is this power of fortune that Caesar sets out to master.

When the claims of Rome and Egypt compete for Anthony's attention and loyalty at the start of the play, he replies as follows, in a passage justly famous for its poetic beauty:

Let Rome in Tyber melt, and the wide Arch
Of the raing'd Empire fall: Heere is my space,
Kingdomes are clay:

‘Heere is my space’: it is indeed a question of space. If these words are taken naturalistically, they refer to the space allotted by the drama to Egypt, and in particular to Cleopatra's court; and in their passionate rejection of Rome, they suggest that the most important competition in the play will prove to be that between Anthony and Caesar. If we consider the words metadramatically, however, as Raymond Williams has pointed out,8 we shall see that the space towards which Anthony gestures is also the theatrical space around him: the actor, in competition with the rest of the cast, is indicating the arena which he hopes to fill with his own particular speaking voice and, beyond that, the city with whose attractions the play is competing in its search for an audience. I want to explore each of these two points in turn, before returning to my opening claim that the First Folio text too is a space which we must understand as a site of competition. In each case, we shall find that what is at stake is the peculiar nature of the poetry that Shakespeare wrote for this play, and his growing awareness as a dramatist of the equivocal status of human beings as poets, story-tellers, spinners of narrative, in a world where—the conflictual and multivocal nature of the dramatic form itself drives home the point9—the competition for power, and thus for hegemonic control over the narratives of others, was felt to alienate and denature the individual self.

Anthony's claim that his space is here—in Egypt, in Cleopatra's court, even perhaps in Cleopatra's arms—is a characteristically indirect admission of his harassed sense of Caesar's inescapable presence, even in his absence. It is not paradoxical, I think, but true to say that the competition between Anthony and Caesar is the most important human relationship in the play; and the evidence of this is to be found in the scene with the Soothsayer.

His Cocks do winne the Battaile, still of mine,
When it is all to naught: and his Quailes ever
Beate mine (inhoopt) at odd's. I will to Egypte:
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I'th'East my pleasure lies.

It is Caesar's cocks and quails that drive Anthony back to Egypt; his love for Cleopatra, his pleasure in the East, seem here no more than rationalisations of his primary superstitious dread of Caesar. It is a question, it seems, of ‘Naturall lucke’; and however much we seek to translate these words into a discourse more familiar to us today—discussing the sexual competition between the rising young man and the declining man in his mid-life crisis, for example, or contrasting the focused self-possession of the new man with the reckless magnanimity of the old—Anthony himself is bound by the language of the fortune-teller. ‘Whose Fortunes shall rise higher / Cæsars or mine?’: the man of honour, dependent upon his own resolve to win prestige, is haunted by the sense of his own impotence, fearful that the world lies fatefully beyond his control and that his will is doomed to be overthrown by the fellow-contrary power of Fortune.

The centrality of Caesar to the play means that the love between Anthony and Cleopatra—powerful and real though it is—must be understood in relation to the Rome that has produced it. ‘Let Rome in Tyber melt’: their love is a dissolution, a melting, an overflowing of all the measures of time and place upon which Rome depends, and its very existence depends upon having those measures to transgress. There is, in other words, no self-authenticating language of pleasure in the play. From the licentiousness of Charmian's talk at the start to the malapropisms of the Clown at the end, the discourses of pleasure subvert the moral and linguistic grammar whose purpose is to order them; but they cannot create a coherent world of their own. The opening tableau of the play makes the point perfectly for us. With eternity upon their lips but with Roman soldiers and messengers by their sides, the two lovers dream of a ‘new Heaven, new Earth’; and yet these new worlds of which they dream are no more than the resorts of fantasy to dissolve the intolerable tensions of the old. Love can only realise itself in opposition to duty, Egypt in opposition to Rome. But it is not enough to talk of antithesis here: whether we speak of Rome and Egypt, of duty and love, of Caesar and Cleopatra or of Apollo and Dionysus,10 we must remember Jonathan Dollimore's insistence, quoting Derrida, that ‘binary oppositions are “a violent hierarchy” where one of the two terms forcefully governs the other’.11 The hierarchy here serves Rome and is held in place by a culture of demonisation that sees Cleopatra as a ‘great Faiery’ or a ‘Witch’, dependent upon whether she is in or out of favour with Anthony; it is a world in which love is linguistically structured as a spell, a charm, a magical fascination.

Hence, of course, the danger in describing the play as a ‘love-tragedy’; for the label, through its very familiarity, may blind us to precisely those connections that we are being invited to make—the connections between love and history, both personal and political. Anthony and Cleopatra themselves, at certain moments of their lives—though, importantly, not at others—speak of their love as absolute, magical, transcendental; they identify one another with mythical figures, especially with Venus and Mars; and they strive to make their love the stuff of legend, so that they might become what Caesar finally calls them: ‘a payre so famous’ that no grave can hold their like. Moved we may be; but we should not be taken in. For there is no such thing as love; there are endless varieties of experience that are called love, and we need to understand them in their variety. The interesting questions are always the particular ones: what is understood by ‘love’ in each case? why do people fall in love with certain people and not with others? why, in so doing, do they sometimes speak of Love rather than of love? The purpose of these questions is to return the seemingly overwhelming experience of love back to the totality of its material history in order to understand it fully; and here the play can help us.

For it helps to deconstruct those aristocratic—and, later, bourgeois—reifications which have seen Love as a kind of Fate, a transcendental power which was impossible to resist. The Venus and the Cupid of the aristocratic culture of the late sixteenth century—like the Eros of the bourgeois culture of the late nineteenth century—ensnared their victims in a passionate game whose fascination obscured the political realities of the society in which it was played out. The young aristocrat who went to court to enjoy the pleasures of love unwittingly submitted to the royal power of surveillance as he did so; excelling in the field of love, he lay down his arms in the field of war, and thus confirmed the power of his sovereign. Here in The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, it is this same connection between love and politics that is laid bare. It is the distraction of love that we see, in both senses of the word: a passionate excitement that, in engulfing the reason, seduces the military man from the noble pursuit of honour amongst his fellow-competitors.

It is perhaps a question of punctuation in the narratives we tell, of whether ‘love’ should be the last word in the sentences we spin; and here too the Folio can help us. For how should we punctuate the title of the play? It is an important question, to which the Folio has two answers. In the heading of the play—the version that I have preferred here, for its capacity to surprise—there is a comma after Anthonie; but on the running title at the head of each page, the comma is gone. There is no single answer; the play has two titles, each with different implications—and each might be said to epitomise something really present within the text. If we omit the comma, we are encouraged to think of Anthony and Cleopatra as constituting in some sense a single unit of thought—as though their tragedy is the consequence of their love, enabling the two of them together to constitute a reality greater than they do apart. But if the comma is inserted, it divides their destinies, opens up their different experiences of love for separate scrutiny in their different political contexts, and draws our attention to those distinctions which their poetry labours to dissolve.

For the love-poetry of Anthony and Cleopatra is a poetry of dissolution. There are, of course, many other kinds of poetry in the play; but it is the love-poetry that has attracted most attention—and understandably so, because of its great beauty. Yet beauty, like love, is always of a particular kind, and must be not only admired but characterised. ‘Kingdomes are clay’: the plangency of such verse derives from its curious blend of transgressive defiance and regressive yearning, and exists from the start in a curiously paradoxical relationship with time and place. For its aristocratic recklessness, its fine prodigality of word and emotion, is also a wilful neglect of the real world where aristocratic honour must be won. This is Aristotelian liberality run to excess. Kingdoms are not clay; but the energy of the poetry springs from the insatiable need to say that they are. The lovers are driven to dematerialise the material; to transform the untransformable; to build out of words a home that can never be built out of bricks. The beauty of their verse, in other words, for all its defiant aspiration, is also a function of its commitment to illusion; it is plangent because it overlooks (in both senses of the word) the facts of daily life which usually provide imagination with its materials to work upon. But the imagination here is driven into counter-creation; it must evolve a counter-narrative to efface the history that Caesar is engaged in writing.

The crowning achievement of such counter-narrative, of course, occurs at the end of the play, when Cleopatra in defeat draws herself up in the full pomp of her regalia and rhetoric.

Give me my Robe, put on my Crowne, I have
Immortall longings in me. Now no more
The juyce of Egypts Grape shall moyst this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras; quicke: Me thinkes I heare
Anthony call: I see him rowse himselfe
To praise my Noble Act. I heare him mock
The lucke of Cæsar, which the Gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come …

The verse is...

(The entire section is 6403 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Robert P. Kalmey (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Kalmey, Robert P. “Shakespeare's Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 18, no. 2 (spring 1978): 275-87.

[In the following essay, Kalmey examines the Elizabethan conception of Octavius Caesar, and finds that Elizabethans praised Caesar as an ideal prince only after he was crowned emperor. Prior to this event, Kalmey maintains, Caesar was condemned by Elizabethans who saw him as a tyrant who fueled the fires of civil war to further his own ambitions.]

Few readers of Antony and Cleopatra have overlooked the contempt with which Cleopatra condemns as mere hollow words the paltry machinations of Octavius Caesar to...

(The entire section is 5220 words.)

Theodora A. Jankowski (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Jankowski, Theodora A. “‘As I Am Egypt's Queen’: Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and the Female Body Politic.” In Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts, Vol. V, edited by Peggy A. Knapp, pp. 91-110. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Jankowski identifies the similarities and differences between Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and notes that although both women used their bodies for political purposes, Cleopatra should not be viewed as a direct allegorization of Elizabeth. Jankowski also claims that the parity between the two women reveals Shakespeare's interest in the difficulties Elizabeth faced as a woman...

(The entire section is 8586 words.)

Imtiaz Habib (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Habib, Imtiaz. “Cleopatra and the Sexualization of Race.” In Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period, pp. 157-205. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.

[In the following essay, Habib suggests that in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare contrasted noble England and the white, virginal Queen Elizabeth with the torpor of Egypt and its black and wanton ruler, Cleopatra.]

Think on me
That am with Phoebus's amorous pinches black
And wrinkled deep in time?

Antony and Cleopatra 1.5.27-29


If Titus Andronicus was a failure to construct empire,...

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