Antony and Cleopatra were pretty much the Brangelina of ancient times, only a whole lot more dramatic.
In this tragedy—written by none other than Shakespeare himself around 1608—Mark Antony (no, not that Marc Anthony) and Cleopatra fall in love. Simple enough, right?
These two aren't your average star-crossed lovers. Oh no. They both rule over two of the most important empires in history: Rome and Ancient Egypt.
The play opens in Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt. But as the story continues, Antony’s political and social duties take the action to Rome, Syria, Actium, Parthia (modern-day Iraq), Athens, and various military camps throughout Egypt. The thing is, Antony and Cleopatra aren't very good at the whole despot-jetsetter lifestyle and are constantly put in locations and situations where they question each other's loyalty and love.
We won't give away too much, but the fact that this is a tragedy should tell you a lot about how the play ends. The ending serves as yet another example of how passion mingled with power, treachery, and misunderstanding can lead to a tragic end. We see this time and again in Shakespeare’s great works.
Antony and Cleopatra constitutes Shakespeare’s return to Roman history after an eight-year break. We would need a break too—this stuff gets pretty heavy. It also gives him a chance to explore the theme of Empire, which was a hot topic in England then because it was a good time to run around sticking a flag in any land you could find.
In other words, English colonial holdings were expanding. A big part of that colonial endeavor was making sure other cultures accepted yours as superior. Shakespeare calls this practice into question by pointing out that different cultures had been living successfully before the British arrived. Interestingly, Rome was successful as a conquering nation because it was more likely to let people keep their way of life and just pay a tax to Rome, instead of making them give up their own culture entirely. How the empire tax would be enforced in other nations was still in question, and it almost seems like Shakespeare was giving the people of his time a history lesson, asking them to consider a different way of handling the whole empire issue.
Finally, there’s a reference to the future of Christianity in the play. The end of the Roman Empire marks the beginning of the spread of Christianity throughout the world. When Caesar talks about the coming of universal peace, he means his reign, but it’s a nod to Shakespeare’s Christian audience that Christ brought real universal peace, and saved us modern-day folks from the ills of those ancient cultures. If it hadn’t been for Christ, he seems to be saying, we might still be in the constant wars that characterized folks like the Romans or Egyptians. That's right, this play is basically one big "Thank you, Jesus!"
Whether or not you agree with Shakespeare's religious leanings, this play is full of love, adventure, dramatic empresses, and poisonous snakes—what more could you ask for? So sit back, relax, and get ready to walk like an Egyptian—things are about to get a little crazy.
Picture this: it's 300 and you're one of the Spartans going up against a million Persians. You know you're going to die, so why not go out in a blaze of glory? Or it's The Lord of the Rings and you're stuck at Helm's Deep, preparing for war. There are ten thousand orcs marching toward you, and you think you're going to lose. All that's left to you is to decide how you're going to go.
In the words of that great sage Gandalf, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." Being up against insurmountable odds is a recipe for tragic grandeur. How else can you count on being remembered?
Shakespeare, too, understands that lost causes are a time for characters to shine. Antony and Cleopatra isn't like Hamlet, where you don't know exactly how everything's going to go to hell until it finally does. We've all heard about Cleopatra's fatal run-in with that asp, so we know that the characters are dead meat before any of the suicides happen. The tragedy has already happened: Antony has revolted against Caesar, he keeps messing up his battles, and the two lovers are clearly doomed.
So what's left of Antony and Cleopatra is the drama of watching the hot mess of two people trying to come out of impossible circumstances. And from that perspective, they do a great job: after all, one of the best writers of the English language thought it was worthwhile to write a play about them. Cleopatra sticks a poisonous snake in her bosom and Antony almost disembowels himself rather than surrender to Octavius and Roman power. In Antony and Cleopatra we get an example of courage almost two thousand years after everyone in the real-life story has died.
As Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Zack Snyder (director of 300) all know, we love a good impossible-odds story. After all, we'd like to think that, in 4009, maybe people will be reading about our dramatic exploits in the face of insurmountable foes (robot overlords? alien invaders?). Although, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, we would like to survive our heroic deeds.
Antony and Cleopatra, an old silent film.
Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, Rex Harrison as Caesar, and Richard Burton as Antony. This film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four.
Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Charlton Heston, who also stars as Antony.
1974 TV Movie
Antony & Cleopatra, a TV production directed by John Scoffield and with Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus.
1983 TV Movie
Antony and Cleopatra, starring Timothy Dalton as Antony and Lynn Redgrave as Cleopatra.
Cleopatra, starring Leonor Varela as Cleopatra, Timothy Dalton as Caesar, Billy Zane as Antony, and Rupert Graves as Octavius Caesar.
2005-2007 TV Series
Rome, a joint venture between HBO, the BBC, and RAI of Italy. James Purefoy plays Antony and gives us the pleasure of his great acting (he’s a Royal Shakespeare Company actor in addition to his film and TV work).
The 1983 Antony and Cleopatra
You can watch the 1983 production of Antony and Cleopatra, starring Lynn Redgrave, Timothy Dalton, and Walter Koenig (among others) here. Follow the sidebar links to see the whole thing.
The Text of the Play From the 1600s
These pages contain some absolutely gorgeous facsimiles of the play in its original folio forms, with dates attached to each respective folio.
Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra
Jan de Bray, a Dutch artist living in the 17th century, painted Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra in 1669. It’s now exhibited by the National Gallery of Art.
Illustration of Cleopatra’s death by Edwin A. Abbey for Harper’s Monthly Magazine, from 1909.
Patrick Stewart as Antony for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
A useful timeline about the real course of events between Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar. (Well, useful if you’re some kind of history buff, which is cool.)