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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Upon learning of the death of his cohort and foe, Augustus Caesar says of Antony's demise:

The breaking of so great a thing should make A greater crack: the round world Should have shook lions into civil streets, And citizens to their dens. The death of Antony Is not a single doom; in the name lay A moiety of the world. (V.i.14-18)

A politician by trade and heart, Caesar's words resound with Mark Antony's own funeral orations over the deaths of Julius Caesar and Brutus in the earlier Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar. But while Caesar is not to be taken at his word and is given to borrowed rhetorical exaggeration in service of his own advancement, here his words ring true. Above all, the dominant sense of the play is not so much a product of thematic content as it is of the sheer scope of the events taking place. Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar are all giants, historical heroes whose lives ripple throughout the world for centuries. They are world rulers of unsurpassed historical importance, "planetary" characters with the power, will and talent to shake heaven and earth.

As Caesar's use of the word "moiety" connotes ("moiety" means "half"), the world of Antony and Cleopatra is divided into two, contrasting but complementary spheres. There is the Roman world from which Antony hales and in which Caesar ultimately triumphs. This is a world of rational politics, of reason, and of personal (especially military) honor, all of these being attributes of a western and "masculine" society. Cleopatra's world in Egypt is dominated by passion, by sensory pleasure, and by an "eastern/feminine" weakness associated with deception.

While each of these sides—Roman and Egyptian—has its virtues and its failings, Fortune is on the side of the former. In Act II, scene ii, the soothsayer predicts that Caesar will rise higher than Antony, and we know from history that this proved true. On a dramatic level (without the benefit of historical chronicles), we are told that Rome will defeat Antony and Cleopatra because Fortune demands it. On the cusp of his final battle with Antony and his Egyptian queen, Caesar proclaims that "the time of universal peace is near" ( Shortly thereafter, Antony sees the writing on the wall and allows that "Fortune and Antony part here" (IV.xii.18). From Shakespeare's standpoint, Rome must triumph so that the historical destiny can be fulfilled, including the coming of Christianity to the West under the reign of Caesar. Cleopatra also acknowledges that Fortune is against her cause; in the final scene of Act IV, the vanquished Egyptian Queen vents her anguish with the statement, "let me rail so high / That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel" (IV.xv.42-43). In the end, even so mighty a couple as Antony and Cleopatra cannot oppose historical Fortune. Still, Cleopatra derives some solace from the fact that it is destiny, not Caesar, that conquers, saying in the last scene of the play: "'Tis paltry to be Caesar; / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will" (V.ii.2-4).

Loyalty, personal honor and individual identity comprise another thematic cluster in the play. "If I lose mine honour, / I lose myself" (III.iv.22-23), Antony says to his Roman wife Octavia, and it is within Antony that this connection between integrity and selfhood is played out to the fullest. After abandoning Octavia and his first defeat at the hands of her brother, Antony summons his inner resources to assert "I am Antony yet" (III.xiii.92). But in Act IV, scene xiv, after all is lost, Antony recognizes: "Here I...

(This entire section contains 780 words.)

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am Antony; / Yet cannot hold this visible shape" (ll.13-14). Antony retains his noble stature for us, but in his own mind, his identity as Antony is annihilated by his defeat by Caesar and, more pointedly, by Cleopatra's treachery.

In addition to such obvious symbolic associations as that of Antony with Mars and Cleopatra with Venus, the text of Antony and Cleopatra is rich with recurrent images. One salient thread is that of "food," "eating" and "sensory consumption." Here the nexus of association lies with the Egyptian Queen. Cleopatra is described by Enobarbus as Antony's "Egyptian dish" (, and he earlier elaborated that "Other women cloy / The appetites they feed; but she makes hungry / Where she most satisfies" (II.ii.235-37). After their first defeat at Actium, an angry Antony says to Cleopatra, "I found you as a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar's trencher" (III.xiii.116-17). These "cold dish" images converge with numerous references to serpents, snakes, and crocodiles—cold-blooded creatures of cunning that are also associated with Cleopatra.

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Language and ImageryAntony and Cleopatra is distinguished among Shakespeare's plays for its lush, evocative language. Some critics have even suggested that it should be classified with Shakespeare's long poems rather than ranked alongside his plays. Scholarly discussion has focused on Enobarbus's vividly detailed depiction of Cleopatra on her barge and on the lovers' continual use of hyperbole, or exaggerated language, to describe each other as well as their affection for one another.

Some critics have argued that the hyperbolic language in Antony and Cleopatra makes it a highly problematical play to stage. What actor, for example, is so physically fit that he can portray a character like Antony, whose "legs bestrid the ocean" and whose "rear'd arm / Crested the world"? What actress is charismatic enough to play Cleopatra, who is described as more seductive than Venus, the goddess of love? Odier critics have observed that Shakespeare was well aware of this conflict between language and reality and that he makes this clear in Act V when the defeated Cleopatra imagines that plays written in Rome about the former lovers will feature Antony as a drunk and herself as a "whore" played— as was the custom in Renaissance England— by a "squeaking . . . boy."

Scholars have in fact identified a variety of reasons for the existence of heightened language and vivid imagery in Antony and Cleopatra. Some have demonstrated its usefulness in highlighting the changing moods or fortunes of particular characters. Thus Antony's men effectively display their disappointment in their leader and his noticeable transformation Tvhen they complain that Antony has been reduced from acting like the god of war to behaving like the mere fawning servant of a lustful woman. Similarly, it has been pointed out that while Antony describes his love for Cleopatra in hyperbolic terms, he does not lose sight of his own importance in the world of politics. For instance, even as he asserts that his love for Cleopatra renders everything else in the world unimportant, he demands that the people of the world take note of his love or else face punishment from him. Thus we are introduced to the conflicting feelings—romantic love versus honorable renown— that plague Antony and that ultimately destroy him.

Several critics have suggested that Antony and Cleopatra's hyperbolic poetry mirrors the paradoxes at work in the play: love versus death and immortality versus aging, for example. In connection with this, several scholars have noted the frequent use of images that link death, love, and immortality. The preponderance of death imagery intensifies the tragic nature of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Death imagery also emphasizes the fact that both lovers are aging. Aging and death are things that the extraordinary Antony and Cleopatra have in common with ordinary people, all of whom must come to terms with their mortality; therefore, some critics conclude that the imagery and hyperbole in Antony and Cleopatra are intended to reinforce the fact that all human beings are by their very nature extraordinary.

Dualism Much of the commentary on Antony and Cleopatra has been devoted to the play's numerous thematic pairings: Antony and Cleopatra; love and war; Antony and Octavius; self-restraint and luxury; reason and emotion. Scholars customarily argue that all or at least a large portion of this dualism flows from one essential pairing— Rome (under the guardianship of the strictly disciplined Octavius Caesar) versus Egypt (under the sway of the flamboyantly unpredictable Cleopatra). Antony is traditionally regarded as the go-between or victim of the Rome/Egypt dualism. As such, commentators have remarked, Antony must deal with his own set of internal conflicts: his Roman honor giving way to dishonor in Egypt; his youthful warrior's physique diminishing with age and dissipation; and his love for Cleopatra undermining his loyalty to Rome.

On the other hand, many critics have countered that the elements at work in Antony and Cleopatra cannot be neatly grouped into rigid pairs because just as the political alliances in the play shift, so do the groupings in the play's structure. For example, Antony's dilemma has been described as one involving a choice between love and war; between, that is, his life with Cleopatra in Egypt and his profession as a soldier in Rome. In contrast, critics have argued that Antony's dilemma is solved when love and death are paired through his and Cleopatra's suicides. Commentators have observed that when Octavius commands the burial of the lovers in the same grave, he acknowledges that death has immortalized the love of "a pair so famous" as Antony and Cleopatra.

In addition to thematic dualism, scholars have found linguistic forms of duality in the play. Irony, for example, occurs when the lovers use hyperbolic, or exaggerated, language to describe their devotion to one another even as the action of the play casts doubt on this devotion. Paradox occurs when death is used to solve the problems of the living. One critic has noted that, paradoxically, Octavius Caesar becomes emperor of the world at the close of the play, but his earthly power is eclipsed by the transcendent love achieved through Antony and Cleopatra's deaths.

Disagreements between critics concerning the play's meaning also underscore the dualism of Antony and Cleopatra. For example, commentators who assert that the play is about the transcendence of love are contradicted by critics who maintain that the play's real focus is on the moral transgressions of the two lovers and the deadly price they are obliged to pay for their sins. Critics who regard Cleopatra as selfish and whimsical are countered by those who argue that her actions in the play are misunderstood. Those who consider Antony a noble character are at odds with scholars who regard him as weak Today, many critics conclude that the play's dualism or ambivalence is intentional, and that the insoluble conflicts which surface repeatedly in Antony and Cleopatra are meant to provoke audience members into thinking about the ambiguities present in their own lives.

Rome versus Egypt Traditional scholarly assessments of Egypt and Rome as depicted in Antony and Cleopatra treat the nations as polar opposites. Thus Rome is a guardian of moral restraint, personal responsibility, social order, and military discipline. Further, Rome places a high value on honor and duty toward one's country. By contrast, Egypt is seen as a magnet for decadence, concupiscence, and indolence. Egypt, according to this view, places a high value on physical enjoyment and luxuriant fertility. Egypt is the place to have fun; Rome is the place to work Egypt equals private life; Rome equals public life. By extension, traditional criticism asserts that Cleopatra symbolizes Egypt, Octavius Caesar represents Rome, and Antony is torn between the two worlds until he is finally destroyed.

More recent criticism, however, suggests that Rome and Egypt are alike to the degree that they are both in decline, and that the love of Antony and Cleopatra does not reflect the opposition between the two countries or the conflict endured by Antony, but the temporary triumph of imperialism. The love shared by Antony and Cleopatra, some critics argue, is as imperious and undemocratic as the new government in Rome. The lovers themselves describe their feelings in imperial terms; Antony, for instance, claims that his affection is capable of conquering whole worlds and of blotting out geographical formations.

Scholars have also remarked that the decline of Rome and Egypt is the result of changes in both nations: Republican Rome is now Imperial Rome; Egypt is ruled by an unpredictable and aging queen. Rome is prey to shifting alliances and political betrayal by Octavius, who bickers with one triumvir (Antony) and jails another (Lepidus); Egypt is subject to the flooding of the Nile and the unpredictable fortunes of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Both Egypt and Rome, one critic has observed, are pagan nations, which will soon give way to Christianity. Ultimately, commentators suggest that it is less constructive to view Rome and Egypt as "separate" entities than as shifting and intermingling locations of waxing and waning power that affect and are affected by the two lovers.


Act and Scene Summaries