Antony and Cleopatra
Regarded as one of Shakespeare's most compelling love stories, Antony and Cleopatra is often seen as an anomaly among critics because, despite its apparently tragic ending, the play ends on a triumphant note. Although Antony and Cleopatra both die at the play's end, they deny Octavius Caesar victory and achieve immortality as lovers. The tragedy of the play is also undercut by the comic elements that appear throughout the course of the drama. The play's genre, which encompasses the comic, heroic, tragic, and romantic, comprises one area of intense critical analysis. Critics are also concerned with the language used in Antony and Cleopatra, and examine the rhetorical styles of the characters as well as Shakespeare's use of metaphor and imagery. Investigations of the characters in the play are concerned to some degree with the Elizabethan understanding of the characters as fictional entities and as historical personages. In modern stage productions of Antony and Cleopatra, the dynamic relationship between the two lovers is typically of most interest to spectators as well as reviewers.
Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar are the most heavily scrutinized characters in Antony and Cleopatra. Some critics focus their character analyses on the way in which these characters might have been received by Elizabethan audiences. Robert P. Kalmey (1978) argues that the Elizabethan conception of Octavius Caesar was two-pronged. According to Kalmey, Elizabethans praised Caesar as an ideal prince only after he was crowned emperor. Prior to this event, Kalmey maintains, Caesar was condemned by Elizabethans who saw him as a tyrant who fueled the fires of civil war to further his own ambitions. Like Kalmey, Theodora A. Jankowski (1989) is interested in the Elizabethan take on Shakespeare's characters, specifically Cleopatra and her resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. Jankowski notes that although both women used their bodies for political purposes, Cleopatra should not be taken as an allegorical representation of Elizabeth. Jankowski states that the similarities between the women suggest Shakespeare's awareness of the fact that a successful female sovereign was an anomaly in a patriarchal society, and of the particular problems Elizabeth faced in ruling England. Taking a similar approach to the issue of Cleopatra's characterization, Imtiaz Habib (2000) also finds a connection between Cleopatra and Elizabeth. Habib, however, suggests that Cleopatra's blackness and seductive nature, in conjunction with the indolence of Egypt as a nation, is contrasted with the nobility of England, and the white and virginal Queen Elizabeth. Habib also comments on the black woman of Shakespeare's Sonnets and her relationship to Cleopatra. Additionally, Habib maintains that the critical connection between Cleopatra's political impotency and her sexual power is her race, which Habib demonstrates was understood to be black and ethnic in the eyes of historians and of Shakespeare. Coppélia Kahn (see Further Reading) centers her study on the rivalry between Octavius Caesar and Antony. Kahn contends that Caesar campaigns against Antony not only to demonize Cleopatra and paint her as Rome's archenemy, but to completely discredit Antony as a rival. Kahn goes on to examine the relationship between Caesar and Antony from Antony's point of view, commenting on what Antony hoped to accomplish through his suicide, and also discussing how his death would have been interpreted according to Renaissance ideas regarding suicide.
The sense of triumph at the play's end is an important element of modern stage productions of Antony and Cleopatra. In her review of the 1999 production of the play staged at the Southmark Globe Theatre in London and directed by Giles Block, Lois Potter (1999) comments that the director's vision of the play emphasized the victory of “a gloriously human couple.” Potter additionally singles out members of this all-male cast for praise; she finds that Mark Rylance's Cleopatra offered new insights into the character and the play as a whole, and that John McEnery's performance as Enobarbus was exceptional as well. Patrick Carnegy (1999) and Russell Jackson (2000) review another recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon and directed by Steven Pimlott. Although Carnegy criticizes Alan Bates, as Antony, for stumbling over many of his lines, he gives high praise to Frances de la Tour's performance as Cleopatra, and to the production as a whole. Likewise, Jackson is equally taken with de la Tour's Cleopatra and finds Bates's Antony to be likeable and energetic, but decidedly unheroic.
Many aspects of the language, style, and generic structure of Antony and Cleopatra fascinate modern critics. Robert D. Hume (1973) offers a detailed examination of the ways in which language, rhythm, and rhetorical habit are used for the purposes of character differentiation and development. For example, Hume observes that Antony's language reflects his vacillation between the worlds of Rome and Egypt, and that Cleopatra's imaginative language and varied rhythms are contrasted with Caesar's straightforward and regular verse. In another comparison between the language of Caesar and Cleopatra, Hume comments that the melodiousness arising from Cleopatra's use of assonance is set against the cacophony generated by Caesar's alliteration. Like Hume, Rosalie L. Colie (1974) explores the styles of speech used in Antony and Cleopatra. Colie focuses on the contrast between the Attic and Asiatic styles of speech and how these styles were understood in the Renaissance as encompassing not just rhetorical patterns, but moral and cultural differences as well. Colie explains that Atticism, the style preferred by Caesar, is characterized by plain, direct speech, while Asianism, which is more sensuous, self-indulgent, and imaginative, is the style used by both Cleopatra and Antony. Furthermore, Colie examines the language Antony and Cleopatra use with each other, commenting that their love transcends conventional hyperbole; in their creation of new forms of overstatement, the lovers employ a language reflective of the instability of their love. Donald C. Freeman (1999) uses the theory of cognitive metaphor to evaluate the figurative language found in Antony and Cleopatra. Freeman identifies the major image schemes used in the play and demonstrates the way these inform our understanding of the play's treatment of Antony, Cleopatra, and Rome. In terms of genre, Antony and Cleopatra encompasses elements of the comic, heroic, tragic, and romantic. J. L. Simmons (1969) demonstrates the ways in which the structure of the play follows the pattern of other Shakespearean comedies. Simmons finds that the contrast between Rome and Egypt is mirrored by the contrasts between court and tavern in the Henry IV plays, between Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice, and between court and forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Taking another approach to the debate over the play's genre, R. J. Dorius (see Further Reading) discusses the interaction between the tragic, heroic, and romantic elements of the play, arguing that Shakespeare's treatment of love and of Cleopatra is at the center of the controversy regarding the relationship between tragedy and romance in Antony and Cleopatra.