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.”