Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare.

1891 edition.
Antony and Cleopatra is one of William Shakespeare's later plays, first performed in 1606. It's a tragedy and also one of his Roman plays (along with Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus), based on Mark Antony (83 B.C. - 30 B.C.) and Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.).

The action takes place following Caesar's murder (in this respect it's almost like a sequel to Julius Caesar, 1599) and begins during Sicilian revolt (44 B.C. - 36 B.C.). Antony is a triumvir, one of the three rulers of Rome (along with Octavius Caesar and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus), and spends his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, with whom he is having an affair despite being married to Fulvia. When he learns of Fulvia's revolt against Octavius (known as the Perusine War, 41 B.C. - 40 B.C., during which time Fulvia died) he must return to Rome despite Cleopatra's entreaties.

Though he does return, Antony's reluctance and his interest in Cleopatra leads Octavius to accuse him of neglecting his duties. The pair quarrel and Lepidus attempts to bring about some peace between them, and meanwhile the rebel Sextus Pompey appears to be growing in strength and power. To prevent any problems between Pompey and Rome they must unite, and it is decided that now Fulvia is dead, Antony must marry Octavia, Octavius' sister.

Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse (1888).
The news eventually reaches Cleopatra, who strikes down the messenger with the words "The most infectious pestilence upon thee!". She goes on, repeatedly asking for confirmation of the news between curses. She later learns however that Octavia is a plain woman, giving her the confidence that she will soon win Antony back. As this plays out, the relations between the triumvirs and Pompey are not well: with Antony and Octavia in Athens, Octavius breaks the agreed truce and war is declared. Octavius also imprisons Lepidus; Octavia begs Antony to keep the peace, fearing divided loyalties between her brother and her husband, so from Athens to Rome for Octavia, meanwhile Antony travels to Egypt to gather together an army. There, of course, he is once again reunited with Cleopatra.

It is of course a tragedy with a Romeo and Juliet ending (I'm feeling as though I have déjà vu at this point having recently written about Dryden's All For Love, 1677, which was written in imitation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Antony's reunion with Cleopatra ends in chaos, false messages are sent, and Antony believes Cleopatra to be dead and so kills himself; shortly before he dies he sees that she is in fact alive, but not for long - after his death she too commits suicide.

Though Antony and Cleopatra is not a favourite of mine, I did admire the way Shakespeare deals with the conflict of duty and reason against love and emotion. Antony is brave, but he is very sensual too, barely able to resist being with Cleopatra who, whilst being presented as rather histrionic, is very passionate and devoted to Antony. In a way this relationship also shows the differences between Egypt and Rome, both characters almost personifying their empire. Cleopatra herself is also as conflicted as Antony - she is strong, yet painfully insecure. It is a remarkable relationship brilliantly presented; the fact that it's not a favourite is not so much a fault Shakespeare's, rather that I'm just not wildly fond of the story. But, whatever the case, Antony and Cleopatra is an unforgettable. 

To finish, some illustrations from the 1891 edition of Antony and Cleopatra by Paul Avril:


  1. i have liked this play because it mirrors so well the activities and trials of humans as they actually are: confused, illogical, and irrational... Shakspeare was a consummate observer, as many have noted...

    1. He was - though he's not my favourite Renaissance playwright I do have to agree that he was the best. His characterisation is fantastic!

  2. Here is a bizarre reaction: whenever I read any play by Shakespeare (or his contemporaries), I think about the Elizabethan/Jacobean audiences' suspension of disbelief when it came to boys/men performing female characters' roles, and it must have been a very interesting dynamic. If I were still involved in theater (which was my vocation for about a decade 1965-1975), I would be eager to produce a production using Elizabethan/Jacobean casting protocols. I wonder what the audiences would think. Forgive the bizarre digression.

    1. I have to admit I never really consider that, but you're completely right and it would be very interesting indeed to see a modern performance using men as female characters. I wonder how exactly the did it... I suppose just dress in female clothing. It obviously worked for them, but I can't see how...


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