Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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What happens in Antony and Cleopatra?

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare draws on true events to tell the story of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Cleopatra first joins forces with Antony, but then betrays him. In the end, he falls on his sword, and Cleopatra kills herself with a poisonous asp.

  • Antony, one of the triumvirs, has been given the Eastern sphere of the Roman Empire to rule. There, he meets and falls in love with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, who was also a consort of Julius Caesar during his life.

  • Despite marrying Octavius's sister Octavia, Antony continues to lust after Cleopatra. This leads to war with Octavius, which Antony loses, in part because Cleopatra withdraws her fleet at a crucial moment.

  • Aware that Antony is furious with her, Cleopatra sends him false news that she has killed herself because of him. Thus convinced of her love, Antony falls on his sword to join her in death. Hearing of this, Cleopatra commits suicide by allowing herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp.

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Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's best known later tragedies. Written about ten years after Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra portrays actual events and persons from Roman history, but unlike Julius Caesar it also embodies the love story of its title characters. For the historical background, plot and intimate details of the affair between the Roman general Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, Shakespeare drew upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives; in fact, the description of Cleopatra upon her barge presented by the character Enobarbus in the play (II.ii.190-225) is nearly a word-for-word translation of a passage from Plutarch.

In Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar, Shakespeare depicts characters that are larger than life, all three of the main figures commanding "planetary" status as rulers of the world and instruments of its destiny. Antony and Cleopatra is a very involved play, featuring rapid shifts between Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, Egypt and Antony's homeland in Rome, along with two major battlefield sequences. There are in fact thirteen scenes in Act III and fifteen in Act IV. While some nineteenth and early twentieth century critics complained about the awkward structure of the play, recent interpretation has argued that this relentless movement in the middle of the play creates dramatic tension and reinforces the global scope of what is occurring on stage.

Antony and Cleopatra stands as one of Shakespeare's most poetic plays. It is noted for its evocative word paintings and vivid hyperbole. It is also regarded by many as a problem play, presenting as it does the ambiguity and ambivalence of life without providing clear or comfortable answers. The two lovers presented in the play may be world leaders, but they are also, after all, only human beings—flawed and aging ones at that. We as human beings share their mortality; many of us recognize their strong feelings of jealousy, love, shame, and insecurity. Despite their historical grandeur and thanks to Shakespeare's sensitive portrayal of them, Antony and Cleopatra are no more—and no less—extraordinary than we are.


Summary of the Play

After the battle at Philippi, Antony went to Egypt and began a romance with Cleopatra. Messengers from Rome arrive at Cleopatra’s court, demanding Antony’s immediate return to Rome to aid in the fight against Sextus Pompeius and upbraiding him for his dereliction of the official duties of a triumvir. Antony argues that he is not needed in Rome, but he does return and marries Octavius’ sister Octavia. A meeting between Pompey (Sextus Pompeius) and the triumvirs results in...

(The entire section is 749 words.)