Antony and Cleopatra Antony And Cleopatra (Vol. 27) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(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 prince, is borne in the imagery. It is a great event in history." The effect of vastness and transcendence is also enhanced by mythological allusions to Mars, Venus, and Hercules, by which the playwright endows the protagonists with attributes of the gods. Janet Adelman (1973) observed that Antony and Cleopatra is distinguished from Shakespeare's other tragedies by this sense of connection between the mythological and human realms: "This insistence on the analogy between the human and the mythological, so foreign to the tragedies, is in fact an anticipation of the romances; for, in the last plays, precisely this sense of the participation of the mythic in human life becomes essential."

Cleopatra's vain, contradictory, and unpredictable qualities have typically been viewed by critics as either dramatic flaws in Shakespeare's characterization or morally reprehensible traits that contribute to Antony's demise. Viewing the play as essentially the story of Antony's fall from power, Maynard Mack (1973) suggested that a supernatural and fatalistic quality pervades Cleopatra's role: "Though Antony chooses her and we are shown the familiar feminine skills with which she draws him, the play keeps alive a complementary assurance that a power works through her which is also, in some sense, a fate. She is for everyone an 'enchantress,' a 'fairy,' a 'witch,' a 'charm,' a 'spell,' and she moves, even for the Romans, in an ambience of suggestion that seems to give these terms a reach beyond their conventional horizons of gallantry and erotic praise." Cleopatra has also been perceived as an embodiment of the private world of human emotions that Shakespeare contrasts with the dispassionate public realm of Roman values. Recent critics have emphasized the speculative aspect of these opposite domains, often concluding that both sets of values are equally flawed. Traditional assumptions concerning Cleopatra's character have also been reevaluated as a result of the growth of feminist criticism of the play. For example, L.T. Fitz faulted the continuing tendency of commentators to view Antony and Cleopatra as essentially a play about Antony, without recognizing Cleopatra as a tragic hero in her own right. Fitz pointed to the overwhelming tendency to emphasize Cleopatra's "feminine wiles" and "childlike" qualities, while completely ignoring her motivations as the ruler of a nation. She commented: "[In] assessing the respective actions of Antony and Cleopatra, critics apply a clear double standard: what is praiseworthy in Antony is damnable in Cleopatra. The sexist assumption here is that for a woman, love should be everything; her showing an interest in anything but her man is reprehensible. For a man, on the other hand, love should be secondary to public duty or even self-interest." Supporting the view of Cleopatra as a dual protagonist, Michael Neill observed that in contrast with the gradual dissolution of Anthony's identity, Cleopatra acquires a sense of wholeness by the end of the play. "[What Cleopatra] claims is the androgynous wholeness at which Anthony's end gestures only falteringly. It is not for nothing that, in handing over to Cleopatra almost the whole last act, Shakespeare accords her the structural privilege conventionally granted to the male protagonist."


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ernest Schanzer (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra," in The Problem Plays of Shakespeare, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 132-83.

[In the following excerpt, Schanzer responds to critics who have considered Antony and Cleopatra to be "faultily constructed," arguing that the structural pattern of the work consists "(a) of a series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt; and (b) of a series of parallels between Antony and Cleopatra."]

'The events of which the principal are described according to history, are produced without any art of connection or care of disposition', wrote Dr. Johnson of [Antony and Cleopatra, in Johnson on Shakespeare]. Nearly a century and a half later A. C. Bradley expressed a very similar view when he called it 'the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies', and pointed to it as exemplifying Shakespeare's 'defective method' of stringing together 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' [Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)]. What can explain such extraordinary blindness in these two great critics, and in the others who have echoed them? It seems partly to stem from a false expectation, the expectation of a 'linear' structure, like that preached by Aristotle and found in much Greek and classical French tragedy. But, as H. T. Price insists in his excellent essay on Construction in Shakespeare (1951), the structure of Shakespeare's plays, comedies and tragedies alike, is not linear but multilinear, not based on a unity of action but on a unity of design.

When Elizabethan playwrights began to take their subject-matter from narrative romance or chronicle history, with their multitude of characters and incidents, they were inevitably confronted with the vexed problem of imposing shape and coherence upon so heterogeneous a material. Shakespeare solved this problem more brilliantly than any of his fellow-playwrights. He does it mainly by establishing a series of parallels and contrasts. Character is compared and contrasted with character, incident with incident. Dramatic irony is called into play, so that action comments implicitly upon action, situation upon situation, speech upon speech. Sometimes, as in Lear and Timon, a whole subplot is invented to comment, both by its likenesses and its contrasts, upon the main plot. At other times, as in the Laertes and Fortinbras scenes in Hamlet, such parallels and contrasts are more closely integrated into the main action, but serve the same function of implicit commentary. The structural pattern thus helps not only to give the play shape and coherence but also, more importantly, it becomes a silent commentator, a means of expressing the playwright's attitudes and concerns.

Nowhere is this principle of construction better illustrated than in Antony and Cleopatra. 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. This pattern consists (a) of a series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt; and (b) of a series of parallels between Antony and Cleopatra. Let us deal with the second class first.

This may be divided into three groups: (i) echoes of each other by the lovers, both in words and actions; (ii) similarities in descriptions of them; (iii) parallels in relations with them. But the function of all three is much the same: to bring out the extraordinary likeness, the near-identity of Antony and Cleopatra, in feeling, in imagination, in tastes, in their responses to people and events, and in their modes of expressing these responses. The total effect of all this is to make us see their relationship as something more than a sensual infatuation, more even than an exalted passion. Professor Peter Alexander has defined its precise quality better than any other critic known to me when he writes [in Shakespeare's Life and Art] of Antony: 'Having enjoyed all the world can give to unlimited power and the richest physical endowment, he finds in Cleopatra's company a joy beyond anything he has known. And the world, whatever it may say of those who sacrifice reputation and wealth for such a satisfaction, does not readily forget their story, guessing dimly no doubt at the truth with which Aristophanes entertained Socrates and his friends, when he told the fable of the creatures cut in half by Zeus and condemned to go as mere tallies till they find and unite with their counterpart … "for surely", he concludes, "it is not satisfaction of sensual appetite mat all this great endeavour is after: nay, plainly, it is something other that the soul of each wisheth—something which she cannot tell, but, darkly divining, maketh her end".'

The lovers' echoes of each other's words and sentiments, though found scattered throughout the play, increase greatly in the last two acts, at the very time that the other main element in the structural pattern, the contrast between Rome and Egypt, diminishes. For towards its end the play becomes much less concerned with the presentation of the choice between two opposed modes of life and increasingly with the glorification of the choice which Antony has made. The following is a brief list of some of the most notable of these echoes:

Antony: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide
Of the rang'd empire fall!

Cleopatra: Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly
Turn all to serpents!

Antony: Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't …

Cleopatra: 'Tis paltry to
be Caesar:
Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
A minister of her will; and it is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change,
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.

(The echo here is accompanied by a contrast. Suicide has taken the place of love-making as 'the nobleness of life'. The quite unjustified change of 'dung' to 'dug', initiated, on Warburton's suggestion, by Theobald and followed by the majority of subsequent editors, eliminates the echo and with it the contrast.)


Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch; and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my
brow …

is echoed in Antony's

I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher. Nay, you were a
Of Cneius Pompey's …

Both lovers, characteristically, look on death as an erotic experience.

Antony: But I will be
A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.

Cleopatra: If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts and is desir'd.

Each sees the death of the other as the extinction of the source of all light:

Antony: Since the torch is out,
Lie down, and stray no farther.

Cleopatra: Ah, women, women, look,
Our lamp is spent, it's out!


Unarm, Eros; the long day's task is done,
And we must sleep

finds a close echo—though this time by the maid, not the mistress—in Iras's

Finish, good lady; the bright day is done,
And we are for the dark.

Of echoes in the actions of the two lovers the most notable instance is Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger who brings her the news of Antony's marriage to Octavia (2.5) and Antony's treatment of Caesar's messenger, Thyreus (3.13). Both actions are prompted by jealousy and a sense of betrayal and desertion by the other, and both are marked by uncontrolled fury, coupled with a relished cruelty towards the innocent messenger, as shown in Cleopatra's

Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire and stew'd in
Smarting in ling'ring pickle

and in Antony's

Whip him, fellows,
Till like a boy you see him cringe his face,

And whine aloud for mercy.

Now for the chief parallels in the descriptions of the two lovers: Cleopatra's words about Antony,

Be'st thou sad or merry,
The violence of either thee becomes,
So does it no man else

echo (and hence also belong to the previous group) Antony's words about her:

Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom everything becomes—to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself in thee fair and admir'd.

The great set-piece describing Cleopatra's transcendent perfections, Enobarbus's barge-speech, finds its counter-part in Cleopatra's equally hyperbolical description of Antony to Dolabella. In both speeches the same conceit is used: the person described is declared superior to anything the artist's imagination could create, Nature in this instance surpassing fancy. Cleopatra was

O'erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy out-work nature.

Of Antony we are told,

Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

Both lovers at their death are identified with the star most appropriate to them. At the death of Antony the guards exclaim:

2 Guard: The star is fall'n.
1 Guard: And time is at his period.

The reference here is presumably to the day-star, the sun, which measures time, and to which Antony has been repeatedly compared in the course of the play. When Cleopatra dies, Charmian exclaims:

O Eastern star! (5.2.306)

The appositeness of this identification of the Egyptian queen, mistress of the East, with Venus, the 'Eastern star', needs no emphasis.

Among the third group, the parallels in the relations of others with Antony and Cleopatra, the most notable instances are found in the deaths of their companions and servants. Eros and Charmian do not even consider the possibility of surviving them. This is the supreme tribute paid to the pair in the play. And, to complete the pattern, Iras, like Enobarbus, appears to die merely from grief, of a broken heart. Suicide, though contemplated, is not found necessary.

This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought: but thought will do't, I

And thought does it, we are led to believe. Enobarbus dies with Antony's name on his lips (4.9.23). The lack of a stage-direction in the Folio leaves the cause of Iras's death more obscure. But the absence of any aside like that given to Charmian ('O, come apace, dispatch. I partly feel thee') suggests that we are not meant to regard it as suicide. And the structural pattern, which plays such an important rôle in the play, corroborates this view.

Let us now turn to the other main element in the play's structural pattern, the series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt. These contrasts between Roman and Egyptian attitudes and values, Roman and Egyptian ways of feeling and thinking, find their simplest expression in the constant alternation of scenes located in Rome and Alexandria. But the Roman world sometimes invades Egypt, as at the play's opening, where the hostile comments of the Roman soldier, Philo, are delivered in the very stronghold of the enemy, the court at Alexandria; and occasionally Egypt invades Rome, as in the person of the soothsayer (2.3), or in Enobarbus's barge-speech, where the most glowing tribute to Cleopatra is delivered in Rome and by a Roman soldier, though one partly under the spell of the East. And the pattern of simple opposition between Rome and Egypt is further complicated by the fact that in her last hours of life Cleopatra, without surrendering any of her Eastern guile and sensuousness, acquires some Roman qualities, becoming 'marble-constant' (5.2.239) and doing 'what's brave, what's noble' 'after the high Roman fashion' (4.15.87), though with some concession to an Eastern concern for 'easy ways to die', preferring the indigenous and kindred serpent (' "Where's my serpent of Old Nile?" / For so he calls me', 1.5.25-6) to the Roman sword. And standing between the two opposed worlds, and combining them in his person, there is Antony. What in him they have in common is their extravagant, hyperbolic nature. 'The greatest soldier of the world' (I.3.38) is also its greatest lover. The same Antony who amazes his fellow-soldiers when, during a famine in his wars, he drinks 'the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at', and eats 'strange flesh, / Which some did die to look on' (1.4.62-9) amazes them equally by his feats of drinking and eating in his Alexandrian revels (2.2.183-6). Hyperbole is the mark of his own words and deeds, as well as of what is said by others about him, finding its climax in Cleopatra's great speech to Dolabella.

What above all unites the two worlds in Antony is the intense vitality which he brings to his rôle of voluptuary as well as to that of statesman and soldier. Professor L. C. Knights puts it admirably when he writes of it [in Some Shakespeare Themes]: 'What Shakespeare infused into the love story as he found it in Plutarch was an immense energy, a sense of life so heightened that it can claim to represent an absolute value.… This energy communicates itself to all that comes within the field of force that radiates from the lovers, and within which their relationship is defined.' The opposition is never one between sensual sloth and the life of action. That is why the stock-image presented by Spenser of the knight in the arms of Acrasia (F.Q., II, 12, lxxvi-lxxx) fits Antony's case so little, in spite of its surface similarities. Pompey thinks of the relationship in this conventional way when he calls upon Cleopatra to

Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts,
Keep his brain fuming. Epicurean cooks
Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite,
That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour
Even till a Lethe'd dullness.

Caesar in his account, for all his patrician contempt for the 'democratic' Antony, and in spite of much that he leaves out, conveys the energy and vitality of this life much more truly:

Let's grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smell of sweat.

A further complication of the simple pattern of contrasts results when Shakespeare, after showing Antony's Love and Honour (meaning chiefly military glory) in continuous conflict, with Honour disastrously routed by Love at the battle of Actium, proceeds to give us a series of scenes in which Love and Honour have for a time joined forces. In 4.4. Cleopatra, the armourer of his heart, has also become the armourer of his body, and his love for her the spur to his valour. The scene was, I believe, influenced by Plutarch's implied contrast of Antony's behaviour with that of Demetrius, in his 'Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius' [in his Lives]: 'They were both in their prosperitie very riotously and licentiously given: but yet no man can euer say, that Demetrius did at any time let sleep any opportunitie or occasion to follow great matters, but only gaue himselfe indeed to pleasure, when he had nothing else to do … but indeed when he was to make any preparation for war, he had not then Iuie at his darts end, nor had his helmet perfumed, nor came out of the Ladies closets pricked and princt to go to battell: but he let all dancing and sporting alone, and became as the Poet Euripides saith: The souldier of Mars, cruell and bloudie. ' Plutarch's unfavourable contrast is here turned by Shakespeare in Antony's favour. For he is shown capable of sporting and feasting all night and fighting a victorious battle the next day, of being in quick succession a devotee of Venus and Bacchus and a soldier of Mars.

The temporary fusion of Love and Honour in these scenes is epitomized by the astonishing image in Antony's speech of welcome to Cleopatra after his victorious return from battle:

Leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing.

The image also forms an ironic contrast to Antony's imprecations uttered the following morning (only about a hundred lines separate the two passages):

Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving
And blemish Caesar's triumph. Let him take thee
And hoist thee up to the shouting plebeians …

Another element that complicates the pattern of contrasts between the two worlds is the fact that certain qualities, such as cruelty and deceit, are shown to belong to both. For instance, Caesar's cruel treatment of Alexas (4.6.12-16) has its counterpart in Antony's treatment of Thyreus and his offer concerning Hipparchus (3.13.147-51). The whole last act is given over to the contest between Caesar's guile and Cleopatra's, each determined to outwit the other. 'Policy' and duplicity is used just as much by Cleopatra in the service of Love as by Caesar in the service of the State. The truth is that Cleopatra is less Caesar's complete opposite than is Antony. It is Caesar's sister, Octavia, who is her opposite in every way.

This juxtaposition of opposed characters, Antony and Caesar, Cleopatra and Octavia, forms another essential part of the play's dualistic structure, another means by which Shakespeare brings out the all-pervasive contrast between East and West. He achieves the contrast between Antony and Caesar by burying the Antony of Julius Caesar and creating an entirely new and different dramatic character. In spite of the attempts of many critics to find links and similarities between them, I do not see how a belief in the unity of conception of the two Antonies can be maintained.… [The] Antony of Julius Caesar has scarcely a trait in common with the Antony depicted by Plutarch, except a fondness for revelry, and this is also his only link with the Antony of our play, who is largely based on Plutarch's depiction of him. He is basically what Plutarch calls him, and what the Antony of Julius Caesar only pretends to be (3.2.218), 'a plaine man without subtilty'. The Machiavellism of the Antony of Julius Caesar has in the later play been transferred to Caesar, who had shown no traces of it in the earlier drama. The ruthless treatment of Lepidus there advocated by Antony (J.C., 4.1.19-27) is in fact carried out by Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra (3.5.6-12). We need only to think of this cynical advice on the treatment of Lepidus in the mouth of the Antony of the later play, or to imagine that 'mine of bounty' planning to defraud Caesar's heirs of part of their legacies (J.C., 4.1.8-9), to realize how impossible it is to entertain the notion that the Antony of our play is a development and continuation of the Antony of Julius Caesar. Nor is it very difficult to see why Shakespeare should have made the change. Had Antony instead of Caesar been made the calculating politician, the deceitful Machiavel, it would have destroyed the presiding conception of the play. This demanded that the value of all that Antony loses through his love for Cleopatra, such as political power, wordly glory, should be called into question by a display of the ruthlessness, the deceit, the calculating inhumanity that goes with the acquisition and maintenance of such power and glory. Caesar, therefore, had to be the Machiavel, and Antony, by contrast, the simple, generous, impulsive, chivalrous soldier; one who is willing to stake his worldly fortunes upon a sea-fight where he is at a grave disadvantage, merely because Caesar 'dares us to't' (3.7.29) and his chivalric code obliges him to accept this challenge; one who seems genuinely surprised when 'the full Caesar' refuses to 'answer his emptiness' and meet him in personal combat (4.2.1-4).

Yet, as one would expect with Shakespeare, who, even at his most schematic, refuses to paint in black and white, Caesar is depicted not merely as the cold-blooded, calculating politician. He is also shown to be a tender and loving brother (for, unlike some commentators, I do not think Shakespeare means us to question the sincerity of this love) and at least the post mortem admirer of Antony and Cleopatra, capable of true and deep feeling.

Professor Danby has shown how what he calls 'the Shakespearean dialectic' is the informing structural principle of the entire play. 'It comes out in single images, it can permeate whole speeches, it governs the build-up inside each scene, it explains the way one scene is related to another.' It also extends to the emotional pattern exhibited by the two lovers (this is another way in which they resemble and echo each other). In no other play by Shakespeare do we meet characters given to such persistent oscillation of feelings, such violent veering between emotional extremes. In the case of Cleopatra it is at times deliberately practised, part of her technique of exhibiting her infinite variety in order to keep monotony at bay, her method of tantalizing Antony by providing moods that are emotional foils to his own.

If you find him sad
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick.

But it also expresses her essential nature, dominated by her planet, the fleeting moon. With Antony the oscillation of feelings is even more pronounced and is linked to, and partly expressive of, his veering between East and West, which exert their rival pull upon him. The remarkable absence of any inner conflict in Antony when faced, at several points in the play, with the necessity to choose between Rome and Egypt is an expression of this emotional polarity, this pendulum swing of the feelings. As A. C. Bradley remarks [in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry], Shakespeare 'might have made the story of Antony's attempt to break his bondage, and the story of his relapse, extremely exciting, by portraying with all his force the severity of the struggle and the magnitude of the fatal step'. But he chose not to do so. Instead he shows us Antony's complete devotion to Cleopatra in the opening scene, followed by his sudden resolution to break free from her: 'These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage' (1.2.113-14). In the leave-taking that follows his fetters are shown to be as stoutly knit as ever:

By the fire
That quickens Nilus' slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war
As thou affect'st.

In the message he sends her by Alexas he promises to 'piece her opulent throne with kingdoms' (1.5.46). Then comes Agrippa's marriage-plan, Antony's immediate acceptance of it, and his protestation to Caesar:

Further this act of grace; and from this hour
The heart of brothers govern in our loves
And sway our great designs!

When we meet him next he confesses to Octavia,

I have not kept my square; but that to come
Shall all be done by th' rule.

Directly upon this follows the encounter with the sooth-sayer, and Antony's instant resolution:

I will to Egypt;
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I' th' Easy my pleasure lies.

When we find him next in the company of Octavia, at their leave-taking from Caesar, the following exchange takes place between the two men:

Caesar: Most noble Antony,
Let not the piece of virtue which is set
Betwixt us as the cement of our love
To keep it builded be the ram to batter
The fortress of it; for better might we
Have lov'd without this mean, if on both parts
This be not cherish'd. Antony: Make me not offended
In your distrust.
Caesar: I have said.
Antony: You shall not find,
Though you be therein curious, the least cause
For what you seem to fear.

A few scenes later Octavia hears from her brother that Antony is back in Egypt, that 'Cleopatra / Hath nodded him to her' (3.6.65-6). I feel sure it would be a gross falsification of Shakespeare's conception to see Antony in these changes as a conscious deceiver, hiding his true feelings and intentions from Caesar, Octavia, or Cleopatra. Rather should we see him as sincere in all his protestations, believing each to be true at the moment it is uttered, until he is suddenly drawn into a contrary allegiance. Instead of being 'with himself at war', like Brutus, or Macbeth, or Othello, he is like a chronic deserter, forever changing sides in the struggle, and this emotional pattern mirrors and underlines the structural pattern of the entire play.

The dualistic structure of Antony and Cleopatra also helps to make it Shakespeare's problem play par excellence. Let us remind ourselves of L. C. Knights's dictum quoted in the Introduction: 'In Macbeth we are never in any doubt of our moral bearings. Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand, embodies different and apparently irreconcilable evaluations of the central experience.' Throughout the play, and to an extent far exceeding anything found in Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure, we are confronted with these opposed evaluations, and in such a way as to exclude—at least in those open to the play's full imaginative impact—a simple or consistent response. Indeed, Antony's great speech to Eros ('Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish') not only expresses his sense of an utter loss of identity as a result of Cleopatra's supposed betrayal of him, but, as Professor Danby...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Madeleine Doran (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "'High Events as These': The Language of Hyperbole in Antony and Cleopatra, " in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. LXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 26-51.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at Queen's University in 1964, Doran discusses Shakespeare's use of hyperbolic language to characterize Antony, Cleopatra, and Roman politics in Antony and Cleopatra.]

When Shakespeare opens the play of Antony and Cleopatra with an adverse judgment spoken by one of his officers, he sets the former Antony, the famous soldier, beside the present Antony, the lover of Cleopatra; and he puts the...

(The entire section is 12405 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Janet Adelman (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Common Liar: Tradition as Source in Antony and Cleopatra," in The Common Liar: An Essay on Antony and Cleopatra, Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 53-101.

[In the following excerpt, Adelman examines parallels to the myth of Venus and Mars in Antony and Cleopatra, commenting that "[the] significance of the mythological allusions in [the play] is not in their number but in their use: the gods are generally adduced as analogues for the protagonists."]

Yet have I fierce affections and think
What Venus did with Mars.

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Rome Vs. Egypt

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Julian Markels (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Public and Private Worlds of Antony and Cleopatra," in The Pillar of the World: Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Development, Ohio State University Press, 1968, pp. 17-49.

[In the following excerpt, Markels examines the opposition between private and public values symbolized by the conflict between Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra.]

Up through the end of Act III, scene v [in Antony and Cleopatra], (Eros' choric scene), Shakespeare has located in Rome and its various adjuncts a total of eleven scenes comprising 863 lines, and in Egypt a total of six scenes comprising 606...

(The entire section is 11026 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 2, March, 1972, pp. 201-12.

[In the following essay, Rackin examines the significance of a widely discussed speech by Cleopatra (V.ii. 215-20).]

The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.

In these lines,...

(The entire section is 16864 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Brown, John Russell, ed. Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra: A Casebook. 1968. Revised Edition. Houndmills: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1991, 214 p.

Presents selected essays divided into three categories: critical reactions to the play before 1900, the play in performance, and twentieth-century criticism of the work.

Burke, Kenneth. "Shakespearean Persuasion." The Antioch Review XXIV, No. 1 (Spring 1964): 19-36.

Discusses plot and use of language in Antony and Cleopatra.

Charney, Maurice. "Antony and Cleopatra." In All of Shakespeare, pp. 289-98. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.


(The entire section is 652 words.)