Cleopatra is one of the most fascinating women in world history and literature, largely thanks to Shakespeare’s multifaceted characterization of her. Volatile and passionate, impetuous and manipulative, trivial and dignified, she commands not only Mark Antony and Egypt but the audience as well.
The play revolves around their love, yet its focus is political, for its principals are rulers of the world and scenes take place all over the Roman Empire in the 4th century B.C. Cleopatra is the Queen of Egypt; Antony, Octavius Caesar (later Augustus), and Lepidus form the triumvirate ruling the Roman Empire. Caesar and Antony, however, are frequently at odds, especially because Antony spends more time amid the pleasures of Egypt than on the field of battle.
Caesar is a cool, calculating politician, while Antony is more the fiery soldier. Caesar tries to win Antony back from Cleopatra’s spells by having him marry Octavia, his sister, but Cleopatra’s appeal is too strong.
Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s hold over Antony leads to his defeat. Yet their suicides signify a triumph over Caesar, for at least they shall not be his captives. In their deaths, they regain the valiant nobility absent from many of their prior acts.
The play’s perennial conflicts--between reason and passion, politics and personal feelings--can never be resolved. Yet, however far from admirable these characters may sometimes appear, they have a grandeur of personality and magnificence of language that makes the reader or viewer perceive them almost as gods.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Bloom’s concise anthology of major Shakespeare criticism of the 1970’s and 1980’s judiciously samples postmodernist, new historicist, feminist, and deconstructionist discussions of Antony and Cleopatra. See especially the essays by Jonathan Dollimore, Linda Bamber, and Laura Quinney.
Charney, Maurice. Shakespeare’s Roman Plays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. Chapter 3, the centerpiece of Charney’s influential book, brilliantly analyzes the imagery of Antony and Cleopatra; Charney gives particular attention to the imagery that clusters around the Egypt-Rome polarity, thereby constituting it as a complex central theme.
Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol. 1. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946. Granville-Barker’s prefaces remain timeless monuments to a golden age of Shakespearean scholarship and theatrical performance. The preface to Antony and Cleopatra offers valuable insights into staging and characterization from the perspective of an influential stage director and critic.
Riemer, A. P. A Reading of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1968. A monograph-length, lucid introduction to the background of the play and its plot, characterization, and dramatic structure. Also contains a very useful chapter that discusses important criticism of the play during the early and mid-twentieth century.
Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. In chapter 3 of this classic study, Traversi offers a methodical, analytical commentary on Antony and Cleopatra. Sees the play as a profound work of art that in its spaciousness, episodic form, and morally ambivalent valuations of Rome and Egypt escapes traditional definitions of tragedy.