illustration of Antony and Cleopatra facing each other with a snake wrapped around their necks

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

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Is Antony and Cleopatra written in verse form or prose?

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Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra around 1605–1606, and it was first performed in London in 1607. Antony and Cleopatra is written in verse and prose, and the characters of Antony and Cleopatra speak in verse and prose.

Shakespeare wrote four plays that are almost entirely in verse: Richard II, Henry VI, Part One and Part Three, and King John. Only one of Shakespeare's plays, The Merry Wives Of Windsor, is written almost entirely in prose. In Shakespeare's other plays, about one-third of the lines are in prose, and two-thirds are in verse.

Generally speaking, Shakespeare's upper-class characters and royalty speak in verse, and lower-class characters speak in prose. Nevertheless, even though Shakespeare's lower-class characters speak primarily in prose, there are exceptions.

In Henry IV, Part Two, one of the lower-class characters, Pistol, has occasional outbursts of verse.

PISTOL. Sir John, I am thy Pistol and thy friend,
And helter-skelter have I rode to thee,
And tidings do I bring, and lucky joys,
And golden times, and happy news of price. (5.3.93-96)

As nail in door: the things I speak are just. (5.3.124)

There roar'd the sea, and trumpet-clangor sounds. (5.3.38)

All of Shakespeare's upper-class characters speak in verse and prose. The distinction is that upper-class characters generally speak in verse to other upper-class characters and to themselves—Hamlet's soliloquies, for example—and they speak in prose to lower-class characters, or those whom they consider to be on a lower societal or intellectual level than themselves. Hamlet speaks in prose to his childhood friends Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, but he also speaks in prose to Polonius, who is nonetheless Lord Chamberlain and senior counselor to King Claudius.

By the time Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra, he was extremely adept at using verse to denote a character's personality and define their relationships with other characters.

In act 1, scene 3, Antony is preparing to return to Rome. In Antony and Cleopatra's dialog, Shakespeare uses a technique called antilabe—when a single line of verse is shared by two or more characters.

Cleopatra clearly doesn't want Antony to go back to Rome, and she takes charge of the dialogue. Every time Antony tries to speak, Cleopatra cuts him off.

MARK ANTONY. Now, my dearest queen,—

CLEOPATRA. Pray you, stand further from me.

MARK ANTONY. What's the matter?

CLEOPATRA. I know by that same eye there’s some good news.
What, says the married woman you may go?
Would she had never given you leave to come.
Let her not say ’tis I that keep you here.
I have no power upon you. Hers you are.

MARK ANTONY. The gods best know,—

CLEOPATRA. O, never was there queen
So mightily betrayed! Yet at the first
I saw the treasons planted.

MARK ANTONY. Cleopatra,—

CLEOPATRA. Why should I think you can be mine, and true—
Though you in swearing shake the thronèd gods—
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows
Which break themselves in swearing!

MARK ANTONY. Most sweet queen,—

CLEOPATRA. Nay, pray you seek no color for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words. No going then!
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven. They are so still,

Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turned the greatest liar. (1.3.21-48)

In this dialogue, Antony and Cleopatra speak to each other in verse.

In the previous scene, act 1, scene 2, Antony gets caught up in a similar exchange with Enobarbus, Antony's friend and trusted follower. Enobarbus takes control of the conversation, as does Cleopatra, but this conversation is in prose, not verse.

Antony seems to want to speak in verse, but Enobarbus won't cooperate and finish Antony's lines. Instead, Enobarbus brings Antony down to a more colloquial dialogue level.

ENOBARBUS. What's your pleasure, sir?

MARK ANTONY. I must with haste from hence.

ENOBARBUS. Why then we kill all our women. We see
how mortal an unkindness is to them. If they suffer
our departure, death’s the word.

MARK ANTONY. I must be gone.

ENOBARBUS. Under a compelling occasion, let women
die. It were pity to cast them away for nothing,
though between them and a great cause, they
should be esteemed nothing. Cleopatra, catching
but the least noise of this, dies instantly. I have seen
her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do
think there is mettle in death which commits some
loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in
dying.

MARK ANTONY. She is cunning past man's thought.

ENOBARBUS. Alack, sir, no, her passions are made of
nothing but the finest part of pure love. We cannot
call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are
greater storms and tempests than almanacs can
report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she
makes a shower of rain as well as Jove.

MARK ANTONY. Would I had never seen her.

ENOBARBUS. O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful
piece of work, which not to have been blest
withal would have discredited your travel. (1.2.146-171)

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