Antony and Cleopatra
Mark Antony — Cleopatras' lover and Fulvia's husband; one of the triumvirate of Rome along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus
Cleopatra — the queen of Egypt and Antony's lover; she once seduced Julius Caesar
Octavius Caesar — Julius Caesar's nephew and adopted son; one of the triumvirate of Rome
Domitius Enobarbus — Antony's loyal supporter
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus — the weakest member of the triumvirate; he tries to keep the peace between Octavius and Antony
Sextus Pompeius — son of a great general who was one of Julius Caesar's partners in power
Octavia — Caesar's sister; she marries Antony in order to cement the alliance of the two triumvirs
Charmian and Iras — Cleopatra's attendants
The Soothsayer — an Egyptian fortuneteller
Dolabella — one of Octavius Caesar's men
Agrippa — one of Octavius Caesar's officers
Canidius — Antony's general
Ventidius — a Roman soldier under Antony's command
Scarus — a brave soldier
Proculeius — one of Caesar's soldiers
Mardian, Alexas, and Diomedes — Cleopatra's servants
Thidias, Gallus, and Maecenas — Caesar's men
Demetrius and Philo — Antony's soldiers in Egypt
Eros — an attendant, serving Antony
Menas, Menecrates, and Varrius — soldiers under Pompey
Seleucus — Cleopatra's treasurer
Clown — an Egyptian who brings the poisonous snake to Cleopatra
Decretas — one of Antony's soldiers
Antony and Cleopatra was written about 1606 and is considered Shakespeare's epic tragedy, one of global proportions. Shakespeare's primary source for Antony and Cleopatra was the “Life of Marcus Antonius” contained in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. It had been translated into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579. Shakespeare had no problem lifting lines from other sources, so North's language found its way into the play with only a few alterations.
On a story of such a grand scale, Shakespeare had to compress a decades' worth of events into a dramatic form of only a few hours on the stage. He also took some literary license with the characters, notably Mark Antony, who is far older here than in Julius Caesar. Octavius Caesar, a minor character in the earlier play, now becomes a major part, the man who rises to become the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus.
Agatha Christie: “To me, Cleopatra has always been an interesting problem. Is Antony and Cleopatra a great love story? I do not think so.”
Laurence Olivier: “I never really thought a lot about Antony — as a person, that is, I mean, really, he's an absolute twerp, isn't he?”
The plot of the play does not deviate far from North's story, although characters such as Enobarbus and Cleopatra's attendants are Shakespearean creations. The action of the story is basically a continuation of Shakespeare's earlier play, Julius Caesar. The time frame is two years later. The major events of the play are historically accurate.
The historical Cleopatra seems to have been rather plain by Western standards, yet seductive. Portrayals of her by such movie stars as Claudette Colbert and Elizabeth Taylor vividly show her as beautiful and seductive.
Octavius Caesar, Antony, and Lepidus form the Roman triumvirate that rules the Western world. Lepidus decides to retire, leaving Caesar and Antony in charge. Antony, although married to Fulvia, has abandoned her in Rome to frolic in Egypt with Cleopatra. Disgusted by Antony's lifestyle in Egypt and angry about wars caused by Antony's relatives, Caesar recalls Antony to Rome. Fulvia dies and Caesar and Antony try to make peace through Antony's marriage to Caesar's sister Octavia.
Antony quickly returns to Cleopatra. Caesar vows to wrest Egypt from Antony and Cleopatra. As defeat seems near, Antony's best friend, Enobarbus, deserts him and joins Caesar's army, then filled with guilt, dies of a broken heart near Caesar's headquarters. Facing certain defeat, Antony kills himself by falling on his sword. Cleopatra, in grief over Antony's death, and determined never to be taken in chains to Rome as a prisoner, commits suicide by allowing poisonous asps (snakes) to bite her.
Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's final tragedy, is an ambitious epic play with a vast cast and complex politics. The title characters are defined by their awareness of themselves as public figures. “But what about me?” they seem to ask. “When is my duty done? When does my personal happiness come?”
Were Antony and Cleopatra truly in love?
They were certainly infatuated with each other. Antony left his wife to be with Cleopatra in Egypt. Upon hearing of Antony's death, Cleopatra kills herself. Antony and Cleopatra may lose an empire to Octavius, but in the poetry of their final hours, as they realize their personal ambitions, if only briefly, we are led to feel that their suicides are a victory and they will be united beyond the grave.
Cleopatra is a complex character: deeply in love with Antony, yet willing to consider betraying him. She is a sexually mature seductress with a childlike understanding of war; and above all, a performer on the vast stage of Egypt, a “character” who always “knows her lines,” playing herself for the enjoyment of her audience. While other Shakespearean tragic heroes, such as Hamlet or Macbeth, die in despair, Cleopatra and Antony achieve what she calls their “immortal longings.”
“There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd” (Act I, Scene I).
“My salad days,
“The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
“He wears the rose
“I am dying, Egypt, dying” (Act IV, Scene XV).