|We have kissed away|
Kingdoms and provinces.
Act 3, scene 10, lines 9–10
Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me.
Act 5, scene 2, lines 335–336
Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes a major event in world history: the founding of the Roman Empire. The future first emperor, Octavius Caesar (later called Augustus Caesar), cold-bloodedly manipulates other characters and exercises iron control over himself.
At first, he shares power with Mark Antony, Rome's preeminent military leader, and the weaker Lepidus. Caesar needs Antony to fend off other Roman strongmen like Pompey; he even offers his sister Octavia to him as a bride, despite Antony's reputation as a libertine and his past rivalry with Caesar. Once Caesar defeats Pompey, however, he needs no allies. He brings charges against Lepidus, denies Antony his spoils from Pompey’s defeat, and seizes cities in the eastern Roman colonies that Antony rules.
The play's emphasis, however, is on those whom Caesar defeats: Antony and his wealthy Egyptian ally, Queen Cleopatra. The play does not sugarcoat Antony and Cleopatra's famous love affair, including her calculated attempts to seduce Antony from his duties and his rage when he thinks she has betrayed him to Caesar. Nonetheless, the lovers find such sensual and emotional satisfaction that Caesar’s world conquest seems smaller than what they find in each other.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote this play in 1606–07. It was published in the 1623 First Folio. Sources include North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives and Appian’s Roman Wars.
Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 1999 Folger Shakespeare Library
Warren Chernaik. The Myth of Rome in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Janetta Dillon. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare's Tragedies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
John Drakakis, ed. Antony and Cleopatra: William Shakespeare. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Coppelia Kahn. Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Margaret Lamb. Antony and Cleopatra on the English Stage. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.
Vanessa Redgrave. Antony and Cleopatra. Actors on Shakespeare series. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
Antony and Cleopatra (1974, Incorporated Television Company, Royal Shakespeare Company). Directed by Jon Scoffield. Cast includes Richard Johnson, Janet Suzman, Corin Redgrave, and Ben Kingsley.
J. W. Waterhouse. Cleopatra from The Graphic gallery of Shakespeare's heroines. Color print, 1896.
Cleopatra snake girdle, late 19th or early 20th century
Inside the Collection
Folios from the Collection: Antony and Cleopatra
Past Exhibitions: Shakespeare's Unruly Women
Teacher to Teacher: "Famous Last Words"