Study Guide

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Choices

    Sure, sex and passion are central to Antony and Cleopatra, but you know what else is even more important? The choices our titular characters make. And honestly? These two lovers make some pretty dumb decisions that end up rippling into their personal and political lives. Hey, we've all done something stupid for love, right?

    Passion is especially important when it comes to decision-making in the play: decisions made in haste are often foolish, or impermanent. The interplay between passion and reason is often at stake, and Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that passion interferes with reason.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Passion seems to inform many of Antony's and Cleopatra’s judgments made in the heat of the moment. These decisions are ones they don’t often stick to (like whenever Antony decides he is betrayed by Cleopatra and resolves to leave her). Does passion ever constitute reasonable grounds for making a decision?
    2. Is passion inherently contrary to reason and good judgment? Can passion ever inspire sensible judgments, or augment them? What about this scenario: Enobarbus blames Antony’s passion for Cleopatra for his loss in the first naval battle, yet Antony’s passion for the war arguably inspires him to fight again and earn a victory the next time around.

    Chew on This

    Cleopatra is an inherently calculating woman, in contrast to the passion that Antony feels for her. Antony makes all of his flawed decisions out of his passion for Cleopatra, whereas she only makes decisions to benefit her, like her willingness to listen to Thidias, based on the fact that allying with Caesar would be an advantageous act.

  • Contrasting Regions

    If we ignore all the characters for a hot second, we see that Antony and Cleopatra is, at its core, a play about an interaction between Rome and Alexandria, Egypt. So, uh, who cares? We do. This is Shakespeare, after all. Everything is intentional.

    The fact that the settings mirror each other is a convenient device to interpret the meaning of the characters’ actions. Values, morals, and meanings change with each setting in the play, helping us understand the struggles that Antony has to go through and the way Cleopatra acts and makes judgments. The contrasting regions keep us from getting too bored with one setting and provide a lens of interpretation that is neither good nor bad, but depends on regional values and differences.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. In Shakespeare’s pastoral plays, some place is defined as the "other" to set off the traditions of the characters who are transported there. Does Alexandria serve as the "other" to Rome? Is it merely a pastoral, and thus secondary, backdrop for Roman characters to act as they usually wouldn’t? Are we taught a lesson by this? Or is Alexandria held up as an equal to Rome?
    2. Is Antony’s love for Cleopatra just fetishism? Is he just enamored of her different way of life, of its decadence, or does he really love her for who she is?
    3. Is it possible to separate Cleopatra’s actions and characteristics from her placement in Egypt? Does she embody Egyptian ideals in contrast to Roman ones? Which character, if any, stands for Roman ideals, and how does that character interact with Cleopatra?
    4. Does Antony bridge the divide between the two worlds of Rome and Alexandria? In the end, has he brought them together, or proven that they cannot coexist? 
    5. Is Antony Roman, or Alexandrian? Does he need to be of one place or the other to truly have an identity?

    Chew on This

    Antony’s downfall at the end of the play is a direct result of his loss of place. He doesn’t stand for the regimented reality of Rome anymore, but he can’t totally give himself up to the "life is good" mentality of Egypt. In Antony and Cleopatra, a man without a place has no place in the world.

    Shakespeare presents Roman ideals as superior to Egyptian ideals in Antony and Cleopatra. Unlike most pastorals, Egypt isn’t just presented as a convenient place to take a holiday from Rome, but it stands as the evil contrast to the good of Rome. This is proven by the fact that Antony and Cleopatra, both inextricably tied to Egypt, fall at the end of the play, whereas Rome and Roman characters triumph.

  • Gender

    Cleopatra: woman, queen, goddess. Isn't it strange that the Ancient Egyptians had a female head of state thousands of years ago, but we still have yet to see a female president lead the United States? Hmm…

    Cleopatra is argued to be one of Shakespeare’s most fully developed female characters ever. As a woman in power, she's unique from the get-go, and the play constantly questions whether gender identity is a central part of how people act in powerful positions. Masculine identity is equally at stake, as we have to wonder whether Antony forsakes his masculinity by allowing Cleopatra to be the commander of his heart.

    Gender identity is at the core of the play. Antony and Cleopatra are in love because they are the quintessential man and the quintessential woman, but it could be that the strength of their relationship erodes their respective sexual identities (Cleopatra becoming more masculine, and Antony more feminine). This change alone might be the one that presages their downfalls.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Is there a reversal of gender roles in the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra? How does this inform the power politics in the military conflict of the play?
    2. Is Cleopatra a prototypical female character? How is she similar or different from Shakespeare’s other female characters in Antony and Cleopatra as well as his other plays?
    3. Is Cleopatra’s power over Antony rooted in her strong sexuality? Why is he so excited about Cleopatra when everything about her is so different from the Roman tradition of austerity?

    Chew on This

    Cleopatra is attractive to Antony because she is in a position of power. For all her feminine charm, the only reason she’s a really remarkable woman is that she has power as the Queen of Egypt. This political position informs Antony’s romantic interest in her.

  • Betrayal

    Characters in Antony and Cleopatra often have to choose between being loyal to their ideals and being loyal to their circumstances. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Loyalty is central to a lot of the relationships in the play, but betrayal always hangs in the background like an awkward guy at a school dance when so much power is at stake—you know he'll eventually sneak up and try to dance with you. Characters’ loyalty to one another is constantly called into question by their quick betrayals of one another, and the question of whether loyalty is an enduring feeling is raised as a result.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Which are more damaging in the play: political or romantic betrayals? When Antony decides to murder Cleopatra after he loses the second sea battle, is he enraged because she has betrayed his position to Caesar, or because she has betrayed his love?
    2. What is the basis of loyalty in this play? Is it political affiliation, or do the people who love their leaders just love them because of circumstance?
    3. Enobarbus deserts Antony, though he ultimately regrets the decision (so much so that he dies of his sorrow). What is Shakespeare saying about betrayal here? Antony laments that he’s "corrupted" Enobarbus and driven him to desertion. Is betrayal the fault of the betrayer, or the one who drove him to betrayal?
    4. To what is Antony most loyal: his duty to Rome, his love for Cleopatra, or his own personal honor? Can he maintain any of these loyalties without compromising the others?

    Chew on This

    Antony decides to commit suicide at the end of the play because he has betrayed his own honor. In spite of all the other things that have happened, he most regrets his failure to be his most noble self. The realization that he hasn’t been true to his own ideals is the blow that kills him.

    Cleopatra is never loyal to Antony, even though she claims to kill herself over him. Her constant willingness throughout the play to manipulate him is an indication of the fact that she’d betray him as soon as it was convenient for her, either politically or emotionally.

  • Love

    Love can be a many splendored thing, but it certainly isn't here. Love is a central theme of Antony and Cleopatra because it’s always in question. Unlike Shakespeare's more romantic plays—A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing—the foundation of this play is tragedy. Though love ultimately fails in the end (because the lovers can’t be together), it is upheld and honored by the lovers’ suicidal loyalty to each other. The characters’ actions and reactions to one another are all informed by love’s effect on decision-making—specifically, love’s ability to blind people to reason where love is concerned, and the constant fear of losing love.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is this tragedy also a love story? Which elements of it are more romantic, and which more tragic? Does the power of the play come from the combination of those two tropes?
    2. Did Antony and Cleopatra’s love for each other have to be doomed? Was it ultimately their love, or political necessities, that drove them apart from each other?
    3. What other kinds of love exist in the play besides the love between Antony and Cleopatra? Enobarbus, Charmian, and Iras all die for their masters, out of some kind of heartbreak. What is the basis of their loyaltylove or duty?
    4. How can Antony so quickly decide to marry Octavia when his wife Fulvia has just died and he claims to love Cleopatra? Is love just a political consideration for him or does it mean anything greater? What does it mean that Antony never formally marries Cleopatra?

    Chew on This

    For Antony, politics is his first love. This is why he can betray Cleopatra so easily for Octavia, and why, at one point, he decides he hates Cleopatra, thinking she’s wronged him politically by joining Caesar.

    The love between Antony and Cleopatra is based on power. The lovers could have stayed together in disgrace, or run off, but the real basis of their love for each other is the power each of them holds. Without that power, and the honor implied by it, their relationship means nothing.

  • Power

    As Kanye once said, "No one man should have all that power." And we agree. Power in Antony and Cleopatra is ostensibly a political force, as the play centers on the competition between Antony and Caesar for dominance in Rome. Not just Rome, but the entire Roman Empire. Check out this map to get an idea of just how huge of an area that is. But it has other facets, too, most notably the effect of love as an overpowering force. Antony refuses to be dominated by Caesar, but he willingly submits his love and allegiance to Cleopatra. Power is thus a political and a personal force, one that impacts the desires of individuals in both realms.

    Questions About Power

    1. Antony constantly refers to the fact that Cleopatra has supremacy over him, that she is the commander of his heart. Still, he blames her for his political losses—whose fault is this? Is it ever OK to let love and politics mingle?
    2. Is the source of Antony’s downfall the fact that he’s lost all of his power in Rome? He seems to take his position as a powerful man in the triumvirate really seriously. Does he do anything to maintain this power? Why is he so comfortable just resting on his laurels in Egypt?
    3. Is the play really about the conflict of power politically, or about the power of love?
    4. To go totally out on a limb here, is Shakespeare incorporating the fact that Queen Elizabeth I (who was dead when he wrote this play) forsook getting married so England’s crown wouldn’t go to another country? Did contemporary English politics play into Antony and Cleopatra?

    Chew on This

    Power is the main priority of nearly every major character in the play. 

    Caesar is the only "honorable" character among the whole lot of them because he never pretends his actions are in the name of anything besides his sheer desire for power.

  • Transformation

    Transformation is a tricky theme in Antony and Cleopatra. Because characters seem to transform at the drop of a hat, the legitimacy of these transformations is always in question. That's right, it's the timeless question: Are they being real, or are they being fake? In the end, we’re not sure if the characters have transformed, or merely acted rashly in accordance with their passions. Further, we have to ask whether the characters want to transform, or whether they’re victims of their circumstances. We're gonna pull an Avril Lavigne right now and ask these guys: "Why you gotta go and make things so complicated"?

    Questions About Transformation

    1. In Antony and Cleopatra, Characters are constantly changing their minds about love, war, and loyalty. Are any of these transformations serious ones? Or are passionate, momentary transformations likely to be reversed at a moment’s notice?
    2. The play revolves around the fact that Antony is transformed by his love for Cleopatra. Does Cleopatra change at all because of her love for Antony?
    3. Enobarbus is a character entirely fabricated by Shakespeare, and his turn from Antony to Caesar’s camp is one of the greatest transformations of the play. What does Shakespeare’s fictional character add to the play? In what respect is he transformed, and why is his transformation important?
    4. Antony often jumps from being furious with Cleopatra, to being madly in love with her. Because he goes back and forth so often, can we trust any of his transformations? Does he have any significant or permanent transformations throughout the play?

    Chew on This

    Cleopatra is not transformed at all during the play. At Antony’s death, her decision to murder herself is just another one of her flighty choices made in passion, without any staying power. It’s only because she knows Caesar will march her in his victory parade that she actually kills herself, not because of the transformation she claims to have over Antony’s death.

    Antony is transformed into a lovesick fool by Cleopatra, losing all of his soldierly honor as a result. He must kill himself because this transformation is an irreversible one, and because he realizes that Cleopatra has given him nothing to live for in exchange for his honor.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Regret and repentance thread through much of Antony and Cleopatra because nobody can stop betraying each other. Characters can be redeemed by their feelings of regret, and we can judge the earnestness of their feelings by their willingness to apologize—do they really mean it, or are they just bluffing?

    Regret is also another way of introducing a different perspective in the play. The fact that each character can experience regret reminds us that their judgments aren’t hard and fast. Instead, each of them is a person capable of making mistakes, and they are all made more human by their ability to recognize and repent those mistakes. It just kind of sucks that most of these characters are rulers of vast empires—let's hope our leaders today aren't quite so arbitrary.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. When Cleopatra dies, she doesn’t seem to regret at all that it was her own lie that caused Antony to kill himself. Why the lack of regret?
    2. When Antony gives Cleopatra a final tongue-lashing, he mentions that he left behind a gem of a woman in Rome, not to mention the opportunity to be the father of a line of Roman leaders. Does he regret the love affair he’s had with Cleopatra? Does he regret having left Rome? Or is he just trying to make his lover feel guilty?
    3. Do feelings of regret absolve us of having bad thoughts or committing bad actions? How is this addressed by Enobarbus’s dying wish that Antony know he was sorry, but that the rest of the world remember him as a traitor? What’s up with that?

    Chew on This

    Regret isn’t meaningful at all in Antony and Cleopatra. Aside from Enobarbus, all the characters who claim they feel regret still repeat their mistakes time and time again. This defeats the real purpose of regret, which is to avoid making the same mistakes again.

    Regret is the one universal emotion in Antony and Cleopatra, through which each character develops and changes.

  • Duty

    Duty is central to Antony and Cleopatra because it exemplifies the honor central to being in a position of power. Duty to the state is explored in the play, but so is duty to loved ones and one’s self. The conflict between all these different types of duty provides the central tension of the play. Antony acts on duty to the state when he marries Octavia, but if he honors his heart, he has to be with Cleopatra. Friendship is also important because so much of the play is about how leaders are nothing without the people who follow them. Cleopatra constantly leans on her servants for support and advice, and Antony is undone as his own men betray him. How we view ourselves is often gauged by how others view us, and their duty to us is a reflection of our own honor.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Does Cleopatra feel any duty to Antony? Does Antony feel any to Cleopatra? How is duty reflected in their actions toward each other?
    2. Does Enobarbus die because he has betrayed his friend, or because he is ashamed of his own actions? Does Antony consider Enobarbus to be a friend? Is the relationship between military men and the men who lead them best characterized as friendship?

    Chew on This

    Duty is only properly driven by loyalty in Antony and Cleopatra. Only when characters truly love their leaders do they feel beholden to stay true to them.