Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's best known later tragedies. Written about ten years after Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra portrays actual events and persons from Roman history, but unlike Julius Caesar it also embodies the love story of its title characters. For the historical background, plot and intimate details of the affair between the Roman general Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, Shakespeare drew upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives; in fact, the description of Cleopatra upon her barge presented by the character Enobarbus in the play (II.ii.190-225) is nearly a word-for-word translation of a passage from Plutarch.
In Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar, Shakespeare depicts characters that are larger than life, all three of the main figures commanding "planetary" status as rulers of the world and instruments of its destiny. Antony and Cleopatra is a very involved play, featuring rapid shifts between Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, Egypt and Antony's homeland in Rome, along with two major battlefield sequences. There are in fact thirteen scenes in Act III and fifteen in Act IV. While some nineteenth and early twentieth century critics complained about the awkward structure of the play, recent interpretation has argued that this relentless movement in the middle of the play creates dramatic tension and reinforces the global scope of what is occurring on stage.
Antony and Cleopatra stands as one of Shakespeare's most poetic plays. It is noted for its evocative word paintings and vivid hyperbole. It is also regarded by many as a problem play, presenting as it does the ambiguity and ambivalence of life without providing clear or comfortable answers. The two lovers presented in the play may be world leaders, but they are also, after all, only human beings—flawed and aging ones at that. We as human beings share their mortality; many of us recognize their strong feelings of jealousy, love, shame, and insecurity. Despite their historical grandeur and thanks to Shakespeare's sensitive portrayal of them, Antony and Cleopatra are no more—and no less—extraordinary than we are.
Summary of the Play
After the battle at Philippi, Antony went to Egypt and began a romance with Cleopatra. Messengers from Rome arrive at Cleopatra’s court, demanding Antony’s immediate return to Rome to aid in the fight against Sextus Pompeius and upbraiding him for his dereliction of the official duties of a triumvir. Antony argues that he is not needed in Rome, but he does return and marries Octavius’ sister Octavia. A meeting between Pompey (Sextus Pompeius) and the triumvirs results in a standoff, in which Pompey gets the islands of Sicily and Sardinia in return for ceasing the attack on Rome and the piracy in the Straits of Messina. Antony and Octavia move to Athens. Later, Octavia, aware a serious controversy is arising between her husband and her brother, returns to Rome to try to heal the breach.
Octavius, seeking to become the sole emperor, puts Lepidus in prison and dares Antony to fight him on the sea. Antony, against the advice of all his advisers, accepts the dare, counting on Cleopatra’s ships to assist him. Cleopatra’s ships turn tail and run. Antony chases the ship carrying Cleopatra and deserts his own troops at the front, giving Octavius a major victory.
Octavius offers munificent terms of surrender to Cleopatra, with promises that he has no intention of keeping once he has taken over Egypt. Dolabella, one of Caesar’s henchmen, warns Cleopatra that Octavius will parade her and her attendants through the streets of Rome as booty of war.
An angry Antony, wrongly informed that Cleopatra is dead, tries to commit suicide but succeeds only in severely wounding himself. His personal guardsmen carry him to the queen, and he dies in her presence. Cleopatra and her two closest attendants, Charmian and Iras, commit suicide by allowing asps to bite them. Octavius (Caesar) finds the three women dead. He orders a huge state funeral for the pair to be attended by all Octavius’ army before he sails for Rome.
Estimated Reading Time
This is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays, so reading time should be at least one hour for each of the five acts. Many students will require seven hours for the entire play. This is a play that rewards careful, unhurried reading. Ideally, it should be read in one or two sittings, with occasional referral to the text notes and this study guide, but three or even four sittings is entirely feasible.