Skip to main content
Antony and Cleopatra /

A Modern Perspective: Antony and Cleopatra

By Cynthia Marshall

Near the end of Antony and Cleopatra, the captive Cleopatra muses about her dead lover: “I dreamt there was an emperor Antony. / O, such another sleep, that I might see / But such another man” (5.2.93–95). Disregarding repeated attempts by Caesar’s follower Dolabella to interrupt her rapturous description, Cleopatra finally asks him, “Think you there was, or might be, such a man / As this I dreamt of?” to which he replies, “Gentle madam, no” (5.2.115–17). In a realistic sense, Dolabella’s answer is correct: Cleopatra has spoken of Antony as a Herculean figure who strides the seas scattering islands like coins, a figure of mythic proportion. Yet the force of Cleopatra’s imaginative act, the vivid quality of her dream, suggests a limitation in Dolabella’s technical accuracy. This exchange, testing both the status of heroes and the visionary capacity of lovers, is indicative of the play’s preoccupations as well as its method of considering them. By repeatedly featuring conflicts between different points of view, Antony and Cleopatra functions not simply as tragedy, history, or Liebestod (a story of a couple dying for love) but as an inquiry into the historical, political, philosophical, and aesthetic grounds on which any story might be staged in the theater.

Because ancient Rome served as a model for Shakespeare’s English culture, Antony and Cleopatra presumes an audience with some prior knowledge of Roman history. It dramatizes events from 40 BCE, when Rome was ruled by the uneasy triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus (established after the assassination of Julius Caesar), to 30 BCE, when the civil war that culminated in Octavius Caesar’s defeat of Mark Antony at Actium destroyed the triumvirate. But if Antony and Cleopatra continues in a chronological sense from where Julius Caesar left off, it exhibits a strikingly different attitude toward its historical material. While the earlier play focuses on disputes internal to Roman rule, the later one is concerned with the politics of a vast empire spanning the Mediterranean. The arguments in Julius Caesar center on questions of political philosophy and civic duty, but in Antony and Cleopatra these issues are complicated by attention to spheres of erotic experience and family life that we now think of as private. A telling example of this transformation of attitude between the two plays is Cleopatra’s reference to Antony’s “sword Philippan” (2.5.27); previously used at the battle of Philippi, which concludes Julius Caesar, it is here employed by Cleopatra in erotic play with an Antony dressed in her “tires and mantles” (2.5.26). Antony and Cleopatra was written much later in Shakespeare’s career than Julius Caesar, and in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare goes much further in probing beneath the surface of historical narrative and in questioning the terms on which heroic reputations were based than he had in earlier English or Roman history plays. Accordingly, the play has posed problems of generic classification and of response, for Antony and Cleopatra defies much of what we have come to associate with either a history play or a heroic tragedy: Antony shares the spotlight with Cleopatra, the point of view is uncertain, and heroic virtue is in scant supply. Even the play’s structure, with its profusion of short scenes, its elimination of staged battles, and its extension for an entire act after the hero’s death, challenges traditional notions of dramatic tragedy.

Like most of the characters in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare uses the past to measure the significance of present events. Yet in this play he suggests that access to history is compromised not only by the viewer’s belatedness but also by limitation of perspective and by the reliability of sources: witness Cleopatra’s success in compelling from the messenger a personally flattering account of Octavia (3.3). Moreover, Shakespeare seems peculiarly aware of the extent to which historical narratives are shaped by myths and legends. Much as Plutarch, whose Life of Marcus Antonius served as the main source for Antony and Cleopatra, attempted to differentiate between myth and history while including both in his treatment of Noble Grecians and Romans, so Shakespeare offers mythic invocation alongside a chastening skepticism. Octavius Caesar nostalgically invokes the warrior Antony of bygone days who could “drink / The stale of horses” and feed on “strange flesh” (1.4.70–71, 77). Philo, in the speech that opens the play, compares Antony as a “triple pillar of the world” to “plated Mars” (1.1.13, 4). For Octavius and Philo, as for the other Romans in the play, Antony’s descent from his former glory to the embarrassing spectacle of his passion for Cleopatra plays out another myth, that of sexual temptation and its destructive results, familiar from the tale of Hercules and Omphale. Antony himself frequently subscribes to this myth, lamenting his temptation to “lose [him]self in dotage” and resolving to break free from the clutches of his “enchanting queen” (1.2.129, 143). But a comparison between Antony’s moments of despondency and his equally strong exhilaration in happy moments with Cleopatra—“Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space” (1.1.38–39)—especially as his passion is echoed and continued in her words, suggests that the romantic myth of transcendent love may be the strongest one the play has to offer. Nevertheless, if Shakespeare can be said to endorse the legendary love of Antony and Cleopatra, his method of doing so is distinctly odd: the love affair plays against a chorus of doubtful voices intent on puncturing the stability or accuracy of any enshrined romance.

This contrast of viewpoints is built on the play’s central structural principle, a binary opposition between Rome and Egypt. The play’s Rome, on the one hand, is a predominantly male social order encouraging individual discipline, valor, and devotion to the state. Egypt, on the other hand, is a looser society valuing sensual and emotional pleasure. By juxtaposing these two settings, Shakespeare highlights the cultural contrast. He also uses the opposition to create complicated patterns of judgment by positioning some of his characters as commentator figures. Philo and Demetrius in 1.1, or Scarus and Canidius in 3.10, offer Roman value judgments on Antony’s Egyptian escapades; yet Enobarbus appreciates Cleopatra and Egyptian life and thus becomes a challenging conveyor of culture for the other Romans. Early in the play, another commentator, the Soothsayer, advises Antony that he will never thrive near Octavius. As Janet Adelman points out, questioning and judgment are central to the play’s structure.1

As critics have responded to the play, Rome has traditionally been the winner in the implicit contest between Roman and Egyptian values. Bernard Beckerman notes how the audience is initially “invited to see events with Roman eyes, eyes that rarely see anything but the imperfections of Egypt.”2 Looking through Roman eyes has in fact led some readers to scorn the play altogether; for instance, George Bernard Shaw objected to giving “sexual infatuation” a tragic treatment it scarcely warranted.3 Many have judged Cleopatra a manipulative, self-serving temptress or femme fatale; some have endorsed the enraged Antony’s charge that she is a whore (4.12.15). But recent critical paradigms have made it possible to view the play through more or less Egyptian eyes, celebrating the feminine values exemplified by Cleopatra and the realm in which she reigns. Hélène Cixous, for instance, praises the “ardor” and “passion” of “she who is incomprehensible.”4 Although Cixous’ praise is definitely for Cleopatra as a woman, the positive valuation she gives to incomprehensibility signals a breakdown of the opposition between Rome and Egypt. Cixous and other contemporary thinkers show that the either/or logic of binarism is itself a typically “Roman” pattern. Or to put their argument another way, Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” (2.2.277) deconstructs an oppositional logic. Her femininity is not the logical opposite of Antony’s masculinity but a disruptive counterpart that throws gender norms into question. Understood in these terms, Egypt does not so much contrast with Rome as reveal the limitations of Roman rule. Thus Shakespeare’s portrayal of the relationship between Cleopatra and Antony, and of that between Egypt and Rome, illustrates what Jacques Derrida calls différance, the logic through which two terms are caught in irresolvable dependency on one another.

As a great encounter between West and East as well as a great love story, Antony and Cleopatra enacts a basic pattern of colonialism. Shakespeare draws on a network of stereotypes when he shows orderly, ambitious Roman conquerors confronting exotically decadent, emotional Egyptian subjects. Given the enormous indebtedness of Shakespeare’s culture to the Roman world—Rome offered models for English politics, mythology, literature, architecture—one might expect the play firmly to endorse the Western system of values. That this does not quite happen is partly the result of the reiterated ironies against “the boy Caesar” (3.13.21), dismissed by Cleopatra as “paltry” in his pursuit of dominion, since “Not being Fortune, he’s but Fortune’s knave” (5.2.2–3). The play largely supports Cleopatra’s assessment: Octavius is rigidly militaristic and chillingly manipulative. (Although the Romans regularly used marriage to foster political alliances, Octavius’ bartering of his sister is disconcertingly set against the passion between Antony and Cleopatra.) In marked contrast to the title characters, Octavius not only lacks a personal dimension but appears simple-minded in his understanding of human affairs. He admits only a single aspect of Antony, measuring him as a heroic soldier fallen from honor to become “th’ abstract of all faults,” “not more manlike / Than Cleopatra” (1.4.10, 5-6). That Antony has lost his former heroism is as true, of course, as Dolabella’s denial that Cleopatra’s dream man ever existed. Yet few who read or see the play sympathetically would want to limit their assessments to the ones these Romans voice. Reassuringly familiar as the terms of Octavius’ moral opprobrium and Dolabella’s realism may be, the play offers pleasures beyond them. Neither love nor imagination will square with Roman virtue, and in pursuing these two themes Shakespeare subverts a victory of Roman over Egyptian values. Perhaps he was appealing to an English audience aware that their country was once a colonial “other” to Rome.

As a character, Antony embodies the opposition between Roman and Egyptian value systems; his story enacts the collapse of that opposition. He spans the worlds of West and East geographically, appearing in numerous settings in the course of the play’s action, and he is torn between competing loyalties. After temporarily securing his political alliance with Octavius through marriage to Octavia, Antony abandons her, saying “though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’ th’ East my pleasure lies” (2.3.45–46). Officially representing a dominating Rome in Egypt, Antony has (to the dismay of his Roman partners) “gone native,” adopting the mores of his conquered territory. As Dympna Callaghan points out, a tendency to become the other is part of Antony’s character.5 Fighting against barbarians, he reportedly endured “more / Than savages could suffer” (1.4.69–70); governing a luxuriously decadent territory, he immerses himself in sensuality. Cleopatra delights in Antony’s complexity, praising his “well-divided disposition” (1.5.62), his “heavenly mingle” (69). For her, appreciating his value is a matter of perspective: “Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon, / The other way ’s a Mars” (2.5.144–45). For Antony himself, however, the internalization of antithetical values becomes disturbingly disintegrative. He is repeatedly “robbed” of his sword (4.14.28, 5.1.29), first by Cleopatra, later by Dercetus—an emblem of his loss of masculinity. Masculine identity, by Roman standards, requires a coherency and stability that Antony’s passion for Cleopatra dissolves, and as a result he shames himself, most memorably by following Cleopatra’s ships at the battle of Actium. Caught between the rival demands to maintain Roman authority and to pursue his ardor for Cleopatra, he feels torn apart and compares himself to a shape in the clouds, feeling he “cannot hold this visible shape” (4.14.18). Even the heroic suicide that would offer a final image of cohesion eludes him; he falls on his sword like a “bridegroom” running into “a lover’s bed” (4.14.120–21), and survives to utter the dismaying question “Not dead?” (4.14.124). Although he claims to die “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished” (4.15.66–67), we are given the image of a lover’s rather than a hero’s death.

Antony’s decline clearly can be understood in moral terms as a fall away from Roman grace, but Shakespeare complicates this interpretation. Antony, more than Cleopatra, is the play’s central object of interest and desire: his Roman partners as well as his Egyptian lover yearn for his presence and attentions. In Antony, Shakespeare illustrates Plutarch’s remark that “the soul of a lover lived in another body, and not in his own.”6 Antony’s melancholic recognition that he does not own or control his existence undermines the oppositional morality that produces heroic paradigms. It also deconstructs the logic of colonialism, whereby a conquering power eclipses another culture and/or set of values. Antony instead becomes uncomfortably aware of the interpenetration of self and other in the various spheres of love, politics, and ethics.

Watching the play or thinking about it as drama, one realizes that theater too is able to break down established differences by encouraging emotional and imaginative connections. The complex interplay of voices and viewpoints in Antony and Cleopatra requires us to do something more difficult than merely choosing sides in a moral debate. We are asked to participate in shifting judgments—to follow Enobarbus, for instance, when he is compelled by his disenchantment to abandon Antony, only to be devastated by his captain’s generous response to his betrayal. “Be a child o’ th’ time” (2.7.117) Antony advises the fastidious Octavius Caesar, and the play likewise solicits our imaginative involvement. Yet the spectacles to which we attend are riddled with comments that puncture the presented illusion. Cleopatra’s reference to the actor who will “boy [her] greatness” (5.2.267) famously complicates her final defiance of Caesar. Similarly, her remark on lifting Antony’s body to her monument—“Here’s sport indeed. How heavy weighs my lord!” (4.15.38)—bizarrely compounds the meanings of sport and heaviness, calling a theater audience’s attention to the sheer physical challenges of the scene being staged. A queen who can win admiration while hopping through the street clearly understands the seductive power of surprising mixtures of tone. Like a modern film star intent on maintaining her fans’ fascination, Cleopatra defies an analysis measuring truth and sincerity, but she is anything but shallow. In her most profound moments, she reminds us of how devotion and delight can merge with sheer playfulness. Rather than asking viewers to suspend their disbelief, Antony and Cleopatra features characters who disbelieve their own presentations of experience and who somehow are all the more compelling for it. Shakespeare scours received myths with skepticism, and then audaciously presents them for his audience’s admiring participation.

In acknowledging the flux of temporality, Antony’s advice to “be a child o’ th’ time” implicitly points to the difficulty of representing historical events in a world of change. Shakespeare leaves unanswered questions about motivations and meaning instead of offering his version of the illustrious love affair as definitive. Moreover, the play effectively counters received history: even though Octavius Caesar was the acknowledged victor of the story, defeating Antony to become emperor of Rome, the play’s final act presents not his triumph but Cleopatra’s. With superb poise she stages her own death, collapsing time to become again the queen who first met Antony at Cydnus and merging death into new life (“Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” [5.2.368–69]). She achieves a magnificence that leaves Caesar looking like an “ass / Unpolicied” (5.2.364–65). In their final moments, both Antony and Cleopatra refer to an afterlife—“Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand” (4.14.61); “Husband, I come!” (5.2.342)—although the play presents no sustained belief system to support these images of reunion. Instead, it offers theatrical apotheosis as the “new heaven, new Earth” (1.1.18–19) necessary to demonstrate Antony’s and Cleopatra’s love.

Shakespeare returns in this play to a theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the capacity of erotic imagination to transform ordinary experience. But where the lovers of the earlier play were in the directive power of love juices, the mature lovers Antony and Cleopatra are fully conscious of devoting themselves to eros and of altering the course of history with their actions. Antony and Cleopatra make a claim for love as a force that dissolves established barriers, even established identities. Staging their story, Shakespeare makes a similar claim for theater.

  1. Janet Adelman, The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), p. 14.
  2. Bernard Beckerman, “Past the Size of Dreaming,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Antony and Cleopatra,” ed. Mark Rose (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), p. 102.
  3. George Bernard Shaw, “Three Plays for Puritans,” in The Complete Prefaces of Bernard Shaw (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1965), p. 749.
  4. Hélène Cixous, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 126.
  5. Dympna Callaghan, “Representing Cleopatra in the Post-colonial Moment,” in Antony and Cleopatra, ed. Nigel Wood, Theory in Practice (Buckingham, [Bucks.]: Open University Press, 1996), pp. 58–59.
  6. Plutarch, The Life of Marcus Antonius, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 5:301.