Antony and Cleopatra

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 879-967).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scenes 1-3, what view of Antony emerges, based on what others say about him and on his dialogue with Cleopatra? In particular, how do the first three scenes capture the duality of Antony as a Roman and a man imbued with “Eastern” sensibilities?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-3, and then in Scene 5, what complexities in Cleopatra’s character emerge, based on her interaction with Antony and her confidantes? To what extent does she understand Roman honor and sensibilities? How does she describe her relationship with Antony, and what seems responsible for the deep bond between them?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Caesar (Octavius, subsequently called Augustus Caesar) interpret Antony’s carryings-on in the East? What complaints does he have about his illustrious fellow triumvir, and why does he suppose Antony will return to his duties in that capacity? In addition, what does Caesar reveal about his understanding of power?

ACT 2

4. In Act 2, Scene 2, when Caesar and Antony confront each other, what grievances and assumptions do they bring to the table? How does Agrippa help resolve the tension between them, at least for the present?

5. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does Enobarbus image forth Cleopatra? What does this description add to the things we have heard and seen about Egypt’s Queen so far? On the whole, how does Enobarbus view the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra? What insights does he have about the reason for the great impact she makes on Antony?

6. In Act 2, Scene 3, Antony speaks to a soothsayer. What does the Soothsayer tell him, and what effect does the information have on him? How does this affect your understanding, if it does, with regard to Antony’s character and his motives for dividing his time between the Roman theater of operations and Egypt?

7. In Act 2, Scene 5, how does Cleopatra further our understanding of her affinity with Antony and the Roman world of power and honor that he embodies? In what sense does Cleopatra chafe at the limitations imposed on her by her gender?

8. In Act 2, Scene 5, what political deal does Pompeius (the son of Pompey the Great) make with Caesar and Antony? What does Enobarbus suggest about Pompeius’ “deal” and about Antony’s reasons for agreeing to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia?

9. In Act 2, Scene 7, on the basis of the Triumvirs’ celebrations when they seem to have arrived at an understanding, what becomes apparent about the qualities required to hold power in Rome? For example, what character deficiencies does Lepidus reveal? Why does the supposedly honorable Pompeius lose Menas’ respect and loyalty at this point? How does Caesar respond to demands that he imbibe as heavily as Antony and the others?

ACT 3

10. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, with hostilities brewing between Caesar and Antony, how does Antony treat Octavia when she offers to help? Why is Caesar outraged over Antony’s latest actions in Egypt? How does he respond to his sister’s arrival on an embassy from Antony? Is his characterization of Antony’s treatment of her accurate or inaccurate? Discuss.

11. In Act 3, Scene 7, why does Antony decide to fight Caesar by sea instead of by land, where he seems to have the best chance? What role does Cleopatra expect to play in the coming battle, and why? What inferences do Enobarbus and Canidius draw about their great commander at this point? How does Antony’s decision affect your own view of his stature as a Roman? Discuss.

12. In Act 3, Scenes 8-10, Caesar and Antony refine their respective strategies. What concerns shape Caesar’s decisions? What concerns inform Antony’s? What happens in the course of the battle, and how do Antony’s closest associates respond to this disastrous outcome? What is Enobarbus’ thinking at this point with respect to his loyalty for Antony?

13. In Act 3, Scene 11, how does Antony himself react to the fiasco that was Actium? How does his self-described role as a world-historical agent or actor make the situation especially intolerable to him? What are his feelings towards Cleopatra at this point? Why is he able to reconcile with her so quickly?

14. In Act 3, Scene 12, what intentions does Caesar manifest regarding how he will treat Antony and Cleopatra? Why does he think he will be successful in carrying out these intentions?

15. In Act 3, Scene 13, how does Antony try to recover his self-command and snatch victory from what seems to others his certain disaster? As Enobarbus watches this attempt at self-recovery unfold, what rapid evolution does his attitude towards Antony undergo? What impact do Antony’s words and actions in this scene have on your understanding of him? Discuss.

ACT 4

16. In Act 4, Scenes 1-5, what is Antony’s apparent frame of mind as the battle draws near? How does he react to the news that Enobarbus has deserted him?

17. In Act 4, Scene 6, Caesar declares that the “time of universal peace” is near, but in what sense do his speech and conduct in this scene reveal a less than savory side to this man who will usher in the new world order? What resolution does Enobarbus come to, and why?

18. In Act 4, Scenes 10-14, the Egyptian fleet again fails Antony, going over to the Romans. How does the Queen behave upon hearing of this final disaster? What goes wrong with Antony’s attempt to die in the true Roman fashion?

19. In Act 4, Scene 15, what pattern again reasserts itself in Antony’s reaction to a military failure that involves Cleopatra? Why does Antony believe his present wretchedness will not altogether eclipse his reputation as a great Roman? Does it seem to you that his assumptions are reasonable, or self-deluded? Discuss.

ACT 5

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does Caesar take the death of Antony? How does he deal with the fallen Cleopatra? While it’s obvious that political expediency is never far from Caesar’s mind, does this scene allow you to interpret his actions and words as due to something more than cunning and hypocrisy? Is the future Augustus a model Roman in his own way? If so, how?

21. In Act 5, Scene 2, in what sense does Cleopatra set about refashioning herself rhetorically as a hero partly in the Roman style? How does she refashion Antony as the noblest Roman and, perhaps, as something grander even than that?

22. In Act 5, Scene 2, why is Cleopatra particularly upset about the prospect that she will be put on display in Rome and that actors, as she says, will “boy my greatness” on the stage? In addition, how does her declared intent to rejoin Antony in death affect the play’s tragic dimension? Does it enhance the sense of tragedy, or diminish it? Explain your reasoning on this point.

23. In Act 5, Scene 2, consider the adaptation Shakespeare has made from Plutarch’s life of Antony, in which a rustic fellow brings Cleopatra a basket within which are concealed poisonous asps. Why do you suppose Shakespeare introduces a note of comedy or of the bizarre in rendering this scene’s dialogue? Does this enhance the scene’s tragic overtones in some way, or introduce a note of appropriate complexity? If so, how?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93860-9.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Antony and Cleopatra

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 879-967).

Act 1, Scene 1 (890-91, Our first image of Antony with Cleopatra: he is both a Roman and a man of the east)

Antony and Cleopatra are introduced first by Antony’s friends, but almost at once we hear a dialogue between the two lovers.  What is their image at this early point?  How does the dialogue and presentation of Antony capture the dual impulse that runs through the man’s character?  He is both a Roman and a man of the East: “Let Rome in Tiber melt … / … Here is my space” (890, 1.1.35-36).  And what is he doing in this place of his?  Well, he spends part of his time carousing and walking the streets to “note / The qualities of people” (891, 1.1.35-36). 

Act 1, Scene 2 (891-96, Antony resolves to go back to Rome and deal with pressing matters; Enobarbus concurs about prioritizing war, politics over women)

Antony is clearly aware of Cleopatra’s influence on him, and admires her whimsicality, excess, and sense for the absolutism of the dilatory moment as opposed to Roman thoughtfulness and adherence to necessity.  Enobarbus is just as aware, and he thinks women should not be so highly esteemed in proximity to great political and military matters: “Under a compelling occasion let women die” (894, 1.2.125, see 125-31).  Antony’s response to the military movements of Labienus (Roman commander of a Parthian army) and to the death of his wife Fulvia is characteristically complex; with regard to the first issue, he says “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (894, 1.2.105-06).  As for the second, Antony is riven by genuine sympathy for Fulvia and yet realizes that he had more or less wished this on her: “What our contempts doth often hurl from us / We wish it ours again” (894, 1.2.112-13).  By the end of this scene, Antony is determined to make his way back to Rome.  Amongst other things, there’s Sextus Pompeius to deal with since this son of Pompey the Great is menacing the triumvirate by sea (895, 1.2.167-69).  He evidently feels he must get Cleopatra’s approval to take care of business, but he admits this freely (895, 1.2.161-63).  But in truth, he won’t have too much trouble with her in getting that approval, a fact that is apparent from her insightful remark, “on the sudden / A Roman thought hath struck him” (893, 1.2.72-73).  Antony is open to the pleasures and attractions of the east, but it’s just as certain that “Roman thoughts” will strike him when that becomes necessary.

Act 1, Scene 3 (896-98, Cleopatra manipulates Antony, but he understands her eastern self-fashioning; in the end his decision holds to return to Rome)

Cleopatra manipulates Antony, calling him a dissembler and an actor when it comes to loyalty: “Good now, play one scene / Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honor” (898, 1.3.77-80).  And throughout this scene, we see him trying to justify his decision to return to Rome to deal with pressing matters.  Cleopatra knows how to speak the language of Roman honor: “Your honor calls you hence” (898, 1.3.98) she says to Antony, and to some extent seems actually to mean it: it’s time to let Antony be Antony.  This scene is subtle in its revelation of what the two lovers know about each other: when Cleopatra declares that her “oblivion is a very Antony, / And I am all forgotten” (898, 1.3.91-92), Antony’s response is, “But that your royalty / Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself” (898, 1.3.92-94).  In other words, he understands that she is just as much an actor as she claims he is: the “eastern extravagance” pose is something that this female Ptolemy (i.e. a Greek) employs to her advantage, not something she can’t help but assume.

Act 1, Scene 4 (898-900, Octavius Caesar’s complaints about Antony’s “wassails” and neglect, but also confidence in the man)

Here and elsewhere, we should attend to Caesar’s (Octavius’) view of Antony’s conduct in the east.  Caesar has complaints about Antony’s unseemly behavior, and suggests that he, at least (young as he is), knows how to wield power.  Caesar references Antony’s longstanding reputation for valor, he feels that this reputation will shame him into returning to the field: “Leave thy lascivious wassails” (900, 1.4.56), he scolds the older man in absentia, and expresses confidence that Antony’s shame at abandoning his Roman manner will “Drive him to Rome” (900, 1.4.74).  Antony’s later admission of “neglect” (in Act 2, Scene 2) won’t go over well with Caesar the corporation man, whose model is Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.

Act 1, Scene 5 (900-02, Cleopatra’s love for Antony and extravagant view of him foregrounded while he’s away in Rome)

We see another side of Cleopatra here, the one that is truly in love with Antony and would just as well “sleep out this great gap of time” (900, 1.5.5) in his absence.  Theirs is not simply a political alliance, it’s beyond that, and while Cleopatra’s motives are complex, her connection with Antony is one of the world’s grandest tragic loves.  She muses fondly about him, and mentions her earlier affair with Julius Caesar, who, she is certain, considered her “A morsel for a monarch” (900, 1.5.31).  Cleopatra has an extravagant sense of Antony’s worth, one that fits his sense of himself and that he repays with similar extravagance towards her.  Nowhere is this more evident than when she calls him, “The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men” (901, 1.5.33-34).  We may not see this godlike Antony in action through most of the play, but a genuinely admiring mutual representation bonds the two lovers together.

Act 2, Scene 1 (902-04, Sextus Pompeius finds fault with Caesar and Antony, feels confident in his victory)

Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, thinks the people love him, while he’s convinced that Caesar wins no hearts with his soulless efficiency and that Antony is wasting his strength with Cleopatra in Egypt (903, 2.1.9-16).  Sextus has an illustrious father in the late Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or “Pompey the Great,” a member of the unofficial first triumvirate from 59-53 BCE along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus; the more official “second triumvirate” from 43-33 BCE and current in this play is composed of Marcus Antonius or “Antony,” Octavius (grand-nephew and adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Act 2, Scene 2 (904-10, Octavius confronts Antony over his shortcomings; Agrippa proposes a match between Antony and Octavia; Enobarbus describes Cleopatra grandly and pays tribute to her appeal for Antony)

Caesar and Antony confront each other, each bringing his own grievances and assumptions to the table.  Caesar’s claims are very ponderous: he tasks Antony with the fact that Fulvia and Antony’s brother stirred up wars against him in Antony’s name (905, 2.2.46-48) and that Antony ignored his messengers while carousing in Alexandria (906, 2.2.75-78).  But worst of all, says Caesar, in refusing to assist him with military supplies and money when required, he has broken faith (906, 2.2.85-87, 93-94).  Antony’s admission that he “Neglected, rather” (906, 2.2.94) doesn’t go over well with Caesar as Rome’s ultra-steady, responsible corporation man, so to speak: his model is Virgil’s Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.  While Antony goes around behaving like a wild Greek or luxurious Egyptian, Octavius is a high-level antecedent of our modern 1950s “man in the gray flannel suit”: he thinks of Rome first and does what’s needed to keep the machinery of state running and the coffers full.

Enobarbus is mildly rebuked for trying to butt in, but Agrippa helps resolve the tension between them, at least for the present, by successfully proposing a match between Caesar’s sister Octavia and Antony: “Thou hast a sister by the mother’s side …” (907, 2.2.124). Dynastic obligation will bring these two men of very different character together and keep them from tearing the country apart, or at least that’s the plan.

Enobarbus then talks with Agrippa and Maecenas, offering us a new image of the famous Cleopatra, one that Shakespeare has borrowed for him from the historian Plutarch’s Lives, specifically, “The Life of Julius Caesar,” which along with “The Life of Antony” is Shakespeare’s main source for the entire play.  (Sources for Antony and Cleopatra.)  He describes her almost as a goddess, as a woman beyond description: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne / Burned on the water…. / … / For her own person, it beggared all description” (908-09, 2.2.197-98, 203-204; see 197-211).  He also mentions how savvy she is, how well she plays her charms to her advantage, making Antony visit her rather than the other way around (909, 2.2.225-27).  Cleopatra, he knows, exercises a strong hold over Antony’s imagination and passions.  She instills a kind of desire that doesn’t lead to satiation (235ff), and sanctifies things that would otherwise be vile, beyond the strict Roman sense of appropriateness and inappropriateness: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (909, 2.2.240-41).  That capacity is a big part of her attraction—Cleopatra is charismatic and larger than life.

Act 2, Scene 3 (910-11, a soothsayer tells Antony to stay away from lucky Caesar; uneasy, Antony resolves to return to Egypt)

Antony speaks to a soothsayer, who tells him to stay away from Caesar because this opponent is bound to rise higher than Antony: “If thou dost play with him at any game / Thou art sure to lose…” (910, 2.3.23-24). Caesar is almost as much an “evil spirit” (Norton Tragedies, 311, 4.2.333) for Antony as Julius Caesar was for Brutus on the plain at Philippi.  In his presence, the great Roman is afraid, unmanned.  Antony knows this, and says that “the very dice obey” Caesar (910, 2.3.31).  Fortune seems to be on the younger man’s side, even though Antony is a ladies’ man and ought to be on better terms with Lady Fortune.  Antony resolves to return to Egypt: “though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’th’ East my pleasure lies” (911, 2.5.37-38).

Act 2, Scenes 4-5 (911-14, Lepidus will be late to meet the triumvirs; Cleopatra teases absent Antony about their fishing trips, but is then stricken with jealousy when she hears about the match with Octavia: she strikes the messenger)

In the fourth scene, we learn that Lepidus will be late on his way to Misenum where the triumvirate will meet.  No doubt we are to understand his lateness as symptomatic of his weak position within the second triumvirate (911, 2.4.1-10).

In the fifth scene, Cleopatra has fun at Antony’s expense, saying that he’s like the great fish she proposes to catch in the Nile: “I’ll think them every one an Antony” (911, 2.5.14; see lines 10-14).  And Charmian reminds Cleopatra of the time when she tricked Antony while they were fishing together, hanging an already dead fish on his hook for him to haul in (911-12, 2.5.15-18).  Cleopatra seems to delight in stealing from Antony his masculine symbolic power (the sword with which he earned victory against the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, who killed his friend Julius) and donning it herself: she recounts how she drank him to bed and then “put my tires and mantles on him whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” (912, 2.5.22-23). 

Cleopatra soon learns that Antony will marry Octavia, and this causes her to strike the messenger (913, 2.5.61), but then invites him back so that he may inform her about Octavia’s looks (914, 2.5.112-14). 

Act 2, Scene 6 (914-17, Sextus Pompeius reconciles with Caesar and Antony; Menas and Enobarbus trade wisdom on Sextus and Antony)

Sextus Pompeius makes a deal with Caesar in which he’s to take Sicily and Sardinia, but rid the seas of piracy and send wheat to Rome (915, 2.6.34-39).  He reconciles with Caesar and Antony, and Menas says to Enobarbus, “Pompey / doth this day laugh away his fortune” (917, 2.6.103-04).  Enobarbus, for his part, says that Antony “will to his Egyptian dish again; then shall the sighs of / Octavia blow the fire up in Caesar” (917, 2.6.123-24; see 122-27).  Enobarbus realizes that the marriage with Octavia is purely a matter of convenience.  Antony’s heart is in Egypt with Cleopatra, and that is where he will return.

Act 2, Scene 7 (918-21, Antony wins a drinking contest with Lepidus and Octavius; Sextus Pompeius puts honor before success and loses Menas’ respect)

Lepidus, the weakest member of the second triumvirate, is made quite drunk at the meeting between the three and their attendants at Misenum.  Antony makes sport of him by answering his silly questions about crocodiles with ludicrous tautologies: he tells Lepidus, the crocodile “is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath / breadth” (919, 2.7.39-40). 

Meanwhile, Sextus Pompeius shows himself to be so indebted to the concept of Roman honor that it prevents him from taking Menas’ advice: why not simply invite the triumvirs on board his ship and kill them (919, 2.7.67-70)?  Pompeius says that the man ought to have done this without telling him about it (919, 2.7.70-74).  Menas loses faith in Pompeius because of this rigidity—such an opportunity, he knows, will not come again: “Who seeks and will not take when once ‘tis offered, / Shall never find it more” (920, 2.7.78-79).

Scene 7 shows the triumvirs’ attitude towards drinking.  As the saying goes, in vino veritas.  We find out that Lepidus can’t hold his liquor, which suggests that he lacks self-mastery and is a follower, not a leader; Antony bows to nobody as a wassailer; and Caesar would just as well stay sober (920, 2.7.91-93, 96-97).  It’s obvious that he is determined to keep his wits about him, and is more responsible in his relationship to power than Antony.  Judgments are being made in this scene about who is a “real Roman” and who is most likely to succeed. 

We have seen how other Romans accuse Antony of “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” to adapt a line from the 1960’s guru Timothy Leary.  But at this point in the play, Antony seems the strong master of revels; his range of experience and his appeal to others extends beyond Roman austerity and severity.  In his openness to experience, Antony is more of an Odyssean Greek than a Roman.  But as T. S. Eliot writes in his 1921 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Act 3, Scene 1 (921-22, Ventidius explains the Roman political star system: subordinates don’t upstage their commanders)

We might take the first few scenes as a commentary on Roman values.  Ventidius in Syria has returned in triumph, having defeated the Parthians who had done so much harm to Roman armies.  But he doesn’t pursue the Parthians simply because doing so would mean upstaging his commanding officer, Antony: “I have done enough.  A lower place, note well, / May make too great an act” (921, 3.1.12-13).  In a fiercely competitive Roman political universe, there is something like a star system in place: subordinates do not upstage their betters, if they know what’s good for them. 

Act 3, Scene 2 (922-24, Octavia and Caesar are sad at parting; Enobarbus’ gloss of the historical Antony)

Octavia weeps, and Caesar is sad at parting (922, 3.2.3-6).  Enobarbus undercuts the notion put forth by Agrippa that Antony wept without complication at the death of Julius Caesar: he says, “What willingly he did confound he wailed, / Believe’t, till I wept too” (923, 3.2.59-60).  Shakespeare seems concerned to remind us that we are dealing with historical events that have become shaded over with mythology, and the view he prefers at some points is the practical Roman perspective we find in Enobarbus’s clear-eyed statements.  What Enobarbus is suggesting is that Antony’s grief over the death of Caesar was no doubt sincere but also that his political wheels were spinning all the while, and the subject to be determined was how, exactly, Antony was going to position himself in the wake of this sad event.

Act 3, Scene 3 (924-25, Cleopatra rewards the messenger for reporting that she’s better looking than Octavia)

Cleopatra finds out that Octavia isn’t as beautiful as she—in fact, interprets Cleopatra from what the messenger says, she is “Dull of tongue, and dwarfish” (924, 3.2.16).  Cleopatra now rewards the messenger she had earlier struck (924-25).

Act 3, Scene 4 (925-26, War is brewing between Antony and Caesar)

War is brewing between Caesar and Antony, the latter of whom details his grievances to Octavia: Caesar, he says, has “waged / New wars ’gainst Pompey, made his will and read it / To public ear, spoke scantly of me …” (925, 3.4.3-5).  Antony agrees that Octavia might be helpful as a go-between, and he seems genuine in his desire that she should follow her heart in choosing sides, if that should become necessary: “Make your soonest haste; / So your desires are yours” (926, 3.4.27-28, see 20-28). 

Act 3, Scene 5 (926-27, Caesar has arrested Lepidus)

Lepidus and Caesar have warred with Pompeius, and then Caesar has arrested Lepidus (926, 3.5.10). 

Act 3, Scene 6 (927-29, Caesar is angry at Antony’s outrageous Egyptian self-crowning and at his treatment of Octavia)

In the sixth scene, Caesar is outraged when Antony and Cleopatra crown themselves in Asiatic splendor (927, 3.6.3-5).  The Roman people know of this, says Caesar (927, 3.6.21), who also declares himself annoyed that Octavia has come to visit him without the appropriate ceremony (928, 3.6.42-43).  His contempt for Antony’s conduct shows most when he says of the man, “He hath given his empire / Up to a whore” (928, 3.6.66-67).  Well, Caesar had agreed to the match between his rival and Octavia readily enough in spite of his reservations about Antony’s character.  Now he invites Octavia to stay on his side, suggesting that Antony has betrayed her: “You are abused / Beyond the mark of thought” (929, 3.6.86-87).

Act 3, Scene 7 (929-31, Cleopatra takes offense at Enobarbus’ suggestion to stay out of the wars; Antony decides to fight Caesar by sea on a dare; Antony is surprised at the speed and efficiency of Caesar’s forces)

Enobarbus tells Cleopatra to stay out of the wars, and she’s insulted at the suggestion, especially his remark that her “presence needs must puzzle Antony” (929, 3.7.10).  She will take part in Antony’s wars, declaring that she will, “as the president of my kingdom will / Appear there for a man” 929, 3.7.16-17).  She is a ruler and doesn’t accept the role of a “weak woman.”  Antony now makes the disastrous decision to fight Caesar by sea because the latter has dared him to do so.  Enobarbus is aghast at this “un-Roman” impracticality, at this preference for chance and hazard instead of security (930, 3.7.34-39).  Perhaps Antony is foolhardy, but he’s also honorable and noble; power sits lightly upon his shoulders.  The hair of wise and responsible rulers turns gray quickly, but one senses that such a transformation isn’t likely to overtake Mark Antony.  He’s too reckless to be weighed down by the demands of power, and prefers an unstable alliance between honor and hazard to a more stable one of the sort Enobarbus would counsel, and Caesar would certainly maintain.  At the end of the scene, Antony seems very surprised at how briskly Caesar’s forces are moving into position (930, 3.5.56-60).  The men around Antony (Camidius in particular) feel that since he’s led by a woman, so are they: “we are women’s men” (931, 3.7.).

Act 3, Scenes 8-10 (931-32, Antony and Cleopatra meet with disaster at sea; Camidius decides to desert, but Enobarbus stays on for the time being)

Caesar and Antony strategize; the former is all about maintaining control over events: “Strike not by land… / … Do not exceed / The prescript of this scroll” (931, 3.8.3-5). By the tenth scene, we hear that the Egyptian fleet has cut and run (931-932, 3.10.1-3).  Scarus laments that Antony’s Romans have “kissed away / Kingdoms and provinces” (932, 3.10.7-8)  The charge is that Antony is irresponsible in his deployment of military power.  He has allowed his love of Cleopatra to blind him to sound counsel, and Scarus laments, “Experience, manhood, honour, ne’er before / Did violate so itself” (932).  Incredibly, Antony has followed Cleopatra’s shameful retreat at the first sign of danger.  Camidius decides that he might as well go over to Caesar since Antony has lost control over his own destiny (932, 3.10.32-34).  Enobarbus knows what Camidius knows, but still can’t bring himself to abandon his commander: “I’ll yet follow / The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason / Sits in the wind against me” (932, 3.10.34-36).

Act 3, Scene 11 (932-34, Antony recognizes his error and loss of identity; he is furious with Cleopatra, but pardons her for a kiss)

Antony is horrified—“I have fled myself…” (933, 3.11.7) and “I have offended reputation; / A most unnoble swerving” (933, 3.11.48-49), he says, understanding that he has thrown away everything he worked for.  What makes the situation even more intolerable is Caesar’s relative lack of martial skill and experience; Antony reminds us that it was he who killed his friend Julius’ assassins while the fledgling stood by: “He at Philippi kept / His sword e’en like a dancer …” (933, 3.11.35-36).  Antony has been a world-historical actor, and now his star is eclipsed by a lesser man, at least in his view. 

Antony is at first furious with Cleopatra, but reconciles with her almost immediately.  When she asks pardon, he grants it, considering himself well repaid with a kiss (934, 3.11. 70-74).  He evidently places Cleopatra above victory on the battlefield.

Act 3, Scene 12 (934-35, Cleopatra behaves submissively towards devious Caesar, who demands that she exile or kill Antony)

Antony sends his schoolmaster to treat with Caesar (935, 3.12. 7-10).  Cleopatra says she will submit to Caesar and wishes only to remain Queen of Egypt, and while Caesar disregards Antony’s request to live in Egypt, he orders that the queen be comforted and promised all she wants, so long as she either exiles or kills Antony (935, 3.12. 20-24).  He supposes this shift will work because women, as far as he is concerned, are infinitely malleable under the pressure of circumstance.

Act 3, Scene 13 (935-40, Enobarbus blames Antony for the military disaster, but still can’t desert him; Antony offers Caesar an absurd challenge to single combat; Cleopatra cooperates with Caesar; Antony tries to recover what Caesar “knew I was” and rages at Cleopatra, though he again reconciles with her; Enobarbus finally decides to desert Antony)

Enobarbus won’t blame Cleopatra.  He says Antony has made his will “Lord of his reason” (935, 3.13.4-5).  Antony absurdly challenges Caesar to single combat (936, 3.13.24-27).  Enobarbus is stunned, and feels that Antony has been entirely bereft of sound judgment: “Mine honesty and I begin to square” (936, 3.13.40).  Enobarbus continues to mull his relationship with Antony, and thinks his loyalty will earn him a place in the story books, so to speak: by sticking with Antony, he’ll “conquer” the man who defeated that noble Roman.  The loyal friend who does this, he suggests, “… earns a place i’th’ story” (936, 3.13.45; see 42-45).  This might be labeled a metadramatic concern because Shakespeare himself is clearly interested in how legends become enmeshed with history.  Much of this play (to borrow a phrase from the New Historians) is about a kind of “self-fashioning” that, if successful, becomes the narrative by which we know the boldest among the ancients.  Even in Antony and Cleopatra’s own time, mythmaking was at work, and so were its critics. 

Cleopatra seems to be going along with Caesar’s program, flattering him with the words “He is a god, and knows / What is most right” (937, 3.13.60-61), while her lover is still saying “I am / Antony yet” (938, 3.13. 92-93).  He wants to re-embrace his identity as a valorous Roman commander, and orders Caesar’s messenger soundly whipped (938, 3.13.93).  Soon, his anger again turns towards Cleopatra in the memorable line, “You have been a boggler ever” (938, 3.13.111), whom he accuses of latching onto and manipulating famous Roman men like Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and himself to enhance her own power, which rests on the different and most un-Roman basis of alliance with divine splendor and awe.  “I found you as a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar’s trencher…” (938, 3.13.117-18), he scolds Cleopatra.  The queen is the leader of an ancient personality cult, and while her stylistic affinity with Antony’s grandiose dimension is obvious, he now professes to find the whole affair disgusting.  Above all, he says, Cleopatra lacks “temperance” and indeed that she doesn’t even know the meaning of the word (938, 3.13.122). 

Antony’s anger also flows toward Caesar for “harping on what I am, / Not what he knew I was” (939, 3.13. 144-45).  Antony supposes that the reputation he has justly won entitles him to the continued respect and esteem of those who have overcome him.  The scene’s conclusion shows Antony reconciling yet again with Cleopatra (who after all seems to represent a tendency within him), and regains his composure: “I am satisfied,” he declares (939, 3.13.170).  Antony calls for a night of drinking and celebration on the eve of the final battle to recover his lost glory: “I and my sword will earn our chronicle. / There’s hope in’t yet” (940, 3.13.178-79).  He may yet win at Alexandria. 

This strange recovery on Antony’s part is the last straw for Enobarbus: “When valour preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with” (940, 3.13.201-02), says Enobarbus, and it’s time to desert his old commander at the earliest opportunity. 

Act 4, Scenes 1-6 (940-44, Battle is coming on and true natures are reckoned: Antony is elegiac but resolute and is magnanimous towards Enobarbus the deserter; Caesar shows the nature of his new world order in his ruthless military arrangements; Enobarbus abhors himself and determines to die)

These brief scenes convey the contrasting attitudes and reactions on the part of Antony and Caesar to towards the coming battle.  Antony is at times elegiac in tone, as in the second scene: “Perchance tomorrow / You’ll serve another master” (941, 4.2.27-28), he tells his men, and “I hope well of tomorrow…” (942, 4.2.42), to the dismay of Enobarbus. 

In the third scene, a soldier takes a noise to be Hercules abandoning Antony (942, 4.3.14-15), which is especially significant since Antony’s family claimed descent from that demigod. 

In the fourth scene, Antony seems resolute: he will bring the willing to the battle, and wishes Cleopatra could behold him in all his splendor: “That thou couldst see my wars today, and knew’st / The royal occupation!”  (943, 4.4.15-17). 

In the fifth scene, Antony learns that Enobarbus has deserted him, and realizes that his “fortunes have / Corrupted honest men” (944, 4.5.16-17).  He says these words to Eros and not in soliloquy, but they seem heartfelt. 

In the sixth scene, Caesar declares that “the time of universal peace is near” (944, 4.6.4), yet without compunction he also betrays the true nature of this new world order: he advises his lieutenant to place units recently revolted from Antony at the forefront, so that in the first rounds of the battle, Antony will be killing his own men (945, 4.6.8-10).  Enobarbus has now come to realize that he has destroyed his self-image in abandoning Antony: “I am alone the villain of the earth …” (945, 4.6.30).  When Antony generously sends him his treasure from camp, the desolation of Enobarbus is complete.  He resolves to die as quickly and wretchedly as possible: “I will go seek / Some ditch wherein to die” (945, 4.6.37-38).

Act 4, Scenes 7-12 (945-48, Antony enjoys temporary success; Enobarbus dies; Caesar will fight Antony by sea)

So far, Antony’s desperate gambit shows signs of success since, as Agrippa says, Caesar seems to have overextended his forces (946, 4.9.1-3) and Eros is able to announce to Antony, “They are beaten, sir” (946, 4.8.8).  For the moment, Caesar has been driven back to his camp, a fact that Antony trumpets in the ninth scene, with special instructions to inform the queen of this great feat (946, 4.9.1).

Enobarbus dies reasserting his admiration for Antony: “Forgive me in thine own particular, / But let the world rank me in register / A master-leaver and a fugitive,” he prays, and his beloved general’s name is the last word he utters. (4.10.19-21).  Friendship or amicitia was among the highest Roman values, and it is this value that Enobarbus realizes he has sordidly betrayed. 

In the twelfth scene, Caesar announces that he will fight Antony at sea one last time (948, 4.12.1-4).

Act 4, Scenes 13-14 (948-50, the fleet again deserts Antony, who becomes enraged with Cleopatra; Charmian advises Cleopatra to hide in a monument and play dead)

The fleet again deserts Antony (949, 4.13.3-4), even going over to Caesar’s side.  Upon this betrayal, Antony declares Cleopatra a “Triple-turned whore” (949, 4.13.13) and himself betrayed and finished, defeated by a cowardly queen and a journeyman politician: “O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more. / Fortune and Antony part here” (949, 4.13.18-19).  He is so infuriated with her that he seethes, “The witch shall die” (949, 4.13.47) and for a moment imagines her at the mercy of the Roman plebeians (949, 4.13.33-34).

Charmian advises Cleopatra to hide in a monument, and send false word of her death.  The Queen agrees.  (950, 4.14.3-4).

Act 4, Scene 15 (950-53, Antony believes Cleopatra has committed suicide, and botches an attempt at the same; Decretas takes his sword to give to Caesar)

Antony continues to lament what he considers Cleopatra’s betrayal, admitting that he “made these wars” for no one but Egypt and her (950, 4.15.15).  When he hears that she has supposedly committed suicide, however, he is again instantly reconciled: “I will o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon” (951, 4.15.44-45).  She has shown him the way in conquering herself, he thinks (951, 4.15.59-62), and thereupon makes a botched attempt to fall on his sword after his servant Eros commits suicide rather than assist his master in dying (952, 4.15.92-105).  Nobody will help Antony end his life, and Decretas even takes his sword as a token with which to ingratiate himself with Caesar (953, 4.15.111-12).

Act 4, Scene 16 (954-56, Antony and Cleopatra are together one last time, and as he is dying she plans to go out in the Roman way)

Antony and Cleopatra are together for one final scene, and when he tries to get her to seek safety and honor in Caesar, she bravely points out that “honour” and “safety” don’t go together (955, 4.16.49).  That has long been the creed Antony has followed, for better or for worse.  Antony falls back on the classical notion that glory is a matter of what your peers and descendants think of you.  His wretched present, he trusts, will not blot out the glorious remembrance he has earned by his brave deeds in the past: “please your thoughts / In feeding them with those my former fortunes …” (955, 4.16. 54-55; see 53-61).  Moments later, he dies.  Cleopatra says that she and Charmian, too, will evade the clutches of Caesar; they will exit the world instead “after the high Roman fashion, / And make death proud to take us” (956, 4.16.89-90).

Act 5, Scene 1 (956-58, Caesar, though ruthless, is saddened by Antony’s death; he tells Proculeius to deceive Cleopatra and thereby preserve her for an eventual spot in his triumph)

When Decretas informs Caesar that Antony is dead, he seems genuinely saddened: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack” (956, 5.1.14-15).  Antony lived prodigiously, and yet his passing has been noted as if it were a thing of nothing, no ceremony.  Caesar may not be much of a pageantry promoter, but he shows some regard for the rites due to honor.  His sense of loss seems sincere, and he regrets what his need to maintain and increase his power has supposedly forced him to do (957, 5.1.35-48).  Which doesn’t, of course, mean that he wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat.

Caesar serves political expediency as his master, but this doesn’t give us the right to say he’s a mere hypocrite: it is not unreasonable to suggest that his strength consists partly in the attitude he takes up towards what his station as a public man leads him to do.  His ruthless actions are taken in the name of “universal peace” and the greater glory of Rome.  He sometimes deceives others about the nature of what he does, but he doesn’t deceive himself about the disjunction between his ideals and his deeds. 

We see all this in the way he treats Cleopatra: he bids Proculeius to treat the queen kindly and make her what promises he finds suitable, but this is only a shift to bring her in triumph to Rome, where she will be an object of mockery for the rabble: “for her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph” (957, 5.1. 65-66; see 61-68).

Act 5, Scene 2 (958-67, Cleopatra engages in final self-refashioning as a Roman hero, exalts Antony to the skies; Dolabella warns her of Caesar’s plan, and she determines to meet Antony in death; Caesar personally tries to deceive and threaten Cleopatra, but she succeeds in committing suicide; Caesar recognizes his opponents’ mettle after their deaths)

Cleopatra is refashioning herself as heroic in the Roman style, as one determined to take her own life.  We might suppose this is a matter of adopting a style; but then, Cleopatra takes style quite seriously, and her Pharaonic self-fashioning is no light matter.  It wouldn’t be right to take that quality away from her.  She is surrounded by Caesar’s soldiers, and now determines that she will not become the sport of the vulgar in Rome: “Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome?”  (959, 5.2.54-56) 

In the presence of Dolabella, Cleopatra refashions and aggrandizes Antony to the point of deification, musing, “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” and “His legs bestrid the ocean /  his reared arm / Crested the world …” (960, 5.2.75, 81-82; see 81-91, 95-99).  She has always shown this propensity to exalt the deeds and reputation of Antony, but now that death is closing in, her efforts intensify and take on heightened significance; this is the “Antony” to whom Cleopatra will soon attempt to return in Elysium, reunited there as a still grander couple than they were on earth.

Dolabella plays an honorable role, forewarning Cleopatra of the shameful fate that awaits her in only three days (960-61, 5.2.104-09). 

Caesar enters and plays both gracious conqueror and vicious threatener of Cleopatra’s progeny, if she should follow Antony’s self-destructive course (961, 5.2.120-29).  When Seleucis betrays Cleopatra over her holding back some treasure from Caesar (961, 5.2.144), she is shocked (962, 5.2.155-60), which reaction suggests that she still doesn’t understand the dynamics of power: people obey those in whom they find real, actionable strength; they don’t long obey those who have only majesty and divine pomp to back their rule.  She resents being “worded” by Caesar (962, 5.2.187-88), and loathes the prospect of “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy[ing] my greatness, / I’th’ posture of a whore” (963, 5.2.216-17; see 203-17).  She has always been an actor of sorts, but in her own proper sphere as Egyptian Queen, her acting the part of a goddess had been correlated with the exercise of power.  In Rome, what had been world-historical drama would be reduced to an entertaining farce for the multitude.

Cleopatra declares that there will be a final meeting with Antony in death: “I am again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony” (963, 5.2.224-25).  It is noteworthy that the place name refers to her initial seduction of Antony in 41 BCE, when he summoned her to Tarsus and she floated down the river Cydnus on that famous barge we recall from Enobarbus’ description (908-09, 2.2.197-211).  Cleopatra will achieve this meeting—essentially a return to an initial triumph—by casting off the supposed weakness of her sex: “I have nothing / Of woman in me” (964, 5.2.234-35). 

In comes the Clown, with his prayer that Cleopatra may find “all joy of the worm” or Nile serpent he has brought her (964, 5.2.253).  It’s worth considering why Shakespeare has chosen to present Cleopatra with her death in this semi-comic, bizarre rustic.  Perhaps it has something to do with the utter strangeness of each person’s ending, at least to that person; perhaps, also, it has to do with the fact that as Cleopatra lived and risked all for an erotic affair, the Clown’s patently phallic references (his puns on “dying” as orgasm in particular at 964, 5.2.244-50) end up being as pertinent  as they are indecorous and impertinent on his part.  A third consideration is that the Clown presents the queen with one last challenge to her royal and wished-for divine dignity.  Be that as it may, Cleopatra meets her death bravely, calling upon Antony to witness her courage, saying, “I have / Immortal longings in me,” and “I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (965, 5.2.271-72, 280-81).  She dies at (5.2.303), Iras having preceded her in passing just moments before.

Caesar, whom Cleopatra considers almost with her last breath an “ass / Unpolicied” (965, 5.2.298) for allowing her to make away with herself, enters the scene after her death and declares it noble and an act of loyalty to Antony.  He ratifies Charmian’s dying words that Cleopatra’s death is “well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings” (966, 5.2.317-18), and agrees to bury her next to Antony, apparently recognizing the high tragedy of their doomed love match, the “pity” of which equals the “glory” of his current status as military victor and his future as Rome’s sole ruler (967, 5.2.348-53).  There’s dignity in sublime failure, it seems, as well as in the establishment of peace and long-continued rule.  Rome, Incorporated will have its shiny new CEO, and for Augustus Caesar, apotheosis to heaven can wait.  Both Antony and Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar are great in their respective ways, but the former are crushed by the modern world in which Octavius moves more deftly, if not with the same tragic glory.

Antony and Cleopatra’s manner of dying, and Caesar’s of living and governing, together show a clash of value systems, a fissure in the concept of Romanness.  I don’t think the play condemns either system, although it shows the consequences and historical import of both: modern, material politics wins.  We should bear in mind the strangeness of the final two acts’ tragic arc: Antony’s sudden condemnations and reconciliations, Cleopatra’s dissembling and final adoption of Roman heroism, Caesar’s recognition of the lasting narrative value of the great pair he has hounded to their demise.  Throughout the play, Antony and Cleopatra have been both each other’s downfall and salvation: in the end, Cleopatra’s initial false suicide taught Antony to do the right thing in earnest, and that suicide, in turn, led Cleopatra to exit the world’s stage like the hybrid Egyptian Queen and antique Roman she had become. 

There is just the hint of an imperfectly realized romance pattern in Antony and Cleopatra: we might say that this hint is to be found in the fourth act when the royal couple are forced to attempt a transition from the loss of supreme power to a more perfect union as lovers.  It’s true that this play, in terms of Shakespeare’s chronology, is crafted at the tail end of his so-called dark period and on the cusp of the romance plays that round off his career.  But romance entails selective survival; even as it provides second chances and near-miraculous reconciliations, instilling in us a sense that the world isn’t quite as harsh as we thought it was, romance requires us to accept the reality that recovery comes only with partial loss and the admission of alterations wrought by time and foolishness.  The romance pattern can’t altogether annihilate time or decay, and it doesn’t seem to allow for straightforward exaltation or apotheosis to perfection.  In the end, its miracles are profoundly human, and tinged with sorrow and mortality.  The historical record in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, of course, makes the romance pattern impossible: that record tells us of the liquidation of a famous couple at the hands of a power-consolidating corporation man in Octavius.  Shakespeare takes the two lovers in a different direction more consonant with tragedy.  Their persistent, impressive self-mythologizing and image-projecting lends them a measure of larger-than-lifeness, and they place their love beyond any power that Caesar’s politics and armies can wield against them.  The play remains firmly in the tragic camp since the relentless pursuit by Caesar at last yields the results he’s been aiming for: sole possession of the world’s first superpower, the Roman Empire. If there’s success for Antony and Cleopatra, it’s that audiences during and since Shakespeare’s time have probably found it difficult to decide between the romantic status of the two great lovers and the historical achievements of the enigmatic Octavius, thereafter to be known as Augustus Caesar.

What we are treated to, then, is not the bittersweet survival and renewal that we encounter in plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, but instead Antony and Cleopatra’s classical attempt by means of soaring words and exuberant perspectives to attain a new and marvelous love beyond the wreckage that was the end of the Roman Republic, with its proscriptions, assassinations, wars and internecine rivalries, and beyond even the birth of the Empire.  This sounds like a classical apotheosis to the heavens after the manner of ancient Greek heroes who became demigods after their deaths; this apotheosis involves the transposition of a perfect love into another and diviner key: this attempted transformation, at least if we do not grant Cleopatra her metaphysical reunion with Antony, fits the tragic pattern, and we are left with the crushing of a magnificent couple’s last-minute attempts at projecting themselves to a perpetual match in the heavens and thereby escaping their failure in the material world dominated by Caesar.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake