In his tragedies, William Shakespeare rose to dramatic heights seldom equaled. Antony and Cleopatra surely belongs to the greatest of his tragedies for its staggering scope, which covers the entire Roman Empire and the men who ruled it. Only a genius could apply such beauty of poetry and philosophy to match the powerful events: A man born to rule the world is brought to ruin by his weaknesses and desires; deserted by friends and subjects, he is denied a noble death and must attempt suicide, but bungles even that. The tragedy is grimly played out, and honor and nobility die as well as the man.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare did not bind himself with the Aristotelian unities. He moves swiftly across the whole of the civilized world with a panorama of scenes and characters, creating a majestic expanse suitable to the broad significance of the tragedy. The play is Shakespeare’s longest. It is broken up into small units, which intensify the impression of rapid movement. Written immediately after Shakespeare’s four great tragedies—Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), and Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623)—it rivals them in tragic effect though it has no plot that Aristotle would recognize. Shakespeare took the story of Antony and Cleopatra from a translation of Plutarch but refashioned it into a complex rendering of a corruption that ennobles as it destroys. The play may lack the single, poignant representative character of the great tragedies, but it extends its significance by taking the whole world for its canvas.
As a tragic figure, Antony leaves much to be desired. His actions are little more than a series of vacillations between commitment to a set of responsibilities that are his by virtue of his person and office and submission to the overpowering passion that repeatedly draws him back to Cleopatra’s fatal influence. His nobility is of an odd sort. He commands respect and admiration as one of the two omnipotent rulers of the world, but the audience is only told of his greatness; they do not see it represented in any of his actions. In fact, he does not really do anything until his suicide—and that he does not do efficiently. His nobility is attested by his past deeds and by his association with the glories of Rome, and Shakespeare frequently reminds the audience of it, but Antony does not demonstrate this quality in the play.
There is another impediment to Antony’s tragic stature: He is too intelligent and aware of what he is doing. As Mark Van Doren has noted, he lives “in the full light of accepted illusion.” He is not duped; Cleopatra is not Antony’s Iago. There is no self-deception; Antony does not pretend that his love for Cleopatra is more than it is.
That love, however, is sufficiently great to endow Antony with the nobility he salvages. It is not simply that he is a hero brought to disgrace by lust, although that much is true. Viewed from another angle, he is a hero set free from the limits of heroism by a love that frees him from a commitment to honor, allowing him instead to give his commitment to life. Of course, his liberation is also his humiliation and destruction. Both noble and depraved, both consequential and trivial, Antony finds new greatness in the intense passion that simultaneously lays him low.
Cleopatra is an equally complex character, but her complexity is less the result of paradox than of infinite variation. Throughout the first four acts she lies, poses, cajoles, and entices, ringing manifold changes on her powers to attract. However, she is not a coarse temptress, not a personification of evil loosed upon a helpless victim. As her behavior in the last act reminds the audience, she is also an empress. Cleopatra, too, is swept along by overwhelming passion. She is not only a proud queen and conniving seducer but a sincere and passionate lover. Despite her tarnished past, her plottings in Antony and Cleopatra are dignified through the underlying love. Like Antony, she is not the sort of character who challenges the universe and transcends personal destruction. Rather, her dignity lies somewhere beyond, or outside, traditional heroism.
The complexity of Cleopatra is most apparent in the motivation for her suicide. Certainly one motive is the desire to avoid the humiliation of being paraded through Rome by the victorious Octavius Caesar. If that had been all, however, she would be nothing more than an egoistic conniver. More important, she is also motivated by her sincere unwillingness to survive Antony. The two motives become intertwined, since the humiliation of slavery will also extend to Antony, whose failures leave her vulnerable and taint his reputation. This mixture of motives is a model of the way in which the two lovers are at once each other’s undoing and salvation. Their mutual destruction springs from the same love that provides both with their antiheroic greatness. Love is lower than honor in the Roman world, but it can generate an intensity that makes heroism irrelevant. Antony is too intelligent, Cleopatra too witty, and their love too intricate for ordinary tragedy.
The structure of the plot departs from the tragic norm. There is almost none of the complication and unraveling that are expected in tragedy. Rather, the action moves in fits and starts through the forty-two scenes of the play. Although the action of the play must extend over a long period of time, the quick succession of scenes suggests an unsteady hurtling toward the fatal conclusion. The helter-skelter quality is reinforced by the language of the play. Few speeches are long and there are many abrupt exchanges and quick, wide-ranging allusions. Shakespeare often uses feminine endings and spills the sense over the ends of lines in a metrical reflection of the nervous vitality of the play. Thus, plot and language spread the drama over the entire world and hasten its progress toward the inevitable conclusion.