This long and leisurely drama leans on Roman history which Shakespeare derived from North’s translation of Plutarch but detailed information about background would overwhelm this website. The reader is advised to obtain a good edition of the play with explanatory notes. Paradoxically, although it may be classified as a history play, it deals quite quickly with the facts and concentrates on the eponymous characters of Mark Antony and Cleopatra: most of the political entanglements may be understood from the text. The play is a view from behind the scenes of famous and charismatic personalities, almost celebrities after their time, showing how events were motivated and developed. Probably a contemporary audience would have known something of their reputation and would have been eager for more insight into their glamorous lives.
There are several reasons why it is not a true tragedy in the Aristotelian sense (although there are tragic elements): Antony and Cleopatra are so individual that they have little universality and their deaths do not arouse pity or fear quite apart from the fact that Antony dies in Act IV. He is a partially fallen hero at the start of the play and she turns her own death into a triumph, a victory over Caesar. The play concentrates on the particular in events and the continuity of the chronicle. There is a theme that character is Fate in that Antony cannot resist Cleopatra’s lure and thus makes unwise decisions: this offers the main sense of inevitability.
The drama has a wide geographical compass, ranging from Rome to Egypt and, within the text, an uncertain time span since the couple produce offspring as it proceeds. The contrast between the two places is stressed and frequently links with other structural oppositions: land and water; restraint and luxurious abandon; duty and love; public and private; purposeful activity and idleness; loyalty and betrayal; honour and shame; politics and the personal. These are manipulated in that Cleopatra is not seen as a ruler performing statecraft although we recognise that she must have a public and political side which is here subordinated to the private whilst giving her an aura of power.
Act I scene i
The first scene is set in Egypt and establishes that Antony is already fallen from the pinnacle of his success; in a tragedy one would expect to see the hero at the height of his powers before the descent. Philo’s first line sticks in the mind with its usage of “dotage” allied to recognition of Antony’s former military status as the word suggests folly and age, the decline of sense because of an unwise love and increasing years. He has gone beyond restraint or “measure” and the situation is stressed in later lines: the man he was is compared to Mars but his eyes which commanded troops are now focused on a “tawny front [a sunburnt face]”, the lexis making war seem more appealing and admirable than Cleopatra. It is a picture of Antony before and after Cleopatra, the captain who fought bravely has become the “bellows and the fan/To cool a gipsy’s lust”. He seems the mere erotic plaything of an unattractive foreigner and their love is degraded to lust. We may accept that this is the view of most Romans.
As soon as this picture is formed, we have the entry of Cleopatra with Antony and our attention is directed to “the triple pillar of the world transformed/Into a strumpet’s fool.” This sets up the same opposition of glory and shame and tells the audience that Antony is one of the triumvirate, the three men who rule over the vast and powerful Roman Empire: there is much at stake here. The others are Octavius Caesar and Lepidus and we can only assume they share the hostile opinion expressed by Philo. Against this is placed the couple’s image of themselves enjoying an infinite love which cannot be calculated but we note how brief it is, just four lines but of uplifting poetry. Conflicting attitudes towards their relationship continue throughout the play.
The private conversation shows the two immersed in each other but their unified emotion is soon interrupted by messages from Rome which Antony is reluctant to hear. Politics has already intruded and Cleopatra deals with it by mockery, claiming that Antony’s angry wife Fulvia may be responsible or the “scarce-bearded Caesar” thus portraying the co-ruler as juvenile. In both cases Antony would demean himself by obeying any summons and appear weak and pititful. She skittishly repudiates possible orders by her scornful imitation with its lowering of register: “Take in this kingdom, and enfranchise that”. He heeds her as she continues in the same vein and insincerely suggests he hears the messengers and obeys them, pointing out his shameful blushes.
This provocative teasing takes effect as Antony utters the memorable: “Let Rome in Tiber melt” using what will become a leitmotif of melting, this time applied to earth and water. With eloquent poetry he states that all he needs is the space here and this is a serious rejection of Rome and its values: embracing her he claims that the love of such a powerful couple must be acknowledged by the whole world. It is a high moment of apparent passion but we are aware of its temporary nature because of the threats against it from outside and possibly from within. The poetry raises them artificially above circumstances but action is required and emotion is not the solution. Again she plays with his claims questioning how he could have married Fulvia without loving her. He wants more pleasure and diversion, opposing “soft” and “harsh”; he is living for the moment, desiring “sport” and fun rather than responsibility, a need which is destructive in itself because it cannot last.
Cleopatra again teases him by pressing for the opposite of what they both want, knowing that he will not then listen to the ambassadors. His next speech is important because it summarises her hold over him: she has such charm that she makes displeasing things attractive, a point stressed later by Enobarbus. Even her chiding becomes a quality, in her, “fair and admired.” She has a real physical presence and her magic is actualised – not an abstraction – almost always in front of others: she is an actress with an audience on stage and in the theatre. His desire to “wander throught the streets” and observe the characteristics of those they see shows that they have the common touch and do not stand aloof whilst his urging “Last night you did desire it” reveals her unpredictability.
After they have left, the two Romans discuss the reality of Antony’s position: in choosing transitory pleasure with Cleopatra he risks the more permanent relationship with his co-ruler, Caesar, who is being insulted by his refusal to hear the messages. This failing is widely recognised in Rome and the “common liar” proved right although the two messengers hope forlornly that Antony is temporarily out of character in his behaviour. The couple of lovers feel that their passion is eternal and boundless but we sense that it is a flawed eroticism between two aging people conflicting with duty to Rome and responsibility. Private and political interests are in opposition and we suspect that Antony cannot continue to ignore the latter. Shakespeare emphasises and heightens Cleopatra’s effect on Antony through the elevated poetry which contrasts with the plainer speech of the Romans although both are blank verse. We need to feel and empathise with her power over him against the pull of Rome and this manipulation is done through the language which also induces a sense that they are semi-knowingly deluding themselves by their hyperbolic claims.
Act I scene ii
The first part of this scene is in prose, until the entry of Cleopatra at line 75, and it does not advance the plot but adds to the atmosphere of the Egyptian palace where the women are obsessed with matters of love and lust – it also introduces a note of the supernatural, rare in this drama. The soothsayer’s prophecies are concerned with worldly matters and the tone is set by Charmian’s wish (line 4) that she could have a husband who is happy to be cuckolded. His sayings are open to interpretation and there is no sense of a correspondence between heaven and earth in them as we might expect in a tragedy. He tells Charmian that she will become fairer, which could mean in beauty, plumpness or in character, after which Iras teases her about using make-up.
At line 22 he suggests, as we may recall later, that she will love someone more than that person loves her, which turns out to be true of Cleopatra rather than a man as is indicated by his saying she will outlive her mistress when she has asked for an unusual love life (lines 25-29). The mention of figs also presages Cleopatra’s death as does his statement that the good times are nearly over but he shows human intuition by his knowledge that Charmian desires sex and fertility. Enobarbus tells us that the Egyptian habit is to go “drunk to bed” and the abundance of the land is stressed by the mention of the Nile’s overflow (the remarks about chastity and famine being sarcastic.) The women compete for a good fortune and Iras lasciviously wants her husband’s penis to be an inch longer (line 58). Charmian wishes a succession of unfaithful wives upon Alexas and Iras agrees that any “foul” or ugly man should be cuckolded to which Alexas responds that they would prostitute themselves to make this happen. Probably a modern audience would not follow all this joking but will notice that it is worldy, obscene and playful, adding to the leisurely build-up of our impressions of Egypt for which Antony seems prepared to lose so much. Against this Rome takes on a spiritual quality: it stands for higher and more permanent values than those demonstrated here.
Cleopatra enters and asks for Antony. Her comment on his absence contains the essential dichotomy which rules his life: Egyptian “mirth” and a “Roman thought” which is a call to a different set of ideals incompatible with staying with her. When hearing that he is coming she plays one of her games and leaves, although such skittish behaviour is trivial compared to the weighty matters to be unfolded. Antony’s wife, Fulvia, and his brother, Lucius, have firstly fought against each other before joining forces against Octavius and being defeated. This is ominous, political and calls for Antony’s attention to the complex conflicts with which he should be involved by his position and his relationships. Also Labienus has considerably extended the Parthian rule by military force which affects Antony as he is concerned with the eastern part of the Roman Empire. There is a sense of space, a huge geographical canvas, contrasted with Cleopatra’s domestic and flirtatious ploys and Shakespeare is loading the dice here as, unseen to us, she also controls a vast amount of territory and wealth. We see her only as the playful, hedonistic temptress, not as a ruling Queen, although that status adds to her charm for Antony.
The messenger has only to use the word “Whilst” for Antony to realise what he might say: his innate honesty means he acknowledges what his image and that of Cleopatra must be in Rome. He invites the messenger to spare nothing of the criticisms generally made against them and the praise spoken of Fulvia, then using the image of weeds which his “idleness” gives a chance to grow. News is arriving every minute and Antony realises he must act to break “these strong Egyptian fetters” which cause his “dotage” – we recall the very first line of the play when this term was employed. The theme of loss is touched upon also.
When Fulvia’s death is announced, Antony thematically regrets her passing and states that people frequently wish for something or someone to be gone but value them more when they do die or are lost: “She’s good, being gone.” He is self-aware and conscious of the situation in which his “enchanting queen” encourages dangerous “idleness.”
With the entry of Enobarbus the mode changes to prose to capture a more cynical and wordly viewpoint: Enobarbus is both sceptical and full of admiration for Cleopatra, seeing her wiles and her charm. He foresees that she will almost die when hearing that Antony will depart for Rome as he has “seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment”, performed with a kind of love, which is a foreshadowing of the last Act. When Antony disparages her “cunning” Enobarbus uses imagery of huge godlike natural events to describe her emotions and their expression. To Antony’s “Would I had never seen her” Enobarbus replies that he would have missed “a wonderful piece of work”: even his common sense is aware of her magic. He greets the news of Fulvia’s death with the wordly point that there are other women and that only onion tears should be shed for her; he is the plain unsentimental man, a close colleague of Antony, and his views can be respected. He points out the deadlock in which Antony finds himself: he cannot stay and he dare not leave.
With a switch to blank verse and affairs of state, Antony announces that he will break the news to Cleopatra and leave since there are “urgent touches” pressing upon him even more than her death. Sextus Pompeius, here called Pompey, has challenged Octavius from a position of naval supremacy and the fickle Roman people admire him because of his father, Pompey the Great: again the theme of something past being valued when departed is stressed. Yet this Pompey is to be feared for his “blood and life [bravery and energy]”