(Shakespearean Criticism)

Antony and Cleopatra

Likely written and first performed between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra is generally considered one of Shakespeare's finest tragic dramas. Focused on the passionate love of the Roman general Mark Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the play spans an approximately ten-year period of historical conflict between the Mediterranean powers of Egypt and Rome in the first century b.c. and culminates in the deaths by suicide of its eponymous figures. John Wilders (1995) surveys the structure, characters, themes, and language of Antony and Cleopatra and highlights Shakespeare's dramatic juxtaposition of Egypt and Rome, which has long been considered the major structural element in the play. Critics, including Wilders, have remarked that Shakespeare's Rome is a masculine, pragmatic, martial, and public culture that eagerly strives to fulfill its virtues of military conquest and peaceful, ordered rule. His Alexandrian Egypt, in contrast, is feminine, domestic, decadent, and individualistic, linked with pleasure—specifically Antony's dalliance with the beautiful Cleopatra. Scholars are also interested in the drama's extraordinary characters, including the historical personages Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar, whose stories Shakespeare culled from various sources in order to make them his own. Usually regarded as unstable, mutable, or inconsistent, these figures have proved notoriously resistant to categorization. Although it is one of Shakespeare's more difficult dramas to successfully stage, Antony and Cleopatra has been widely performed since the second half of the nineteenth century and remains popular with audiences, in large part due to the allure of Shakespeare's Cleopatra.

Contemporary critical interest in Cleopatra, especially among feminist scholars, attests to the continued status of this enigmatic historical queen as one of the most fascinating female characters in the Shakespearean canon. L. J. Mills (1960) regards Cleopatra as the central focus of the play. Analyzing Cleopatra's renowned contradictory manner and behavior, egocentrism, extravagance, and her essential mystery, Mills suggests that by winning control of Antony without care or recognition of his character, military virtue, or complete devotion to her, Cleopatra precipitates her own tragedy and prompts Antony's despair and self-destruction. Clare Kinney (1990) links Cleopatra's fundamental strength to her mutable identity. For Kinney, Cleopatra is a human embodiment of Egypt to such a degree that she subsumes its multiplicity and vast internal differences. Unlike the Roman figures with whom she is contrasted—individuals like Antony or Octavius Caesar, both associated with masculine virtues and a competitive drive to dominate—Cleopatra represents an all-inclusive potentiality that embraces the feminine and the masculine, refusing to be subsumed by one or the other. Feminist critic Mary Ann Bushman (1991) analyzes Cleopatra's status as the “tragic hero” of the play. Unlike Kinney and other critics who have viewed Cleopatra as a mingling of feminine and masculine principles, Bushman argues that Shakespeare's Cleopatra is neither masculine nor feminine, but instead defines herself through theatrical spectacle, and locates her shifting identity within the mutable realm of staged performance. Susan Muaddi Darraj (2001) concentrates on Shakespeare's efforts to fashion Cleopatra into a believable “violent and intimidating” character in an age when women had little political power. According to Darraj, Shakespeare made Cleopatra a convincing villain to Jacobean theatergoers by locating her in a foreign realm, inverting her gender role with that of her masculine lover Antony, obliterating her maternal nature, and allowing her to be redeemed only through death.

Antony and Cleopatra is considered to be one of the more difficult Shakespearean dramas to successfully stage. An extremely long piece with numerous abrupt changes in locale—from Egypt to Rome to Misenum to Athens—Antony and Cleopatra presents considerable challenges to directors, actors, and audiences. Reviewing a 1999 all-male production of the play directed by Giles Block and performed at the open-air Globe Theatre in London, Kristin E. Gandrow (2000) praises Mark Rylance's campy but nuanced portrayal of Cleopatra. Gandrow notes that Block's eccentric staging and Rylance's camp-inspired performance were a proper tribute to the spirit of William Shakespeare's original play. Reviewing the same 1999 production, critic Sheridan Morley finds its comic turn, including Rylance's near drag queen interpretation of Cleopatra, appropriate to the open-air environment and touristy nature of the Globe. Alvin Klein reviews the 2000 staging of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Bonnie J. Monte for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Klein notes the difficulties in staging this “most unplayable play,” which crosses the boundaries between tragedy, comedy, and history, but finds the essential failure of this production was the lack of passion between Robert Cuccioli's subdued Mark Antony and Tamara Tunie's modernized Cleopatra. Critics were not much more favorably disposed to director Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon. Juliet Fleming notes several flaws in this production, including bungled verse that often degenerated into shouting and the lackluster male cast; however, she lauds several performances by women, principally Sinead Cusack's Cleopatra. Rex Gibson (2002) remarks on Attenborough's extensive cuts to the text of Antony and Cleopatra, and finds that the cuts highlighted two of the play's themes: “the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.” Lisa Hopkins (2002) contends that Attenborough's production was both “unfocused” and “alarmingly short” and criticizes the textual cuts, simple set, and bad casting. While she praises several key members of its supporting cast—in the roles of Charmian, Enobarbus, and Octavius Caesar—Hopkins finds their work unable to redeem the unconvincing Egyptian queen and her theatrically constrained Roman lover.

Critics continue to examine the thematic oppositions in Antony and Cleopatra. Joan Lord Hall (see Further Reading) surveys a selection of dualistic conflicts and themes in Antony and Cleopatra, including the play's representation of love in opposition to military leadership, the antagonism between artistic imagination and nature (a favorite subject of Renaissance criticism), the futility of action in the face of capricious fortune, the essential mutability of the sublunar world, and the enormous power of theatricality and role-playing to destabilize perception and reality. William D. Wolf (1982) maintains that Antony and Cleopatra contrasts radically with Shakespeare's other tragic dramas, noting that the play's essential ambiguity is one of its defining characteristics. While acknowledging a pivotal dichotomy between the opposing cultural values associated with Egypt and Rome, Wolf claims its central symbolic conflict involves the tension between change and permanence—a tension that prompts Antony and Cleopatra to escape from this mutable world. J. Robert Baker studies the gender reversals in Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “Shakespeare figures movement out of one's own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death, tragedy or comedy.” Paul Yachnin (1993) views Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of absolutist loyalty to the divinely appointed sovereign. Yachnin also investigates the dynamic of master and servant relations and the tensions between “command and response” that pervade the drama, as well as their political implications in the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods. Arthur Lindley (1996) adapts Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque to his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, noting the play's comic subversion of the tragic and Egypt's status as a carnival-like parody of Roman culture. Lastly, Alf Sjöberg (2002) concentrates on the theme of transformation in Antony and Cleopatra as a force born from the drama's “world of ruinous oppositions.” In Sjöberg's broad-ranging study, the play privileges change as the only constant in a reality defined by struggle, and as an ameliorative to the human impulse toward degeneration, loss of identity, and self-annihilation.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilders, John. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, edited by John Wilders, pp. 1-84. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wilders surveys the structure, characters, themes, and language of Antony and Cleopatra.]



The dramatic construction of Antony and Cleopatra, with its constant shifts of location, is one which Shakespeare had already used in the two parts of Henry IV with their oscillations between the court, the tavern and the battlefield and their excursions into Wales and Gloucestershire. This in turn grew out of the mode he had used in the comedies, where one location is set off against another: the house of Baptista against that of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, the city and the wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice. It had, in fact, been Shakespeare's way of working from the very beginning. As Emrys Jones points out,

A striking feature of a play like 1 Henry IV is the constant comparativeness of its method: we are never allowed to become identified with the point of view of any one of its characters. Although Talbot is a famous soldier-hero, he is only one of several main figures. The play's vision of reality is never less than complex: all viewpoints are partial. Hence the endless oscillation from one group, one individual, to another.

(Jones, Origins, 13-14)

By the time he wrote the two Henry IV plays, this kind of construction was a means whereby he presented the audience with a number of different assumptions, attitudes and ways of life. The civil war, for example, which to King Henry is a source of continual anxiety, to Falstaff is an opportunity to line his own pockets, and the interview between the King and the Prince, which in the court takes place in earnest, is the subject of a charade in the tavern. The audience is offered several different and conflicting attitudes to the same experience, and is invited to weigh the public responsibilities of war and politics against the personal desire for pleasure, comradeship and self-satisfaction. During the greater part of the two plays the conflicting attitudes are kept equally in view, chiefly in the figure of the Prince, who manages to encompass both, but towards the end of each play he is compelled to make a choice, first when he pledges himself to defeat Hotspur in Part 1, and again when he casts off Falstaff in Part 2. On the second occasion, however, the impression is created that in dismissing Falstaff he repudiates a part of himself. There is no wholly ‘correct’ choice. England's gain is Falstaff's loss and, though we do not feel that his decision is wholly laudable, the alternative—to embrace Falstaff—would have been far worse.

In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare created a similar kind of structure but used it with greater complexity and carried its implications further. Throughout the play, Roman attitudes and principles, expressed mainly by Octavius Caesar, are placed in opposition to the Egyptian, represented chiefly by Cleopatra. Antony is in a similar position to Prince Hal, equally at home in either world but compelled eventually to choose between them, and the critics, as we shall see, have continued to argue whether or not he chose correctly. As Maurice Charney says, Rome and Egypt ‘represent crucial moral choices and they function as symbolic locales in a manner not unlike Henry James's Europe and America’ (Charney, 93).


Rome is represented by a predominantly male society in which the only woman, Octavia, is regarded as a ‘“cement” to promote and consolidate male relations’ (Erickson, 128). For the Romans the ideal is measured in masculine, political, pragmatic, military terms, the subservience of the individual to the common good of the state, of personal pleasure to public duty, of private, domestic loyalties to the demands of empire. Alexandria, on the other hand, is a predominantly female society for which the ideal is measured in terms of the intensity of emotion, of physical sensation, the subservience of social responsibility to the demands of feeling. Hence Cleopatra must send to Antony every day a several greeting or she'll unpeople Egypt, and, at Actium, Antony deserts his own men and takes flight with Cleopatra because his heart is tied to her rudder. Adelman points out the extreme contrast between the two eulogies of Antony, the first delivered by Caesar in praise of the hardened soldier he once was (1.4.56-72), the second by Cleopatra in celebration of the Antony who has died (5.2.78-91). Since both are retrospective and neither corresponds with the man we are actually shown, both are idealizations, but, in describing the ideal, both speakers reveal the values they espouse. Whereas Caesar, says Adelman, ‘locates Antony in the Timonesque landscape of absolute deprivation’, a winter landscape in which he survives by exercising the manly virtues of fortitude and endurance, Cleopatra places him in a setting of ‘immense abundance’ with ‘no winter in it’: ‘The contest between Caesar and Cleopatra, Rome and Egypt, is in part a contest between male scarcity and female bounty as the defining site of Antony's heroic masculinity’ (Adelman, Mothers, 176-7). For Caesar, as for Coriolanus, manliness entails the repression of all that is female, but for Cleopatra Antony is visualized as like herself, ‘feeding and renewing the appetite in an endless cycle of gratification and desire, making hungry where most she satisfies’ (ibid., 190). Caesar regards his ‘great competitor’ as a man who has betrayed his own ideals (as, indeed, does Antony from time to time) but Cleopatra sees him as a man who has become at one with herself. As Erickson puts it, ‘Octavius finds in Antony a heightened image of his own abstemiousness, Cleopatra's celebration of the bountiful Antony projects a model in which she discovers her own bounty’ (Erickson, 142). As so often in Shakespeare, every gain is a different kind of loss and every asset a different kind of liability. ‘We are left at the end with a painfully divided response, for which there is no resolution’ (ibid., 145).


These contrasts and contradictions form the basis on which the play is constructed and also determine the shape of individual scenes. In the opening scene the ‘flourish’ or fanfare of trumpets leads us to expect the formal entry of some distinguished leader but it is followed by the arrival of Antony and Cleopatra with her maids, ‘with eunuchs fanning her’. The ‘triple pillar of the world’ is exhibited to us as what the Roman Philo calls ‘a strumpet's fool’. Again, the formal reconciliation between Antony and Caesar (2.2.18-180) is immediately followed by a private conversation between Maecenas and Enobarbus about the excesses of Alexandrian social life (2.2.185-99), and the former's belief that Antony must now leave Cleopatra is followed by the latter's assurance that he will not. The official feast which is held to celebrate the success of the peace conference (2.7) is preceded by the chatter among the servants about the drunkenness of the guests. The poignancy of Caesar's farewell to his sister (3.2) is undermined by the cynical observations of Agrippa and Enobarbus which introduce it, and their sarcastic asides during the course of the scene prevent us from taking it wholly seriously. This counterpointing of the poignant, the solemn and the tragic against the ironical, the sceptical and the absurd is most apparent in Shakespeare's treatment of Antony's suicide. Believing that he has suffered his ultimate defeat and that Cleopatra has killed herself, he realizes that the two ideals to which he has devoted his life have been destroyed and he therefore resolves to die in the Roman, stoical manner by falling on his sword. His ineffectual attempt to do so, however, is both painful and ridiculous: his servant Eros, instead of assisting his master, falls on his own sword; when Antony tries to kill himself he fails; the guards, refusing to complete the job, walk away, and it is now when he is at his most abject that he learns that Cleopatra is still alive. Nevertheless he insists on giving her the heroic version of the story:

                                                  [I] do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman; a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquished.


This is—and is not—a faithful account of the scene we have witnessed. Even the most transcendentally moving moment in the play, the suicide of Cleopatra towards which the whole of the final scene has been moving, is interrupted by the entry of the Clown with his basket of figs. His garrulous chatter and his reluctance to leave (perhaps, as Bowers suggests, he's hoping for a tip) delay Cleopatra's death and thereby create suspense but they also modify our impression of her final speeches during which, as Mack remarks, ‘we also hear echoing between the lines the gritty accents of the opposing voice’ (Mack, 23).


Such radically differing attitudes are expressed not only by different individuals but by the same person, depending on the mood and circumstances in which characters find themselves. To Antony, Cleopatra is at one moment ‘this enchanting queen’ and at another a ‘triple-turned whore’, and to Cleopatra the messenger from Rome is at first a ‘horrible villain’ and later ‘a fellow of good judgement’, ‘a proper man’. These conflicting ways of interpreting experience had long preoccupied Shakespeare but in this play they are also a preoccupation of the characters. On hearing of Fulvia's death, Antony reflects, as though it were axiomatic.

                                                                                The present pleasure,
By revolution lowering, does become
The opposite of itself


and Caesar, contemplating the growing support for Pompey, states it as a law of nature that

                    he which is was wished until he were,
And the ebbed man, ne'er loved till ne'er worth love,
Comes deared by being lacked.


It is when he himself hears of Antony's death that his contempt for the ‘old ruffian’ turns into grief and he weeps for the loss of his ‘brother’, his ‘mate in empire’ and the heart which kindled his own thoughts (5.1.40-8). Nowhere else in 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 tantalising Antony by providing moods that are emotional foils to his own.

(Schanzer, Problem Plays, 143)

The actress who by all accounts conveyed this quality most faithfully was Dorothy Green, who played the role in three major productions between 1912 and 1930. Of the second of these, the Times critic wrote (25 April 1921):

She realises, as few players of the part in recent years have done, the ‘infinite variety’ of the Queen's moods. Stately, sinuous, arrogant, seductive, pleading, passionate—Miss Green is everything in turn, but she rises to her greatest height in the scene of sheer fury when she learns from the Messenger of Antony's marriage to Octavia, and all but strangles him in her madness.

Judging from the photographs, she was also sinister, a femme fatale like Swinburne's Dolores or Wilde's Salomé, and the reviewers sensed this: ‘What evil there is in the woman, gathered scene by scene as one might gather flowers, and what superb and dreadful tenderness when the asp is at her breast’ (The Times, 25 November 1930). She was very much the actress, fascinating, temperamental, and dangerous, as was also the great nineteenth-century Cleopatra, Isabella Glyn, though she was a good deal more majestic:

Gorgeous in person, in costume, and in her style of action, she moved, the Egyptian Venus, Minerva, Juno—now pleased, now angry, now eloquent, now silent—capricious and resolved, according to the situation and sentiment to be rendered. Withal she was classical, and her poses severely statuesque. Her death was sublime. … Altogether Miss Glyn's performance of Cleopatra is the most superb thing ever witnessed on the modern stage.

(Illustrated London News, 27 October 1849)

A contemporary illustration shows her in one of her poses offering her hand to Thidias.


The sense of the inconstant, shifting nature of our impressions that is expressed by the structure of the play and the preoccupations of the characters extends also to its distinctive images, which, as Charney points out, are of ‘melting, fading, dissolving, discandying, disponging and losing of form’: ‘Shakespeare seems to be creating his own vocabulary to establish the feeling of disintegration in the Roman world’ (Charney, 140). Indeed the whole play portrays the gradual process of Antony's disintegration to the point when ‘The crown o'th' earth doth melt’ (4.15.65). Shakespeare's playhouse was probably better able than ours to convey this impression to an audience. What was in front of them was, of course, an empty platform with the tiring-house wall at the back, but Shakespeare could transform it into wherever he chose, as when in A Midsummer Night's Dream (another play much preoccupied with the fluid nature of reality) Theseus' court melts into a forest. Similarly in Antony and Cleopatra Alexandria melts into Rome and the battlefield becomes Cleopatra's monument. This effect is well described by Granville-Barker, who says that the Elizabethan dramatist, having made use of a location, ‘would neglect and obliterate it without further consideration. The consciousness of it in the audience's imagination might be compared to a mirage, suddenly appearing, imperceptibly fading’ (Granville-Barker, ‘Note’, 64). On a realistic, nineteenth-century stage with its solid sets and frequent scene changes this was no longer possible. The actor in Chatterton's production, James Anderson, describes the effect of such scene changes on an actor:

I must … acknowledge my own inability to make a serious impression on the audience; I could do nothing, being stunned and cowed by the furious noise of preparation for ‘heavy sets’ behind the scenes that destroyed all power of acting in front.

(J. Anderson, 316-17)

The fullest expression of the melting, dissolving nature of perception is given by Antony in one of those insights which Shakespeare's tragic heroes experience shortly before their deaths. As a great soldier who knows he has undergone his final defeat, he contemplates the shifting patterns of the clouds and feels that he, too, is no longer ‘himself’:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct
As water is in water.
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body. Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

(4.14.9-11, 12-14)


This idea was not unique to Shakespeare but also preoccupied some of his contemporaries. Bacon was certainly aware of each individual's tendency to interpret the world subjectively, ‘owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature’ or ‘to the differences of impression, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled’. ‘The spirit of man’, he concludes, ‘is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation’ (Bacon, 54). The writer who most immediately comes to mind is, however, Montaigne, with whose Essayes Shakespeare was certainly acquainted by the time he came to write The Tempest and who contemplated with a melancholy curiosity the transience both of the world and of mankind:

There is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. And we and our judgement, and all mortall things else do uncessantly rowle, turne and passe away. Thus can be nothing certainely established, nor of the one, nor of the other; both the judgeing and the judged being in continuall alteration and motion. … Thus, seeing all things are subject to passe from one change to another; reason, which therein seeketh a reall subsistence, findes her selfe deceived as unable to apprehend any thing subsistent and permanent; forsomuch as each thing either commeth to a being, and is not yet altogether: or beginneth to dy before it be borne.

(Montaigne, 323)

Both Bacon and Montaigne express the renewed influence of philosophical scepticism which appeared in Europe towards the end of the seventeenth century, but transformation is also the central theme of Ovid's Metamorphoses, perhaps the most lasting influence on all Shakespeare's work and which he must have read as a schoolboy. The Roman poet's prolonged meditation in the last book of the Metamorphoses on the ceaseless flux of creation probably lies behind this distinctive element of the play.


Against such an irresistible force, Shakespeare's characters attempt to create some sort of defence which will keep them stable and upon which they can rely. Caesar, foreseeing that his own and Antony's temperaments are so incompatible that their friendship is unlikely to last, longs for a ‘hoop’ which will hold them ‘staunch’ or watertight (2.2.121-3); Antony, ashamed of his lost reputation and his pitifully botched suicide, hopes that his fame as ‘the greatest prince o'th' world’ will remain intact (4.15.53-7), and Enobarbus recognizes that a servant willing to remain loyal to a ‘fallen lord’ will ‘[earn] a place i'th' story’ (3.13.44-7) as, by his death, he does. Similarly the poet of the Sonnets hopes that the beauty of the fair youth will be eternalized in his verse when all other things have changed or been forgotten. Finally, Cleopatra becomes ‘marble-constant’ in her resolve to leave ‘the varying shore o'th' world’ and find eternal stability with Antony in an existence beyond change. Whether or not she does so we have no means of knowing. We know only that she is convinced that she will, and that by her suicide she has earned a place in the story which Plutarch and Shakespeare and others have repeatedly told.


In the principal source of Antony and Cleopatra, the ‘Life of Antony’, Plutarch displays a disinterested attitude towards the two major figures. He acknowledges their strengths and virtues—Antony's courage and magnanimity, Cleopatra's vitality, her magnetism—yet this responsive sympathy does not prevent him from judging them. Even in his youth, says Plutarch, Antony was lured into ‘great follies and vain expences upon women, in rioting and banketing’ (North, 255) and he lays the blame for Antony's decline squarely on Cleopatra (North, 273).

Shakespeare's judgement of his characters is less easy to discern. This is partly because, whereas Plutarch tells his story as a narrative on which he comments from time to time in his own person, Shakespeare transformed it into a play in which each character expresses him or her self and no character speaks with the voice of the dramatist. There are characters such as Philo, Pompey, Enobarbus and especially Caesar who unhesitatingly criticize Antony:

                                                                                                                        If he filled
His vacancy with his voluptuousness,
Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones
Call on him for't. But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport, and speaks as loud
As his own state and ours, 'tis to be child
As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their...

(The entire section is 8524 words.)

L. J. Mills (essay date spring 1960)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Mills, L. J. “Cleopatra's Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 2 (spring 1960): 147-62.

[In the following essay, Mills attributes Cleopatra's personal tragedy to her amoral, equivocal, and egoistic nature.]

Interpretations of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra have emphasized, with varying degrees of stress, one or another of the three principal themes in the play, which are, as summarized by John Munro:

… first, the East represented by Egypt and lands beyond versus the West represented by Rome; secondly, the strife in the Triumvirate who divided and governed the world, and the reduction of the three,...

(The entire section is 8125 words.)

Ray L. Heffner, Jr. (essay date summer 1976)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Heffner, Ray L., Jr. “The Messengers in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.ELH 43, no. 2 (summer 1976): 154-62.

[In the following essay, Heffner examines Shakespeare's extensive use of messengers in Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “the messenger is a bit of necessary stage machinery which Shakespeare seems almost miraculously to transform…into something rich and strange.”]

In electing to present the story of Antony and Cleopatra not, as Dryden did, by compressing the action to a single climactic day in a single place but instead by shifting the scene rapidly over the known world and allowing ample time for almost innumerable...

(The entire section is 3442 words.)

Clare Kinney (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kinney, Clare. “The Queen's Two Bodies and the Divided Emperor: Some Problems of Identity in Antony and Cleopatra.” In The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon, edited by Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, pp. 177-86. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Kinney contends that Cleopatra is the human embodiment of Egypt and represents an all-inclusive potentiality that embraces the feminine and the masculine.]

Cleopatra, like Falstaff, is always being called names. Almost every scene in Antony and Cleopatra generates new identities for her; over the course of the play she...

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Mary Ann Bushman (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bushman, Mary Ann. “Representing Cleopatra.” In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 36-49. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.

[In the following essay, Bushman examines feminist readings of Cleopatra's character in Antony and Cleopatra and analyzes her status as the “tragic hero” of the play.]

To the discerning eye of feminist criticism, Shakespearean tragedy seems to treat women characters as reflections of the tragic hero. According to Linda Bamber, since the tragedies feature a masculine version of Self, female characters differ from the male only because...

(The entire section is 5578 words.)

Susan Muaddi Darraj (essay date spring 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Darraj, Susan Muaddi. “‘The Sword Phillipan’: Female Power, Maternity, and Genderbending in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Schuylkill: A Creative and Critical Review from Temple University 4, no. 1 (spring 2001): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Darraj concentrates on Shakespeare's efforts to fashion Cleopatra into a believable, sympathetic character.]

The 19th century essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt wrote of Cleopatra, “She is voluptuous, ostentatious, conscious, boastful of her charms, haughty, tyrannical, [and] fickle,” which are “great and unpardonable faults” (Hazlitt 2-3). Much of the criticism of...

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Sheridan Morley (review date 7 August 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. Spectator 283, no. 8922 (7 August 1999): 40-1.

[In the following review of the 1999 Globe Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Giles Block, Morley, although not impressed with the overall production, praises it as the best he has ever seen at the Globe.]

At Shakespeare's Globe, Giles Block's new Antony and Cleopatra is a weird affirmation of that amazing space's strengths and weaknesses, and far and away the best production I have ever seen there, which is admittedly not saying a lot. An all-male cast, as in Shakespeare's own tradition, is led by the theatre's artistic...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Kristin E. Gandrow (review date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gandrow, Kristin E. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (2000): 123-25.

[In the following review of director Giles Block's 1999 all-male production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre, Gandrow admires the campy but nuanced performance of Mark Rylance as Cleopatra.]

The all-male casting of Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London asked a contemporary audience to acknowledge and accept the Elizabethan stage convention of men playing women's roles. Could we forget that the Cleopatra we watched was a man? Not completely. Did that matter? Not really, although it overtly emphasized the humor in...

(The entire section is 931 words.)

Alvin Klein (review date 24 September 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. New York Times (24 September 2000): NJ21.

[In the following review, Klein asserts the essential failure of director Bonnie J. Monte's comic staging of Antony and Cleopatra at the 2000 New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, noting its lack of drive and passion.]

In April this year, when Shakespeare turned 436, words of reflection and awe poured forth.

In consideration of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival's current staging of Antony and Cleopatra here, it is useful to mull the comment by Adrian Noble about “the challenge of bringing his words to life.”


(The entire section is 567 words.)

Juliet Fleming (review date 3 May 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5170 (3 May 2002): 19.

[In the following review of Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Antony and Cleopatra, Fleming finds fault with the production's slow start and muddled enunciation of verse, but contends that the strong female performances, particularly Sinead Cusack's fine Cleopatra, saved the production.]

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra feels a moment of panic as the curtain first rises and they remember the play's potential length, its episodic structure, its closely packed style, and the fact that its...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Rex Gibson (review date 17 May 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Rex. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. Times Educational Supplement, no. 4481 (17 May 2002): 13.

[In the following review of the 2002 production of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Michael Attenborough at Stratford-upon-Avon, Gibson contends that Attenborough's extensive textual cuts highlighted two of the drama's themes: “the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.”]

Michael Attenborough has radically cut Shakespeare's sprawling masterpiece to highlight just two of themes, the contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.

So out go Sextus Pompeius and his bloodthirsty but...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Lisa Hopkins (review date September 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. Review of Antony and Cleopatra. Early Modern Literary Studies 8, no. 2 (September 2002): 19.1-2.

[In the following review of the 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Antony and Cleopatra under the direction of Michael Attenborough, Hopkins contends that the production was “unfocused” and “alarmingly short.”]

Going to see Antony and Cleopatra can sometimes be a daunting experience because it is so long. With this production, however, the converse very nearly applies: it is alarmingly short, with events unfolding at such breakneck speed that if you so much as blink you will probably have missed a crucial plot...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

William D. Wolf (essay date autumn 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolf, William D. “‘New Heaven, New Earth’: The Escape from Mutability in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 3 (autumn 1982): 328-35.

[In the following essay, Wolf claims that the central conflict of Antony and Cleopatra involves the tension between change and permanence and examines Antony and Cleopatra's efforts to escape from this mutable world.]

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra has long been a controversial play, mostly because it differs so radically from the other tragedies. Its sweep is vast, but not so vast as Lear; it deals with love and politics, but not so obsessively as Coriolanus; its...

(The entire section is 4052 words.)

H. W. Fawkner (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fawkner, H. W. “Presence and Oblivion.” In Shakespeare's Hyperontology: Antony and Cleopatra, pp. 23-45. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Fawkner examines the oppositional pattern of “following and leaving” in Antony and Cleopatra, which he suggests defines the conceptual structure of the drama.]

At the most intense and fascinating level of dramatic suggestion, Shakespearean tragedy opens signification that is hyperontological. Shakespeare's language does not only dramatize certain human events, it also dramatizes the elusive play of certain logical fantasies, certain hyperlogical mystifications....

(The entire section is 9165 words.)

J. Robert Baker (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Baker, J. Robert. “Absence and Subversion: The ‘O'erflow’ of Gender in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 105-15.

[In the following essay, Baker examines the gender reversals of Antony and Cleopatra, contending that “Shakespeare figures movement out of one's own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death, tragedy or comedy.”]

The complexity of Antony and Cleopatra is daunting. Nothing in the play—genre, character, or gender—continues stable or unchallenged. Even the play's structure remains so...

(The entire section is 4379 words.)

Paul Yachnin (essay date spring 1993)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Yachnin, Paul. “Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33, no. 2 (spring 1993): 343-63.

[In the following essay, Yachnin views Antony and Cleopatra as a critique of absolutist loyalty to the divinely appointed sovereign.]

What might Antony and Cleopatra tell us about English political culture of around 1606, and what might it tell us about Shakespeare's theater's relationship with that culture?1 In this essay, I want to suggest answers to these questions in terms of the new historicist focus on the “theatricality of power and the...

(The entire section is 8162 words.)

Arthur Lindley (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindley, Arthur. “Enthroned in the Marketplace: The Carnivalesque in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Hyperion and the Hobbyhorse: Studies in Carnivalesque Subversion, pp. 137-56. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Lindley adapts Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque to his discussion of Antony and Cleopatra, noting the play's comic subversion of the tragic and Egypt's status as a carnival-like parody of Roman culture.]

Every act of history was accompanied by a laughing chorus

—Bakhtin, Rabelais, 474

Carnival is, of...

(The entire section is 9551 words.)

Alf Sjöberg (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Sjöberg, Alf. “The Secondary Role: The Vision of Master and Servant in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Shakespeare and Scandinavia: A Collection of Nordic Studies, edited by Gunnar Sorelius, pp. 31-43. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2002.

[In the following essay, Sjöberg discusses Antony and Cleopatra as a drama of transformation derived from opposition and strife.]

But small to greater matters must give way.
Not if the small come first.


Few dramas have a more solid reputation for spectacularity than Antony and...

(The entire section is 5076 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Berek, Peter. “Doing and Undoing: The Value of Action in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 32, no. 3 (autumn 1981): 295-304.

Highlights similarities in the views of Shakespeare's Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius regarding the limits of worldly action in Antony and Cleopatra.

Charnes, Linda. “What's Love Got to Do with It? Reading the Liberal Humanist Romance in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.Textual Practice 6, no. 1 (spring 1992): 1-16.

Holds the near universal acceptance of passionate and real love between Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra up to critical...

(The entire section is 551 words.)