Antony and Cleopatra

Main Characters

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

Introduction

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.

The Play

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.

Commentary

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.”

Famous Lines

“There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd” (Act I, Scene I).

“My salad days, When I was green in judgment” (Act I, Scene V).

“The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, Burn'd on the water; the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, It beggar'd all description” (Act II, Scene II).

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety” (Act II, Scene II).

“He wears the rose Of youth upon him” (Act III, Scene XIII).

“I am dying, Egypt, dying” (Act IV, Scene XV).

“I have Immortal longings in me” (Act V, Scene II).

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