A tragedy in five acts,
produced about 1606-07 and published in the First Folio of 1623 from an
authorial fair copy. It is considered one of Shakespeare's richest and
most moving works. The principal source of the play is Sir Thomas North's
Parallel Lives (1579), an English version of Plutarch's Bioi paralleloi.
The story concerns Mark Antony, Roman military
leader and triumvir, who is desperately in love with Cleopatra, queen
of Egypt and former mistress of Julius Caesar. Summoned to Rome upon the
death of his wife, Fulvia, who had openly antagonized his fellow triumvir
Octavius, Antony heals the residual political rift by marrying Octavius'
sister, Octavia. Word of the event enrages Cleopatra. Renewed contention
with Octavius, however, sends Antony back to his lover's arms. When the
rivalry erupts into warfare, Cleopatra accompanies Antony to the Battle
of Actium, where her presence proves controversial. She heads back to
Egypt, and Antony follows, pursued by Octavius. Knowing the eventual outcome,
Antony's friend and fellow soldier, Enobarbus, deserts him and joins Octavius.
At Alexandria, Octavius eventually defeats Antony. Cleopatra sends a false
report of her suicide, which prompts Antony to wound himself mortally,
carried by one of the queen's messengers to her hiding place, he dies
in her arms. Rather than submit to Roman conquest, the grieving Cleopatra
arranges to have a poisonous snake delivered to her in a basket of figs.
Attended by her faithful servant Charmian, she kills herself.
Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's
best known later tragedies. Written about ten years after Julius Caesar,
Antony and Cleopatra portrays actual events and persons from Roman history,
but unlike Julius Caesar it also embodies the love story of its title
characters. For the historical background, plot and intimate details of
the affair between the Roman general Antony and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra,
Shakespeare drew upon the ancient Roman historian Plutarch's Lives; in
fact, the description of Cleopatra upon her barge presented by the character
Enobarbus in the play (II,ii, ll.190-225) is nearly a word-for-word translation
of a passage from Plutarch.
In Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar,
Shakespeare depicts characters that are larger than life, all three of
the main figures commanding "planetary" status as rulers of
the world and instruments of its destiny. Antony and Cleopatra is a very
involved play, featuring rapid shifts between Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria,
Egypt and Antony's homeland in Rome, along with two major battlefield
sequences. There are in fact thirteen scenes in Act III and fifteen in
Act IV. While some nineteenth and early twentieth century critics complained
about the awkward structure of the play, recent interpretations have argued
that this relentless movement in the middle of the play creates dramatic
tension that reinforces the global scope of what is occurring on stage.
Mark Antony, one of the three rulers of the
Roman Empire, is enjoying himself in Egypt, neglecting his duties and
having an affair with Cleopatra, Egypt's Queen. A message arrives, informing
him that his wife, Fulvia, is dead, and that Sextus Po mpeius (Pompey)
is raising an army to rebel against the triumvirate. In Antony's absence,
Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, his fellow triumvirs, worry about Pompey's
increasing strength. Pompey is confident of victory--until word reaches
him that Antony is returning from Egypt.
When Antony arrives in Rome, he and Caesar
quarrel, while Lepidus, the weakest of the three, tries to make peace.
Hoping to shore up their alliance, Antony agrees to marry Caesar's sister
Octavia, and the triumvirs lead their army to meet Pompey. Enobarbus,
Antony's closest friend, tells Caesar's men that despite the marriage,
Antony will eventually return to Cleopatra
In Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony's marriage
and flies into a jealous rage. However, a messenger describes Octavia,
and Cleopatra becomes confident that she will win Antony back. The triumvirs
meet with Pompey, and he agrees to make peace in exchange for rule over
Sardinia and Sicily; the four men get drunk together, and Pompey refuses
his soldier's suggestion that he murder his guests. Meanwhile, one of
Antony's generals wins a victory over the kingdom of Parthia.
Antony and Octavia depart for Athens. Once
they are gone, Caesar goes to war against Pompey and defeats him, and
then accuses Lepidus of treason and imprisons him. Antony is angry, and
dispatches Octavia on a peace mission to her brother; he then returns
to Egypt, takes up with Cleopatra, and raises a large army to fight Caesar.
Caesar brings his army and fleet to Egypt, and Antony elects to fight
him at sea, with Cleopatra (over Enobarbus' objections) commanding a ship.
They lose the battle: Cleopatra's ship flees, and Antony follows her,
leaving the fleet to fall apart.
Antony despairs, as his allies betray him
and Caesar offers Cleopatra his friendship if she betrays her lover. She
seems to be considering it when Antony barges in, and he curses her and
orders the messenger whipped. Enobarbus decides his master is finished,
and flees to Caesar's camp. The next day, however, Antony regains his
confidence and defeats Caesar's army. He and Cleopatra celebrate, and
Enobarbus is overcome by guilt and dies.
At the height of the naval battle, Cleopatra
orders her personal ship to leave the scene. Unfortunately, a love struck
Antony orders his ship to follow her, and the battle at Actium becomes
a Roman victory. Caesar rejects Antony's suit for peace, and instead attempts
to split Antony and Cleopatra; Cleopatra, he decrees, will remain Queen
of Egypt unmolested if she but kills Antony. Cleopatra refuses, and Caesar's
army meets Antony's on land-resulting in a victory for Antony. The two
armies withdraw to resume the fight the next day.
When another Egyptian retreat decides the
day for Caesar, Antony accuses Cleopatra of treachery and threatens her
life. Moreover, vows to kill her, to protect herself, she sends word that
she has committed suicide. Antony tries to fall on his sword and cannot
finish the job; mortally wounded, he is brought to Cleopatra and dies
beside her. Caesar takes her prisoner, planning to display her in Rome,
but she learns of his plan and tricks him into leaving her alone. A servant
brings her a poisonous snake, and she kills herself; Caesar has her buried
The language of Antony and Cleopatra is sensuous,
imaginative, and vigorous. Almost every character seems to talk of kingdoms
and to envision heroic deeds: Dolabella, the Roman soldier, says that
his "love makes religion to obey" Cleopatra in her last imprisonment;
Antony's servant is called Eros and kills himself before his "great
chief"; Antony's soldiers have seen his eyes glow "like plated
Mars"; his enemies say that, even in defeat, he "continues still
a Jove." Octavius knows, as he closes in for the kill, that great
issues are at stake. Yet, while the issues are thus enlarged (or inflated),
the protagonists reveal themselves only in defeat. Antony's soliloquies
are addressed to the sun or fortune, false hearts or his queen, rather
than to himself in an attempt to hammer out his thoughts or to explore
his own response. The last scene, however, focuses intensely on a single
character, when Cleopatra, prepared for death in robe and crown, believing
in immortality, and hearing the dead Antony mock "the luck of Caesar,"
seems indeed to be transfigured:
. . . Husband, I come!
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. . . .