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...
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