illustration of Antony and Cleopatra facing each other with a snake wrapped around their necks

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

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Historical Background

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Although Shakespeare was well acquainted with the history and literature of his day and of preceding centuries, he did not hesitate to amend the known facts of history, if it served his dramatic purposes. Antony and Cleopatra was not well received when it was first produced. Since then, Antony and Cleopatra has grown in favor with both producers and readers. Modern productions have received considerably better reviews, on the whole, than any that were published during the playwright’s lifetime.

Antony and Cleopatra is the second in a trilogy of Roman plays (the first was Julius Caesar; the third, Coriolanus); Shakespeare wrote about an era some 1700 years before his own time. His main source of historical information was Plutarch, whose biographies of great Greeks and Romans has remained a staple of literature for nearly 2,000 years and is still read today.

The famous first triumvirate of Rome—consisting of Julius Caesar, Marcus Crassus, and Pompey the Great—dissolved with the conspiracy of Brutus, Cassius and others against Julius Caesar, and resulted in his assassination. Crassus was murdered by the Parthians, and Pompey the Great was defeated in an uprising against Rome. Following the death of Julius Caesar, the second triumvirate came into being and consisted of Octavius (the adopted son and designated heir of Julius Caesar), Mark Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The members of the second triumvirate defeated the forces led by Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 B.C. The triumvirate’s forces in that battle were led by Mark Antony.

Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, lived in Alexandria, the Egyptian capital city. Mark Antony went to see her, fell in love with her, and remained for a considerable time, much to the disgust of the other two triumvirs. The matter came to a head when Sextus Pompeius, a son of Pompey the Great, became militarily powerful and threatened Rome itself. He maintained his headquarters near Messina (in Sicily); his henchmen were engaged in piracy in and around the Straits of Messina. The pirates become so strong that normal shipping became impossibly dangerous in that area. The three triumvirs met with Sextus Pompeius and offered him the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, if he would cease his piracy of the Straits of Messina and his threat to Rome itself. He agreed.

Later Octavius arrested Lepidus, charging him with treason against Rome. Octavius sailed, with an armada, for Greece and fought a sea battle with Antony near Actium. Octavius won and forced Antony back to Egypt. Finally, Octavius, in Egypt, defeated Antony and added Egypt to the Roman Empire. Antony committed suicide, followed by Cleopatra, thus leaving Octavius as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Places Discussed

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*Egypt. Located on the outskirts of the vast Roman Empire, the Egypt of 30 b.c.e. is portrayed as an exotic land of mystery, fecundity, extravagance, and unconventional behavior, where the Nile River rises and falls to signal the crudely designed planting and harvest seasons, and open sexual experimentation includes transvestism. Cleopatra embodies Egypt in her wildly extravagant behavior and passion. As one of Rome’s three rulers after the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony has been sent in a period of political instability to govern Egypt but soon wavers in his commitment to Roman values and falls in love with Cleopatra. As the scenes shift rapidly between Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria and various locations in Rome, Italy, and Greece, the shifting of place symbolizes the conflict of values in Antony’s mind. In act 1, Antony feels guilty about his un-Roman behavior and temporarily returns to Rome, where he marries Octavia to strengthen his political...

(This entire section contains 599 words.)

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power, but he soon quarrels with Octavius, his fellow triumvir, and returns to Egypt in act 3. As Antony battles Octavius for political power, the scenes shift rapidly between Cleopatra’s palace and various battle scenes in the eastern part of the empire until Antony finally loses the political struggle with Octavius.


*Rome. Rome is seen in the play as the center of a highly ordered and established civilization with stately political and social values. In the first words of the play, set in Cleopatra’s palace, Antony is being judged harshly by his followers for ignoring his Roman duties in order to satisfy sensual pleasures. When a messenger from Rome arrives with news from Octavius, Antony dismisses the him, symbolizing his break with Rome. From the very first moments of the play, then, Shakespeare is juxtaposing the two cultures and forcing the audience into a complex assessment of their competing values. This conflict has been described in various ways, for example as a conflict between culture and barbarity, reason and passion, duty and desire, or decorum and hedonism. Plutarch, the source for Shakespeare’s story, clearly chooses sides in this conflict and sees Antony as a foolish old man, but Shakespeare remains uncommitted, suggesting value and limitations in both cultures. This leaves the thematic conflict richly open-ended and the rapidly shifting places that embody this thematic conflict serve as another reflection of the play’s great tension.

Cleopatra’s monument

Cleopatra’s monument. The play ends in this mausoleum near Cleopatra’s Alexandria palace as she takes her own life after learning of Antony’s suicide at the end of act 4. The scope of the play’s action shrinks after act 3, scene 6, in which Rome is last used as a setting. Thereafter, the action begins moving eastward, contracting toward the more intimate setting of the tragic conclusion. The intimacy of Cleopatra’s monument is contrasted with the epic scope at the beginning of the play, but even here, with Antony close by in Cleopatra’s palace, Shakespeare emphasizes how distant the lovers are from each other. Cleopatra’s sequestration and initially false report of suicide leads to Antony’s real suicide. Then the two struggle, almost comically, to be near each other, as Antony’s body is hoisted up the monument walls for a final kiss. After he dies, Roman soldiers invade Cleopatra’s space and Rome and Egypt are finally merged, with Cleopatra a prisoner and in danger of being carried to Rome to be put on humiliating display as a trophy of war. In her own suicide, Cleopatra thwarts this plan and “marries” herself to Antony at last.

Modern Connections

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Antony and Cleopatra depicts the conflict between Roman and Egyptian values. The play does not present one as superior to the other. It does, however, seem to demonstrate that in order to achieve worldly success, one must be cautious, self-disciplined, and rational. And choosing this course means turning one's back on spontaneity, joy, and laughter. Antony cannot find a way to combine these two ways of living. Is such a compromise possible? Or must each of us choose between professional achievement and personal happiness? Is it possible to "have it all"?

Commentators repeatedly point out that there are no answers to many of the questions raised by the play. The quality of Antony's love for Cleopatra, the essence of her eternal fascination, and Caesar's motivations remain uncertain and debatable. No single interpretation of Antony and Cleopatra is possible. On the one hand, this is frustrating. But on the other, it mirrors the complexity of human experience. Perhaps the play suggests that trying to judge Antony's love or Cleopatra's sincerity is just as risky as attempting to define or categorize human beings.

Similarly, the ambiguous presentation of the central characters in Antony and Cleopatra may be a reflection of the contradictions inherent in all of us. The combination of comic and tragic perspectives in the play troubles many readers and commentators. Antony's love for Cleopatra sometimes seems foolish—particularly when one considers that he's a middle-aged man. But it also enriches his life and adds to our appreciation of him as a person who has an all-embracing view of the world and its pleasures. Is Cleopatra as devoted to Antony as her great speeches in the final portion of the play would lead us to believe? Or is she playing a part, trying to convince herself as well as those around her that her love for Antony is beyond the experience of ordinary mortals? Is Caesar a pompous, self-important, and narrow-minded man, or is he the best leader for Rome at this time in history? Maybe the answer to each of these questions is "yes." Perhaps choosing between alternative views of characters—or between contradictory assessments of the people we encounter in our own lives—is a serious error. It might be better, as perhaps the play suggests, to acknowledge conflicting elements and celebrate these contradictions rather than condemn them.

Sometimes we say we "know" ourselves or our friends and acquaintances. Is this really possible? We form judgments about people we know only by reputation—people whose actions and personalities are reported to us by intermediaries. Do we ever consider whether these reports are reliable? Are modern intermediaries any more dependable than the various messengers in Antony and Cleopatra? Are the reports we receive biased or objective? Are they timely or out-of-date? Do they offer only one perspective or do they provide a fully rounded view? Is an "eye-witness" report necessarily accurate or truthful? If one report contradicts another, which one should we believe? Or should we not believe either one?

The central characters in the play are all mindful of how the world perceives them. Each of them tries, consciously or unconsciously, to control his or her own public image. Antony uses inflated language to amplify his achievements and his greatness. Cleopatra is almost always performing for an audience—whether the audience consists of a single person or the population of an entire city. Caesar foreshadows the modern public relations experts who advise politicians and celebrities. But it isn't only the great ones of the world who are concerned with what people think of them. Most of us would prefer to have our strong points noticed and our flaws overlooked. Many people modify their appearances, wear clothes that flatter them, and try to keep the less attractive aspects of their personalities hidden from public view. We may scorn the play's protagonists for their concern with public image and reputation, but perhaps we should ask ourselves whether wanting to influence the way world sees us isn't a trait shared by all human beings.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Bloom’s concise anthology of major Shakespeare criticism of the 1970’s and 1980’s judiciously samples postmodernist, new historicist, feminist, and deconstructionist discussions of Antony and Cleopatra. See especially the essays by Jonathan Dollimore, Linda Bamber, and Laura Quinney.

Charney, Maurice. Shakespeare’s Roman Plays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. Chapter 3, the centerpiece of Charney’s influential book, brilliantly analyzes the imagery of Antony and Cleopatra; Charney gives particular attention to the imagery that clusters around the Egypt-Rome polarity, thereby constituting it as a complex central theme.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol. 1. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946. Granville-Barker’s prefaces remain timeless monuments to a golden age of Shakespearean scholarship and theatrical performance. The preface to Antony and Cleopatra offers valuable insights into staging and characterization from the perspective of an influential stage director and critic.

Riemer, A. P. A Reading of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1968. A monograph-length, lucid introduction to the background of the play and its plot, characterization, and dramatic structure. Also contains a very useful chapter that discusses important criticism of the play during the early and mid-twentieth century.

Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. In chapter 3 of this classic study, Traversi offers a methodical, analytical commentary on Antony and Cleopatra. Sees the play as a profound work of art that in its spaciousness, episodic form, and morally ambivalent valuations of Rome and Egypt escapes traditional definitions of tragedy.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Andrews, John F., ed. William Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra. London, J. M. Dent, 1993.

Baldwin, T. W. Shakespeare’s Five–Act Structure. Urbana (IL), University of Illinois Press, 1963.

Charney, Maurice. How to Read Shakespeare. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Charney, Maurice. Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in
the Drama
. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.

––––– Shakespeare’s Roman Plays. Cambridge (MA), Harvard
University Press, 1963.

Clough, Arthur Hugh, ed. Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. tr. John Dryden. New York, Modern Library [Random House], [1932] (Reprint of eighteenth–century edition.)

Evans, G. Blakemore. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Everett, Barbara, ed. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. New York, New American Library [The Signet Classic Shakespeare], 1963.

Haliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion, 1564–1964. New York, Schocken Books, 1964

Nicoll, Allardyce, ed. Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 10. Cambridge
(England), [Cambridge] University Press, 1957.

Ornstein, Robert. "Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra", in Dean, Leonard F., ed. Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Ogburn, Dorothy and Charleton. This Star of England. Westport (CT), Greenwood Press, 1972 (Reprint of earlier edition. New York, Coward-McCann, 1952).

Ridley, M. R., ed. Antony and Cleopatra. London and New York, Methuen, 1965


Critical Essays