(Shakespearean Criticism)

Antony and Cleopatra

Most likely written between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra relates the struggles of love, passion, and power endured by the two titular characters and is considered by many to be among Shakespeare's finest achievements. Interpretation of the tragedy is often cast in terms of the polar oppositions dramatized in the play, perhaps most notably the conflict between Rome and Egypt, and war and love. What critics and audiences often find so engaging about Antony and Cleopatra is that these polarities remain in opposition throughout, without any one winning primacy by the play's end. Modern critics explore the way these polarities inform political, linguistic, and structural analyses of the play. Another critical approach focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's relation to traditional Renaissance emblems and iconography. The characterization of Antony and Cleopatra continues to be a source of scholarly discussion and debate as well.

While the play's unresolved oppositions contribute to its interest and appeal, such ambiguity makes Antony and Cleopatra difficult to interpret. Maynard Mack (1993) surveys these polarities, identifying some of the conflicts as: Rome versus Egypt; war versus love; nature versus art; austerity versus indulgence; loyalty versus self-interest; and sincerity versus affectation. Paul Yachnin (1991) focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's Rome/Egypt opposition, comparing the play's shift from Egyptian past to Roman future to the transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule that was taking place at the time the play was composed. Taking another approach, Michael Payne (1973) studies the way in which the play's theme of opposition informs the structure of the play. This theme is introduced in Act I by way of the comparison between the Roman desire to set boundaries and the Egyptian cultivation of freedom and ecstasy. Payne goes on to explore the way this opposition is examined in sexual terms and further developed through the remaining acts of the play. In summary, Payne states that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic. Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (1993) finds a dramaturgical analogue to the play's theme of polarity in the relationship between diegesis (narration lacking explanation or judgment) and mimesis (direct imitation or representation). The critic concludes that Egyptian mimesis is victorious over Roman diegesis by the play's end.

Other critics are interested in the influence that Renaissance emblem tradition and iconography had on the play. Christopher Wortham (1995) studies this emblem tradition and its relation to Shakespeare's use of classical mythology, as well as biblical imagery, in order to suggest how Shakespeare's audiences may have responded to Antony and Cleopatra. For example, Antony is repeatedly associated with Mars, the god of war. Mars, Wortham explains, received a negative portrayal from emblem writers, whose values included peaceability, a trait in line with the thinking of the monarch, King James. Similarly, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1994) employs the iconographic approach in analyzing Shakespeare's language and stage imagery in order to offer a Renaissance reading of the play.

The characters of Antony and especially Cleopatra are the focus of many critical analyses of the play. J. Leeds Barroll (1984) argues that Shakespeare's portrayal of Antony is based on Shakespeare's examination of desire, a feature of the play that cannot be reduced to dualistic terms. Cynthia Lewis (1997) maintains that the Christian traditions surrounding Saint Antony of Egypt fueled Shakespeare's presentation of Antony. Understanding this analogue, stresses Lewis, helps to clarify the play's central issues and illuminates the perceptions of other characters in the play. Lewis concludes that like his namesake, Antony appears to trade earthly “glory” for the purity of love, and for his “pardon.” A Christian parallel has also been found to correspond with Cleopatra. Laura Severt King (1992) identifies the prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages as similar to Cleopatra's character, in that like the prostitute-saint, Cleopatra personifies the linking of sexual incontinence and supernatural power. Richard A. Levin (1997) is primarily concerned with discovering when Cleopatra resolves to commit suicide. Levin examines three unresolved problems of the text that highlight the struggle between Caesar and Cleopatra, which help to inform his understanding of Cleopatra's decision to kill herself. Mary Floyd-Wilson (1999) offers a different approach to analyzing Cleopatra. Floyd-Wilson begins by examining the direct correspondence between geography and gender (in which Egypt is associated with femininity and Rome with masculinity). The critic then introduces another layer to this type of examination by studying the way Renaissance climate theory—the notion that climate determines one's complexion, coloration, and temperament—informs the understanding of Cleopatra's character. Emphasizing that the play is largely concerned with regional differences as well as the shifting nature of gender roles, Floyd-Wilson illustrates that Cleopatra's “racial” status, determined by her climate, challenges the traditional, northern ideas about gender: as a woman, she should possess a “soft and impressionable” complexion, yet as an Egyptian, Cleopatra is mysterious and resists interpretation.

J. Leeds Barroll (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mark Antony and the Tournament of Life,” in Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in Antony and Cleopatra, Folger Books, 1984, pp. 83-129.

[In the following essay, Barroll examines the way in which desire and its “strangeness” inform the characterization of Antony.]


Mark Antony is one of Shakespeare's most complexly imagined tragic heroes. For this we thank, of course, Shakespeare's human empathy and genius. But the compelling quality of Antony's humanity owes as much to strategy as to genius. And if, in the end, these are perhaps the same thing, then the strategy by which genius brings Antony to life, makes him...

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Laura Severt King (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Blessed When They Were Riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes,” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 429-49.

[In the following essay, King suggests that Shakespeare portrays competing images of the “penitent prostitute” in the characterization of Cleopatra, who resembles prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages. Like these women, Cleopatra is associated with both sexual incontinence and supernatural power.]

All eroticism has a sacramental character.

—Georges Bataille, Erotism1

Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved...

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Richard A. Levin (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “That I Might Hear Thee Call Great Caesar ‘Ass Unpolicied,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 244-64.

[In the following essay, Levin studies three conundrums appearing in the negotiations of Cleopatra and Caesar, and examines how these episodes illuminate the battle of wits between the two characters. This examination helps to inform Levin’s understanding of Cleopatra's decision to commit suicide.]

Near the end of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen apostrophizes the deadly asp which she takes to her bosom: “O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass /...

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Cynthia Lewis (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The World's Great Snare’: Antony, Cleopatra, and Game,” in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1997, pp. 116-53.

[In the following essay, Lewis identifies a Christian analogue to Antony's character and argues that understanding this parallel puts into perspective the various attitudes professed in the play regarding Antony's self-sacrificial love.]

From the moment that Antony believes Cleopatra to have given him cause to kill himself—her suspected treachery in 4.12—Antony is repeatedly subjected to the ridicule normally reserved for the most foolish of Shakespeare's fools....

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Mary Floyd-Wilson (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Transmigrations: Crossing Regional and Gender Boundaries in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, edited by Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 73-96.

[In the following essay, Floyd-Wilson observes the correspondence between geography and gender that is often examined in the play (for example, the association of Egypt with femininity and Rome with masculinity), and explores the way in which Renaissance climate theory adds another dimension to these relationships. Specifically, the critic demonstrates how Cleopatra's association with gypsies suggests that she possesses an “indecipherable”...

(The entire section is 9978 words.)

Michael Payne (essay date 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Erotic Irony and Polarity in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, 1973, pp. 265-79.

[In the following essay, Payne traces Shakespeare's use of opposition throughout Antony and Cleopatra and demonstrates the way in which these oppositions structure the play. Payne stresses that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic.]

One of the most impressive qualities of Shakespeare's art is his facility for creating dramatic situations, characters, and entire plays encompassing ideas, attitudes, and character traits which we ordinarily think of as mutually exclusive or contradictory. In the minds...

(The entire section is 7315 words.)

Paul Yachnin (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time,” in Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Yachnin explores the parallels between Antony and Cleopatra's contrasting of Egyptian past with Roman future and the shift from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule.]

In terms of the political culture of the early Stuart period, Antony and Cleopatra's account of the shift from the magnificent but senescent Egyptian past to the pragmatic but successful Roman future can be seen as a critical register of the symbolic constructions and political ramifications of the shift...

(The entire section is 7683 words.)

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Antony and Cleopatra: The Narrative Construction of the Other,” in ‘Th' Interpretation of the Time’: The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Roman Plays, University of Victoria, 1993, pp. 59-90.

[In the following essay, Kujawinska-Courtney analyzes the play's use of diegesis and mimesis and argues that the opposition between the two may be viewed as analogous to the play's theme of polarity. The critic concludes that by the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Egyptian mimesis wins out over Roman diegesis.]

In Julius Caesar the theatre audience tries to make sense of two equally powerful narrative evaluations of the past: one Caesarian, the other...

(The entire section is 15365 words.)

Maynard Mack (essay date 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Stillness and the Dance,” in Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pp. 197-230.

[In the following essay, Mack surveys the many polarities explored in Antony and Cleopatra and suggests that Shakespeare, in order to question logical expectations, deliberately refused to allow ascendancy to any one perspective.]


The last of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, in my view, is Antony and Cleopatra: the delight of audiences, the despair of critics. Its delight for audiences springs, in part at least, from its being inexhaustible to contemplation, as Coleridge...

(The entire section is 11648 words.)

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To the Very Heart of Loss’: Renaissance Iconography in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XXII, 1994, pp. 220-76.

[In the following essay, Simonds uses the study of Renaissance iconography as a tool to explore Antony and Cleopatra's characterization. Simonds emphasizes the ambivalence with which Antony and Cleopatra are drawn, in that they are portrayed as both extremely human and semi-divine.]

Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes a mortally dangerous “relationship” between two very glamorous international celebrities at a crucial period in the history of western civilization. As...

(The entire section is 13614 words.)

Christopher Wortham (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Temperance and the End of Time: Emblematic Antony and Cleopatra,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, p. 1-37.

[In the following essay, Wortham investigates the Renaissance emblem tradition that informs Antony and Cleopatra, and attempts to discern how the emblematic imagery operating in the text would have been received by Jacobean audiences.]

Antony and Cleopatra both delights and bewilders with its extraordinary diversity. Classical mythology, biblical apocalypse and thematic insistence on the virtue of temperance meet in enlightening combinations and puzzling disjunctions. Critical analysis, precisely because it is...

(The entire section is 13953 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Archer, John Michael. “Antiquity and Degeneration in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 145-64. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Examines Antony and Cleopatra and its treatment of race and sexuality in order to identify Renaissance racial and sexual constructions. The text is examined in light of historical, geographical, and travel writings that became available within the century following the publication of the play.

Cantor, Paul A. “The Politics of Empire.” In Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire, pp....

(The entire section is 460 words.)