Antony and Cleopatra
Things to consider while reading Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra is another of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies (like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus). As such it takes something of the fabric of ancient history as a sounding board for contemporary ideas and thoughts.
As he did in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare is here working with a reasonably well-established historical narrative, largely preserved for us by Plutarch.
The part of Cleopatra is widely considered to be the best single female role in the whole of the Shakespearean corpus. (By this, I do not mean that she is the best person: she obviously has monumental faults and is a fanatical schemer; rather I mean that she is realized in complex and nuanced dialogue that gives an actress (or, in Shakespeare’s day, a young actor) enormous range for exploration of the part.
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on Antony and Cleopatra, containing a brief synopsis of the play and the production history with the company.
Here’s a summary of Antony and Cleopatra on film.
Antony and Cleopatra and what has come before
- Antony and Cleopatra spans an historical period of about ten years, and the action oscillates between Rome and Egypt, and a quick side trip to Syria. As such, it’s worth comparing with other plays we have seen in terms of its adherence (or non-adherence) to the classical dramatic unities outlined by Aristotle.
- Compare the vision of Rome offered in this play with what we have seen in Coriolanus (or, for those who have read Julius Caesar, in that play, or for those who have already done Summer Shakespeare III, Titus Andronicus). How is it similar? How is it different? What is the place of civic religion and civic duty here?
Shakespeare’s Sources and Other Later Treatments
- The bulk of Antony and Cleopatra is based on Putarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius, linked at the University of Chicago site here.
- Other plays about Cleopatra were apparently popular about this time as well. No direct link to any of them, however, has been proven.
- A thematic link may well have been drawn from Horace’s Odes I, 37 (Nunc est bibendum), offered in parallel Latin and English here at York University in Toronto, Canada. Horace’s poem celebrates the fall of Cleopatra (while it never mentions her by name); at the same time it seems to express an admiration for her choice to commit suicide rather than be made into a spectacle at Rome.
- Largely in response to the fact that he strongly disliked this play, George Bernard Shaw wrote his own Caesar and Cleopatra, linked at the Classic Reader site here.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- This play specifically sets up an opposition of Stoic and hard-headed Roman virtue and duty with a vision of effeminate “oriental” luxury and decadence. How seriously should we take this? What does the opposition signify?
- The play contains a number of specifically political themes: which ones can you identify? What relevance did they have for Shakespeare’s contemporaries? What relevance might they have for us today?
- One of the great undercurrents of the play is its meditation on time. How does that affect your reading of it?
Symmetries in the play
- Both Antony and Cleopatra make various observations on the nature of life. Which one of them seems more perceptive and correct?
Problems in the play
- Though formally classed as a tragedy, the play contains a rich range of emotional and dramatic content, and a fair abundance of humor. Like some other tragedies (e.g., Macbeth), and unlike others (e.g., Hamlet, King Lear) it also offers an outcome that seems to betoken the victory of the “good guys”. What do you make of this? Is Cleopatra simply an evil woman who has corrupted and destroyed Antony and Enobarbus? How else might one view the outcome?
- The play is noted for its fragmented setting and uneven pacing. How much does that intrude on your experience as a reader or a viewer of the play?
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