Antony & Cleopatra

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Antony & Cleopatra

Can a perfect couple truly stay together?  Can you rule a country as well as you handle your personal life?  Can you be overqualified for both?  After writing introspective and anguished portrayals of good men and women destroyed by their own shortcomings and the circumstances that sprang from them, Shakespeare decided to have some fun with the genre of Tragedy and set it against the largest background he'd ever tackled the entire Eastern half of the Roman Empire and with one of histories greatest couples Antony and Cleopatra.  Continuing with personalities that he created with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare imbued both his protagonists with a highly charged sexual relationship, a deep spiritual connection, but equally with a broad awareness of the worlds they ruled outside their relationship.  While the Macbeths were held to a single task that spiraled out of control, both Marc Antony and Cleopatra were always aware of their place in the world and history, so much so that everything they did was large and grand.  While both relished their power and prestige, it caused their personal relationship to suffer.  Ultimately, in the grand political drama being played out in the Mediterranean, their final gestures of these two huge personalities were more toward personal than the grandiose.    

Condensing a 10-year time period into a swift set of long episodic scenes, Antony and Cleopatra picks up after the death of Julius Caesar and the defeat of his conspirators.  The Triumvirate, made up of Octavius, Antony and Lepidus ruled various sections of the then Roman Republic.  Though, the three were united in their civil war against Brutus and Cassius, they quarreled extensively when afterwards.  Antony took over rule of the eastern world which included the rich province of Egypt, ruled by the exotic and shrew Queen Cleopatra.  Cleopatra had been both the mistress of Julius and another powerful Roman Pompeius and had even bore Julius all in an effort to raise her status in the Roman world.  Antony taken by this vision of sexual liberation and political shrewdness immediately began a long standing affair, which historically produced 3 children.   Pompeius, thinking that Antony was distracted with Cleopatra, gathered troops once loyal to his father to sack Rome and take the republic for himself.  However, Antony put aside his personal differences and came to Octavius' aide and helped defeat Pompeius.  In the end Rome now had two rulers and to strengthen his alliance with Octavius,  Antony married his sister Octavia.

However, the union was in name only and Antony could not stay away from his true love.  Cleopatra seeing an opportunity once again to be the consort of Rome's would be supreme ruler convinced Antony to join forces with hers.  The pair were undefeatable on land, but Octavius ruled the seas and openly challenged them to a sea battle at Actium.  Though, against the better advice of his most trusted officer Enobarbus, Antony commits his forces to the battle.  The most decisive battle in the entire story, Antony and Cleopatra's are loosing badly and Cleopatra decides to retreat and possibly join with Octavius.  Antony feeling personally betrayed leaves himself and his troops.  The desertion spells the end for Antony as Enobarbus and the other troops dismayed at this ultimate crime against the Roman ideal, join with Octavius.  After making a tense alliance with Octavius, Cleopatra hears that Antony is coming to take his revenge out on her.  She fakes her death, saying she killed herself for betraying Antony thinking it will cool him.  However, it has the opposite effect as Antony tries to take his own life now that his love is supposedly dead.  Unsuccessful at this attempt and finding out that Cleopatra is still alive, he is brought before her where they share their only scene together and finally all the pretense of their glorious roles fade away, they are two people simply, deeply and blindingly in love with each other.   As Antony dies in her arms, Cleopatra knows that Octavius is only paying her lip service and will parade her as a war prize in Rome,  Protecting her role as a queen and Antony's memory by having his death be a noble one, she dresses in all her fine robes and takes her own life.  The cause of her death the deadly asp snake, a royal symbol of Egypt.  Octavius wins but is denied the ultimate humiliating insult to his enemies.

Antony and Cleopatra was written shortly after Macbeth in 1606 and based on the Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes which featured biographies on its famous citizens such as Marc AntonyThe play shares many parallels with the "Scottish Play" in the guise of their protagonists.  A country's rulers set against each other and as factions struggle a royal couple, both immense personalities, struggle between their duties to country and their decorating relationship.   As in all tragic figures, the pair suffer from a quality that doesn't allow them to avoid their own fates.  Here, the two are too bound up in their roles in history and politics to deal personally with each other.  Though, the pair are among the most sexually charged and well matched of Shakespeare's couples, they don't share much of a connection beyond who they are publicly.  Though, the play is deemed a tragedy, Shakespeare seemed to have tried to break out of the mold of his previous plays, by interjecting grand scale action, over the top comedy, and other elements of spectacle into the story.  Unlike the more personal tragedies of Macbeth and Othello, the epic sense of this story is almost a character in itself.  This departure from the usual tragic mold was so pronounced that it foreshadows Shakespeare's new genre the romances, which dealt with mixing of tragedy and comedy in exotic locales.  The play also marked the beginning of a series where Shakespeare stuck to classical antiquity for his settings.  Not until, The Winter's Tale, would he revisit a closer time period to his own. 

The first printing of Antony and Cleopatra was in the First Folio and was not a popular work until the 19th century where it became controversial with the Victorians.  Internationally renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt shied away from Cleopatra saying that she could not portray the character the way she is written as it would be scandalous given the button down conventions of the time.  Only in the 20th century did the show gain immense popularity. Given other numerous portrayals of Rome and Cleopatra's story on the big screen and less restrictive sexual codes, theater groups to rediscover the play.  Today, though hard to stage, the play has become a popular mainstay with many theater groups.


To view other Antony and Cleopatra sections:

Main Play Page      Play Text     Scene by Scene Synopsis     Character Directory     Commentary  


To view the other Plays click below:

By  Comedies    Histories    Romances    Tragedies

All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Love's Labours Lost Love's Labours Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale


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