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

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

What are some tragic elements of the play Antony and Cleopatra?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In broadest terms, a tragedy ends in the death of a major character or characters; in a comedy, the major characters survive. Antony and Cleopatra's suicidal deaths are main tragic elements of this play.

Underlying these deaths is the tragic current implying (from the start) that both are foredoomed. The play hints that fate or fortune is on the side of Rome, Octavius, and all the virtues of self-discipline, reason, and sternness that Rome represents. Just as in a Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, there is a sense that forces bigger even than the lives of monarchs rule the universe, using humans as pawns. As Antony says near the end:

Tis paltry to be Caesar; / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will

In other words, Octavius is simply the tool of bigger powers, without free will, bringing the action to a fore-ordained end that he can't control any more than Antony can.

Antony's great personal tragedy is that he is so besotted with Cleopatra that he can't muster enough of the necessary amounts of his Roman fortitude and strength to win against Octavius. It is as if he is drugged by the sensual, luxurious world of Egypt and Cleopatra, his will sapped. Antony can't possibly stay faithful to his wife with someone as alluring as Cleopatra pulling him toward her like a drug. It is tragic for Cleopatra as well. She withdraws her fleet from supporting Antony's naval battle at the crucial moment, leading to his crushing defeat. She has tried to use Rome to her advantage to protect Egypt, only to utterly miscalculate and tragically fail. We feel a sense of loss when the stern world of Rome prevails so completely.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The elements of tragedy include a tragic hero, pathos, and suffering.

The tragic hero in the play is Mark Antony. A tragic hero has a flaw, known as a tragic flaw, that leads to his destruction. Antony’s tragic flaw is his obsession with Cleopatra. Antony was supposed to be a hero of Rome, and one of the triumvirate. Instead of being a leader, he abandons his people (and his wife) to be with Cleopatra in Egypt.

Enobarbus explains the pull that Cleopatra has on Antony.  When Macaenas says that Antony has to leave Cleopatra to marry Octavius Caesar’s sister Octavia, Enobarbus says he never will.


Now Antony must leave her utterly.


Never; he will not:Age cannot wither her, nor custom staleHer infinite variety: other women cloyThe appetites they feed: but she makes hungryWhere most she satisfies … (Act 2, Scene 2)

Antony’s first wife leads to his destruction when she acts against Caesar. Enobarbus knows that Antony will self-destruct because he will not be able to be faithful to Octavia. In pairing Antony with his sister, Caesar seals his fate. He knows that Antony will betray Octavia, and therefore him. He will then have an excuse to destroy Antony.

Does Antony love Cleopatra? He certainly does....

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

However, his love is closer to obsession. To him, Cleopatra is like a drug. He follows her into oblivion, losing everything that he ever had. Antony feels that he can defeat Octavius, but it is a fool’s errand. Octavius has advantages of manpower and brainpower, and there is no way Antony can ever win against him.

A tragedy always uses pathos to pull at the heartstrings of the audience. There are many sad and moving speeches in this play. In fact, it has more speeches than most Shakespeare plays.

Antony and Cleopatra are at constant battle, in an almost childlike variety of arguments. You can tell how boisterous and volatile their love affair is.

Fie, wrangling queen!  Whom every thing becomes, to chide, to laugh,  To weep; whose every passion fully strives  To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!  No messenger, but thine; and all alone  To-night we'll wander through the streets and note  The qualities of people. Come, my queen;  Last night you did desire it: speak not to us. (Act 1, Scene 1)

Other significant examples of pathos include Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra’s yacht, Antony’s death, and Cleopatra’s interview with Caesar. Finally, there is Cleopatra’s speech as she is dying. This leads us to the final element, suffering.

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I haveImmortal longings in me: now no moreThe juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hearAntony call; I see him rouse himselfTo praise my noble act; I hear him mockThe luck of Caesar … (Act 5, Scene 2)

Cleopatra is forced to kill herself, and describes how she is going to meet Antony, who already killed himself. Her reference to Caesar’s luck shows that the only way she can defeat him was by killing herself. She refuses to live and allow him to march her through Rome in triumph.

Cleopatra’s tale is really the saddest. She has an affair with Antony to secure her position on the throne. This is still the case even if she loves him. She has to keep Rome happy.  Then she finds herself caught in the war between Octavius and Antony. She tries to negotiate with him to save her son, and her children with Antony. She is unsuccessful.  Caesarean is killed by Antony, and her children with Antony go to Octavius.

This play is a love story and a tragedy. It is not just a tragedy because both of the named principal characters die. It is a tragedy because they are in an impossible, no-win situation. Antony and Cleopatra are in love, and each is the other's weakness. Antony, a once-great man, meets his doom in a spectacular way. He believes that he is capable of so much more than he can actually handle.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team