Antony and Cleopatra
is a tragic play by William Shakespeare first performed around 1607. It was inspired by the real-life relationship between Mark Antony of Rome and Cleopatra, the famed queen of Egypt. Since one of Shakespeare’s previous plays, Julius Caesar
, includes some of the same characters, Antony and Cleopatra
is sometimes seen as a sequel despite having a standalone story.
The play begins by introducing the political situation in Rome. The Roman Empire is ruled by a triumvirate, a political regime led by three prominent figures: Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus. This is the regime that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar; Octavius is his great-nephew. At the start of the play, Antony is neglecting his duties as a ruler by spending too much time in Egypt as a consort and lover to Queen Cleopatra.
Antony receives news of his wife’s death after she tried to rebel against Octavius to assert her husband’s power. This, combined with brewing revolt back home by a young man called Pompey, forces Antony to return home. Cleopatra wishes him to stay and is unhappy with his disobedience.
Upon his return, Antony has a meeting with his fellow rulers where they all assert their commitment to the triumvirate and the importance of sticking together. In order to prove his loyalty, Antony agrees to marry Octavius’s recently widowed sister, Octavia. In a famous speech, Antony’s general explains how Antony will never be satisfied with Octavia, having had the beautiful and passionate Cleopatra as a lover. Cleopatra, receiving this news in Egypt, is furious. Her jealousy is soothed by her courtiers, who explain that Octavia is a plain, unappealing woman.
The Roman rulers manage to broker peace with Pompey, and everyone celebrates with a large feast. Soon after, Antony and his new wife leave Rome for Athens. Octavius and Lepidus turn against Pompey and declare war against him. Antony, who was not consulted, feels angry and betrayed.
He sends Octavia back to Rome to attempt reconciliation, while he meanwhile returns to his love in Egypt. He declares himself and Cleopatra as joint rulers of Egypt and of the Eastern third of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Octavius has imprisoned Lepidus for conspiracy, positioning himself as the sole source of power in Rome. The conflict between Antony and Octavius has now escalated past boiling point, and they prepare for battle with each other.
Octavius challenges Antony to battle at sea, and Antony accepts despite his friend Enobarbus’s plea that he fight on land, where he has the advantage. At the Battle of Actium, Octavius’s forces overwhelm Antony and Cleopatra’s ships. Cleopatra’s navy turns around, and Antony is forced to follow suit. He reproaches her for making him a coward and for manipulating him, but his love for her is greater than his pride, and they reconcile.
Octavius sends a messenger to ask Cleopatra to join his side. She wavers and flirts with the messenger, which causes Antony to have him whipped and sent back to Rome. He is once again angry at Cleopatra, but quickly forgives her and pledges to fight with her on land next time.
Incensed at his friend and general’s irrational behavior, Enobarbus abandons Antony to join Octavius on the eve of battle. He leaves behind his money and possessions, which Antony chooses to have sent to him rather than confiscated. This act of generosity and friendship makes Enobarbus feel immense guilt at his betrayal, and he dies of grief.
Antony’s army does well on land, but once again Cleopatra’s navy retreats at sea, causing them to lose. Antony accuses Cleopatra of betraying him and threatens to kill her. She decides to win back his love by taking herself and her maids to her burial monument and sending word that she has killed herself, his name the dying word on her lips. Antony is consumed with grief and asks his servant to kill him, but the latter prefers to kill himself rather than do this.
Antony attempts to commit suicide but succeeds only in gravely injuring himself. He learns that Cleopatra is alive and is then carried to her monument, where he dies in her arms. Octavius is informed of Antony’s death and sends for Cleopatra to be brought to Rome in defeat. She refuses, imagining nothing worse than being paraded through Rome as a prisoner and villain. She does not wish for her and Antony to become a joke for the Roman masses, and tries to kill herself, but she’s caught and stopped.
Cleopatra pretends to submit to Octavius and hand over her entire wealth. However, her deceit is discovered when her treasurer reveals the money she has hidden. Octavius starts drawing up plans to bring her to Rome and parade her through the streets, as she feared.
Cleopatra succeeds in smuggling a basket of figs hiding poisonous asps (a type of snake) into her palace. She dies of an asp bite, longing to meet Antony in the afterlife. Her handmaidens also die, one of grief and the other from a bite. Upon discovering the scene, Octavius is triumphant that his enemies have been defeated—leaving him free to rule Rome on his own—but expresses sympathy for the tragic couple. He orders a full military funeral for Antony.
Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra
blends several dramatic conventions. It is most often considered a tragedy, although it does not fit the Greek guidelines for one, and there are also elements of romance, comedy, and the history play. It is among Shakespeare’s most popular plays and has been performed in many celebrated stage adaptations. It also influenced many other depictions of Antony and Cleopatra’s romance, including Hollywood productions.