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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Antony and Cleopatra Summary

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is a 1607 play about the romance between Mark Antony, Roman triumvir, and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

  • Antony meets and falls in love with Cleopatra, who was also a consort of Julius Caesar during his life.

  • Despite marrying Octavius's sister Octavia, Antony lusts after Cleopatra. This leads to a war with Octavius. Antony loses, in part because Cleopatra withdraws her fleet.

  • Aware that Antony is furious with her, Cleopatra sends him false news that she has killed herself. Antony falls on his sword to join her in death. Learning of this, Cleopatra takes her own life.

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Introduction

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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.

Synopsis

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Last Updated June 14, 2023.

Summary of the Play:

After the battle at Philippi, Mark Antony, one of three Roman rulers known as the Triumvirate, travels to Egypt where he has begun a romantic relationship with Cleopatra. However, messengers from Octavius, a fellow Triumvir, soon arrive at Cleopatra's court and demand Antony's immediate return to Rome to assist in the fight against Pompey (Sextus Pompeius). They also criticize Antony for neglecting his duties as a triumvir while carrying on with Cleopatra. Despite Antony's arguments that his presence in Rome was not necessary, he eventually decides to return to Rome and marry Octavius' sister, Octavia.

A meeting between Pompey and the triumvirs results in a deal being struck as neither side has been able to win on the battlefield. Pompey agrees to cease the attack on Rome and his piracy in the Straits of Messina, in exchange for gaining control of the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

Antony and Octavia move to Athens, but as tensions escalate between Antony and Octavius, Octavia returns to Rome in an attempt to reconcile the two and save the Roman government.

Octavius, who desires to become the only emperor and destroy the three-person Triumvirate, imprisons Lepidus (the third member) and challenges Antony to a sea battle. Against the advice of his advisors, Antony accepts the challenge, relying on Cleopatra's ships for support. However, Cleopatra's ships unexpectedly retreat before the battle was to begin, leaving Antony to face Octavius alone. Antony, abandoning his own troops, pursues Cleopatra's ship, resulting in a significant victory for Octavius.

Octavius has made generous promises...

(This entire section contains 408 words.)

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to Cleopatra if she surrenders, but it was clear to all that he had no intention of keeping them once he had taken over Egypt. Dolabella, a member of Caesar's inner circle, warns Cleopatra that Octavius plans to parade her and her court through the streets of Rome as spoils of war.

Believing that Cleopatra had died, a distraught Antony attempts to take his own life but only manages to severely wound himself. His personal guards carry him to Cleopatra, where he eventually dies in her presence.

In a tragic turn of events, Cleopatra, along with her closest attendants, Charmian, and Iras, chose to end their lives by allowing asps (venomous snakes) to bite them. Octavius discovers the bodies of the three women and orders a grand state funeral for Antony and Cleopatra, which will be attended by his entire army before he sails back to Rome as Emperor.

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Act and Scene Summaries