Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, although many get it confused, thinking it to be a history play. It was probably performed first by ‘The Kings Men’ at either Blackfriars or The Globe theatre in 1607. Many describe Shakespeare’s Cleopatra as being one of his best and most complex female characters. As said before it is categorised as a tragedy but there’s argument to be made that it is a tragedy, a comedy, a history play, a romance, but when you come across a play like that you could easily argue that it is a problem play, and many do. Let’s take a look at Antony and Cleopatra.
So when we start the play Antony, one of Rome’s triumvirs along with Octavius and Lepidus has been hanging out with Cleopatra in Alexandria and kind of neglecting his stately duties in Rome, one of which is the fact that his third wife Fulvia, after rebelling against Octavius has died.
So they call him back to Rome to come and help them fight these three notorious pirates called Sextus Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas, who are causing all sorts of shenanigans in the mediterranean sea. Cleopatra begs Antony not to go, but reassuring her of his love for her, he leaves anyway.
So the three men meet in Rome, and Octavius and Antony put aside their differences. Agrippa, one of Octavius’ Generals suggests that Antony marries Octavius’ sister, Octavia, in order to strengthen the bond between them. Antony accepts the offer, but his General Enobarbus knows better than that, and says that Antony will never be satisfied by anyone else, now that he has been with Cleopatra.
A soothsayer warns Antony that if he ever is to fight Octavius, he is for sure, going to lose.
Meanwhile back in Alexandria, Cleopatra receives news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia. And as the old saying goes “shoot the messenger”. So she takes it out on them. However she’s calmed when her courtiers inform her that she’s not as good looking as her.
Now back to Rome, or more specifically, the mediterranean sea. Before the battle with the pirates the three triumvirs parley with Sextus Pompey and offer a truce. He can keep Sicily and Sardinia in exchange for helping them to rid the sea of all the other pirates. Re hesitates but ultimately agrees to the truce. So they party down on his ship. Octavius leaves the party early and sober. Soon after Antony departs Rome for Athens. Later, Menas suggests that Sextus kill all three of the triumvirs and claim Rome for himself, but Sextus disagrees saying it would be dishonourable. Well guess how that worked out for old Sextus? That’s right he gets betrayed. Octavius and Lepidus break the truce and war against him. Antony finds out about this later and is very very not happy about it, some would say mad.
So he goes back to Alexandria and crowns himself and Cleopatra as the rulers of both Egypt and the Eastern Roman empire, you know, his part of it. He accuses Octavius of not giving him his fair share of the Sextus’ lands and is furious that Lepidus has been imprisoned and kicked out of the triumvirate. Octavius agrees to give him the land but is super mad about what Antony has done.
So Antony prepares to go to war with Octavius. Enobarbus thinks Antony should fight on land where he’ll have the advantage but Antony disagrees, saying he’ll fight Octavius at sea because he triple-dog-dared him to fight there. Cleopatra offers Antony her fleet of ships to aid in the battle and he accepts. And so it’s war time, and the battle of Actium takes place off the western coast of Greece. But Cleoptra changes her mind last minute and flees with her sixty ships. Antony flees with her leaving his soldiers, sailors and ships to ruin. He’s ashamed at what he’s done in the name of love, and reproaches Cleopatra for making him a coward, but reconciles with her, devoting himself to her and her love.
Later Octavius sends a message to Cleopatra saying she should switch sides. Cleopatra flirts with the messenger only to be interrupted by Antony who is quite cross about it. So she sends the messenger to be whipped. Eventually he forgives her and pledges to fight another battle for her, this time on land.
On the eve of the battle, the soldiers hear strange portents which they assume must be the God Hercules abandoning Antony’s army. Enobarbus gets so spooked that he decides to switch sides and go join Octavius. When Antony finds out, instead of confiscating his goods which he left behind, he sends them to him. When Enobarbus receives them he feels so ashamed about what he’s done that he dies of a broken heart.
Antony loses the battle, and his troops abandon him en masse. He denounces Cleopatra, and decides to kill her for what he believes to be treachery. Cleopatra hatches a plan to win back his love by pretending to kill herself. And so she saens word to him, and locks herself away in her monument, awaiting his return.
So that doesn’t work, it instead sends Antony into a blind grief where instead of going to see her he decides to himself too. He asks one of his soldiers, Eros, to run a sword through him and the soldier can’t bring himself to do it, so he puts a sword through himself instead. Antony admires this, and tries to do it himself, but as he has done a lot throughout the play, he fails, and only wounds himself. Learning that Cleopatra is alive, he is hoisted up to her monument where he dies in her arms.
Egypts been defeated and so Cleopatra is captured and placed under a guard of Roman soldiers. She tries to take her own life with a dagger but is stopped. Octavius assures her that she will be treated with respect but Dolabella secretly tells her that Octavius is planning to parade her around at his Roman triumph. Cleopatra is horrified and embittered by the thought of being some prize.
Cleopatra kills herself using the venomous bite of an asp, imagining how she will meet Antony again in the afterlife. Her serving maids Iras and Charmian also die, Iras from heartbreak and Charmian from one of the two asps in Cleopatra’s basket. Octavius discovers the dead bodies and experiences conflicting emotions. Antony and Cleopatra’s deaths leave him free to become the first Roman Emperor, but he also feels some sympathy for them. He orders a public military funeral.
Mark Antony – Roman general and one of the three joint leaders, or “triumvirs”, who rule the Roman Republic after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.
Cleopatra – Queen of Egypt
Octavius Caesar – adopted son of Julius Caesar and future Emperor Augustus; another triumvir
Lepidus – another triumvir
Sextus Pompey – rebel against the triumvirate and son of the late Pompey
Marc Antony’s Party
Silius – officer in Ventidius’ army
Canidius – Antony’s lieutenant-general
Schoolmaster – Antony’s ambassador to Octavius
Rannius (non-speaking role)
Lucilius (non-speaking role)
Lamprius (non-speaking role)
Octavia – Octavius’ sister
Agrippa – admiral of the Roman navy
Taurus – Octavius’ lieutenant general
Menas – one of Sextus’ naval leaders
Charmian – maid of honour
Iras – maid of honour
Mardian – a eunuch
Diomedes – treasurer
Seleucus – attendant
Officers, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants
Cleopatra, Act 5, Scene 2, Line 194, ‘Sir I will eat no meat, I’ll drink not sir’
Antony, Act 4, Scene 10, Line 29, ‘All is lost! This foul egyptian hath betrayed me’
Cleopatra, Act 5, Scene 2, Line 315, ‘Give me my robe, put on my crown’
Notes on Performance
Try to wrap your head around the long and winding history that has led to this play. This play is almost like a sequel to Julius Caesar so if you can read that, you’ll be well placed to perform in this play.
Remember for the majority of the play that Antony and Cleopatras actions are motivated by little else but each other, that’s sort of the core through line of this play is that their love ultimately equals their demise.
Relationships and sides! Remember who’s who, and who has double crossed whom. There’s a lot of backstabbing and undermining in this play so be sure to know who’s happy with who at any given moment! Even Antony gets upset with Cleopatra at one point and she with him!