Gerard Hoet-The Banquet of Cleopatra

The Banquet of Cleopatra by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733), early 1700s. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written sometime between 1603 and 1607. It was first printed in the First Folio of 1623. The plot is based on Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives and follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Parthian War to Cleopatra's suicide. The major antagonist is Octavius Caesar, one of Antony's fellow triumviri and the future first emperor of Rome. The tragedy is a Roman play characterized by swift, panoramic shifts in geographical locations and in registers, alternating between sensual, imaginative Alexandria and the more pragmatic, austere Rome.

Many consider the role of Cleopatra in this play one of the most complex female roles in Shakespeare's work.[1] She is frequently vain and histrionic, provoking an audience almost to scorn; at the same time, Shakespeare's efforts invest both her and Antony with tragic grandeur. These contradictory features have led to famously divided critical responses.[2]


  • Mark Antony, Roman general and one of the three men (triumvirs) who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.
  • Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt
  • Octavian, one of the three men (triumvirs) who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar.
  • Marcus Aemilius Lepidus - one of the three men (triumvirs) who rule Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar.
  • Sextus Pompey - Son of the late Pompey the Great.
  • Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus,[3] Follower of Antony
  • Octavia the Younger, Octavian's sister.
  • Ventidius, Eros, Scarus, Dercetas, Demetrius, Philo: Friends of Antony.
  • Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Military commander and advisor of Octavian.
  • Publius Cornelius Dolabella, Friend and attendant of Octavian.
  • Gaius Maecenas, Friend of Octavian.
  • Thyreus, Gallus, Proculeius, Friends of Octavian.
  • Menecrates, Menas, Varrius, Friends of Sextus Pompey.
  • Taurus, Lieutenant-general of Caesar.
  • Canidius, Lieutenant-general of Antony.
  • Silius, Officer in Ventidius's army.
  • Euphronius, Ambassador from Antony to Caesar.
  • Alexas, Mardian the Eunuch, Seleucus, Diomedes, Cleopatra's attendants.
  • Charmian, Iras, Maids of honor attending Cleopatra.
  • Soothsayer
  • Clown
  • Officers, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants


This synopsis uses the characters' historical names instead of their Shakespearean names. For instance, in the actual play, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus's name is changed to Domitius Enobarbus.

File:Cleopatra - John William Waterhouse.jpg
Mark Antony – one of the Triumvirs of Rome along with Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus – has neglected his soldierly duties after being beguiled by Egypt's Queen, Cleopatra VII. He ignores Rome's domestic problems, including the fact that his third wife Fulvia rebelled against Octavian and then died.

Octavian calls Antony back to Rome from Alexandria in order to help him fight against Sextus Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas, three notorious pirates of the Mediterranean. At Alexandria, Cleopatra begs Antony not to go, and though he repeatedly affirms his love for her, he eventually leaves.

Back in Rome, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa brings forward the idea that Antony should marry Octavian's sister, Octavia the Younger, in order to cement the bond between the two men. Antony's lieutenant Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, though, knows that Octavia can never satisfy him after Cleopatra. In a famous passage, he delineates Cleopatra's charms in paradoxical terms (rhetorical antithesis): "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies."

A soothsayer warns Antony that he is sure to lose if he ever tries to fight Octavian.

In Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony's marriage to Octavia and takes furious revenge upon the messenger that brings her the news. She grows content only when her courtiers assure her that Octavia is homely by Elizabethan standards: short, low-browed, round-faced and with bad hair.

At a confrontation, the triumvirs parley with Sextus Pompey, and offer him a truce. He can retain Sicily and Sardinia, but he must help them "rid the sea of pirates" and send them tributes. After some hesitation Pompey accedes. They engage in a drunken celebration on Pompey's galley. Menas suggests to Pompey that he kill the three triumvirs and make himself ruler of Rome, but he refuses, finding it dishonorable. Later, Octavian and Lepidus break their truce with Pompey and war against him. This is unapproved by Antony, and he is furious.

Antony returns to Alexandria, Egypt, and crowns Cleopatra and himself as rulers of Egypt and the eastern third of the Roman Empire (which was Antony's share as one of the triumvirs). He accuses Octavian of not giving him his fair share of Pompey's lands, and is angry that Lepidus, whom Octavian has imprisoned, is out of the triumvirate. Octavian agrees to the former demand, but otherwise is very displeased with what Antony has done.

File:Castro Battle of Actium.jpg

Antony prepares to battle Octavian. Ahenobarbus urges Antony to fight on land, where he has the advantage, instead of by sea, where the navy of Octavius is lighter, more mobile and better manned. Antony refuses, since Octavian has dared him to fight at sea. Cleopatra pledges her fleet to aid Antony. However, in the middle of the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra flees with her sixty ships, and Antony follows her, leaving his army to ruin. Ashamed of what he has done for the love of Cleopatra, Antony reproaches her for making him a coward, but also sets this love above all else, saying "Give me a kiss; even this repays me."

Octavian sends a messenger to ask Cleopatra to give up Antony and come over to his side. She hesitates, and flirts with the messenger, when Antony walks in and angrily denounces her behavior. He sends the messenger to be whipped. Eventually, he forgives Cleopatra and pledges to fight another battle for her, this time on land.

On the eve of the battle, Antony's soldiers hear strange portents, which they interpret as the god Hercules abandoning his protection of Antony. Furthermore, Ahenobarbus, Antony's long-serving lieutenant, deserts him and goes over to Octavian's side. Rather than confiscating Ahenobarbus's goods, which he did not take with him when he fled to Octavian, Antony orders them to be sent to Ahenobarbus. Ahenobarbus is so overwhelmed by Antony's generosity, and so ashamed of his own disloyalty, that he dies from a broken heart.

The battle goes well for Antony, until Octavian shifts it to a sea-fight. Once again, Antony loses when Cleopatra's ships break off action and flee — his own fleet surrenders, and he denounces Cleopatra: "This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me." He resolves to kill her for the treachery. Cleopatra decides that the only way to win back Antony's love is to send him word that she killed herself, dying with his name on her lips. She locks herself in her monument, and awaits Antony's return.

File:The Death of Cleopatra arthur.jpg
Her plan fails: rather than rushing back in remorse to see the "dead" Cleopatra, Antony decides that his own life is no longer worth living. He begs one of his aides, Eros, to run him through with a sword, but Eros cannot bear to do it, and kills himself. Antony admires Eros' courage and attempts to do the same, but only succeeds in wounding himself. In great pain, he learns that Cleopatra is indeed alive. He is hoisted up to her in her monument, and dies in her arms.

Octavian goes to Cleopatra, trying to persuade her to surrender. She angrily refuses, since she can imagine nothing worse than being led in triumph through the streets of Rome, proclaimed a villain for the ages. She imagines that "the quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us, and present / Our Alexandrian revels: Antony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore." This speech is full of dramatic irony, because in Shakespeare's time Cleopatra really was played by a "squeaking boy", and Shakespeare's play does depict Antony's drunken revels.

Cleopatra is betrayed and taken into custody by the Romans. She gives Octavian what she claims is a complete account of her wealth, but is betrayed by her treasurer, who claims she is holding treasure back. Octavian reassures her that he is not interested in her wealth, but Dolabella warns her that he intends to parade her at his triumph.

Cleopatra resolves to kill herself, using the poison of an asp. She dies calmly and ecstatically, imagining how she will meet Antony again in the afterlife. Her serving maids, Iras and Charmian, also kill themselves. Octavian discovers the dead bodies and experiences conflicting emotions. Antony's and Cleopatra's deaths leave him free to become the first Roman Emperor, but he also feels some kind of sympathy for them: "She shall be buried by her Antony. / No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous..." He orders a public military funeral.


The principal source for the story is Plutarch's "Life of Mark Antony" from Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together, in the translation made by Sir Thomas North in 1579. A large number of phrases within Shakespeare's play are taken directly from North's prose, including Ahenobarbus's famous description of Cleopatra's barge, beginning "The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water." However, Shakespeare also adds scenes, including many of the ones portraying Cleopatra's domestic life, and the role of Enobarbus is greatly developed. Historical facts are also sometimes changed: in Plutarch Antony's final defeat was many weeks after the battle of Actium, and Octavia lived with Antony for several years and bore him two children: Antonia Major, paternal grandmother of the Emperor Nero and maternal grandmother of the Empress Valeria Messalina, and Antonia Minor, the sister-in-law of the Emperor Tiberius, mother of the Emperor Claudius, and paternal grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger.

Date and TextEdit

Many scholars believe it was written in 1606–07,[4] although some researchers argue for an earlier dating, around 1603–04.[5]Antony and Cleopatra was entered in the Stationers' Register (an early form of copyright for printed works) in May of 1608, but it does not seem to have been actually printed until the publication of the First Folio in 1623. The Folio is therefore the only authoritative text we have today. Some Shakespeare scholars speculate that it derives from Shakespeare's own draft, or "foul papers," since it contains minor errors in speech labels and stage directions that are thought to be characteristic of the author in the process of composition.[6]

Modern editions divide the play into a conventional five act structure, but as in most of his earlier plays, Shakespeare did not create these act divisions. His play is articulated in forty separate 'scenes', more than he used for any other play. Even the word 'scenes' may be inappropriate as a description, as the scene changes are often very fluid, almost montage-like. The large number of scenes are necessary because the action frequently switches between Alexandria, Italy, Messina in Sicily, Syria, Athens and other parts of Egypt and the Roman Empire. The play contains thirty-four speaking characters, fairly typical for a Shakespeare play on such an epic scale.

Themes and motivesEdit

Many scholars of the play attempt to come to conclusions about the ambivalent nature of many of the characters. Are Antony and Cleopatra true tragic heroes, or are they too fault-ridden and laughable to be tragic? Is their relationship one of love or lust? Is their passion wholly destructive, or does it also show elements of transcendence? Does Cleopatra kill herself out of love for Antony, or because she has lost political power?[7] In the play, Octavian is another ambivalent character, who can be seen as either a noble and good ruler, only wanting what is right for Rome, or as a cruel and ruthless politician.

One of the major themes running throughout the play is opposition, the main being: Rome/Egypt, Love/Lust, and Male/Female. One of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, drawn almost verbatim from North's translation of Plutarch, Ahenobarbus's description of Cleopatra on her barge, is full of opposites. Cleopatra herself sees Antony as both the Gorgon and Mars (Act 2 Scene 5, lines 118-19)

Adaptations and cultural referencesEdit

Selected stage productionsEdit

Films and TVEdit

Musical adaptationsEdit



  1. Neill, Michael, ed. Antony and Cleopatra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994: 45
  2. Bevington, David, ed. Antony and Cleopatra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990: 12-14.
  3. Known in the play as Domitius Enobarbus
  4. John Wilders (ed.) "Antony and Cleopatra" (Arden third series, 1995) Introduction p1 and pp69–75,"Antony and Cleopatra" (Penguin Popular Classics Edition, 1994) introduction p.15, Robert S. Miola "Shakespeare's ancient Rome: difference and identity" in Michael Hattaway (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge University Press, 2002) at p209, Harold Bloom "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" (Riverhead Books, 1998) p.xvii and p.577, Frank Kermode "Shakespeare's Language" (Penguin, 2000) p217, G. K. Hunter "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy" in Stanley Wells (ed.)"The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies" (Cambridge University Press, 1986) at p129, "Chronological Table" to A. R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway (eds.) "The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama" 2nd edition (Cambridge University Press, 2003) at p.433, Dennis Kennedy "Shakespeare Worldwide" in Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells "Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare" (Cambridge University Press, 2001) at p258, "Conjectural Chronology of Shakespeare's Works" ibid page xix, "Chronology" in Claire McEachern (ed.) "Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy" (Cambridge University Press, 2002) at p.xii, Michael Wood "Shakespeare" (Basic Books, 2003) at p290, Lauria Rozakis "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare" at p41
  5. Alfred Harbage Pelican/Viking editions of Shakespeare 1969/1977, preface.
  6. Wells, Stanley, and Gary Taylor.William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987: 549.
  7. Neill 127
  8. Case, A. E., ed. British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan. Boston: Riverside Press, 1939: 6

External linksEdit

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