Antony and Cleopatra is a kind-of-history play about two of the most glorious societies in the Ancient World. Shakespeare used his poetic skill to spruce up history, to great effect. The scenes about Egypt are rich in language, playfulness, and the natural world, but they’re tempered by the more serious and severe tones cast by the military figures elsewhere around the globe in the play. Caesar puts it best after he finishes partying on Pompey's barge on the night of the truce: "our graver business / Frowns at this levity." The play is decadent in language and content in some parts, and absolutely brutal and soldierly in others. The result of these contrasting tones is a richness that reflects the duality of the action.
The other effect of the complexity of Shakespeare’s approach is that the audience is constantly unsure of what will happen next— whether things will go the Roman or Egyptian way. By maintaining these peaks and valleys of action, sometimes reasonable, sometimes passionate, the audience is kept guessing and wondering what tone Shakespeare will use next, and on which he’ll eventually end. (Which one is it? Good question.)
The play is a tragedy insofar as it ends in a slew of deaths. But the good news is that it’s also a love story (remember it’s not a romance, as that refers to a type of whimsical play, rather than a story where love is central). Though it's tragic, Antony and Cleopatra isn’t a story of simple good versus evil. The characters are fleshed out and rather complicated. Where Hamlet is a tragedy about thought and Macbeth one about consequences, this play is more about the tragedy of human will and interpretation. The characters’ actions can’t even be described as good or evil, but fall much better into the categories of actions ruled by passion or ruled by reason.
The play features Antony, one of Rome’s rulers, and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. The title tells us right off the bat that though the lovers are the focus of the play, their love isn’t. We know it’s not a romance, because it’s called a tragedy, so we’re prepared for most everyone (including our title characters) to die.
The play takes place all over the Roman Empire, from Parthia (modern-day Iraq), Athens, and Syria to various battlefields in-between. The main action, however, occurs in Rome with Caesar and in Egypt with Antony and Cleopatra. The setting is crucial in this play, and for a long time it was criticized as being erratic for having so many short scenes set all over the Empire (with 42 scenes, it ranks the highest of Shakespeare’s works in scene settings). This used to be dizzying and a little hard to follow for the audience. The ease of depicting scene changes in the modern world has made the play a bit easier to follow, and reveals that Shakespeare, like in the pastorals, allows the scene to set the tone for the players and play.
Egypt is characterized by the decadence of both its landscape and people, along with its naturalness (as though the people were following the lead of the lush land). Rome is presented, in contrast, as a cool and level-headed place, where political concerns and bureaucracy organize the action, and where reason rules the people as well as the republic. This is made clear to us when Cleopatra speaks of Antony having had "a Roman thought." This dichotomy of setting organizes the actions into the two frameworks of the play: on one level, the people and the action are ruled by their natural passions, and on another level, they’re governed by the reason and order of civil government and Roman austerity.
Shakespeare’s style in this play is befitting of the drama and passion of the story, full of the fury and passion of love and war. Enobarbus’s speech about Cleopatra and Antony’s description of the Nile crocodile both reflect the lushness and playfulness that characterize Egypt. However, these grandiose and quirky scenes are offset by the jerky movements of the battle scenes, some only a few lines long and mostly driven by deliberate action. There are 42 scenes total, making it one of Shakespeare’s most erratic plays.
With the characters, Shakespeare reflects their different circumstances and personalities with their words, both in content and in style. Cleopatra, Octavia, and Antony are given to saying "O!" and "fie!" as often as Enobarbus and Caesar are to speaking straight and clearly. It’s another way to use style to deliver the meaning and content of the play—about two divided worlds ruled by disparate kinds of people, their disparate motivations, and their subjugation to either passion or reason.
Egypt is represented by the natural world, and is contrasted to of the unnatural Roman world. Antony describes the wonders of the Nile that bring drought and lush harvests. Cleopatra meets Antony in all her grandeur as she floats down the Nile. Cleopatra reflects the richness of greens and blues in the natural world in her silver and gold jewelry. The Nile also has fury when its waters rise and swell, and Cleopatra evokes that same natural fury when she says she would rather be consumed by the flies and maggots of the river rather than be paraded through Rome. The natural world is as tempestuous as the two lovers: what it gives, it can also take away.
Animals of the Nile also figure heavily into this tale of two lovers. Antony invokes the wonder of the animal world when he tells Lepidus about the crocodiles of the river (which were thought to create themselves out of the mud of the Nile). Of course, it is a snake, not unlike the river snakes Antony describes, that is the source of Cleopatra’s death. The Nile represents the richness and poverty life has to offer and reflects the hot and cold passion of the lovers that, like the great river, carve out their own path.
Swords feature prominently in the play as stand-ins for manhood, and they’re often linked to the sexual self. When Antony refers to Caesar being a wimp, he talks about how his sword was sheathed at Philippi (when they defeated Brutus and Cassius). He challenges Caesar to meet him sword to sword, and Caesar backs down. This may be affirming Antony’s greater manhood. There’s more swordplay when Cleopatra mentions that once, she and Antony wore each other’s outfits in bed. She, taking on his strength, wore the sword he wore at Philippi. Swords are shaped rather suggestively, but they also represent the murderous conquering that was considered the male sphere.
Cleopatra is the basis of a lot of female imagery that concerns the lush and natural. Enobarbus talks about how Antony "ploughed" and Cleopatra "cropped," meaning she brought forth the life of his seed, in the way of the natural world. Further, when she chooses to die, she goes to the monument, which some have interpreted as a stand-in for a vagina. It’s a good reference though, as it’s a place that nothing leaves alive – imagine it as the opposite of the fertile womb. As a tomb, it doesn’t give birth to anything; it just houses the dead and dying. When Cleopatra dies, she suckles the asp like a baby at her breast (which a lot of artists depict on the canvas), but it’s a wonderful representation of the perversion of the natural world. Just as the lushness of Egypt dies, the natural world is turned on its head. The Queen nurses death at her breast like she would a baby. Her empire is dying, and so dies her maternal power as its matriarch.
Though all works of literature present the author’s point of view, they don’t all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
Antony is pretty happy about being in love, but realizes he’s been made a kitten by his fawning over Cleopatra. He’s losing status in Rome, and worse, his friends need him back at home to help fight a war that Pompey is waging, even as they are just concluding a war with his own wife and brother. He clearly can’t stay with his love in Egypt, as his Roman honor is at stake.
On his return to Rome, he answers all of Caesar’s grievances; agrees to conclude the matter once and for all by taking Caesar’s sister, Octavia, as his wife; and manages to have a happy time with Pompey, who has agreed to a truce instead of a war. Still, he plans to have his cake and eat it too, as he’ll return to Egypt anyway.
Turns out, the marriage and truce haven’t secured Antony’s honor after all. Now he has to fight Caesar. While it gives him a good excuse to get rid of Octavia (and to return to Egypt), it seems he can’t even trust Cleopatra, as he loses a naval battle when she turns tail and abandons him. Though Antony will eventually forgive Cleopatra, he curses her for her willingness to fraternize with Caesar’s messenger, Thidias. That flirtation was a clear betrayal of Antony’s love, fresh after he was forced to betray his honor.
Unbeknownst to Antony, his watchmen hear music in the night that they interpret to be a sign that Hercules, Antony’s claimed forefather, is deserting him. The next morning, Antony hears of Enobarbus’s desertion and laments that he’s turned even good men to corruption and betrayal. On the morning of the final sea battle, Antony watches from a hill as his own men rush to meet Caesar’s men as friends. All is clearly lost, and he’s sure it’s because Cleopatra has betrayed him. He determines to kill her.
Antony believes his best option is now suicide. Unfortunately, Antony isn’t so good at killing himself, and his own stab isn’t immediately fatal. He’s borne to Cleopatra and dies in her arms. She gives up, as the world isn’t worth living in if he’s absent from it. She resolves immediately upon his death to kill herself, and is only made surer of this course when she learns that Caesar (who has his men guard her) plans to parade her around Rome. For her honor, and to be with Antony, Cleopatra kills herself.
Antony is living in Egypt, and is happy to be infatuated with Cleopatra. Everything in Egypt is going great, and then Antony gets word that things are falling apart in Rome. He hears that wars are brewing, and it’s clear that the other two triumvirs, Lepidus and Caesar, could really use his help. Most importantly, Antony hears rumors that he’s losing face in Rome for being the Queen of Egypt’s pet. He resolves to go home and be a soldier once more.
In Rome, straits are dire. Wars are being waged left and right, and as soon as Antony resolves one issue, another pops up. Antony's wife and brother are battling Caesar, which gets resolved when Antony's wife dies. In a war between Pompey and the Roman triumvirs, Antony negotiates a truce with Pompey, which also resolves the pirate issue. Everything comes to a head, though, when Antony marries Octavia, thinking this will seal his peace with Caesar, only to find out that Caesar has betrayed him by breaking the truce with Pompey, kicking Lepidus out of office, and speaking ill of Antony publicly. Antony can’t abide by these wrongs, and so decides to go to war against Caesar. The first battle will be held at sea. Antony is supposed to have Cleopatra’s aid, but when the naval battle comes to a head, Cleopatra’s ship flees. Antony, out of his love for her, follows. He feels he’s undone as a soldier, nevermind having lost the battle.
Things are going badly for Antony. Cleopatra flirts with Caesar’s messenger, Thidias, which shows her compromised love and loyalty to Antony. This is a particularly awful blow, as he’s just lost a naval battle and his soldierly honor for her love, thinking it was true. Some of the men on watch hear strange music all around them, which they interpret to be the sound of Hercules abandoning Antony. Most strikingly, Enobarbus deserts Antony for Caesar’s camp. The sum of these little blows is Antony’s admission that he’s losing faith in himself, which doesn’t bode well for how he’ll come out in battle. If he doesn’t even believe he’ll triumph, then how can anyone else?
We might think Antony’s finally come to his senses. He watches his own men turn against him at sea and is convinced this is the work of Cleopatra’s betrayal. When he hunts her down, we see that his real conflict isn’t the wars (which he’s used to as a soldier), but the question of whether Cleopatra is as devoted to him as he is to her, given that he’s sacrificed so much for the queen. It seems that, in spite of all the hot and cold feelings, this time he’s really had it, and we’re not sure what he’ll do.
Cleopatra goes through with this little ruse to gain Antony’s attention. Like she usually does, she plans to decide her actions based on his reactions (slightly backwards, isn’t it?). She doesn’t anticipate how far he’s fallen into despair, but the audience knows they can expect something awful, given how things have been going.
Antony relents his fury and lets love take him to his death, thinking he’ll find Cleopatra there. His suicide isn’t a sad one inherently: he does it because he feels it’s the best way to prove that he, and not Caesar, is the sole master of his destiny. In that regard, it’s a noble and very self-possessed act. With this in mind, his death scene isn’t a lamentable one, though it is tragic. Cleopatra says she’ll kill herself, too, though she says it in passion, which we know we can’t trust with her. What seems to actually seal the deal for her is word from Dolabella that Caesar will have her marched through the streets as part of his triumphant parade. She can’t bear this indignity.
Cleopatra has poisonous snakes smuggled to her in a basket of figs. She proclaims she will go to meet her husband, but as she takes the asp (a kind of snake) to her breast, she wishes the snake could call out against Caesar as an "ass unpolicied," meaning one outdone in craftiness in the contest against her. She dies with her pride intact, thinking of joining Antony, but also of having defeated Caesar by robbing him of having conquered her. Caesar finds her and says she’ll be buried next to Antony, letting the famous pair be together in death. His army will solemnly attend the funeral, and then head back to Rome to finish up this empire business they started.