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Antony and Cleopatra
The major source for the story is Plutarch's "Life of Mark Antony" from "Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together" in the translation made by Sir Thomas North in 1579. An astonishing number of phrases within Shakespeare's play are taken directly from North's prose, including Enobarbus's famous description of Cleopatra's barge, beginning "The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water." Only the scenes involving Cleopatra's domestic life eschew Plutarch's text.
Though modern editions divide the play into the conventional five acts, Shakespeare articulated his drama in thirty-six separate scenes, more than he used for any other play. So many scenes are necessitated in part because the action frequently switches between Alexandria, Italy, Sicily, Syria, Athens and other parts of Egypt and the Roman Empire. The play contains thirty-four speaking characters, fairly typical for a Shakespeare play on such an epic scale.
The play follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Parthian War to Cleopatra's suicide. The major antagonist is Octavius Caesar, one of Antony's fellow triumvirs and the future first emperor of Rome.
Many consider the role of Cleopatra in this play one of the greatest female roles in world theatre. Frequently vain, self-dramatizing and histrionic, the audience must sometimes laugh at her, but other times consider her a true tragic heroine.
John Dryden's Antony-and-Cleopatra play All For Love , one of the few Restoration tragedies of permanent interest, was deeply influenced by Shakespeare's treatment of the subject.
Antony, one of the Triumvirs of Rome along with Octavius Caesar and Aemilius Lepidus, has neglected his soldierly duties after being beguiled by Egypt's Queen, Cleopatra. He ignores Rome's domestic problems, including the fact that his wife, Fulvia, rebelled against Octavius, and then died. Octavius calls Antony back to Rome in order to help him fight against Pompey (Sextus Pompeius), Menacretes, and Menas, three notorious pirates. Cleopatra begs Antony not to go, and though he repeatedly affirms his love for her, he eventually leaves.
Octavius convinces Antony to marry his half-sister, Octavia, in order to cement the bond between the two men. Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus, though, knows that Octavia can never satisfy him after Cleopatra. In a famous passage, he delineates Cleopatra's charms in paradoxical terms: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies."
A soothsayer warns Antony that he is sure to lose if he ever tries to fight Octavius.
In Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony's marriage, and takes furious revenge upon the messenger that brought her the news. She grows content only when she realizes that Octavia cannot possibly compare to herself.
The triumvirs parley with Pompey, convincing him to help them "rid the sea of pirates." They engage in a drunken celebration on Pompey's galley. Menas suggests to Pompey that he kill the three triumvirs and make himself ruler of Rome, but he refuses. Later, Octavius and Lepidus break their truce with Pompey, and war against him.
Antony returns to Egypt and crowns Cleopatra and himself as rulers of Egypt and the eastern third of the Roman Empire (which was Antony's share as one of the triumvirs). He accuses Octavius of not giving him his fair share of Pompey's lands, and wants to kick Lepidus out of the triumvirate. Octavius agrees to the latter demand, but otherwise is very displeased with what Antony has done.
Antony prepares for a sea battle against Octavius. Cleopatra pledges her fleet to aid Antony. However, in the middle of the battle, Cleopatra commands her sixty ships to sail away, and Antony follows her, leaving his army to be ruined. He is ashamed of what he has done for the love of Cleopatra, but also sets this love above all else, saying "Give me a kiss; even this repays me."
Octavius sends a messenger to ask Cleopatra to give up Antony and come over to his side. She hesitates, and flirts with the messenger, when Antony walks in and angrily denounces her behavior. Eventually, he forgives her, and pledges to fight another battle for her; on land, this time.
On the eve of the battle, Antony's soldiers hear strange portents, which they interpret as the god Hercules abandoning his protection of Antony. Furthermore, Enobarbus, Antony's long-serving lieutenant, deserts him and goes over to Octavius's side. Rather than confiscating Enobarbus's goods, which he did not take with him when he fled to Octavius, Antony orders them to be sent to Enobarbus. Enobarbus is so overwhelmed by Antony's generosity, and so ashamed of his own disloyalty, that he kills himself.
The battle goes well for Antony, until Octavius shifts it to a sea-fight. Once again, Antony loses, and denounces Cleopatra: "This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me." Cleopatra decides that the only way to win back Antony's love is to send him word that she killed herself, dying with his name on her lips. She locks herself in her monument, and awaits Antony's return.
Her plan fails: rather than rushing back in remorse to see the "dead" Cleopatra, Antony decides that his own life is no longer worth living. He begs one of his aides, Eros, to run him through with a sword, but Eros cannot bear to do it, and kills himself. Antony admires Eros' courage and attempts to do the same, but only succeeds in wounding himself. In great pain, he learns that Cleopatra is indeed alive. He is hoisted up to her in her monument, and dies in her arms.
Octavius goes to Cleopatra, trying to convince her to surrender. She angrily refuses, since she can imagine nothing worse than being led in triumph through the streets of Rome, proclaimed a villain for the ages. She imagines that "the quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us, and present / Our Alexandrian revels: Antony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore." This speech is full of dramatic irony, because in Shakespeare's time Cleopatra really was played by a "squeaking boy," and Shakespeare's play does depict Antony's drunken revels.
Cleopatra resolves to kill herself, using the poison of an asp. She dies calmly, imagining how she will meet Antony again in the afterlife. Her serving maids, Iras and Charmian, also kill themselves. Octavius discovers the dead bodies and experiences conflicting emotions. Antony's and Cleopatra's deaths leave him free to become the first Roman Emperor, but he also feels some kind of sympathy for them: "She shall be buried by her Antony. / No grave upon the earth shall clip in it / A pair so famous."
Many scholars of the play attempt to come to conclusions about the ambivalent nature of many of the characters. Are Antony and Cleopatra true tragic heroes, or are they too fault-ridden and laughable to be tragic? Is their relationship one of love or lust? Is their passion wholly destructive, or does it also show elements of transcendence? Does Cleopatra kill herself out of love for Antony, or because she is too proud to be led in triumph by Octavius?
Films of the play
- Antony & Cleopatra 1974, performed by London's Royal Shakespeare Company. It stars Janet Suzman (Cleopatra), Richard Johnson (Antony), and Patrick Stewart (Enobarbus).
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