Antony and Cleopatra Antony And Cleopatra (Vol. 27)
by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Antony and Cleopatra Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Shakespearean Criticism)


Although considered by many critics to be one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra holds an ambiguous position in Shakespeare's oeuvre and has been characterized as a "problem play." In her 1977 essay "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers," L.T. Fitz commented, "Most critics are united in proclaiming that Antony and Cleopatra is a magnificent achievement; unfortunately, they are not united on the question of exactly what the play achieves. It is difficult to think of another Shakespearean play which has divided critics into such furiously warring camps." Reviewers have traditionally attempted to discern the moral significance of the drama, interpreting the work as either the tragedy of Antony's fall, or an affirmation of the transcendent power of love. Increasingly, however, commentary has acknowledged the uncertain morality of the work, and has focused instead on its complex language and structure. Feminist reinterpretations of Cleopatra's role have also been among the most notable developments in criticism of the work since 1960.

The structure of Antony and Cleopatra has occasionally been faulted for a lack of unity and cohesion, with some critics complaining that characters and settings are presented and dismissed too quickly. In Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), for example, A. C. Bradley commented that the play exemplifies a "defective method" of linking a "number of scenes, some very short, in which the dramatis personae are frequently changed; as though a novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short chapters, in which he flitted from one group of his characters to another." Later critics, however, have tended to view the fast-paced, nonlinear structure of the play as a unique solution to the problem of handling unwieldy historical information that involves a multitude of characters and incidents. Ernest Schanzer defended the structure of Antony and Cleopatra in The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (1963), explaining that the work is organized by a series of parallels and contrasts between events, settings, characters, and values. This pattern of duality is also maintained through the drama's language, as the protagonists' speeches are echoed and inverted throughout the play. Schanzer also suggested that Shakespeare purposefully employed quickly changing scenes in order to manipulate the audience's shifting attitudes toward events onstage: "Of all Shakespeare's plays this is probably the one in which the structural pattern is most perfectly adjusted to the theme and has, in fact, become one of the chief vehicles for its expression."

While Antony and Cleopatra continues to be regarded as the source of some of the most glorious speeches in Shakespeare's oeuvre, recent commentary has focused in particular on Shakespeare's use of hyperbolic language to evoke a sense of the ideal, to convey the unusual vitality of the protagonists, and to express the rarity and historical significance of the experience described. Overreaching language abounds throughout the work in vast images of the natural world, descriptions of political greatness and power, and extreme declarations of passion. In his introduction to the Oxford edition of Antony and Cleopatra (1994), Michael Neill emphasized the hyperbolic nature of "the gulf between the high rhetoric in which the lovers clothe themselves and the harsh reality of their decline," observing that Shakespeare's constant "hazarding of bathos" accounts for much of the tragedy's "unstable brilliance," and also for its mixed reception. One of the most frequently cited examples of hyperbole in the work is Cleopatra's elevated speech following Antony's death [V.ii.81-92]: "His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm / Crested the world.…" Madeleine Doran (1964) commented: "There is left only the idea of Antony the absolute soldier, whose arm 'crested the world,' and whose death leaves the world a meaner, poorer place. All the widening meaning of such a death, of the fall of such a...

(The entire section is 65,445 words.)