Analysis of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is the definitive tragedy of passion, and in it the ironic and heroic themes, the day world of history and the night world of passion, expand into natural forces of cosmological proportions.

—Northrup Frye, “The Tailors of the Earth: The Tragedy of Passion,” in Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy

Among  William  Shakespeare’s  great  tragedies,  Antony  and  Cleopatra  is  the  anomaly. Written around 1607, following the completion of the sequence of tragedies that began with Hamlet and concluded with Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra stands in marked contrast from them in tone, theme, and structure. For his last great tragedy, Shakespeare returned to his first, Romeo and Juliet. Like  it,  Antony  and  Cleopatra  is  a  love  story  that  ends  in  a  double  suicide;  however, the lovers here are not teenagers, but the middle-aged Antony and Cleopatra  whose battle between private desires and public responsibilities is played  out  with  world  domination  in  the  balance.  Having  raised  adolescent  love  to  the  level  of  tragic  seriousness  in  Romeo  and  Juliet,  Shakespeare  here  dramatizes a love story on a massive, global scale. If Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth conclude with the prescribed pity and terror, Anthony and Cleopatra ends very differently with pity and triumph, as the title lovers, who have  lost  the  world,  enact  a  kind  of  triumphant  marriage  in  death.  Losing  everything,  they  manage  to  win  much more  by  choosing  love  over  worldly  power. Antony  and  Cleopatra  is  the  last in a  series  of  plays,  beginning  with  Romeo and Juliet and including Troilus and Cressida and Othello, that explores the  connection  between  love  and  tragedy.  It also can be  seen  as  the  first of the playwright’s final series of romances, followed by Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest in which love eventually triumphs over every obstacle. Antony and Cleopatra is therefore a peculiar tragedy of affirmation, setting the dominant tone of Shakespeare’s final plays.


Structurally,  as  well,  Antony  and  Cleopatra  is  exceptional.  Ranging over the Mediterranean world from Egypt to Rome to Athens, Sicily, and Syria, the play has 44 scenes, more than twice the average number in Shakespeare’s plays. The effect is a dizzying rush of events, approximating the method of montage in film. Shakespeare’s previous tragedies were constructed around a few major  scenes.  Here  there  are  so  many  entrances  and  exits,  so  many  shifts of locations and incidents that Samuel Johnson condemned the play as a mere string of episodes “produced without any art of connection or care of disposition.” Later critics have discovered the play’s organizing principle in  its  thematic  contrast  between  Rome  and  Egypt,  supported  by  an  elaborate pattern of images, contrasts, and juxtapositions. There is still, however, disagreement over issues of Shakespeare’s methods and intentions in Antony and Cleopatra . Critic Howard Felperin has suggested that the play “creates an ambiguity  of  effect  and  response  unprecedented  even  within  Shakespeare’s  work.” The critical debate turns on how to interpret Antony and Cleopatra , perhaps the most complex, contradictory, and fascinating characters Shakespeare ever created.

Antony and Cleopatra  picks up where Julius Caesar left off. Four years after Caesar’s  murder,  an  alliance  among  Octavius,  Julius  Caesar’s  grandnephew;  Mark  Antony;  and  the  patrician  politician  Lepidus  has  put  down  the  conspiracy  led  by  Brutus  and  Cassius  and  resulted  in  a  division  of  the  Roman  world among them. Antony, given the eastern sphere of the empire to rule, is  now  in  Alexandria,  where  he  has  fallen  in  love  with  the  Egyptian  queen  Cleopatra.  Enthralled,  Antony  has  ignored  repeated  summonses  to  return  to  Rome  to  attend  to  his  political  responsibilities.  By  pursuing  his  desires  instead, in the words of his men, Antony, “the triple pillar of the world,” has been “transform’d into a strumpet’s fool.” The play immediately establishes a dominant thematic contrast between Rome and Egypt that represents two contrasting worldviews and value systems. Rome is duty, rationality, and the practical  world  of  politics;  Egypt,  embodied  by  its  queen,  is  private  needs,  sensual pleasure, and revelry. The play’s tragedy stems from the irreconcilable division between  the  two,  represented  in  the  play’s  two  major  movements:  Antony’s  abandoning  Cleopatra  and  Egypt  for  Rome  and  his  duties  and  his  subsequent defection back to them. Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus functions in the play as Antony’s conscience, whose sexual cynicism stands in contrast to the love-drenched Egyptian court.

Antony is forced to take action when he learns that his wife, Fulvia, who started  a  rebellion  against  Octavius,  has  died,  and  that  Sextus  Pompey,  son  of Pompey the Great, is claiming his right to power by harrying Octavius on the seas. His resolve to return to Rome to take up his duties there displeases Cleopatra,  and  they  engage  in  a  back-and-forth  lover’s  exchange  of  insults,  avowals of love, and jealous recriminations and, ultimately, a mutual  awareness of Antony’s dilemma in trying to reconcile his personal desires with his political responsibilities. Antony comforts Cleopatra by saying:

Our separation so abides and flies,
That thou residing here, goes yet with me;
And I hence fleeting, here remain with thee.

The  second  act  begins  in  the  house  of  Sextus  Pompey,  who  gauges  the  weakness of the three triumvirs, especially Antony, whom he hopes will continue to be distracted by Cleopatra: “Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both,  /  Tie  up  the  libertine  in  a  field  of  feasts.”  In  the  house  of  Lepidus,  a  quarrel between Antony and Octavius over Fulvia’s rebellion and Antony’s irresponsibility  threatens  to  sever  the  bond  between  them.  Agrippa,  Octavius’s  general,  suggests  a  marriage  between  Antony  and  Octavius’s  sister,  Octavia.  Antony agrees to the marriage as a political necessity, for the good of Rome and to patch up the quarrel. After Antony and Octavius leave to visit Octavia, Enobarbus  tells  Agrippa  and  Maecenas,  another  follower  of  Octavius,  about  the splendors of Egypt and Cleopatra’s remarkable allure. Maecenas remarks sadly  that,  because  of  the  marriage,  “Now  Antony  /  Must  leave  her  utterly.”  Enobarbus, despite his cynicism, understands Cleopatra’s powerful attractiveness and disagrees:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.

Enobarbus’s remarks make clear that the alliance between Antony and Octavius will be short lived, setting both on a collision course.

After his marriage Antony consults an Egyptian soothsayer, who predicts Octavius’s rise and counsels Antony to return to Egypt:

Nobel, courageous, high, unmatchable,
Where Caesar’s is not. But near him thy ange
l Becomes afeard, as being o’erpowered. Therefore
Make space enough between you.

.Angrily dismissing the soothsayer, Antony nevertheless agrees with his analysis,  recognizing  that  “I’th’  East  my  pleasure  lies.”  Before  Antony  leaves  for  Egypt, however, the triumvirs and rebels meet on Pompey’s galley for a night of drinking and feasting following negotiations. Antony’s capacity for raucous merrymaking  shows  the  self-indulgence  that  will  lead  to  his  downfall,  while  Octavius’s sobriety, if puritanical and passionless, nevertheless bespeaks an iron will and determination that eventually will insure his victory over his rivals.

As the third act begins, Ventidius, another of Antony’s commanders, has conquered  the  Parthians,  a  victory  for  which  he  diplomatically  plans  to  let  Antony take credit. Antony, now in Athens with Octavia, learns that Octavius has slandered him and is warring against Pompey. The alliance between the two triumvirs, as well as Antony’s control over his own forces, is further threatened when Antony discovers that Octavius has imprisoned Lepidus to solidify his position and that one of his officers has murdered Pompey. Octavia returns to  Rome  to  try  to  repair  the  breach  between  husband  and  brother.  There,  Octavius tells her that Antony has returned to Egypt and convinces her that Antony  is  not  only  unfaithful  but  is  preparing  for  war:  “He  hath  given  his  empire / Up to a whore.” Octavius responds by preparing to engage Antony in battle at Actium. In Egypt Enobarbus fails to convince Cleopatra not to take part  in  the  battle,  and  the  lovers  also  discount  Enorbarbus’s  logical  reasons  for fighting Octavius on land rather than sea. This decision is partly due to Octavius’s  challenge:  He  dares  Antony  to  meet  him  in  a  naval  engagement.  Cleopatra claims, “I have  sixty  sails.  Octavius none  better,”  and  Antony  is  unable to resist either Octavius’s challenge or Cleopatra’s bravado. At Actium a  sickened  Enobarbus  watches  as  Cleopatra’s  ships  turn  tail  and  flee,  and  a  despairing, shame-filled Antony follows her “like a doting mallard” with his ships. Cleopatra apologizes to Antony for the retreat, and he forgives her, but when  Antony  sees  Octavius’s  ambassador  kissing  Cleopatra’s  hand  and  her  cordial  behavior  toward  him,  he  becomes  enraged,  berating  Cleopatra  and  ordering the messenger Thidias to be whipped. Again the couple are reconciled, and Antony decides to stake all on another battle. Enobarbus, however, has had enough of Antony’s clouded judgment and makes plans to desert him and join Octavius.

In the fourth act Octavius scoffs at Antony’s challenge to meet him in a duel and prepares for war with confidence, knowing that many of his rival’s men have defected to him. When Antony learns of Enobarbus’s desertion he forgives his friend and generously sends his treasure to him. Enobarbus reacts to Antony’s magnanimity with remorse and dies desiring Antony’s forgiveness. Antony scores an initial victory over Octavius, but in a later sea battle and on land in the Egyptian desert, Antony’s army is routed. Enraged, Antony blames Cleopatra and accuses her of betraying him. Terrified by his anger, Cleopatra seeks refuge in her monument and plots to regain Antony’s affection by send-ing word to him that she has slain herself. Her plan disastrously misfires when the news shames Antony into taking his own life:

I will o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and
Weep for my pardon. So it must be, for now
All length is torture; since the torch is out,
Lie down and stray no farther.

He orders his servant Eros to stab him, but Eros takes his own life instead to prevent carrying out the order. Antony then falls upon his sword and when he is told that Cleopatra is still alive, asks to be taken to her in a final acknowledgment that his life and happiness are inextricably bound to her. Just before he dies Antony offers his own eulogy at the end of his long struggle between desire and duty:

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I liv’d the greatest prince o’ th’ world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to My countryman—
a Roman by a RomanValiantly vanquish’d.


In the fifth act Octavius hears of Antony’s death and mourns the passing of a great warrior before moving to procure his spoils: Cleopatra. He sends word that she has nothing to fear from him, but Cleopatra tries to stab herself to prevent the Roman soldiers from taking her prisoner and is stopped. When Dolabella, one of Octavius’s lieutenants, attempts to placate her, she accuses him of lying, and he admits that Octavius plans to display her as his conquest in Rome. Octavius arrives, promising to treat her well if she complies with his wishes while ominously threatening her destruction if she follows “Antony’s course.” Pretending compliance, Cleopatra says of Octavius to her attendants when he departs: “He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not / Be noble to  myself.”  Sending  for  a  basket  of  figs  containing  poisonous  snakes,  Cleopatra prepares herself for death:

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me. Now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grace shall moist this lip.

Stage-managing  her  own  end,  Cleopatra  anticipates  joining  Antony  as  his  worthy wife:                           

.    .    .    Methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come.
Now to that name my courage prove my title!

Placing one of the snakes at her breast, Cleopatra dies. When Octavius returns, he speaks admiringly of her:

Bravest at the last,
She levell’d at our purposes, and being royal,
Took her own way.

Implying by his words an envy of Antony and Cleopatra’s passion and eminence, Octavius commands:

She shall be buried by her Antony;
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented.

In the contest with Rome, Egypt must lose. Desire is no match against cold calculation for worldly power. Human frailty cannot survive an iron will, and  yet  the  play  makes  its  case  that  despite  all  the  contradictions  and  clear  character  imperfections  in  Antony  and  Cleopatra,  with  all  their  willful  self-indulgence, their love trumps all. By the manner of their going and the human values they ultimately assert, Antony and Cleopatra leave an immense emptiness by their death. Octavius wins, but the world loses by their passing. Shakespeare stages an argument on behalf of what makes us human, even at the cost of an empire. His lovers rise to the tragic occasion for a concluding triumph befitting a magnanimous warrior and a queen of “infinite variety.”

Antony and Cleopatra Oxford Lecture by Prof. Emma Smith

Antony and Cleopatra PDF (1MB)


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