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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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"?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.