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Antony and Cleopatra /

Reading Shakespeare's Language: Antony and Cleopatra

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

A map of the Roman Empire
A map of the Roman Empire.
Stephen Llano; based on John Speed, A prospect of the most famous parts of the world … (1631).

Rome, bounded on the right by the Tiber River.


Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Antony and Cleopatra, for example, you will find the words dismission (i.e., discharge), homager (i.e., tenant or vassal to a feudal lord), belike (i.e., perhaps), and methinks (i.e., it seems to me). Words of this kind are explained in notes to the text and will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Antony and Cleopatra, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra, for example, the word property has the meaning of “distinctive quality,” full is used where we would say “very,” ambassadors is used where we would say “messengers,” and still where we would say “always.” Such words will be explained in the notes to the text, but they, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build dramatic worlds that have their own space, time, and history. In the first two acts of Antony and Cleopatra, for example, Shakespeare conjures up two such worlds. The first is Rome, which is vigorously engaged in empire building by “files and musters of the war” and whose god is “plated Mars.” But Rome is also the site of political strife, “stirs” and “garboils,” “contriving friends” and “scrupulous faction.” In this strenuous exertion to extend Rome’s empire and govern the state, Romans imagine that pleasure must lie in another world, “i’ th’ east,” specifically in Egypt with Cleopatra, who can “make defect perfection” and whose “holy priests bless her when she is riggish.” Yet this pleasure is never dramatized in the play. It is only remembered, anticipated, and imagined—even by Cleopatra and the Egyptians. The Romans remember how in Egypt they “did sleep day out of countenance and made the night light with drinking,” but we never see them do so. Antony himself looks forward to an evening with Cleopatra in which they “wander through the streets and note the qualities of people,” but such an evening never comes, for he must leave for Rome. Cleopatra calls for the narcotic “mandragora” to drink and speaks of listening to “an eunuch” sing, and her eunuch Mardian can “think what Venus did with Mars,” but for both Cleopatra and Mardian these pleasures remain only imagined. Shakespeare relies wholly on brilliant language to present the Romans’ and his play’s fascination with the “east.”

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading for yourself, do as the actor does. That is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Antony and Cleopatra, when Caesar says “to that end assemble we” (1.4.85–86), he is using such a construction. So is Menas when he says “so find we profit” (2.1.9). The “normal” order would be “We assemble to that end” and “So we find profit.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). The Soothsayer’s statement “A little I can read” (1.2.10) is an example of such an inversion, as is Charmian’s “Our worser thoughts heavens mend” (1.2.64). The “normal” order would be “I can read a little” and “Heavens mend our worser thoughts.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word. Take, for example, Philo’s “Those his goodly eyes, that o’er the files and musters of the war have glowed like plated Mars, now bend” (1.1.2–4). Here, the clause “that o’er the files and musters of the war have glowed like plated Mars” and the adverb “now” separate subject (“Those his goodly eyes”) from verb (“bend”). Or take Ventidius’ lines to Silius:


One of my place in Syria, his lieutenant,

For quick accumulation of renown,

Which he achieved by th’ minute, lost his favor.


Here, the subject and verb, “Sossius lost,” are interrupted by the insertion of, first, the appositive “One of my place in Syria, his lieutenant”; second, the phrase “For quick accumulation of renown”; and third, the clause “Which he achieved by th’ minute.” In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“Those his goodly eyes bend” and “Sossius lost his favor”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Sometimes, although not often in Antony and Cleopatra, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of Caesar early in the play when, desperately needing Antony’s help against Pompey, Caesar comforts himself and his ally Lepidus by remembering in detail a retreat in which Antony showed the kind of soldiership that Caesar needs from him again. Caesar addresses the absent Antony:

                                               When thou once

Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st

Hirsius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel

Did famine follow, whom thou fought’st against,

Though daintily brought up, with patience more

Than savages could suffer.


Holding back the essential sentence elements, the subject and the verb (“Did famine follow”—i.e., famine did follow), Caesar first establishes the authenticity of his report in a pair of clauses that specify the setting of his anecdote (“When thou once was beaten from Modena”) and name the other participants in the engagement, their rank, and their fate (“where thou slew’st Hirsius and Pansa, consuls”).

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In the play’s first two scenes, Antony often speaks in an elliptical way, leaving out words that we can easily guess at. Sometimes his omissions show him harsh with impatience, as when he orders a messenger “Grates me, the sum” (i.e., this grates [irritates] me; therefore give me only the briefest summary of your news), or when he asks another messenger “Well, what worst?” (i.e., well, what’s the worst of your news?). Yet the tone of his elliptical speeches to Cleopatra is altogether different. These are enticements to pleasure—“What sport [i.e., pleasure shall we indulge in] tonight?”—or they are declarations of devotion: “[I will listen to] No messenger but thine.”

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. These are crucial in Antony and Cleopatra to creating a fascination with Cleopatra and her court. The queen and her attendants are presented as attractively skillful at wordplay, and they also provide opportunities for the Romans to employ wordplay in an effort to describe how desirable Cleopatra can be.

Puns in Antony and Cleopatra sometimes play on the multiple meanings of a single word and sometimes on the different meanings of words that sound the same. When Antony rebukes Cleopatra, “But that your Royalty / Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself,” Antony uses the word idleness in its sense of “foolishness” or “silliness.” In deflecting his rebuke, Cleopatra not only uses another of the meanings of idleness (namely, “inactivity”), but also plays on multiple meanings of labor (“work” and “labor pains”) and bear (“endure” and “give birth to”): “ ’Tis sweating labor / To bear such idleness so near the heart / As Cleopatra this” (1.3.111–16). Cleopatra is also made engaging as a character because, when she is in the mood, she allows her attendants to give her punning answers:

CLEOPATRA   . . . Hast thou affections [i.e., erotic passions]?

MARDIAN  [a eunuch] Yes, gracious madam.



Not in deed, madam, for I can do nothing. . . .


This pun depends on the similar sounds and different meanings of indeed (i.e., “Really?”) and in deed (i.e., “in actual fact”).

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, when Antony says of his attraction to Cleopatra “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break” (1.2.128), he is using metaphorical language to describe Cleopatra’s beauty and charm as “fetters” or chains and shackles that limit his movements. Enobarbus also uses metaphor when he says that Cleopatra “pursed up his [Antony’s] heart upon the river of Cydnus” (2.2.223). In this case Enobarbus represents Antony’s heart as an object valued by Cleopatra, who is said to keep it in the place where one preserves valuables (a purse), and, at the same time, Enobarbus expresses Cleopatra’s enduring mastery of Antony’s love in terms of her ability to keep the seat of his love, his heart, as her personal possession in her purse. Cleopatra is also the object of the most famous and lavish figurative language in the play, Enobarbus’ description of her appearance when she pursed up Antony’s heart:

The barge she sat in like a burnished throne

Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were


Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggared all description: she did lie

In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold, of tissue—

O’erpicturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature.


This speech offers such a profusion of wordplay that a complete discussion of it would unduly extend this introduction to Shakespeare’s language. Instead, we will here focus simply on the metaphors that compare the nonhuman to the human (personifications) and on the metaphor that compares Cleopatra to pictures of Venus. The first personification is “Purple the sails, and so perfumed that / The winds were lovesick with them.” Here the perfume issuing from the sails is said to be so desirable that the winds become like lovers whose affections are so strong that they are sick with love (“lovesick”). Just as the winds are metaphorically transformed into lovers of the perfumed sails, so the water is figuratively turned into a lover of the oars: “The oars were silver, / Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made / The water which they beat to follow faster, / As amorous of their strokes.” Finally, in yet another metaphor, Cleopatra is compared to artists’ representations of the Roman goddess of love, Venus; yet Cleopatra is said not simply to resemble such pictures but to surpass them in her resemblance to Venus, “O’erpicturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature.”

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We should always try to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. Consider, for example, the stage action that is suggested by the following exchange between Enobarbus and Menas near the end of Pompey’s drunken feast aboard his galley:


There’s a strong fellow, Menas.

MENAS                                            Why?

ENOBARBUS                                            He bears

The third part of the world, man. Seest not?


Here “the third part of the world” seems to refer to a ruler of a “third part of the world,” or a triumvir. While all three triumvirs, Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus, are at the feast, only Lepidus’ drunken state has been a topic of the dialogue for most of this scene, and he, unlike Antony and Caesar, has no more lines in the scene after the exchange quoted. Thus we may conclude that the dialogue signals that Lepidus has been carried offstage, and this edition therefore includes, after Enobarbus’ first speech prefix, the stage direction “pointing to the Servant carrying Lepidus.” This is one place, and there are others, where the dialogue allows us to be reasonably confident in adding, in brackets, a stage direction suggesting the action.

On other occasions in Antony and Cleopatra the signals for stage action are not so clear. Indeed the play seems sometimes to offer a unique challenge to readers’ capacity to imagine the action that accompanies its dialogue. Take, for example, Antony’s assertion to Cleopatra in the play’s first scene that “The nobleness of life / Is to do thus” (1.1.41–42). His expression “to do thus” seems to demand that some action accompany it. Many editors include a stage direction indicating an embrace between Antony and Cleopatra, but Cleopatra’s response to Antony, “Excellent falsehood,” does not suggest her mood would necessarily allow for an embrace. We are therefore left to use our imaginations about what it is “to do thus.”

The stiffest challenges to readers and directors alike come in the play’s concluding scenes in which the fictional location is Cleopatra’s “monument” (4.15, 5.2). In the first of these scenes the mortally wounded Antony is brought onstage by his Guard. When Cleopatra decides that Antony must be raised up to her in her monument, she seeks assistance in doing so: “Help me, my women! . . . Assist, good friends” (4.15.35–36). Several lines later the early printed text provides the bare stage direction “They heave Antony aloft to Cleopatra.” How Cleopatra’s monument is to be represented onstage and how Antony is to be drawn up into it are left for the reader to imagine or for the director to devise. The same is true when, in 5.2, Cleopatra is captured by the Romans in her monument. Of her capture there is no doubt: a Roman comments “You see how easily she may be surprised”; and one of Cleopatra’s ladies exclaims “O, Cleopatra, thou art taken, queen!” (5.2.40, 43). Therefore we have added in brackets a stage direction that indicates the capture: “Gallus and Soldiers enter and seize Cleopatra.” Nonetheless, the early printed text and our edition leave entirely to the imagination of readers how the capture is to be staged.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.