Antony and Cleopatra

ISBN: 0451514114
ISBN 13: 9780451514110
By: William Shakespeare

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About this book

Antony and Cleopatra is one of the greatest love stories of all time, and one of the finest, and most poetic of all the high Shakespearean tragedies. Written between 1606 and 1607, it draws on the Roman historian Plutarch and his account of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the birth of the empire under Octavius Caesar, son of Julius. This imperial struggle for political power between Octavius, Lepidus, Pompey and Mark Antony provides the backdrop for the play's extraordinary evocation of the tempestuous love of Antony for Cleopatra, his "Egyptian dish". The play cuts back and forth between the cold, calculating realpolitik of imperial Rome, and the sensuous, erotic world of Egypt and Cleopatra's luxurious and hedonistic court. Yet what is most memorable about the play is its remarkably poetic language; its lush image of Cleopatra in her barge, "like a burnished throne / Burned on the water", and "beggared all description", and its erotic fusion of images of sex and death which find their ultimate culmination in the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra in the final scenes of the play. A notoriously elusive play for both critics and theatre directors alike, Antony and Cleopatra's fascination with questions of race, sex, death, power and politics makes it one of the most compelling of all of Shakespeare's plays. However, the stage is undoubtedly held by Cleopatra, and Enobarbus' attempt to explain her fascination, as powerful and evocative today as ever: "Age cannot wither her, Nor custom stale her infinite variety".--Jerry Brotton

Reader's Thoughts

Kay Fair

Their celebrity couple name would be... AntoPatra.And essentially, that is what Antony and Cleopatra are: a celebrity couple. And just like the crazy jump-on-the-couch love of TomKat, their affection is subject to deep suspicion and speculation by the public. The romance of AntoPatra is often compared with that of Romeo and Juliet in regard to both passion and poetry. However, the circumstance of celebrity makes Antony and Cleopatra vastly, sadly different from the star-crossed young lovers of Verona. It is tantamount to comparing Brangelina with some high school sweethearts from Nowhere, Montana. Celebrities must adjust their behaviors and passions to suit their positions. The most interesting aspect of AntoPatra's love is therefore not the expression of their affection, but rather the adjustment of their amour.These lovers seem to have torn a page from a Harold Pinter play and mastered the art of subtext, saying more between their lines than within them. This is especially the case when other characters are witness to the exchanges between the lovers. A celebrity couple is never truly alone, since they belong, at least in part, to the public. The fact that this is a play and an audience is truly present (even during "private" moments) just serves to elevate that paradox. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the audience may often find itself holding its collective breath as it attempts not to interrupt the intimacy of the incredibly private trysts of the young lovers. On the other hand, in Antony and Cleopatra, the audience is the literal translation, an extension, of the public eye characterized onstage. Every cough and shuffle of the audience can just serve to remind Antony and Cleopatra that someone, somewhere, is always watching.When a celebrity relationship first develops, we all conjecture over whether it's "for real." Is it just because his career is slacking? Is it a stunt to take media attention off her botched boob job? Etc. Etc. Ad Nauseum. And the more I view AntoPatra as a celebrity couple, the more I find myself analyzing the sincerity of their purported affection. Would Cleopatra love Antony if he were a mere Roman warrior? Would Antony care for Cleopatra if she were an Egyptian peasant? Likely not. I'll go out on a limb here and say defiantly not. While it can't be said that their love is based solely on the advantages one garners for the other (their relationship often creates more drama than glory), it is likely that they love based on the prestige of their partner. They see each other as worthy, powerful equals. As with modern celebrity couples, the attraction of power and wealth to power and wealth isn't necessarily just due to elitism. They understand (even if they fail to accept) the constraints that power, wealth and position imply. (Complete review available at


Not a full review but: holy crap, there's what is pretty clearly a gay hook-up scene in the middle of this. I mean, "DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS:... Menas, I'll not on shore.MENAS: No, to my cabin."- which comes after some pretty heavy flirting and drinking between these two guys - it's kind of amazingly unsubtle and frankly, pretty sexy even just on the page. Not shocked, just processing the fact that Shakespeare really did do everything first - plus that I totally did not get that while reading it as a naive teenager. Also, really short cut-scenes jumping between groups for like a single piece of dialogue, so you get 15 (well, xv) scenes in an Act - very different to some of the other plays, and highly cinema-esque. Cleopatra as written...problematic from modern feminist perspective, though a lot could be done with interpretation on stage for better or worse. Anyway, I'm seeing this at the theatre today so will see how the director interprets it compared with my ideas.


Fantastic... Cleopatra is every bit the grand, Olympian but human character on par with Lear, Othello, Richard III, and the melancholy Dane... I want to write more about this play (with quotes! with quotes!) but I'm lacking in time at the moment......Still lacking the time and inclination to hold forth in grand style on this one. But I can't resist pointing out that the adaptation the commentary praises the most is the one directed by Trevor Nunn, which was filmed in 1972 or something and is available for free on youtube. God bless the internet! It's terrific. It's done by a bunch of English Shakespeare Actors, and is perhaps somewhat dated, but I tell you there's nothing like seeing something written on the page come alive, moment for moment, detail by detail, and that the images and camera shots in your mind's eye are pretty much realized in the flesh... Here it is, or at least the introductory ten minute segment: And, honestly, if vibrantly staged and viscerally acted (Cleopatra's queenly, sexy and giddy! Antony's baller! Caesar's a prissy kid! Patrick Stewart!) Shakespeare don't cook yr goose, I dunno what to tell you.


I had never read Antony and Cleopatra before, and I found it to move much more quickly than a few of Shakespeare's other plays. This helped to keep my interest a little more, while at the same time causing a bit of confusion over who was who and what was happening when. The language was a bit difficult to follow at times, and I found myself reading whole sections without confidently knowing what the dialogue was about. However, I was able to at least grasp the main events and ideas. While I may not have loved Antony or Cleopatra (they were a little too self-absorbed for my liking), I could at least engage with them as characters. I don't know if Shakespeare stayed true to real life, but his version of the events was definitely dramatic and entertaining!As a preservice teacher, I strongly believe that this play--and really, any of Shakespeare's plays--can be brought into a classroom. The key is HOW it's brought in. I think teachers many times frighten students when they talk about how great of a writer Shakespeare was, and that all of his work are phenomenal classics. And I agree! But what students may fail to realize, then, is that Shakespeare wrote to entertain--therefore, reading Shakespeare should be fun, not intimidating or miserable. I think that as long as proper scaffolding is in place to help with the language, and that students are allowed to enjoy the play instead of treat it as some sort of sacred work of art, Shakespeare will be much more accessible for students. I also watched Antony and Cleopatra performed live a day or two after I finished reading the play, and I must say that this drastically increased my comprehension and appreciation for the text. It is a play, after all, and so it was intended to be SEEN, not really READ. I personally believe that a recorded performance could actually serve as a target text, with the written play as more of supplemental material. In whatever way the play is taught, though, at least some amount of visual/audio material should be incorporated!

Jim Coughenour

I'm a little embarrassed I've put off reading this play for decades, because I've always assumed it would be dull, not in the stratosphere with the Great Tragedies. It was anything but dull – but then again, it may not be a tragedy either. Shakespeare virtually invented these larger-than-life characters. As John Wilders (the editor of the Arden edition) points out, the final scene "is unlike anything in Shakespeare's other tragedies and its uniqueness arises in part from the deliberately spectacular nature of Cleopatra's death." Is her death a tragedy or an apotheosis? It's certainly great theater.As with any of Shakespeare's historical plays, it's helpful to have an outline of the history in your head. I was happy that I'd read Adrian Goldsworthy's book first, as I didn't have to struggle to understand what was happening from scene to scene and could concentrate on the fireworks.My favorite new Shakespearean word: discandy.MARK ANTONYO sun, thy uprise shall I see no more.Fortune and Antony part here; even hereDo we shake hands. All come to this! The heartsThat spanieled me at heels, to whom I gaveTheir wishes, do discandy, melt their sweetsOn blossoming Caesar; and this pine is barkedThat overtopped them all. Betrayed I am.(IV.12.18-24)Cleopatra uses the same word earlier in the play (III.13.170). Each time it's linked to the sense of melting, which in turn evoked (for me) the ancient legend of Cleopatra and her dissolving pearl – perhaps the most infamous melting candy of all time.

Asya Fergiani

This was required reading for a World Literature class I took last year. It was a painful read with self-serving characters. As much as Shakespeare is an acclaimed writer, I found little to enjoy about this play mostly because I found Cleopatra and Antony contrived and ridiculously without common sense for the historical icons they are. Being that it was a play, I’m not sure how much historical accuracy would be required after all it was written to entertain. Antony, “O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt? See how I convey my shame out of thine eyes by looking back what I have left behind ‘Stroyed in dishonor” (Shakespeare 129). Cleopatra, “Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought you would have followed” (Shakespeare 129). Here Antony admits his stupidity that he will repeat for Cleopatra again and again. Cleopatra gives a lame excuse for retreating. Their relationship through the play continues its dysfunction with no thought of the expense to their people. It lacks authenticity. As a writer, I will strive to write with attention to the plausibility of my story. I would not have read this if it were not required by my professor.


So this is like Romeo and Juliet in that they end up dead, but not like Romeo and Juliet in that there isn't any good fighting, or secret plans that go awry or feuding families or even a fun, bawdy nurse. It took a very long time for me to read to the end. Luckily, the play as performed is a bit more entertaining. But overall it is a Romeo and Juliet as played by boring politicians.

Bill Kerwin

This play is so good that it is not merely a masterpiece but a mystery. The two protagonists are alternately noble and petty, wise and foolish, and yet never seem inconsistent or self-contradictory because Shakespeare--here is the mystery--consistently maintains a tone that is paradoxically both ironic and heroic. Part of it is the language, which shifts seamlessly from mellifluous monologues adorned with cosmic imagery (comparing Anthony and Cleopatra to continents, stars,etc.) to the most modern-sounding, most casual and wittiest dialogue of Shakespeare's career. Part of it is the larger-than-life characterization which transforms each vicious and pathetic absurdity into a privilege of the lovers' protean magnificence--as undeniable and unquestionable as the sovreign acts of Olympian gods. Whatever the reason, this play makes me laugh and cry and leaves me with a deep spiritual reverence for the possibilities of the human heart.I wrote the paragraph above two and a half years ago, and it still reflects my opinion of the play. This time through, though, I was particularly struck by how much the voices of the military subordinates and servants--Enobarbus and Charmion, Ventidius and Alexis, and many others, including even unnamed messengers and soldiers--contribute to this double movement of the ironic and heroic, celebrating the leaders' mythic qualities but also commenting on their great flaws. Enobarbus--with his loyal (albeit amused) appreciation, his disillusioned betrayal, and his subsequent death from what can best be described as a broken heart--is central to this aspect of the play.


Ugh. Boring. Slow. Maybe it's really cool to watch, but it's really tedious to read fifteen scenes in Acts III and IV, especially when we know (from history) how it ends. It felt like more of a history than a tragedy: 1) because the slowness of the play made it seem like Shakespeare was held down by the facts rather than freed (as in the mythological plays like King Lear); 2) because neither Antony nor Cleopatra ever seem "great" and therefore can't have much of a downfall; 3) because there's not much good, poignant, or interesting poetry in here, despite its length; and 4) Shakespeare wrote some very similar plays which beat the pants off of A & C (and 99% of human literature)--Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Julius Caesar. A & C just doesn't stand up to any of those; it's like it was written by a different author.Of course, it wasn't. Shakespeare is up to his usual tricks, his usual themes, his usual penis jokes: IRAS Am I not an inch of fortune better than she?CHARMIAN Well, if you were but an inch of fortune better thanI, where would you choose it?IRAS Not in my husband's nose.Tee hee. And there are some famous lines and everyday phrases which are taken from the play.CLEOPATRA My salad days,When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,To say as I said then! A & C has primarily interested feminists over the years, and it's not hard to see why: DOMITIUS ENOBARBUS But there is never a fair woman has a true face.MENAS No slander; they steal hearts.orDOMITIUS ENOBARBUS I think so too. But you shall find, the band thatseems to tie their friendship together will be thevery strangler of their amity: Octavia is of aholy, cold, and still conversation.MENAS Who would not have his wife so?or CANIDIUS Soldier, thou art: but his whole action growsNot in the power on't: so our leader's led,And we are women's men.SCARUS The greater cantle of the world is lostWith very ignorance; we have kiss'd awayKingdoms and provinces.SCARUS She once being loof'd,The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,Claps on his sea-wing, and, like a doting mallard,Leaving the fight in height, flies after her:I never saw an action of such shame;Experience, manhood, honour, ne'er beforeDid violate so itself.So, do we feel shame? No, not really. I didn't really care what happened to any of these characters, because none of them were sympathetic or honorable. I like Octavius the best. Anyway, Shakespeare seemed like he was trying too hard to be accurate, so the structure of the play is all screwy. There's a rising action (!) for the first three acts, and then a long, slow, descent. Yawn yawn yawn. Also, this is the earliest use of the word "haters" I can find. LOL.

Rhiannon Johnson

The character Cleopatra, in William Shakespeare's “Antony and Cleopatra,” possesses a multitude of contradictions. Through constant clashes in speech and action, Shakespeare constructs a complex female character. Critic Anna Jameson refers to Cleopatra as “a brilliant antithesis—a compound of contradictions” (Quint 244). Jameson recognizes Shakespeare's “deep meaning and wonderous [sic] skill in the apparent enigma” of Cleopatra (244). Shakespeare remediates the stories of Plutarch and Genesis to give agency to his character. Through appropriation Shakespeare shapes his “literary forbears to new uses, enhancing,extending, or critiquing the meaning of the primary text” (Savu 22). Through remediation, Shakespeare emphasizes Cleopatra's sexual power, and shifts the image of the snake from a male to a female symbol of power, in order to give agency to Cleopatra in her suicide.To read my paper "Remediating Cleopatra" visit:

Ben Dutton

This is not a play you read for plot. Yes, an awful lot happens – empires fall, I guess, and there are battles and personal tragedies, and it has the scale of an epic. But all those thing, they happen in the periphery. They are the background against which Shakespeare imagines the romance and fall of two great lovers – Anthony and Cleopatra. This play is one of Shakespeare’s great poetical works. There are innumerable quotable lines here, and the lovers express themselves with such eloquence, it gives their eventual downfall a sense of pure heartbreak. It is also one of those plays that doesn’t reveal its qualities in full on one reading. And this, sadly, is all I have so far given this play (and given it while under the influence of a nasty case of the flu – reading Shakespeare through eyes aching with tiredness and your nose an open tap is not to be recommended) but I will return to it within the year, and perhaps then I shall more to say upon it. I suspect come the 100th reading I will still have things to say upon it. This play is that good.

R.J. Askew

A WONDERFUL PIECE OF WORK Love. Power. Love. Power. Which is the eye drawn to? It’s said women love powerful men. So does love follow power? Wealth seems to. Are powerful men happier than all the rest? And powerful women? It’s said that men are terrified of them. And if the lover loves the power more than its holder? Can love conquor power? And if it does? What of power then? Can a powerful man surrender to love and remain powerful? Behind every powerful man… Power. Love. Power. Love. Antony. Cleo. Antony. Cleo. ‘Would I had never seen her!’ says Mark Antony. But he does, and becomes in Rome’s eye, ‘the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust,’ and, ‘The triple pillar of the world transform’d into a strumpet’s fool…’ But then she is ‘…a wonderful piece of work…’, as Antony’s supporter Enobarbus says. And she herself says, ‘I was a morsel for a monarch’. ‘Let witchcraft join with beauty, lust with both’, says Pompey’s son. ‘She is cunning past man’s thought,’ says Antony. Musing on fishing, she says, ‘…my bended hook shall pierce their slimy jaws…I’ll think them every one an Antony, And say, ‘Ah ha!’ you’re caught.’ And he is. On being entertained on her sumptuous barge he ‘…pays with his heart for what his eyes eat only.’ Such is her ‘infinite variety’. Rome is power, the greatest there is. Power brings conquest, treasure, honour. Power is all. Power instinctively grows more powerful, loves power. Rome has been a republic for five hundred years and is governed by a senatorial class of aristocratic families and tribunes elected by the people – the plebians. But the power massed in the hands of men like Julius Caesar – warrior politicians – becomes too great for the old order to curb. Julius Caesar, aided by Antony – a popular general, becomes dictator of Rome. This is the fulcrum in Rome’s history. The crisis deepens when the old order kills Caesar. Antony takes revenge on the murders and joins a new ruling clique – the triumvirate – with the young Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s adopted son and heir, and Lepidus, another of Julius Caesar’s allies. Antony knows the hardships of war, and relates to common soldiers, the ‘lads’, with whom he is on familiar terms. He lives loose, drinks deep, and makes free with other mens’ wives. The luxury of Egypt, in his third of the Roman world, is irresistible to him, as is its famous queen. Cleopatra was the lover of Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son, Caesarion, and Caesar’s great rival, Pompey. If Rome is power, order, reason, Egypt is pleasure, ease, romance. ‘…we did sleep day out…and make night light with drinking…’ says Enobarbus, adding later, ‘…we have used our throats in Egypt.’ Did you really have eight wild boar roasted whole at a breakfast? asks one of Caesar’s friends. Enter a messenger. But Mark Antony can’t forget Rome. Messengers fly back and forth. Antony’s brother and wife, Fulvia, war with Caesar in Italy, in part ‘to have me out of Egypt’, Antony says. ‘A Roman thought hath struck him,’ Cleopatra mocks. She tries to beguile him by pretending to be sad if he is merry and merry if he is sad. But Rome tugs at Antony. ‘Our Italy shines o’er with civil swords,’ he says. ‘I must be gone. These strong Egyptian fetters I must break.’ Enter another messenger. But first a little bawdy joking among Cleopatra’s ladies and a soothsayer who tells Charmian, ‘You shall outlive the lady whom you serve.’ Such is Egypt. Enter a messenger. Fulvia is dead. And Pompey the younger challenges the triumvirate. Caesar says ‘…we do bear so great weight in his lightness’ of Antony’s absence. But then he is in Rome and it is Cleopatra who misses him ‘…does he walk? Or is he on his horse? O happy, horse, to bear the weight of Antony!’ Antony the politician makes up with Caesar who marries his sister, Octavia, to him. But Enobarbus says, ‘He will to his Egyptian dish again,’ and predicts that the marriage will later ‘prove the immediate author of their variance.’ Strikes him down. Cleopatra is enraged at the hapless messenger who brings news of the marriage. ‘Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire, and stewed in brine.’ On board Pompey’s galley. Lepidius, drunk, asks, ‘What manner o’thing is your crocodile?’ Antony mocks him, ‘It is shaped sir, like itself…’ Pompey declines an offer from a pirate to murder the triumvirs on his behalf as this would dishonour him. The pirate deserts him. Ventidius, a subordinate of Antony’s later says he did not do as much while fighting the parthains as he could have done, so as not to, ‘acquire too high a fame’. Lepidius, the weakest triumvir, is however caught between his love for Caesar and his adoration of Antony. Will Caesar weep when he parts from Octavia? Antony ‘cried almost to roaring’ on Julius Caesar’s death. ‘Is she as tall as me? What majesty is in her gait?’ asks Cleopatra. ‘She creeps,’ says the now wily messenger. The play is riddled contrasts between rivals and contrasts within in the principals, much as Plutrach’s Lives, Shakespeare’s source for this and his other Roman plays, contrasts the lives of noble Greeks and Romans and strengths and weakness of character in individuals. There are two sides to everything. Life is comedy and tragedy. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------- We are now almost at the mid-point of Act III and the fulcrum of the play, after which events spin out of Mark Antony’s control.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Antony complains that Caesar is at war with Pompey and has deposed Lepidus. Octavia is distraught, torn, like Lepidus, between praying for her husband Antony and her brother Octavius, saying there is, ‘…no midway twix these extrmes at all.’ Caesar is angered thatm ‘Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold were publicly enthron’d’. ‘He hath given his empire up to a whore; who now are levying the kings o’the earth for war.’ A plain near Actium. Enobarbus the soldier, exasperated by Cleopatra’s presence, moans, ‘But why, why, why?’ He adds, ‘…if we should serve with horse and mares together…your presence must puzzle Antony…’ ‘Sink Rome,’ snaps Cleopatra. Antony is stronger on land than at sea and a common soldier pleads, ‘ O noble emperor! Do not fight by sea…’ And Canidius, who later deserts Antony, says, ‘…our leader’s led, and we are women’s men.’ But Anony fights Ceasar at sea and is undone when Cleopatra flees the battle with her sixty ships, ‘like a cow in June’, and Antony follows, ‘like a doting mallard’. Scarus says, ‘Experience, manhood, honour, ne’er before did violate itself so.’ ‘Love, I am full of lead,’ says Antony after, perhaps addressing the concept of love as well as Cleopatra. My heart was tied to your rudder, he tells her. He is reduced to sending his old teacher, Euphronius, to treat with his younger rival, such is his impotence. ‘What shall we do, Enobarbus?’ asks Cleopatra. ‘Think, and die,’ comes the reply. Antony is now so desperate he challenges Caesar to fight him, ‘sword against sword’. Enobarbus in a scornful aside says Caesar triumphant will not risk all, ‘Against a sworder!’ and in another aside says, ‘Sir, sir, thou’rt so leaky, that we must leave thee to thy sinking...' Antony has Caesar’s messenger whipped and rails against Cleopatra, ‘I found you as a morsel, cold upon dead Caesar’s trencher…’ She calls down poisoned hailstones on herself. Antony rallies, ‘Let’s have one other gaudy night…’ Enobarbus sees it all, ‘Now he’ll outstare the lightning. A diminution in our captain’s brain restores his heart. I will seek some other way to leave him.’ ‘He calls me boy,’ says Caesar. ‘Tend me tonight two hours,’ Antony bids of his servants, as if expecting doom. Soldiers hear, ‘Music i’ the air’, and suspect it marks his favourite god, Hercules, deserting him. Cleopatra helps him on with his armour like a fussing wife and he kisses her, ‘This is a soldier’s kiss.’ This is their only kiss in the play’s text. Later, when things go well for him, he refers to her as, ‘My nightingale…’ Previously he says fondly, ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’ And he sends her a pearl from Rome, at which point he was to her ‘man of men’ and she was writing to him every day, saying to her maid,‘Ink and paper, Charmain.’ When Enobarbus finally deserts him, Antony, sees the consequences of his mistakes, ‘O! my fortunes have corrupted honest men.’ Enobarbus rues his desertion saying of himself, ‘I am alone the villain of the earth.’ When Antony’s fortunes rally briefly – pointedly in a land battle – Enobarbus dies, disconsolate, ‘A master-leaver and a fugitive.’ But then, ‘All is lost!’ during a second sea battle and Antony calls Cleopatra a ‘triple-turn’d whore!’ and says she ‘Hast sold me to this novice,’ Caesar. At Actium, one of Antony’s soldiers called her, ‘Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt’ and Antony now calls her ‘a right gypsy…fast and loose’, as if coming round to the Roman view of her as ‘gypsy’ in the play’s opening lines. He calls her ‘the greatest spot of all thy sex’, talks of Caesar hoisting her up ‘to the shouting plebians’, and says ‘The witch shall die: to the young Roman boy she hath sold me’. Terrified by Antony’s rage, Cleopatra bolts to her monument and sends her eunuch to say she is dead. Antony, ‘Dead then?’ Eunuch, ‘Dead.’ The news drives Antony to tell his man Eros to kill him. But Eros kills himself instead. Antony, shamed by Eros, falls on his own sword, but fails to kill himself. ‘Let him that loves me strike me dead,’ he commands of his guards. But they all refuse. He is taken to Cleopatra’s monument. ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying.’ Cleopatra and her maids hoist him up. ‘How heavy weight my lord!’ she says. ‘Our strength is goint into heaviness, that makes the weight.’ The point is hammered home when all the women say, ‘A heavy sight!’ And Antony repeats, ‘I am dying Egypt, dying.’ Antony dies. In the final act Caesar, ‘sole sir o’the world,’ makes his plans and Cleopatra treats with him. She dreams of Antony and speaks of him as a generous and outstanding man, but not in a romantic way, as a lover. Caesar seems reasonable yet threatens her children if she does not comply. She then discovers his true intent is to parade her to through Rome ‘in triumph.’ Yet, she too remains slippery, disguising her true wealth from Caesar. She is in horror of the Roman mob with their ‘greasy aprons…thick breaths…rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded, and forc’d to drink their vapour?’ There seems more passion in this fear than in her dream of Antony, though Shakespeare was surely trying to make his own smelly audience think of themselves as Romans. And so, to join Antony and foil Caesar, she applies an asp. But first she kisses one of her maids, who promptly dies. She applies a second asp, dies. Another maid applies an asp, dies. Octavius Caesar, powerless to stop Cleopatra’s bid for immortality, goes on to rule Rome for decades and make good his comment that, ‘The time of universal peace is near.’-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Power wins. Love for its own sake is nowhere. Cleopatra’s love of Antony’s power and Antony’s sensuousness permit her to cloak his power as a rampant ivy cloaks a tree until said tree falls, taking said ivy with it. Antony speaks with more passion about his honour, or hurtfully of Cleopatra when his cause fails, than he ever does in a romantic way to or about her. And she remains guileful to the end and as concerned with her royalty and spiting Caesar’s plan to show her off as she is about joining Antony in death. But the ‘boy’ Caesar is immune to her ways and does not even recognise her when they first meet. We also know from Plutarch that Cleopatra tested methods of suicide on prisoners to discover the gentlest, a woman who left little to chance. But are things ever so simple? The complexity of all things is captured when Cleopatra says to her first asp, ‘This knot intrinsicate of life at once untie’. The joining of ‘intrinsic’ and ‘intricate’ in the portmanteau word ‘intrinsicate’ tells us that life is never one thing.

Rowland Bismark

Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, immediately after Macbeth, and it is one of the last great tragedies that Shakespeare produced. The most geographically sweeping of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra’s setting is the entire Roman Empire, its backdrop the well-documented history of Octavius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s primary source for Antony and Cleopatra was the Life of Marcus Antonius contained in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which was translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579. North’s language was so rich that Shakespeare incorporated large, relatively unchanged excerpts of it into his text. The plot of the play also remains close to North’s history, although characters like Enobarbus and Cleopatra’s attendants are largely Shakespearean creations.The action of the story takes place roughly two years after the events of Shakespeare’s earlier play about the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar. At the beginning of that tragedy, Caesar has triumphed over his rival Pompey the Great, the father of young Pompey in Antony and Cleopatra, and aspires to kingship. Caesar is then assassinated by Cassius and Brutus, who hope to preserve the Roman Republic. Instead, Cassius and Brutus are defeated by Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar, Julius’s nephew, who then join Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to create a three-man government, or triumvirate, over the empire.Historically, the action of Antony and Cleopatra takes place over a ten-year span, whereas in the play the story is compressed to fit the needs of the stage. Antony is clearly much older than he was in Julius Caesar, and his political instincts seem to be waning. Octavius Caesar was only a minor character in the earlier play, but here he comes into his own as the man who will rise to become the first Roman emperor. Most of the political battles and machinations depicted are historically accurate, as is the romance of the title characters.In his opening lines to Demetrius, Philo complains that Antony has abandoned the military endeavors on which his reputation is based for Cleopatra’s sake. His criticism of Antony’s “dotage,” or stupidity, introduces a tension between reason and emotion that runs throughout the play (I.i.1). Antony and Cleopatra’s first exchange heightens this tension, as they argue whether their love can be put into words and understood or whether it exceeds such faculties and boundaries of reason. If, according to Roman consensus, Antony is the military hero and disciplined statesmen that Caesar and others believe him to be, then he seems to have happily abandoned his reason in order to pursue his passion. He declares: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (I.i.35–36). The play, however, is more concerned with the battle between reason and emotion than the triumph of one over the other, and this battle is waged most forcefully in the character of Antony. More than any other character in the play, Antony vacillates between Western and Eastern sensibilities, feeling pulled by both his duty to the empire and his desire for pleasure, his want of military glory and his passion for Cleopatra. Soon after his nonchalant dismissal of Caesar’s messenger, the empire, and his duty to it, he chastises himself for his neglect and commits to return to Rome, lest he “lose [him:]self in dotage” (I.ii.106).As the play progresses, Antony continues to inhabit conflicting identities that play out the struggle between reason and emotion. At one moment, he is the vengeful war hero whom Caesar praises and fears. Soon thereafter, he sacrifices his military position by unwisely allowing Cleopatra to determine his course of action. As his Roman allies—even the ever-faithful Enobarbus—abandon him, Antony feels that he has, indeed, lost himself in dotage, and he determines to rescue his noble identity by taking his own life. At first, this course of action may appear to be a triumph of reason over passion, of -Western sensibilities over Eastern ones, but the play is not that simple. Although Antony dies believing himself a man of honor, discipline, and reason, our understanding of him is not nearly as straight-forward. In order to come to terms with Antony’s character, we must analyze the aspects of his identity that he ignores. He is, in the end, a man ruled by passion as much as by reason. Likewise, the play offers us a worldview in which one sensibility cannot easily dominate another. Reason cannot ever fully conquer the passions, nor can passion wholly undo reason.Although Antony and Cleopatra details the conflict between Rome and Egypt, giving us an idea of the Elizabethan perceptions of the difference between Western and Eastern cultures, it does not make a definitive statement about which culture ultimately triumphs. In the play, the Western and Eastern poles of the world are characterized by those who inhabit them: Caesar, for instance, embodies the stoic duty of the West, while Cleopatra, in all her theatrical grandeur, represents the free-flowing passions of the East. Caesar’s concerns throughout the play are certainly imperial: he means to invade foreign lands in order to invest them with traditions and sensibilities of his own. But the play resists siding with this imperialist impulse. Shakespeare, in other words, does not align the play’s sympathies with the West; Antony and Cleopatra can hardly be read as propaganda for Western domination. On the contrary, the Roman understanding of Cleopatra and her kingdom seems exceedingly superficial. To Caesar, the queen of Egypt is little more than a whore with a flair for drama. His perspective allows little room for the real power of Cleopatra’s sexuality—she can, after all, persuade the most decorated of generals to follow her into ignoble retreat. Similarly, it allows little room for the indomitable strength of her will, which she demonstrates so forcefully at the end of the play as she refuses to allow herself to be turned into a “Egyptian puppet” for the entertainment of the Roman masses (V.ii.204).In Antony and Cleopatra, West meets East, but it does not, regardless of Caesar’s triumph over the land of Egypt, conquer it. Cleopatra’s suicide suggests that something of the East’s spirit, the freedoms and passions that are not represented in the play’s conception of the West, cannot be subsumed by Caesar’s victory. The play suggests that the East will live on as a visible and unconquerable counterpoint to the West, bound as inseparably and eternally as Antony and Cleopatra are in their tomb.In one sentence, i will say this is, "The Struggle Between Reason and Emotion"… :D


Book club selection (and I wish they had the correct edition to put here, because I'm superficially annoyed by how this one looks).Edit: This is a play that I didn't like all that much the first time I read it. I am temperamentally prejudiced against characters who put Grand Passion over duty, to start with, so began with a chip on my shoulder against Antony. Then, of course, it's not the easiest Shakespeare play to read and there are a crazy number of scenes and all sorts of things that happen that seem unnecessary and it was just frustrating. (And I almost sound like I'm making an argument for the unities, but don't mean to go that far.) Some beautiful language, though, sure.Now I'm on my third read, and increasingly love this play. I still wasn't so sure all the Pompey stuff needed to be there (although upon discussion I do think there's good argument for it), but really appreciated it for not only the beautiful language (still), but the portrayal of the characters. I doubt Cleopatra can be played in a satisfying way, but on the page her attractions and power is clear, and the contrast between Caesar and Antony and tragedy of Antony, who is overmanned by both of the others, despite being in some respects nobler, was fabulous. And the play isn't nearly so one-sided about Grand Passion as I originally thought we were to assume. The nuances are all there.


I didn't like Antony and Cleopatra very much at the beginning -- but then, it always seems to take about an act for me to get into the swing of a Shakespeare play. It helps with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra that I'm familiar with the history it's based on. It took me a while to warm to the characters of Antony and Cleopatra, though, but for all that there's something very human about the way Cleopatra reacts to Antony -- now this, now that -- and how he responds to her.There are, of course, some beautiful speeches and descriptions here: I was nudged into reading this by reading a reference just yesterday to Cleopatra burning upon the water. I don't think I've seen this one as often quoted as I have the other Shakespeare plays I've been reading lately, though...

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