“Antony and Cleopatra”, like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Troilus and Cressida”, is a love story. Like “Romeo and Juliet”, it follows the fortunes of two lovers united in emotion but divided by culture and background. Like “Troilus and Cressida”, it is a story of love in a time of war, and it ends in tears.
The two principal characters are presented on a heroic scale. It is easy, listening to Enobarbus, to understand how Antony lost everything in his pursuit of Cleopatra: “other women cloy / The appetites they feed,” he notes, and certainly there are other women in Antony’s life. But Cleopatra “makes hungry / Where most she satisfies”, and Antony’s appetite for her is satisfied only in his death.
Cleopatra is similarly magnetised. When towards the end of Act One, Antony returns to Rome, Cleopatra loses all sense of focus: “Where think’st thou he is now?” she asks her maid Charmian, “Stands he, or sits he?” And then, briefly detaching herself from her own most immediate concerns, she sees in Antony “The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet [or helmet] of men”.
It’s also a play about politics – and about war. The fragile recovery of the Roman world after the murder of Julius Caesar is now threatened twice over. The immediate threat comes from an assertive Pompey, who “commands” (we learn in 1.2) the “empire of the sea”, and who benefits (1.3) from “his father’s honour”. There are discontents at Rome, and Pompey is evidently a magnet for “such as have not thrived / Under the present state”.
Pompey is strong but Rome is weak. A central source of its weakness is the ruling Triumvirate of Lepidus, Octavius Caesar and Antony. This is the second threat. Shakespeare presents Lepidus as something of a fool, and he is rapidly marginalised. Thereafter Caesar and Antony, uneasy bed-fellows in “Julius Caesar”, look to build their alliance on the back of a dynastic marriage between Antony and Caesar’s sister Octavia: a union that is over before it begins, and brings only further tension in its wake
Antony and Caesar have little in common. Like the contrast between Egypt and Rome, or the implied comparison between Cleopatra and Octavia, they reinforce the play’s central dichotomy: love on one side, war on the other. When Cleopatra flees from the sea battle at the end of Act Three, Antony abandons his honour, his reputation, his hopes and his men: “my heart was to your rudder tied”, he tells her. In turning his boat away from battle, Antony symbolically – and decisively – settles his choice between the options that history and Shakespeare offer him.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
Antony’s supporters regret how in falling in love with Cleopatra he neglects his duties and position.
When news comes from Rome, Antony confirms his friends’ criticisms and ignores the messenger.
Cleopatra taunts him that the news may be from Fulvia or Caesar, but he is keen to remain in Egypt.
Act One Scene Two
Cleopatra’s attendants, short of serious duties, enjoy a light-hearted session with the soothsayer.
They are given prophecies that will prove accurate, though they treat them as entertainment.
Antony in an aside feels he must urgently separate himself from Egypt or “lose myself in dotage”.
Antony hears that his wife Fulvia has died, and reaffirms his desire to “break off” from Cleopatra.
Antony wishes he “had never seen her” as he commits himself to taking up Fulvia’s “business”.
His anxieties about the rise of Pompey at sea especially drive his desire to return to Rome at once.
Act One Scene Three
Cleopatra’s manipulative impulses are revealed in the messages Alexas must deliver to Antony.
Her attendant Charmian suggests Cleopatra love more honestly, but she is dismissed as “a fool”.
When Antony appears, Cleopatra pretends to faint, and expresses the wish never to have seen him.
Antony explains that the rise of Pompey and the death of his wife necessitate his return to Rome.
He says their love needs to undergo “an honourable trial”, and Cleopatra accepts his decision to go.
Act One Scene Four
In Rome Octavius complains that he has to “bear so great weight in his [Antony’s] lightness”.
News arrives that Pompey is “strong at sea”, his armies reinforced by soldiers defecting from Rome.
With news of Pompey’s triumphs at sea, Octavius wishes Antony’s skills and courage were to hand.
Act One Scene Five
In Egypt, Cleopatra, obsessed with Antony, receives from him a pearl, kissed by him and sent to her.
She will happily “unpeople” Egypt by using her people as messengers to take her daily notes to him.
Act Two Scene One
Pompey is confident that Caesar and Lepidus are weak and Antony will refuse to leave Egypt to fight.
But Pompey is misinformed: Caesar is “in the field” and Antony is “every hour in Rome / Expected”.
Pompey is surprised at Antony but does not believe the triumvirate can forget their past divisions.
Act Two Scene Two
Lepidus acting as peace-keeper hopes Antony will be diplomatic but Enobarbus offers no guarantees.
Antony’s mood is conciliatory, and he praises Lepidus when he calls for “sweetest terms” to be used.
Antony rejects Caesar’s accusation that wars waged by his brother and late wife were at his behest.
Caesar accuses Antony of having broken a promise to provide him with military support if needed.
Antony says that Fulvia made war on Caesar in order to “have me out of Egypt”, and he apologises.
Enobarbus says that Antony and Caesar need to make common cause but is told to “speak no more”.
Agrippa suggests that to “make you brothers”, Antony should marry Octavia, Caesar’s sister.
Antony assents to the plan, and Octavius agrees, hoping she will “join our kingdoms and our hearts”.
Antony hopes the alliance can be enacted speedily – and the triumvirs go in search of Octavia.
Enobarbus remembers the arrival by boat of the exotic Cleopatra to meet Antony for the first time.
Mecaenas notes that Antony must now leave her but Enobarbus is convinced that will never happen.
Act Two Scene Three
Antony tells Octavia they will at times be separated by his duties, but promises to live “by the rule”.
Alone with the soothsayer, Antony hears he will be eclipsed by Caesar and should distance himself.
Antony acknowledges the truth of the soothsayer’s advice, and despite his marriage “I will to Egypt”.
Act Two Scene Four
Lepidus encourages Agrippa and Mecaenas to head for Mount Misenum “in your soldier’s dress”.
Act Two Scene Five
In Egypt a distracted Cleopatra suggests a fishing trip where each catch may be seen as “an Antony”.
A messenger arrives whose gloomy expression Cleopatra mistakes for news that Antony is dead.
But he reports that Antony is alive and on friendly terms with Caesar – but “he’s married to Octavia”.
The messenger flees, and Charmian rebukes her mistress: “keep yourself within yourself”, she says.
The messenger repeats that Antony is wed, leaving Cleopatra to demand more detail about her rival.
Act Two Scene Six
Pompey, meeting the triumvirs, reveals that he has prepared for war to avenge “my noble father”.
Antony warns Pompey that although he may be strong at sea, on land “we do o’er-count thee”.
Pompey reviews the triumvirs’ offer, that he govern Sicily and Sardinia and surrender crops to Rome.
Also he should use his power at sea to “Rid all the sea of pirates”. On this, “we are agreed,” he says.
Pompey spots the plain-speaking Enobarbus: they praise one another and head for Pompey’s galley.
Enobarbus reveals to Menas his doubts whether Antony’s marriage to Octavia will survive.
Octavia, Enobarbus reveals, is “of a holy, cold, and still conversation”, very different from Cleopatra.
Act Two Scene Seven
Lepidus is drunk and makes inane conversation with Antony about crocodiles and the river Nile.
Menas recommends Pompey weigh anchor and once at sea with the triumvirs, “fall to their throats”.
Pompey says they should have gone ahead without telling him – now any such plan is impossible.
Menas reacts to Pompey’s rebuke by resolving “never [to] follow thy pall’d fortunes more”.
Antony enjoins the self-disciplined Caesar to “Be a child o’the time” but Caesar would prefer to fast.
Lepidus is drunk and helped to bed. Enobarbus leads the revelry before all retire for the night.
Act Three Scene One
Ventidius having won his battle feels further triumphs will arouse the jealousy of his general Antony.
Act Three Scene Two
Lepidus, still suffering from a hangover, is mocked for his sycophantic regard for Antony and Caesar.
Antony, encouraged by Caesar to treat Octavia well, is offended by his colleague’s “distrust”.
Antony confirms that Caesar need not fear finding “the least cause” for his suspicions about him.
Act Three Scene Three
Cleopatra hears from the messenger that Octavia is shorter than her, low-voiced and round-faced.
Moreover she is thirty years old, brown-haired and has a low forehead. Cleopatra is delighted.
Act Three Scene Four
Alone with Octavia, Antony complains that Caesar made war on Pompey and “Spoke scantly of me”.
Octavia reminds Antony that, for her, there would be “no midway” if he and Caesar come to blows.
Antony replies she should identify the source of the problem and “Turn your displeasure that way”.
Act Three Scene Five
Caesar has defeated Pompey and had him killed, then imprisoned Lepidus for plotting against him.
Act Three Scene Six
Caesar reports Antony has returned to Egypt and had himself and Cleopatra “publicly enthroned”.
Antony is unhappy that the spoils of war have not been distributed evenly, and Lepidus imprisoned.
Octavia arrives low profile, conscious Antony believes preparations are ongoing for war against him.
But she didn’t know he’d returned to “a whore” in Egypt and organised an army of kings on his side.
Caesar, high-minded and generous to her, welcomes Octavia and makes it clear he takes her side.
Act Three Scene Seven
Enobarbus tries to persuade Cleopatra she will only distract Antony if she accompanies him to war.
Antony announces that he will fight Caesar at sea, where he is strongest and “he dares us to’t”.
Enobarbus strongly dissents, pointing out that Antony’s ships and sailors are inferior to Caesar’s.
Antony will also “therein throw away” his advantages on land and submit to “chance and hazard”.
News that Caesar is closing Antony believes “impossible” but he ignores advice to fight on land.
Act Three Scene Eight
Caesar enjoins Taurus to keep his land forces out of the conflict until “we have done at sea”.
Act Three Scene Nine
Antony stations Enobarbus to observe the battle at sea and establish “the number of the ships”.
Act Three Scene Ten
Reports from the battle of Actium suggest that Cleopatra fled and Antony “flies after her”.
Canidius resolves to surrender to Caesar, while Enobarbus will reluctantly remain with Antony.
Act Three Scene Eleven
Hinting that he means to commit suicide, Antony advises his followers to make peace with Caesar.
Remembering his heroic performance at Philippi Antony now believes he has “offended reputation”.
Cleopatra regrets she fled – but Antony concedes he was powerless to do other than follow her.
Antony must make peace with Caesar, regretting his sword has been “made weak by my affection”.
But kissing Cleopatra “repays me”, as Antony waits for news from the ambassador he sent to Caesar.
Act Three Scene Twelve
Caesar receives Antony’s plea to live as a private citizen in Athens, but has “no ears to his request”.
Cleopatra must expel Antony from Egypt or destroy him if she is to leave her crown to her heirs.
Caesar’s ambassador is to be sent to Egypt to manipulate Cleopatra into accepting Caesar’s terms.
Act Three Scene Thirteen
Enobarbus confirms to Cleopatra that Antony was at fault for fleeing from the battle to follow her.
Antony hears that his request to Caesar has been denied, and challenges him to a duel, one to one.
Enobarbus sees no hope of Caesar taking up his offer, and thinks Antony has lost his reason.
Caesar’s ambassador encourages Cleopatra to abandon Antony and beg for Caesar’s mercy.
Cleopatra tells the ambassador that she lays her crown at Caesar’s feet, “and there to kneel”.
Antony feels power slipping from him, and consigns the ambassador to be taken out and whipped.
He berates Cleopatra that she has no idea what it means to be modest and practise self-restraint.
Now that Caesar’s ambassador has been whipped he will be sent back to Rome as a reply to Caesar.
Antony determines to confront Caesar by land and to return from battle heroically covered in blood.
It is Cleopatra’s birthday, and they will celebrate it with “one other gaudy night” before battle.
Enobarbus believes Antony is losing his reason and resolves to find “Some way to leave him”.
Act Four Scene One
Caesar derides Antony’s challenge to “combat”, and orders his troops to feast on the eve of battle.
Act Four Scene Two
Enobarbus explains Caesar’s decision to Antony, noting he clearly believes he will triumph anyway.
Antony thanks his servants for their efforts, and is rebuked by Enobarbus for making them “weep”.
Act Four Scene Three
Antony’s soldiers on duty think they hear music – which they ascribe to Hercules, Antony’s model.
Act Four Scene Four
Cleopatra helps Antony to buckle on his armour before he joins a thousand of his troops for battle.
Act Four Scene Five
Antony is told of the desertion to Caesar of his closest advisor Enobarbus, who left empty-handed.
Antony insists that his “chests and treasure” be sent after him, and regrets he caused this desertion.
Act Four Scene Six
Caesar orders Antony be taken prisoner alive, and stations Antony’s deserters in the front rank.
Enobarbus’s feelings of guilt deepen when he learns Antony has “after thee sent all thy treasure”.
Regretting his desertion, he refuses to fight against Antony and seeks “Some ditch wherein to die”.
Act Four Scene Seven
Agrippa reports Caesar has put too many troops to the battle against a stronger force than expected.
Antony’s advisers suggest his troops give chase to the retreating enemy, pursuing them like rabbits.
Act Four Scene Eight
Antony praises his men as they retake Alexandria, and pledges they will gain victory tomorrow.
Cleopatra pledges to give the brave Scarus “armour all of gold” as they celebrate their day’s work.
Act Four Scene Nine
Caesar’s sentries predict that, as the moon is bright tonight, battle will be joined by two o’clock.
They catch the sound of a suicidal Enobarbus berating himself for his treachery in deserting Antony.
The soldiers go and investigate but when they arrive they find the “hand of death hath raught him”.
Act Four Scene Ten
Antony predicts Caesar means to fight by sea today and wishes he could fight him in fire or in the air.
Act Four Scene Eleven
Caesar predicts that Antony will avoid battle on land and concentrate his best forces in his ships.
Act Four Scene Twelve
Observing the sea battle Scarus regrets the augurers won’t reveal their predictions for the outcome.
Antony watches Cleopatra’s fleet surrender to Caesar, and the two navies “carouse together”.
He bitterly regrets he put faith in “this false soul of Egypt” who has “beguiled me to the very heart”.
When Cleopatra appears, Antony taunts her with her fate when she is captured and taken to Rome.
She leaves, and Antony curses Cleopatra – “The witch shall die” – and derides Caesar as a “boy”.
Act Four Scene Thirteen
Cleopatra, stung by rejection, sends to Antony that she has slain herself with his name on her lips.
Act Four Scene Fourteen
Antony sensing his end near blames Cleopatra for betraying him to Caesar, robbing him of his power.
Mardian announces that she loved him and when Antony threatens her life, says she is already dead.
In a rare soliloquy, Antony accepts that, “since the torch is out”, he looks forward to the next world.
He calls on his servant Eros to kill him, refusing to be a prisoner of Caesar and humiliated in Rome.
But when he turns his back on Eros to receive the mortal blow, Eros turns the sword on himself.
Still believing that Cleopatra has committed suicide, he praises her and Eros for their “nobleness”.
Antony wounds but does not kill himself, only to be told that Cleopatra is alive and waiting for him.
Antony tells his guards to carry him to “where Cleopatra bides” and forbids them grief at his death.
Act Four Scene Fifteen
The dying Antony is brought to Cleopatra, reclining on the monument, and is lifted to her side.
She observes that his strength has “gone into heaviness”, while he observes “my spirit is going”.
He was once, he says, the “greatest prince o’the world”, and is now proud to die by his own hand.
At his death Cleopatra reacts that “there is nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon”.
She pledges to bury Antony and then to die herself “after the high Roman fashion”.
Act Five Scene One
Dercetas informs Caesar that “Antony is dead”, and reveals the sword he used to take his own life.
Caesar believes the news should have brought “lions into civil streets” and “citizens to their dens”.
Caesar laments that his former companion should have become “Unreconcilable” with himself.
A messenger from Cleopatra reveals she “desires instruction” so that she may “frame herself”.
Proculeius, whom Antony warned Cleopatra to suspect, is sent to her to prevent any suicide bid.
Act Five Scene Two
Cleopatra, looking forward to the release that suicide will bring, is visited by Proculeius and others.
He is to tell Caesar that she is his “vassal” and is “hourly” learning “the doctrine of obedience”.
She seizes a dagger but is quickly disarmed by Proculeius who knows her intensions and rebukes her.
But she replies she will neither eat nor drink so as to avoid being “pinion’d at your master’s court”.
She delivers a panegyric on Antony, his power, his generosity, his spirit, the scale of his personality.
Dolabella praises her for sustaining so huge a loss and measuring up to it, “answering to the weight”.
He reluctantly reveals Caesar means her to be led “in triumph” at Rome, “though he be honourable”.
Caesar explains if she complies she will benefit but if she defies him, her children will be in danger.
Cleopatra is revealed by Seleucus to be less than honest with Caesar, leaving her angry and exposed.
As he departs, Caesar promises to be guided by her in how she lives now, with “Our care and pity”.
Her servants confirm “we are ready for the dark” and Cleopatra instructs: “Go put it to the haste”.
Cleopatra resiles from the prospect of being exhibited in Rome before crowds of unwashed “slaves”.
She foresees herself being depicted in verse or satire or theatre – acted by some “squeaking boy”.
A “clown” delivers a basket of figs, containing “the pretty worm of Nilus” that “kills and pains not”.
The clown is reluctant to leave but adds a note of unconscious levity to the scene with his advice.
Cleopatra senses the call of Antony, and robing herself she kisses Iras with the poison on her lips.
Putting an asp to her breast and a second to her arm, she dies with the name of Antony on her lips.
Charmian follows her mistress’s example as Caesar arrives to discover his fears have been realised.
Caesar decides that Cleopatra will be buried with Antony in Egypt, attended by the Roman army.
Philo is described in the Dramatis Personae as one of Antony’s friends but his assessment of Cleopatra suggests he is no friend of hers: he describes her affection for Antony as “a gipsy’s lust”, and her attentions have left him “a strumpet’s fool”. Antony confirms Rome’s negative view of his recent behaviour by ignoring their messenger, focusing instead on the evening’s pleasures: a conflict between the superego and the id, one might speculate, to add to the many other binary oppositions (Egypt / Rome, love / war, Cleopatra / Octavia) the play presents.
The episode in 1.2 in which the soothsayer predicts the future for Cleopatra’s maids reflects their vanity and frivolousness. For the audience, however, who know something of the fate that is waiting for Cleopatra and her entourage, the light-hearted encounter has a darker tone. The episode recalls another play written in the same year (1606), since the soothsayer here echoes the witches in “Macbeth” in significant ways: not only for the elliptical tone of the prophecies (“You shall be more beloving than beloved” for example), but also for the limits Shakespeare puts on fortune-telling: “I make not, but foresee”, says the soothsayer, accurately – precisely the function of the witches in “Macbeth”, even though both Banquo and Lady Macbeth mistakenly believe otherwise.
Cleopatra’s instructs Charmian in 1.3 to seek out Antony and, if he is sad, report that Cleopatra is “dancing”, and if happy, say she’s “sick”. Antony, as we learned in 1.2, has heavier concerns on his mind but this scene does at least remind the audience that often, we know more about Cleopatra than Antony does. The main thing we learn here perhaps is that she is infinitely manipulative, and not to be taken at face value.
The opening three scenes are designed to convey three key background themes: Antony‘s wife Fulvia has died; war is breaking out across the Roman Empire, driven by Pompey; and Antony has duties in Rome. In the foreground are two further themes: first, that Cleopatra is so deceitful that even her servants think she needs to change; and second, that Antony’s spirits are divided between what he wants to do and what he feels he ought to do. This dilemma is only resolved with his death.
The sudden switch to Rome from Egypt in 1.4 reminds the audience how broad the sweep of this play is going to be – essentially, much of the known world, even to Jacobean eyes. In the process, the mood changes radically too: from the emotional and sexual entanglements of the palace in Alexandria to the dry military calculations of Rome.
Our first sight of Pompey in this play in 2.1 is not encouraging. Shakespeare reveals a general inclined to reach quick and false conclusions. For example, he believes that Antony “In Egypt sits at dinner, and will make / No wars without doors” – an analysis the audience knows to be inaccurate in at least two ways. Pompey admits his mistake (“I did not think / This amorous surfeiter would have donn’d his helm / For such a petty war”) but his rushed conclusions are a further reminder that one function of dramatic irony is to highlight characters reaching false conclusions based on inadequate information.
The tension between Caesar and Antony emerged first in the closing scenes of “Julius Caesar” where, at the battle of Philippi, Caesar rejects the role Antony assigns him and challenges his authority. At Philippi, divisions are disguised by victory, but here the tensions reappear. Antony’s mood on meeting Caesar in 2.2 is suspiciously co-operative, and the suggestion that he marry Caesar’s sister to heal the rift between them is adopted suspiciously quickly. Meanwhile, as the scene ends, Enobarbus reinforces the contrast between the practical solution – marry Octavia – and the romantic alternative: return to Egypt.
Following the soothsayer’s enigmatic predictions to Cleopatra’s maids in the first act, here he is surprisingly plain, and there is no mistaking his meaning. He begins by making it clear he wishes he’d stayed in Egypt, and when Antony asks whose fortunes will prosper – his own or Caesar’s – he gets a one-word answer: “Caesar’s”. Antony’s pliable personality is therefore, once again, left dazed and confused by this scene: at first, he is on his best behaviour, promising to operate “by the rule”. Thirty lines later, he has other plans: “I will to Egypt”.
The first two acts of the play present in Cleopatra a character who is wilful, capricious and head-strong. By contrast, Enobarbus reveals in 2.6 that Octavia is “of a holy, cold and still conversation”: quite the reverse of her rival. The contrast is clear, shaped by the playwright to test a character in Antony whose virtues do not include strength of character, or commitment to principle. The contrast has occurred to Cleopatra herself, whose instinct is to compare herself with her rival – a comparison which is ongoing.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays present characters from unremarkable walks of life. Not this one. The generals, monarchs and triumvirs presented here are the rulers of the known world, from Alexandria to Athens. Yet for all their eminence, Shakespeare is never reluctant to reflect the relationships they strike with servants and assistants. Earlier in the play we saw Charmian rebuke her mistress for the degrading way she treated the messenger: “Good madam”, she tells her, “keep yourself within yourself”, and later, “Good your highness, patience”. In 2.7, Menas has his own views on Pompey’s missed opportunity: “I’ll never follow thy pall’d fortunes more”, he mutters after Pompey resiles from killing all three triumvirs to seize the empire. It’s a reminder that the powerful rely on the consent of the governed for their power, and Menas is here withdrawing his consent.
Menas’s disillusion with Pompey springs from his chief’s reluctance to sanction the blood-thirsty coup Menas recommended. The objection (from Pompey’s angle) was not the coup itself or the blood that would have to be spilt: the problem was that Pompey was told about it first. In the words of A.H. Clough, “Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive”. This dichotomy recalls the reaction of Henry IV when his predecessor Richard II is murdered: he is angry with the murderer but not entirely sorry to be shot of Richard. It seems possible that here, Shakespeare has in mind the mixed feelings of Elizabeth I in response to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots – anger that the deed was done, but relief that the matter of Mary is now closed.
A vivid contrast between Caesar and Antony emerges towards the end of 2.7, where Caesar’s ascetic instincts compare with Antony’s more indulgent ways. Antony encourages Caesar to be “a child o’the time”, meaning to share the spirit of the occasion and drink. Caesar refuses: he’d prefer to fast for four days than “drink so much in one”. But Antony loves the sensual pleasures of the grape, and encourages his companions to “take hands / Till that the conquering wine hath steep’d our sense / In soft and delicate Lethe”. Caesar is not impressed: “our graver business” he observes “Frowns at this levity”.
When in 3.6 Caesar rebukes his sister for arriving in Rome low profile, he draws an implicit contrast with the reports he has received of Antony’s performance in Egypt. There, it seems that “Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold / Were publicly enthroned” – a very public show of wealth and power. By contrast Octavia has come like a “market-maid to Rome” with no demonstration of her powerful connections when, according to Caesar, she should have “an army for an usher”. Contrasts between the two women and the two locations underpin this scene.
The desertion of Enobarbus in Act Four is a serious blow to Antony’s self-esteem and prospects. But it brings out the best in him, highlighting his generosity of spirit (“I charge thee”, Antony tells his servant, “write to him – / gentle adieus and greetings”) as well as his sense of guilt: “O my fortunes have / Corrupted honest men”. For once the various conflicts, military and political, that keep him from his private life matter less, and his humanity emerges: we see the best of Antony when he is at his weakest. In parentheses, it’s worth mentioning the view of the Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, that Enobarbus is “the one person whose judgements we come to trust”.
The opening scenes of Act Four suggest that life is above all unpredictable, and that the unexpected may be relied on. First comes the desertion of Enobarbus, hitherto the most dependable of Antony’s entourage. Next comes Antony’s generosity in returning his property, where we might have expected animosity. Finally, where Antony’s defeat by Caesar was complacently anticipated (not least by Caesar himself), the opening day of battle results in the recapture of Alexandria and closes in celebratory speeches reminiscent of Henry V’s victory at Agincourt. However, if this initial victory is expected to lead to Antony’s final defeat of Caesar, the spirit of the Act so far suggests that caution is advisable.
When the Egyptian fleet surrenders to Caesar, Antony derides him as “the young Roman boy”. In issuing this somewhat self-serving insult (Caesar is not present to hear it, after all), Antony revisits a theme that’s haunted him from the moment in 1.1 when he calls his former ally “the scarce-bearded Caesar”. Maybe Antony feels he is ageing fast and past his best, that the white hairs are outpacing the brown. How far this feeling has sexual overtones for him as he gives himself up to the pleasures of the flesh is an interesting (if unanswerable) question.
Acts of suicide in Shakespeare’s plays are seen in contrasting lights depending on the culture that informs them. In the Roman plays, suicide is seen as an honourable response to loss of honour or indeed loss of battle: in “Julius Caesar” both Cassius and Brutus commit suicide after they are defeated at the battle of Philippi by Octavius and Antony. Now their example, seen as noble, is followed by Antony. By contrast, Macbeth refuses to “play the Roman Fool”, and quite literally fights to the death, “till from my bones my flesh be hacked”. In “Hamlet” a further contrast emerges with the death of Ophelia: possibly accidental, possibly self-inflicted, her questionable end is debated by the grave-diggers as they air their suspicions that she died by her own hand – in Christian culture then, an act seen as defying God’s will.
There’s a certain ironic symbolism about one detail of Antony’s suicide: Eros, his “knave”, is enjoined to assist, to hold the sword while Antony falls onto it. He is unable to do so and kills himself instead. Eros is of course the Greek God of Love: it is almost as if Shakespeare is suggesting that Antony seeks to die at the hands of Love, but Love prefers instead to destroy itself.
It is striking how in the four scenes that follow his defeat (Act Four Scenes 12 to 15), Antony’s thoughts turn inward to his relationship with Cleopatra, with no thought for the soldiers and sailors who took his side and risked their lives for him. Abstract ideas of honour (mainly associated with avoiding capture by Caesar) jostle with further tensions between himself and Cleopatra to add a melodramatic dimension to his dying fall. But concern for his supporters, not so much. This attitude has its parallels in Shakespeare’s own times, incidentally, when soldiers returning from foreign adventures (in Ireland, for example) would often go unpaid.
When Caesar hears of Antony’s death, he says the world should have heard a “greater crack” and believes lions should have invaded the streets and citizens the lions’ dens. Similar rhetoric accompanies the understated arrival of Octavia to Rome in 3.6, whose appearance, Caesar says there, should have sent dust rising “to the roof of heaven” with the “populous troops” that should have accompanied her. It’s ironic that Caesar should indulge in these dramatic scenes when he himself is a most undramatic character. Public display is not, after all, the way he operates.
When Cleopatra imagines what it will mean in practice to be exhibited in Rome as a trophy of war, her horror is (to modern eyes) extremely questionable: she pictures “slaves” with the tools of their trade (“greasy aprons, rules and hammers”) with their “thick breaths” resulting from their “gross diet” – and herself forced to “drink their vapour”. It’s a graphic vision, and it recalls the opening scenes of “Julius Caesar”, in which (in 1.1) two members of Rome’s ruling elite address a number of their proletarian fellow-citizens in dismissive terms, followed by (1.3) Casca’s report of Julius Caesar’s interaction with the Roman crowd, whose “stinking breath” caused Caesar to swoon and faint; “and for mine own part”, continues Casca, “I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air”.
The winner has the last word in the play, and Caesar’s valedictory remarks to Antony and Cleopatra focus not on their courage or other qualities, but on their fame: “No grave upon the earth shall slip in it / A pair so famous”. A highlight for those who like to damn with faint praise.
Who’s Who? / Characters
His inability to decide between East and West, between Rome and Alexandria, between Octavia and Cleopatra, lies at the heart of the play. Yet the conclusion he will reach is never really in the balance. Just as, at Pompey’s banquet, he indulges his appetite for pleasure while Caesar remains aloof, so at the Battle of Actium, he abandons his obligations to his sailors in order to pursue the fleeing Cleopatra. His compulsion for her survives the dissembling Shakespeare lets his audience witness, and ends in an ill-informed act of suicide. In “Julius Caesar” Antony was portrayed as a man of some principle and wide respect, but here he is vacillating and self-indulgent, and Caesar’s epitaph, searching for praise, can do no better than “famous”.
Her “tawny” complexion is referenced in the opening speech of the play, and her character combines a number of contemporary European prejudices towards the cultures of women of colour. Dishonest and manipulative from the opening scenes of the play, her rule, though undoubtedly compelling, is also entirely self-serving. Her love for Antony is driven by her own vanity, and her decisions after his death are coolly calculating.
In “Julius Caesar” Octavius refuses to accept the authority of Antony over their joint enterprise in defeating Caesar’s assassins. Here his authority is further increased by the absence of Antony in Egypt and the weakness of Lepidus. Cautious and thoughtful, he avoids self-indulgence (“I had rather fast … / Than drink so much”, 2.7) and is dismissive of some of Antony’s more fanciful proposals – the one-to-one combat for example. In the end he is victorious because he knows how to win and intends to – another contrast with his rival.
- Give the name of Antony’s wife at the beginning of the play.
- What gift does Antony send to Cleopatra from Rome in Act One?
- Who suggests that Antony marry Octavia?
- Which Egyptian animal seems to preoccupy Lepidus at Pompey’s banquet?
- What allegation gives Caesar an excuse to arrest Lepidus?
- Give the name of the battle from which Cleopatra flees, pursued by Antony.
- What is the name of the city to which Antony asks to be allowed to retire?
- Describe the fate of Caesar’s ambassador after Actium.
- Who is promised “armour all of gold” after the recapture of Alexandria?
- Give the name of the servant who refuses to help Antony commit suicide.
After Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra is left alone with the prospect of capture by Caesar. Her fate is inevitable, after the Roman fashion: transportation to Rome and public display as prisoner and trophy. She knows what’s in store for her: “’tis most certain,” as she admits. In the process, Antony will be represented and “brought drunken forth”, while she will have to watch “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ the posture of a whore”.
Much of Shakespeare’s play with gender seems designed to challenge the prevailing restrictions on women appearing on stage. After all, if Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” can clear matters up so efficiently and still avoid being rumbled, then the law is an ass. Here a second approach is attempted. It would be intriguing (if quite impossible) to know what proportion of Shakespeare’s original audiences allowed themselves a wry smile as these lines were delivered (presumably by “some squeaking boy”).