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The University of Southern Mississippi

A Queen’s Reputation:

A Feminist Analysis of The Cultural Appropriations of Cleopatra

By Chamara Moore

A Thesis Submitted to the Honors College of

The University of Southern Mississippi in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree
of Bachelor of Arts in the Department of English

May 2015

Chapter 3: Readings

3.1 Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

While Shakespeare portrays Cleopatra in many different ways, her primary portrayal in the text is
as a sexual object. In Cleopatra’s soliloquy (Act V Scene II) she assesses her political future if she
were to turn herself over to the Romans. In this 14-line monologue, Shakespeare inserts selective
imagery to mirror the queen’s possible transformation into a sexual object without agency. She
addresses her attendant with

“Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shalt be shown In Rome, as well as I mechanic slaves,” (5.2.208-209).
By this she means that they will no longer have control over their own bodies, but instead they
will be “puppets” of Rome and “mechanic slaves” to the Romans’ desires. When she continues,
“with greasy aprons” and “rules” she is referring to how she will be forced to assume the expected
role of a woman, to cook and follow rules (5.2.210). There is also the implication that this is the
role of women in Roman society.

There is physicality in the queen’s words when she says she will be “forced to drink their vapour,”
(5.2. 213). By this she means that she will not only lose control over her body, but she will be
forced (both figuratively and literally) to “drink” as in absorb the Roman ideology. The physical
implication is of a sexual nature, implying that they may do as they wish with her physical form
and she will no longer have the ability to make sexual decisions on her own. The bodily imagery
supports her realization that surrendering her body to Rome will also mean the manipulation of
her reputation to appear as Rome sees fit. That is why she ends the monologue by referring to
herself in this possible future as

“I’ th’ posture of a whore,” (5.2. 221). It is her admittance that once she is portrayed

15 however the masses of Rome wish her to be, she will have lost both her individuality and regal

Beyond her sexual objectification, she is still objectified as something physical to be fought over
and used for political gain. She is a literal sign of what the male powers desire, fight over, and
attempt to control. There is a parallel drawn between her body and her nation, beyond the
implication that as a female leader she has a maternal connection with her country. It is no mistake
that Julius Caesar, Gneius Pompey, and Marc Antony colonize both her body and her nation
sequentially. She herself affirms this parallel when she refers to herself as a “serpent of old Nile”
(1.5. 26). Here she is describing herself as a direct projection of her country’s main source of water,
nutrients, and overall health.

The phrase seems a contradiction since the Nile is such a prolific water source, being the longest
river in the world, yet a serpent is something so lowly and untrustworthy. She uses this
contradiction as an assertion that she is aware of how she is objectified by the men in her life. She
directly quotes Marc Antony and his pet name for her, before describing how even while “wrinkled
deep in time” she has caught the eye of three different powerful men over the years much like how
a sculpture of art engrosses the admirer (1.5. 30). She continues on to describe herself as such an
enrapturing object in connection with each of the men. Instead of saying that she has a darker
complexion, she alludes to the sun God Phoebus, claiming that the “black” of her skin gains its
colour from his “amorous pinches” thus implying that there is yet another man who has loved her

(1.5. 29). She adds that while Caesar was still alive, she was “a morsel for a monarch”

(1.5. 31). The use of the word “morsel” implies that she is both something small and consumable,
though somehow elevated by Caesar’s monarchial status and not her own.

While Caesar would consume her, Gneius Pompey “would stand and make his eyes grow in” her
face, thus admiring her intently like a piece of art until he would “anchor his aspect, and die” (1.5.
33-34). So once again, even while she is minimized to the likeness of an inanimate object, she is
emphasizing her authority over men.

In addition to Cleopatra’s objectification as a representation of her country and a piece of artwork,

she is also portrayed as a belittled keepsake. Antony and Caesar quarrel over her more so than their
skirmish for political power. It is in this way that “Cleopatra serves as both an object of acquisition
and as an instrument of revenge,” which Cristina

León Alfar asserts in her work Fantasies of Female Evil: The Dynamics of Gender and

Power in Shakespearean Tragedy (148). Caesar says cruel words about Antony only by comparing
him to Cleopatra. After describing Antony’s frivolous activity, he describes

Antony as “not more manlike / Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than
he” (1.4. 5-7). Here the insult is infused with gender associations, claiming that Antony does not
have qualities that distinguish him in “manliness” from

Cleopatra. There is also the message that Antony has no true claim to Cleopatra or anything of
hers since she is still Ptolemy’s widow. Yet he issues a similar insult to

Cleopatra in the same breath, saying that she is no more “womanly” than Antony is manly.

These polarized and engendered insults seem to mirror an overarching theme in the play of
defining what is masculine and feminine. Later in the play when Cleopatra plans to go into battle
at Antony’s side, Enobarbus dissuades her by explaining why the battlefield is not a fit place for a
woman. He says “if we should serve with horse and mares together / the horse were merely
lost…The mares would be bare / a soldier and his horse” (3.7. 8-11). Using this odd hypothetical,
Enobarbus asserts that if male and female horses fought together, the horses would be distracted
and useless, while the mares would be ‘ridden’ by the male horses and their riders alike. He is
emphasizing the sexuality of the female and saying that it is so overpowering it prevents progress
and combative success. He is subtly referring to Cleopatra and her “presence” which “puzzle[s]
Antony” and distracts him from his political and military duties (3.7 10).

Enobarbus even continues to tell her that the Romans say that a “eunuch, and your maids
/ manage this war” (3.7 14-15). Cleopatra replies to this by accepting her perceived crossing of
gender roles when she says “as the president of my kingdom will / appear there for a man” (3.7
18-19). She’s not disagreeing with him, but instead embracing his polarized view. In the same
scene Candidus remarks that Antony is weak because “so our leader’s led / and we are women’s
men” meaning that Antony has a weak grasp of the proper thing to do because he is ruled by a
woman, making him that much inadequate

(3.7 70). So in this one scene we see femininity defined as a weakness and a hindrance in battle
and tactics. Caesar further emphasizes this defining frailty of the female when he says “women are
not / in their best fortunes strong” therefore implying an innate inferiority (3.12 29-30). He makes
yet another association between sexuality and weakness when he continues to assert that “want
will perjure / the ne’er touched vestal”

(3.12 31). The Roman goddess Vesta is the personification of female purity, often associated with
her Vestal virgins. When Caesar says that even the most chaste of virgins will still give in to sexual
desire because of their femininity itself, he is rendering that purity impossible.


In addition to the feminine being defined by weakness, effeminization is also associated with
emotion throughout the text. In Act 3 Scene 2 when Caesar and his sister

Octavia have an emotional goodbye, Agrippa and Enobarbus fear that Caesar will “weep” because
he “has a could in ‘s face” (3.2 51-52). Enobarbus says this show of emotion would make him
“worse for that, were he a / horse” and indeed the same goes for men “so is he, being a man” (3.2
53-55). Caesar doesn’t cry, but the mere tearing up and showing of emotion instantly has numerous
people asserting that he’ll decrease in value as a human being and be essentially less than a man.
None of this negativity is remarked about Octavia when she begins to weep a mere 9 lines earlier.
So it is acceptable to the men that “sweet Octavia” show emotion, but not their male leader for he
would be instantly devalued (3.2 61). The same sentiment is shown later in the text when Antony
addresses his troops, wanting to “make his followers weep” (4.2 26). Enobarbus remarks that
Antony brings the people “discomfort” making them “weep” “for shame” like “an ass” (4.2 37-
38). He begs Antony “transform us not to women” and to cease his tearjerking address (4.2 39).
So yet again femininity is associated with being shameful and uncomfortable in its expression of

While the play defines femininity by weakness, it also associates the feminine with subservience,
particularly in association with Cleopatra and her authority. In Act 3

Scene 11, Eros reports to Antony and remarks that “death will seize her but / Your comfort makes
the rescue” (3.11 46-47). This implies not only that Cleopatra is indebted to Antony, but also that
she is dependent upon him for her very life. Later in that same exchange, she asks Antony to
“forgive my fearful sails” asking him for forgiveness for acting of her own volition and being
implicitly emotional (3.11 54). She continues on to beg for his “pardon” like she owes him
reasoning for the political decisions she makes as queen (3.11 41). She even seems to slip into the
role of a soldier apologizing to his superior or a servant apologizing to his master. The question
then becomes why does Cleopatra deem it necessary to be pardoned for retreat in battle when she
herself chose to do so while Antony merely blindly followed? This is the first acceptance of her
implied subservience. This subservience is stretched to melodramatic proportions for obvious
political gain later when Caesar’s ambassador relays him a message from Cleopatra in which she
“confess[es]” his “greatness” and “submits” to his “might” (3.12 16-17). But by portraying herself
as subservient, she is attempting to put Caesar at ease so that he doesn’t see her as a threat. She
continues buttering him up saying, “He is a god and knows / what is the most right. / Mine honor
was not yielded, / but conquered merely” (3.13 62-64). She is directly stating that she is inferior
and has been conquered justly, though the tone of the statement is sarcastic, particularly since she
agreed with Caesar’s statement that there were “scars upon [her] honor” (3.13 59). Her snarky
comments continue when she says that she is no more than “a woman, and commanded / by such
poor passion as the maid that milks and does the meanest chares” (4.15 76-78). Here she uses the
social status of a humble servant to emphasize the insignificance of women in general. She again
emphasizes this subjugation in reference to Caesar, when she tells Proculeius to relay that she is
“his fortune’s vassal” and that she owes him “the greatness he has got” (5.2 29-30). Here not only
is she justifying Caesar’s actions, saying he has properly earned his greatness and glory, but she is
also portraying herself as a servant to his superior fortune. A vassal, by definition is someone who
has entered into mutual obligation to a monarch to serve and support them in return for protection
and land of some sort. So the subservient role she rhetorically places herself in is hierarchically
higher than a slave or handmaiden, but she is still submitting to the seemingly all-powerful male
ruler. She even says in the same scene that Caesar allows her to “hourly learn” the “doctrine of
obedience” (5.2 30-31). So while she openly admits that she’s not accustomed to being so
subservient she still submits “gladly” (5.2 31).

Aside from being portrayed as submissive, Cleopatra is also portrayed negatively by comparison
to Caesar’s beautiful half-sister, “admired Octavia” (2.2 127). Octavia is portrayed as the epitome
of everything that is valued in a woman during Shakespeare’s time (the Elizabethan era). Queen
Elizabeth herself was considered the Virgin Queen, so it is no mistake that even in the second act
we are introduced to Octavia with testimonies of her “virtue” and “general graces” which “speak
/ that which none else can utter” (2.2

138). She is also discussed and bartered like a dog easily over powered. Caesar even attests that
Agrippa has “power unto Octavia” (2.2 154). While he and Antony make the marriage
arrangement, he says “a sister I bequeath you” implying that he’s offering her not as a person but
as an object or animal of sorts one would give as a gift (2.2 159).

Octavia herself has no say in the exchange of her person between the male leaders. Even though
she says very little it is assumed that her sentiments are positive to both men, for Caesar says, “Let
her live / to join our kingdoms and our hearts” (2.2 161). Though she is traded like a horse, she is
still spoken highly of, like when Maecenas says “If beauty wisdom, modesty, can settle / the heart
of Antony, Octavia is / a blessed lottery to him,” meaning that Octavia is a blessing that may tame
Antony’s wild heart (2.2 251-253). This also implies that since Cleopatra holds Antony’s unsettled
heart, she is something wild and exotic, not properly suited for the Roman leader like the virtuous
and quiet Octavia. Antony himself even describes the agreement he makes with Caesar concerning

Octavia to be an “act of grace” (2.2 156). It is also evident that Octavia is not as outspoken and
lively as Cleopatra because when the queen inquires about Octavia’s personality the messenger
describes her as showing “a body rather than a life / a statue rather than a breather” (3.3 20-21).
This perfectly characterizes Octavia’s role in Rome. She is something to look upon, but she does
as she’s told and scarcely “breathe” voice to her own personal opinions, contrasting starkly with
Cleopatra. Early in the play Cleopatra is described as having the ability to “pour breath forth” even
while “breathless” (2.2 242). Antony even calls Octavia a “gem of a woman,” since she is lovely
to look at but possesses no more functionality than an artifact (3.13 109). In this way she is
polarized against the powerful and “wild” Queen Cleopatra. While Cleopatra is degraded by her
polarization with the lovely Octavia, she is also verbally associated with lust and lustful
disposition. Early in the play Agrippa describes her as a “royal wench” who “made great Caesar
lay his sword to her bed” and soon “cropped” after he “plowed her” (2.2 237-239). This makes it
seem as if she has mystical powers of seduction and fertility with the ability to force a royal into
her bed and bear a child to him soon after. The lust is not always so blatantly associated, for
example when Enobarbus describes the first time Antony and Cleo met. Even the oars “beat” the
waves with “amorous strokes” (2.2 206-207). She is described as having everything close to her
in a sort of trance, even “th’ air, which, but for vacancy / had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too” (2.2
226-227). It is stated that her boat had “seeming mermaid steers” therefore seemed to be steered
by a mythological creature also associated with seduction and sexuality (2.2 219). Enobarbus
continues in his description with imagery of Cleopatra “panting” in “defect perfection,” a blatant
sexual parallel that still implies the queen is flawed even in her perfection (2.2 240-241). He then
continues to allude to her sexual “appetites” that in others “she makes hungry” (2.2 247). Oddly,
the only instance in the text that implies an acceptance of Cleopatra’s promiscuity is when
Enobarbus says that “the holy priests / bless her when she is riggish” (2.2 249-250). This
acceptance of her riggishness is only among her own people, which alludes back to the underlying
inference of the play that the foreign Egyptians have lower moral standards. Even beyond the
lustful associations, there are numerous instances in the text when the queen is referred to as some
variation of whore. Caesar angrily describes Antony as having abandoned his sister to “give his
potent regiment to a trull,” trull being an archaic word referring to a prostitute (3.6 97). In Act 4
Scene 12 Antony goes on a furious tirade against Cleopatra and the Egyptians, blaming her for his
evident loss to Caesar. He calls her a “foul Egyptian” and a “triple-turned whore” (4.12 10, 13). In
Act 5 Scene 2 she verbally embraces the “frailties” of women that “shamed our sex” (3.13 125-
127). In his fury he also tells her to follow Caesar’s chariot “like the greatest spot / of all thy sex”
meaning that she’s a disgrace to her entire gender (4.12 35-36). He even adds yet another
compliment to the vastly contrasted “patient Octavia” who he hopes scratches at the queen’s face
with her “prepared nails” (4.12 39). So even the character that is the most madly in love with
Cleopatra, calls her abominable names, blames her for her innate feminine inadequacy and refers
to her as a “witch” when he is enraged (4.12 47).
It seems that Cleopatra maintains her resistance to such negative assertions against her until after
Antony dies, further proving how much she defines herself in terms of the men in her life. She
continues to focus on the men rather than herself, when she says “but since my Lord / is Antony
again, I will be Cleopatra” (3.13 188-189). She is defining herself in terms of only Antony, thus
doing away with her own personal identity, much like her character is remembered and defined
only by her interactions with powerful men. Right after Antony dies she asserts that she is “no
more but e’en a woman” commanded by “such poor passion” as a “maid that milks” and completes
“the meanest chares” (4.15 76-78). Once again, she verbally strips herself of her own monarchical
status and demeans herself to the status of a maid, an average woman. She repeats this in her last
stand before Caesar when she confesses to be “laden with like frailties which before / have often
shamed [her] sex” (5.2 123-124). Based on this pattern, the use of snakes in her death is blaringly
deliberate, more than the association between snakes and phalluses. She associates the snake with
evil, calling it a “worm” without “goodness” (5.2 260). Then she asserts that “a woman is a dish /
of the gods, if the devil dress her not” but for “every ten” women they make, “devils mar five”
(5.2 270- 273). In the very last scene two of these snakes bite her, seeming to represent the two
powerful men that led to her demise. As aforementioned, much of the play objectifies Cleopatra,
using her character to demean women on a general level, however the way Shakespeare sets up
the ending implies that he is aware of the metamorphosis of Cleopatra’s reputation. In her last
hours the queen speculates that she and Antony will have soiled reputations about which
“strumpets” and “scald rhymers” will write songs, and plays will be “staged” (5.2 215, 217). She
even predicts that “some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’th’ posture of a whore” (5.2
220-221). Here Shakespeare has her embracing her disgraced reputation and empowering herself
in her last hours. All of her predictions are of course spot on because in that era, her character
would have actually been played by a high-pitched male. Shakespeare also seems to be admitting
that his text portrays her as a whore. Even still, Cleopatra chooses to be dressed “like a queen” in
death in her “best attires” (5.2 227-228). Her last words perfectly characterize Shakespeare’s
assertion with her portrayal in the play. She describes herself as “a lass unparalleled” therefore a
woman incomparable to anyone else, defined by femininity (5.2 312). She also asserts that she will
lie in the “possession” of “death,” meaning that she will still submit to being possessed yet again,
but this time finitely (5.2 311). So while Shakespeare blatantly portrays the character of Cleopatra
negatively, he uses the portrayal to emphasize the power of the reigning queen regent of the time
(Elizabeth I). Cleopatra frequently submits to the powerful men in her life, and emphasizes her
inadequacy as a woman, but he maintains her authority. Even in her very last hours, she seems to
have a clairvoyant view of exactly how the world will perceive her and the events she’s witnessed.
Shakespeare also uses the exploitation of her exotic cultural origins to explain her current
reputation. Scholar Cristina León Alfar accurately asserts that Cleopatra “is objectified” in the text
“on three levels: as woman, as racial ‘other’ and as monarch of an African dominion, a role itself
complicated by her race and gender” (Alfar 142). She adds that, “these subject positions figure in
Rome’s desire for control of Egypt, for all three positions intersect to form naturalized divisions
between East and West based on the Easts’ inferiority to masculinist European power” (Alfar 142).
So Cleopatra’s character represents her country (as a monarch) which was “conquerable, then, in
particular because of the feminized, racialized, and sexualized stereotypes of Oriental lands” (Alfar

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Although considered by many critics to be one of Shakespeare's greatest

tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra holds an ambiguous position in
Shakespeare's oeuvre and has been characterized as a "problem play." In her
1977 essay "Egyptian Queens and Male Reviewers," L.T. Fitz commented,
"Most critics are united in proclaiming that Antony and Cleopatra is a
magnificent achievement; unfortunately, they are not united on the question of
exactly what the play achieves. It is difficult to think of another Shakespearean
play which has divided critics into such furiously warring camps." Reviewers
have traditionally attempted to discern the moral significance of the drama,
interpreting the work as either the tragedy of Antony's fall, or an affirmation of
the transcendent power of love. Increasingly, however, commentary has
acknowledged the uncertain morality of the work, and has focused instead on
its complex language and structure. Feminist reinterpretations of Cleopatra's
role have also been among the most notable developments in criticism of the
work since 1960.

The structure of Antony and Cleopatra has occasionally been faulted for a
lack of unity and cohesion, with some critics complaining that characters and
settings are presented and dismissed too quickly. In Shakespearean
Tragedy (1904), for example, A. C. Bradley commented that the play
exemplifies a "defective method" of linking a "number of scenes, some very
short, in which the dramatis personae are frequently changed; as though a
novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short chapters, in which he
flitted from one group of his characters to another." Later critics, however,
have tended to view the fast-paced, nonlinear structure of the play as a
unique solution to the problem of handling unwieldy historical information that
involves a multitude of characters and incidents. Ernest Schanzer defended
the structure of Antony and Cleopatra in The Problem Plays of
Shakespeare (1963), explaining that the work is organized by a series of
parallels and contrasts between events, settings, characters, and values. This
pattern of duality is also maintained through the drama's language, as the
protagonists' speeches are echoed and inverted throughout the play.
Schanzer also suggested that Shakespeare purposefully employed quickly
changing scenes in order to manipulate the audience's shifting attitudes
toward events onstage: "Of all Shakespeare's plays this is probably the one in
which the structural pattern is most perfectly adjusted to the theme and has, in
fact, become one of the chief vehicles for its expression."

While Antony and Cleopatra continues to be regarded as the source of some

of the most glorious speeches in Shakespeare's oeuvre, recent commentary
has focused in particular on Shakespeare's use of hyperbolic language to
evoke a sense of the ideal, to convey the unusual vitality of the protagonists,
and to express the rarity and historical significance of the experience
described. Overreaching language abounds throughout the work in vast
images of the natural world, descriptions of political greatness and power, and
extreme declarations of passion. In his introduction to the Oxford edition
of Antony and Cleopatra (1994), Michael Neill emphasized the hyperbolic
nature of "the gulf between the high rhetoric in which the lovers clothe
themselves and the harsh reality of their decline," observing that
Shakespeare's constant "hazarding of bathos" accounts for much of the
tragedy's "unstable brilliance," and also for its mixed reception. One of the
most frequently cited examples of hyperbole in the work is Cleopatra's
elevated speech following Antony's death [V.ii.81-92]: "His legs bestrid the
ocean: his rear'd arm / Crested the world.…" Madeleine Doran (1964)
commented: "There is left only the idea of Antony the absolute soldier, whose
arm 'crested the world,' and whose death leaves the world a meaner, poorer
place. All the widening meaning of such a death, of the fall of such a prince, is
borne in the imagery. It is a great event in history." The effect of vastness and
transcendence is also enhanced by mythological allusions to Mars, Venus,
and Hercules, by which the playwright endows the protagonists with attributes
of the gods. Janet Adelman (1973) observed that Antony and Cleopatra is
distinguished from Shakespeare's other tragedies by this sense of connection
between the mythological and human realms: "This insistence on the analogy
between the human and the mythological, so foreign to the tragedies, is in fact
an anticipation of the romances; for, in the last plays, precisely this sense of
the participation of the mythic in human life becomes essential."

Cleopatra's vain, contradictory, and unpredictable qualities have typically been

viewed by critics as either dramatic flaws in Shakespeare's characterization or
morally reprehensible traits that contribute to Antony's demise. Viewing the
play as essentially the story of Antony's fall from power, Maynard Mack (1973)
suggested that a supernatural and fatalistic quality pervades Cleopatra's role:
"Though Antony chooses her and we are shown the familiar feminine skills
with which she draws him, the play keeps alive a complementary assurance
that a power works through her which is also, in some sense, a fate. She is for
everyone an 'enchantress,' a 'fairy,' a 'witch,' a 'charm,' a 'spell,' and she
moves, even for the Romans, in an ambience of suggestion that seems to
give these terms a reach beyond their conventional horizons of gallantry and
erotic praise." Cleopatra has also been perceived as an embodiment of the
private world of human emotions that Shakespeare contrasts with the
dispassionate public realm of Roman values. Recent critics have emphasized
the speculative aspect of these opposite domains, often concluding that both
sets of values are equally flawed. Traditional assumptions concerning
Cleopatra's character have also been re-evaluated as a result of the growth of
feminist criticism of the play. For example, L.T. Fitz faulted the continuing
tendency of commentators to view Antony and Cleopatra as essentially a play
about Antony, without recognizing Cleopatra as a tragic hero in her own right.
Fitz pointed to the overwhelming tendency to emphasize Cleopatra's
"feminine wiles" and "childlike" qualities, while completely ignoring her
motivations as the ruler of a nation. She commented: "[In] assessing the
respective actions of Antony and Cleopatra, critics apply a clear double
standard: what is praiseworthy in Antony is damnable in Cleopatra. The sexist
assumption here is that for a woman, love should be everything; her showing
an interest in anything but her man is reprehensible. For a man, on the other
hand, love should be secondary to public duty or even self-interest."
Supporting the view of Cleopatra as a dual protagonist, Michael Neill
observed that in contrast with the gradual dissolution of Anthony's identity,
Cleopatra acquires a sense of wholeness by the end of the play. "[What
Cleopatra] claims is the androgynous wholeness at which Anthony's end
gestures only falteringly. It is not for nothing that, in handing over to Cleopatra
almost the whole last act, Shakespeare accords her the structural privilege
conventionally granted to the male protagonist."

Ernest Schanzer (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra," in The Problem Plays of

Shakespeare, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 132-83.

[In the following excerpt, Schanzer responds to critics who have

consideredAntony and Cleopatra to be "faultily constructed," arguing that the
structural pattern of the work consists "(a) of a series of contrasts between
Rome and Egypt; and (b) of a series of parallels between Antony and
'The events of which the principal are described according to history, are
produced without any art of connection or care of disposition', wrote Dr.
Johnson of [Antony and Cleopatra, in Johnson on Shakespeare]. Nearly a
century and a half later A. C. Bradley expressed a very similar view when he
called it 'the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies', and pointed to it as
exemplifying Shakespeare's 'defective method' of stringing together a 'number
of scenes, some very short, in which the dramatis personae are frequently
changed; as though a novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short
chapters, in which he flitted from one group of his characters to another'
[Shakespearean Tragedy (1904)]. What can explain such extraordinary
blindness in these two great critics, and in the others who have echoed them?
It seems partly to stem from a false expectation, the expectation of a 'linear'
structure, like that preached by Aristotle and found in much Greek and
classical French tragedy. But, as H. T. Price insists in his excellent essay
on Construction in Shakespeare (1951), the structure of Shakespeare's plays,
comedies and tragedies alike, is not linear but multilinear, not based on a
unity of action but on a unity of design.

When Elizabethan playwrights began to take their subject-matter from

narrative romance or chronicle history, with their multitude of characters and
incidents, they were inevitably confronted with the vexed problem of imposing
shape and coherence upon so heterogeneous a material. Shakespeare
solved this problem more brilliantly than any of his fellow-playwrights. He does
it mainly by establishing a series of parallels and contrasts. Character is
compared and contrasted with character, incident with incident. Dramatic irony
is called into play, so that action comments implicitly upon action, situation
upon situation, speech upon speech. Sometimes, as in Lear and Timon, a
whole subplot is invented to comment, both by its likenesses and its contrasts,
upon the main plot. At other times, as in the Laertes and Fortinbras scenes
in Hamlet, such parallels and contrasts are more closely integrated into the
main action, but serve the same function of implicit commentary. The
structural pattern thus helps not only to give the play shape and coherence
but also, more importantly, it becomes a silent commentator, a means of
expressing the playwright's attitudes and concerns.

Nowhere is this principle of construction better illustrated than in Antony and

Cleopatra. Of all Shakespeare's plays this is probably the one in which the
structural pattern is most perfectly adjusted to the theme and has, in fact,
become one of the chief vehicles for its expression. This pattern consists (a)
of a series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt; and (b) of a series of
parallels between Antony and Cleopatra. Let us deal with the second class

This may be divided into three groups: (i) echoes of each other by the lovers,
both in words and actions; (ii) similarities in descriptions of them; (iii) parallels
in relations with them. But the function of all three is much the same: to bring
out the extraordinary likeness, the near-identity of Antony and Cleopatra, in
feeling, in imagination, in tastes, in their responses to people and events, and
in their modes of expressing these responses. The total effect of all this is to
make us see their relationship as something more than a sensual infatuation,
more even than an exalted passion. Professor Peter Alexander has defined its
precise quality better than any other critic known to me when he writes
[in Shakespeare's Life and Art] of Antony: 'Having enjoyed all the world can
give to unlimited power and the richest physical endowment, he finds in
Cleopatra's company a joy beyond anything he has known. And the world,
whatever it may say of those who sacrifice reputation and wealth for such a
satisfaction, does not readily forget their story, guessing dimly no doubt at the
truth with which Aristophanes entertained Socrates and his friends, when he
told the fable of the creatures cut in half by Zeus and condemned to go as
mere tallies till they find and unite with their counterpart … "for surely", he
concludes, "it is not satisfaction of sensual appetite mat all this great
endeavour is after: nay, plainly, it is something other that the soul of each
wisheth—something which she cannot tell, but, darkly divining, maketh her

The lovers' echoes of each other's words and sentiments, though found
scattered throughout the play, increase greatly in the last two acts, at the very
time that the other main element in the structural pattern, the contrast
between Rome and Egypt, diminishes. For towards its end the play becomes
much less concerned with the presentation of the choice between two
opposed modes of life and increasingly with the glorification of the choice
which Antony has made. The following is a brief list of some of the most
notable of these echoes:

Antony: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide

Of the rang'd empire fall!

Cleopatra: Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly

Turn all to serpents!

Antony: Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike

Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't …

Cleopatra: 'Tis paltry to

be Caesar:
Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
A minister of her will; and it is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change,
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.

(The echo here is accompanied by a contrast. Suicide has taken the place of
love-making as 'the nobleness of life'. The quite unjustified change of 'dung' to
'dug', initiated, on Warburton's suggestion, by Theobald and followed by the
majority of subsequent editors, eliminates the echo and with it the contrast.)


Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch; and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my
brow …

is echoed in Antony's

I found you as a morsel cold upon

Dead Caesar's trencher. Nay, you were a
Of Cneius Pompey's …
Both lovers, characteristically, look on death as an erotic experience.

Antony: But I will be

A bridegroom in my death, and run into't
As to a lover's bed.

Cleopatra: If thou and nature can so gently part,

The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts and is desir'd.

Each sees the death of the other as the extinction of the source of all light:

Antony: Since the torch is out,

Lie down, and stray no farther.

Cleopatra: Ah, women, women, look,

Our lamp is spent, it's out!


Unarm, Eros; the long day's task is done,

And we must sleep

finds a close echo—though this time by the maid, not the mistress—in Iras's

Finish, good lady; the bright day is done,

And we are for the dark.

Of echoes in the actions of the two lovers the most notable instance is
Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger who brings her the news of Antony's
marriage to Octavia (2.5) and Antony's treatment of Caesar's messenger,
Thyreus (3.13). Both actions are prompted by jealousy and a sense of
betrayal and desertion by the other, and both are marked by uncontrolled fury,
coupled with a relished cruelty towards the innocent messenger, as shown in
Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire and stew'd in
Smarting in ling'ring pickle

and in Antony's

Whip him, fellows,

Till like a boy you see him cringe his face,

And whine aloud for mercy.


Now for the chief parallels in the descriptions of the two lovers: Cleopatra's
words about Antony,

Be'st thou sad or merry,

The violence of either thee becomes,
So does it no man else

echo (and hence also belong to the previous group) Antony's words about her:

Fie, wrangling queen!

Whom everything becomes—to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself in thee fair and admir'd.

The great set-piece describing Cleopatra's transcendent perfections,

Enobarbus's barge-speech, finds its counter-part in Cleopatra's equally
hyperbolical description of Antony to Dolabella. In both speeches the same
conceit is used: the person described is declared superior to anything the
artist's imagination could create, Nature in this instance surpassing fancy.
Cleopatra was

O'erpicturing that Venus where we see

The fancy out-work nature.

Of Antony we are told,

Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.

Both lovers at their death are identified with the star most appropriate to them.
At the death of Antony the guards exclaim:

2 Guard: The star is fall'n.

1 Guard: And time is at his period.

The reference here is presumably to the day-star, the sun, which measures
time, and to which Antony has been repeatedly compared in the course of the
play. When Cleopatra dies, Charmian exclaims:

O Eastern star! (5.2.306)

The appositeness of this identification of the Egyptian queen, mistress of the

East, with Venus, the 'Eastern star', needs no emphasis.

Among the third group, the parallels in the relations of others with Antony and
Cleopatra, the most notable instances are found in the deaths of their
companions and servants. Eros and Charmian do not even consider the
possibility of surviving them. This is the supreme tribute paid to the pair in the
play. And, to complete the pattern, Iras, like Enobarbus, appears to die merely
from grief, of a broken heart. Suicide, though contemplated, is not found

This blows my heart.

If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought: but thought will do't, I

And thought does it, we are led to believe. Enobarbus dies with Antony's
name on his lips (4.9.23). The lack of a stage-direction in the Folio leaves the
cause of Iras's death more obscure. But the absence of any aside like that
given to Charmian ('O, come apace, dispatch. I partly feel thee') suggests that
we are not meant to regard it as suicide. And the structural pattern, which
plays such an important rôle in the play, corroborates this view.

Let us now turn to the other main element in the play's structural pattern, the
series of contrasts between Rome and Egypt. These contrasts between
Roman and Egyptian attitudes and values, Roman and Egyptian ways of
feeling and thinking, find their simplest expression in the constant alternation
of scenes located in Rome and Alexandria. But the Roman world sometimes
invades Egypt, as at the play's opening, where the hostile comments of the
Roman soldier, Philo, are delivered in the very stronghold of the enemy, the
court at Alexandria; and occasionally Egypt invades Rome, as in the person of
the soothsayer (2.3), or in Enobarbus's barge-speech, where the most glowing
tribute to Cleopatra is delivered in Rome and by a Roman soldier, though one
partly under the spell of the East. And the pattern of simple opposition
between Rome and Egypt is further complicated by the fact that in her last
hours of life Cleopatra, without surrendering any of her Eastern guile and
sensuousness, acquires some Roman qualities, becoming 'marble-constant'
(5.2.239) and doing 'what's brave, what's noble' 'after the high Roman fashion'
(4.15.87), though with some concession to an Eastern concern for 'easy ways
to die', preferring the indigenous and kindred serpent (' "Where's my serpent
of Old Nile?" / For so he calls me', 1.5.25-6) to the Roman sword. And
standing between the two opposed worlds, and combining them in his person,
there is Antony. What in him they have in common is their extravagant,
hyperbolic nature. 'The greatest soldier of the world' (I.3.38) is also its greatest
lover. The same Antony who amazes his fellow-soldiers when, during a
famine in his wars, he drinks 'the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough
at', and eats 'strange flesh, / Which some did die to look on' (1.4.62-9) amazes
them equally by his feats of drinking and eating in his Alexandrian revels
(2.2.183-6). Hyperbole is the mark of his own words and deeds, as well as of
what is said by others about him, finding its climax in Cleopatra's great speech
to Dolabella.

What above all unites the two worlds in Antony is the intense vitality which he
brings to his rôle of voluptuary as well as to that of statesman and soldier.
Professor L. C. Knights puts it admirably when he writes of it [in Some
Shakespeare Themes]: 'What Shakespeare infused into the love story as he
found it in Plutarch was an immense energy, a sense of life so heightened that
it can claim to represent an absolute value.… This energy communicates itself
to all that comes within the field of force that radiates from the lovers, and
within which their relationship is defined.' The opposition is never one between
sensual sloth and the life of action. That is why the stock-image presented by
Spenser of the knight in the arms of Acrasia (F.Q., II, 12, lxxvi-lxxx) fits
Antony's case so little, in spite of its surface similarities. Pompey thinks of the
relationship in this conventional way when he calls upon Cleopatra to

Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts,

Keep his brain fuming. Epicurean cooks
Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite,
That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour
Even till a Lethe'd dullness.

Caesar in his account, for all his patrician contempt for the 'democratic'
Antony, and in spite of much that he leaves out, conveys the energy and
vitality of this life much more truly:

Let's grant it is not

Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smell of sweat.

A further complication of the simple pattern of contrasts results when

Shakespeare, after showing Antony's Love and Honour (meaning chiefly
military glory) in continuous conflict, with Honour disastrously routed by Love
at the battle of Actium, proceeds to give us a series of scenes in which Love
and Honour have for a time joined forces. In 4.4. Cleopatra, the armourer of
his heart, has also become the armourer of his body, and his love for her the
spur to his valour. The scene was, I believe, influenced by Plutarch's implied
contrast of Antony's behaviour with that of Demetrius, in his 'Comparison of
Demetrius with Antonius' [in his Lives]: 'They were both in their prosperitie
very riotously and licentiously given: but yet no man can euer say,
that Demetrius did at any time let sleep any opportunitie or occasion to follow
great matters, but only gaue himselfe indeed to pleasure, when he had
nothing else to do … but indeed when he was to make any preparation for
war, he had not then Iuie at his darts end, nor had his helmet perfumed, nor
came out of the Ladies closets pricked and princt to go to battell: but he let all
dancing and sporting alone, and became as the Poet Euripides saith: The
souldier of Mars, cruell and bloudie. ' Plutarch's unfavourable contrast is here
turned by Shakespeare in Antony's favour. For he is shown capable of
sporting and feasting all night and fighting a victorious battle the next day, of
being in quick succession a devotee of Venus and Bacchus and a soldier of

The temporary fusion of Love and Honour in these scenes is epitomized by

the astonishing image in Antony's speech of welcome to Cleopatra after his
victorious return from battle:

Leap thou, attire and all,

Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triumphing.

The image also forms an ironic contrast to Antony's imprecations uttered the
following morning (only about a hundred lines separate the two passages):

Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving

And blemish Caesar's triumph. Let him take thee
And hoist thee up to the shouting plebeians …

Another element that complicates the pattern of contrasts between the two
worlds is the fact that certain qualities, such as cruelty and deceit, are shown
to belong to both. For instance, Caesar's cruel treatment of Alexas (4.6.12-16)
has its counterpart in Antony's treatment of Thyreus and his offer concerning
Hipparchus (3.13.147-51). The whole last act is given over to the contest
between Caesar's guile and Cleopatra's, each determined to outwit the other.
'Policy' and duplicity is used just as much by Cleopatra in the service of Love
as by Caesar in the service of the State. The truth is that Cleopatra is less
Caesar's complete opposite than is Antony. It is Caesar's sister, Octavia, who
is her opposite in every way.

This juxtaposition of opposed characters, Antony and Caesar, Cleopatra and

Octavia, forms another essential part of the play's dualistic structure, another
means by which Shakespeare brings out the all-pervasive contrast between
East and West. He achieves the contrast between Antony and Caesar by
burying the Antony of Julius Caesar and creating an entirely new and different
dramatic character. In spite of the attempts of many critics to find links and
similarities between them, I do not see how a belief in the unity of conception
of the two Antonies can be maintained.… [The] Antony of Julius Caesar has
scarcely a trait in common with the Antony depicted by Plutarch, except a
fondness for revelry, and this is also his only link with the Antony of our play,
who is largely based on Plutarch's depiction of him. He is basically what
Plutarch calls him, and what the Antony of Julius Caesar only pretends to be
(3.2.218), 'a plaine man without subtilty'. The Machiavellism of the Antony
of Julius Caesar has in the later play been transferred to Caesar, who had
shown no traces of it in the earlier drama. The ruthless treatment of Lepidus
there advocated by Antony (J.C., 4.1.19-27) is in fact carried out by Caesar
in Antony and Cleopatra (3.5.6-12). We need only to think of this cynical
advice on the treatment of Lepidus in the mouth of the Antony of the later
play, or to imagine that 'mine of bounty' planning to defraud Caesar's heirs of
part of their legacies (J.C., 4.1.8-9), to realize how impossible it is to entertain
the notion that the Antony of our play is a development and continuation of the
Antony of Julius Caesar. Nor is it very difficult to see why Shakespeare should
have made the change. Had Antony instead of Caesar been made the
calculating politician, the deceitful Machiavel, it would have destroyed the
presiding conception of the play. This demanded that the value of all that
Antony loses through his love for Cleopatra, such as political power, wordly
glory, should be called into question by a display of the ruthlessness, the
deceit, the calculating inhumanity that goes with the acquisition and
maintenance of such power and glory. Caesar, therefore, had to be the
Machiavel, and Antony, by contrast, the simple, generous, impulsive,
chivalrous soldier; one who is willing to stake his worldly fortunes upon a sea-
fight where he is at a grave disadvantage, merely because Caesar 'dares us
to't' (3.7.29) and his chivalric code obliges him to accept this challenge; one
who seems genuinely surprised when 'the full Caesar' refuses to 'answer his
emptiness' and meet him in personal combat (4.2.1-4).

Yet, as one would expect with Shakespeare, who, even at his most
schematic, refuses to paint in black and white, Caesar is depicted not merely
as the cold-blooded, calculating politician. He is also shown to be a tender
and loving brother (for, unlike some commentators, I do not think
Shakespeare means us to question the sincerity of this love) and at least
the post mortem admirer of Antony and Cleopatra, capable of true and deep

Professor Danby has shown how what he calls 'the Shakespearean dialectic'
is the informing structural principle of the entire play. 'It comes out in single
images, it can permeate whole speeches, it governs the build-up inside each
scene, it explains the way one scene is related to another.' It also extends to
the emotional pattern exhibited by the two lovers (this is another way in which
they resemble and echo each other). In no other play by Shakespeare do we
meet characters given to such persistent oscillation of feelings, such violent
veering between emotional extremes. In the case of Cleopatra it is at times
deliberately practised, part of her technique of exhibiting her infinite variety in
order to keep monotony at bay, her method of tantalizing Antony by providing
moods that are emotional foils to his own.

If you find him sad

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick.

But it also expresses her essential nature, dominated by her planet, the
fleeting moon. With Antony the oscillation of feelings is even more
pronounced and is linked to, and partly expressive of, his veering between
East and West, which exert their rival pull upon him. The remarkable absence
of any inner conflict in Antony when faced, at several points in the play, with
the necessity to choose between Rome and Egypt is an expression of this
emotional polarity, this pendulum swing of the feelings. As A. C. Bradley
remarks [in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry], Shakespeare 'might have made
the story of Antony's attempt to break his bondage, and the story of his
relapse, extremely exciting, by portraying with all his force the severity of the
struggle and the magnitude of the fatal step'. But he chose not to do so.
Instead he shows us Antony's complete devotion to Cleopatra in the opening
scene, followed by his sudden resolution to break free from her: 'These strong
Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage' (1.2.113-14). In the
leave-taking that follows his fetters are shown to be as stoutly knit as ever:

By the fire
That quickens Nilus' slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war
As thou affect'st.

In the message he sends her by Alexas he promises to 'piece her opulent

throne with kingdoms' (1.5.46). Then comes Agrippa's marriage-plan, Antony's
immediate acceptance of it, and his protestation to Caesar:

Further this act of grace; and from this hour

The heart of brothers govern in our loves
And sway our great designs!
When we meet him next he confesses to Octavia,

I have not kept my square; but that to come

Shall all be done by th' rule.

Directly upon this follows the encounter with the sooth-sayer, and Antony's
instant resolution:

I will to Egypt;
And though I make this marriage for my peace,
I' th' Easy my pleasure lies.

When we find him next in the company of Octavia, at their leave-taking from
Caesar, the following exchange takes place between the two men:

Caesar: Most noble Antony,

Let not the piece of virtue which is set
Betwixt us as the cement of our love
To keep it builded be the ram to batter
The fortress of it; for better might we
Have lov'd without this mean, if on both parts
This be not cherish'd. Antony: Make me not offended
In your distrust.
Caesar: I have said.
Antony: You shall not find,
Though you be therein curious, the least cause
For what you seem to fear.

A few scenes later Octavia hears from her brother that Antony is back in
Egypt, that 'Cleopatra / Hath nodded him to her' (3.6.65-6). I feel sure it would
be a gross falsification of Shakespeare's conception to see Antony in these
changes as a conscious deceiver, hiding his true feelings and intentions from
Caesar, Octavia, or Cleopatra. Rather should we see him as sincere in all his
protestations, believing each to be true at the moment it is uttered, until he is
suddenly drawn into a contrary allegiance. Instead of being 'with himself at
war', like Brutus, or Macbeth, or Othello, he is like a chronic deserter, forever
changing sides in the struggle, and this emotional pattern mirrors and
underlines the structural pattern of the entire play.
The dualistic structure of Antony and Cleopatra also helps to make it
Shakespeare's problem play par excellence. Let us remind ourselves of L. C.
Knights's dictum quoted in the Introduction: 'In Macbeth we are never in any
doubt of our moral bearings. Antony and Cleopatra, on the other hand,
embodies different and apparently irreconcilable evaluations of the central
experience.' Throughout the play, and to an extent far exceeding anything
found in Julius Caesar and Measure for Measure, we are confronted with
these opposed evaluations, and in such a way as to exclude—at least in those
open to the play's full imaginative impact—a simple or consistent response.
Indeed, Antony's great speech to Eros ('Sometime we see a cloud that's
dragonish') not only expresses his sense of an utter loss of identity as a result
of Cleopatra's supposed betrayal of him.

Antony and Cleopatra

Likely written and first performed between 1606 and 1607, Antony and
Cleopatra is generally considered one of Shakespeare's finest tragic dramas.
Focused on the passionate love of the Roman general Mark Antony and the
Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the play spans an approximately ten-year period of
historical conflict between the Mediterranean powers of Egypt and Rome in
the first century b.c. and culminates in the deaths by suicide of its eponymous
figures. John Wilders (1995) surveys the structure, characters, themes, and
language of Antony and Cleopatra and highlights Shakespeare's dramatic
juxtaposition of Egypt and Rome, which has long been considered the major
structural element in the play. Critics, including Wilders, have remarked that
Shakespeare's Rome is a masculine, pragmatic, martial, and public culture
that eagerly strives to fulfill its virtues of military conquest and peaceful,
ordered rule. His Alexandrian Egypt, in contrast, is feminine, domestic,
decadent, and individualistic, linked with pleasure—specifically Antony's
dalliance with the beautiful Cleopatra. Scholars are also interested in the
drama's extraordinary characters, including the historical personages Mark
Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar, whose stories Shakespeare culled
from various sources in order to make them his own. Usually regarded as
unstable, mutable, or inconsistent, these figures have proved notoriously
resistant to categorization. Although it is one of Shakespeare's more difficult
dramas to successfully stage, Antony and Cleopatra has been widely
performed since the second half of the nineteenth century and remains
popular with audiences, in large part due to the allure of Shakespeare's

Contemporary critical interest in Cleopatra, especially among feminist

scholars, attests to the continued status of this enigmatic historical queen as
one of the most fascinating female characters in the Shakespearean canon. L.
J. Mills (1960) regards Cleopatra as the central focus of the play. Analyzing
Cleopatra's renowned contradictory manner and behavior, egocentrism,
extravagance, and her essential mystery, Mills suggests that by winning
control of Antony without care or recognition of his character, military virtue, or
complete devotion to her, Cleopatra precipitates her own tragedy and prompts
Antony's despair and self-destruction. Clare Kinney (1990) links Cleopatra's
fundamental strength to her mutable identity. For Kinney, Cleopatra is a
human embodiment of Egypt to such a degree that she subsumes its
multiplicity and vast internal differences. Unlike the Roman figures with whom
she is contrasted—individuals like Antony or Octavius Caesar, both
associated with masculine virtues and a competitive drive to dominate—
Cleopatra represents an all-inclusive potentiality that embraces the feminine
and the masculine, refusing to be subsumed by one or the other. Feminist
critic Mary Ann Bushman (1991) analyzes Cleopatra's status as the “tragic
hero” of the play. Unlike Kinney and other critics who have viewed Cleopatra
as a mingling of feminine and masculine principles, Bushman argues that
Shakespeare's Cleopatra is neither masculine nor feminine, but instead
defines herself through theatrical spectacle, and locates her shifting identity
within the mutable realm of staged performance. Susan Muaddi Darraj (2001)
concentrates on Shakespeare's efforts to fashion Cleopatra into a believable
“violent and intimidating” character in an age when women had little political
power. According to Darraj, Shakespeare made Cleopatra a convincing villain
to Jacobean theatergoers by locating her in a foreign realm, inverting her
gender role with that of her masculine lover Antony, obliterating her maternal
nature, and allowing her to be redeemed only through death.

Antony and Cleopatra is considered to be one of the more difficult

Shakespearean dramas to successfully stage. An extremely long piece with
numerous abrupt changes in locale—from Egypt to Rome to Misenum to
Athens—Antony and Cleopatra presents considerable challenges to directors,
actors, and audiences. Reviewing a 1999 all-male production of the play
directed by Giles Block and performed at the open-air Globe Theatre in
London, Kristin E. Gandrow (2000) praises Mark Rylance's campy but
nuanced portrayal of Cleopatra. Gandrow notes that Block's eccentric staging
and Rylance's camp-inspired performance were a proper tribute to the spirit of
William Shakespeare's original play. Reviewing the same 1999 production,
critic Sheridan Morley finds its comic turn, including Rylance's near drag
queen interpretation of Cleopatra, appropriate to the open-air environment
and touristy nature of the Globe. Alvin Klein reviews the 2000 staging
of Antony and Cleopatra directed by Bonnie J. Monte for the New Jersey
Shakespeare Festival. Klein notes the difficulties in staging this “most
unplayable play,” which crosses the boundaries between tragedy, comedy,
and history, but finds the essential failure of this production was the lack of
passion between Robert Cuccioli's subdued Mark Antony and Tamara Tunie's
modernized Cleopatra. Critics were not much more favorably disposed to
director Michael Attenborough's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company
production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon. Juliet Fleming notes several
flaws in this production, including bungled verse that often degenerated into
shouting and the lackluster male cast; however, she lauds several
performances by women, principally Sinead Cusack's Cleopatra. Rex Gibson
(2002) remarks on Attenborough's extensive cuts to the text of Antony and
Cleopatra, and finds that the cuts highlighted two of the play's themes: “the
contrast of Rome and Egypt, and the destructive effects of love.” Lisa Hopkins
(2002) contends that Attenborough's production was both “unfocused” and
“alarmingly short” and criticizes the textual cuts, simple set, and bad casting.
While she praises several key members of its supporting cast—in the roles of
Charmian, Enobarbus, and Octavius Caesar—Hopkins finds their work unable
to redeem the unconvincing Egyptian queen and her theatrically constrained
Roman lover.

Critics continue to examine the thematic oppositions in Antony and

Cleopatra. Joan Lord Hall (see Further Reading) surveys a selection of
dualistic conflicts and themes in Antony and Cleopatra, including the play's
representation of love in opposition to military leadership, the antagonism
between artistic imagination and nature (a favorite subject of Renaissance
criticism), the futility of action in the face of capricious fortune, the essential
mutability of the sublunar world, and the enormous power of theatricality and
role-playing to destabilize perception and reality. William D. Wolf (1982)
maintains that Antony and Cleopatra contrasts radically with Shakespeare's
other tragic dramas, noting that the play's essential ambiguity is one of its
defining characteristics. While acknowledging a pivotal dichotomy between
the opposing cultural values associated with Egypt and Rome, Wolf claims its
central symbolic conflict involves the tension between change and
permanence—a tension that prompts Antony and Cleopatra to escape from
this mutable world. J. Robert Baker studies the gender reversals in Antony
and Cleopatra, contending that “Shakespeare figures movement out of one's
own gender as a necessary and desirable, if painful, educational process a
character must undergo in order to inhabit a world not bound by life or death,
tragedy or comedy.” Paul Yachnin (1993) views Antony and Cleopatra as a
critique of absolutist loyalty to the divinely appointed sovereign. Yachnin also
investigates the dynamic of master and servant relations and the tensions
between “command and response” that pervade the drama, as well as their
political implications in the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods. Arthur Lindley
(1996) adapts Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque to his discussion
of Antony and Cleopatra, noting the play's comic subversion of the tragic and
Egypt's status as a carnival-like parody of Roman culture. Lastly, Alf Sjöberg
(2002) concentrates on the theme of transformation in Antony and
Cleopatra as a force born from the drama's “world of ruinous oppositions.” In
Sjöberg's broad-ranging study, the play privileges change as the only constant
in a reality defined by struggle, and as an ameliorative to the human impulse
toward degeneration, loss of identity, and self-annihilation.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Wilders, John. Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and

Cleopatra, edited by John Wilders, pp. 1-84. London: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Wilders surveys the structure, characters, themes,
and language of Antony and Cleopatra.]


The dramatic construction of Antony and Cleopatra, with its constant shifts of
location, is one which Shakespeare had already used in the two parts
of Henry IV with their oscillations between the court, the tavern and the
battlefield and their excursions into Wales and Gloucestershire. This in turn
grew out of the mode he had used in the comedies, where one location is set
off against another: the house of Baptista against that of Petruchio in The
Taming of the Shrew, the city and the wood in A Midsummer Night's
Dream, Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice. It had, in fact, been
Shakespeare's way of working from the very beginning. As Emrys Jones
points out,

A striking feature of a play like 1 Henry IV is the constant comparativeness of

its method: we are never allowed to become identified with the point of view of
any one of its characters. Although Talbot is a famous soldier-hero, he is only
one of several main figures. The play's vision of reality is never less than
complex: all viewpoints are partial. Hence the endless oscillation from one
group, one individual, to another.

(Jones, Origins, 13-14)

By the time he wrote the two Henry IV plays, this kind of construction was a
means whereby he presented the audience with a number of different
assumptions, attitudes and ways of life. The civil war, for example, which to
King Henry is a source of continual anxiety, to Falstaff is an opportunity to line
his own pockets, and the interview between the King and the Prince, which in
the court takes place in earnest, is the subject of a charade in the tavern. The
audience is offered several different and conflicting attitudes to the same
experience, and is invited to weigh the public responsibilities of war and
politics against the personal desire for pleasure, comradeship and self-
satisfaction. During the greater part of the two plays the conflicting attitudes
are kept equally in view, chiefly in the figure of the Prince, who manages to
encompass both, but towards the end of each play he is compelled to make a
choice, first when he pledges himself to defeat Hotspur in Part 1, and again
when he casts off Falstaff in Part 2. On the second occasion, however, the
impression is created that in dismissing Falstaff he repudiates a part of
himself. There is no wholly ‘correct’ choice. England's gain is Falstaff's loss
and, though we do not feel that his decision is wholly laudable, the
alternative—to embrace Falstaff—would have been far worse.

In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare created a similar kind of structure but

used it with greater complexity and carried its implications further. Throughout
the play, Roman attitudes and principles, expressed mainly by Octavius
Caesar, are placed in opposition to the Egyptian, represented chiefly by
Cleopatra. Antony is in a similar position to Prince Hal, equally at home in
either world but compelled eventually to choose between them, and the critics,
as we shall see, have continued to argue whether or not he chose correctly.
As Maurice Charney says, Rome and Egypt ‘represent crucial moral choices
and they function as symbolic locales in a manner not unlike Henry James's
Europe and America’ (Charney, 93).


Rome is represented by a predominantly male society in which the only

woman, Octavia, is regarded as a ‘“cement” to promote and consolidate male
relations’ (Erickson, 128). For the Romans the ideal is measured in masculine,
political, pragmatic, military terms, the subservience of the individual to the
common good of the state, of personal pleasure to public duty, of private,
domestic loyalties to the demands of empire. Alexandria, on the other hand, is
a predominantly female society for which the ideal is measured in terms of the
intensity of emotion, of physical sensation, the subservience of social
responsibility to the demands of feeling. Hence Cleopatra must send to
Antony every day a several greeting or she'll unpeople Egypt, and, at Actium,
Antony deserts his own men and takes flight with Cleopatra because his heart
is tied to her rudder. Adelman points out the extreme contrast between the
two eulogies of Antony, the first delivered by Caesar in praise of the hardened
soldier he once was (1.4.56-72), the second by Cleopatra in celebration of the
Antony who has died (5.2.78-91). Since both are retrospective and neither
corresponds with the man we are actually shown, both are idealizations, but,
in describing the ideal, both speakers reveal the values they espouse.
Whereas Caesar, says Adelman, ‘locates Antony in the Timonesque
landscape of absolute deprivation’, a winter landscape in which he survives by
exercising the manly virtues of fortitude and endurance, Cleopatra places him
in a setting of ‘immense abundance’ with ‘no winter in it’: ‘The contest
between Caesar and Cleopatra, Rome and Egypt, is in part a contest between
male scarcity and female bounty as the defining site of Antony's heroic
masculinity’ (Adelman, Mothers, 176-7). For Caesar, as for Coriolanus,
manliness entails the repression of all that is female, but for Cleopatra Antony
is visualized as like herself, ‘feeding and renewing the appetite in an endless
cycle of gratification and desire, making hungry where most she satisfies’
(ibid., 190). Caesar regards his ‘great competitor’ as a man who has betrayed
his own ideals (as, indeed, does Antony from time to time) but Cleopatra sees
him as a man who has become at one with herself. As Erickson puts it,
‘Octavius finds in Antony a heightened image of his own abstemiousness,
Cleopatra's celebration of the bountiful Antony projects a model in which she
discovers her own bounty’ (Erickson, 142). As so often in Shakespeare, every
gain is a different kind of loss and every asset a different kind of liability. ‘We
are left at the end with a painfully divided response, for which there is no
resolution’ (ibid., 145).


These contrasts and contradictions form the basis on which the play is
constructed and also determine the shape of individual scenes. In the opening
scene the ‘flourish’ or fanfare of trumpets leads us to expect the formal entry
of some distinguished leader but it is followed by the arrival of Antony and
Cleopatra with her maids, ‘with eunuchs fanning her’. The ‘triple pillar of the
world’ is exhibited to us as what the Roman Philo calls ‘a strumpet's fool’.
Again, the formal reconciliation between Antony and Caesar (2.2.18-180) is
immediately followed by a private conversation between Maecenas and
Enobarbus about the excesses of Alexandrian social life (2.2.185-99), and the
former's belief that Antony must now leave Cleopatra is followed by the latter's
assurance that he will not. The official feast which is held to celebrate the
success of the peace conference (2.7) is preceded by the chatter among the
servants about the drunkenness of the guests. The poignancy of Caesar's
farewell to his sister (3.2) is undermined by the cynical observations of
Agrippa and Enobarbus which introduce it, and their sarcastic asides during
the course of the scene prevent us from taking it wholly seriously. This
counterpointing of the poignant, the solemn and the tragic against the ironical,
the sceptical and the absurd is most apparent in Shakespeare's treatment of
Antony's suicide. Believing that he has suffered his ultimate defeat and that
Cleopatra has killed herself, he realizes that the two ideals to which he has
devoted his life have been destroyed and he therefore resolves to die in the
Roman, stoical manner by falling on his sword. His ineffectual attempt to do
so, however, is both painful and ridiculous: his servant Eros, instead of
assisting his master, falls on his own sword; when Antony tries to kill himself
he fails; the guards, refusing to complete the job, walk away, and it is now
when he is at his most abject that he learns that Cleopatra is still alive.
Nevertheless he insists on giving her the heroic version of the story:

[I] do
now not basely die,

Not cowardly put off my helmet to

My countryman; a Roman by a Roman

Valiantly vanquished.


This is—and is not—a faithful account of the scene we have witnessed. Even
the most transcendentally moving moment in the play, the suicide of
Cleopatra towards which the whole of the final scene has been moving, is
interrupted by the entry of the Clown with his basket of figs. His garrulous
chatter and his reluctance to leave (perhaps, as Bowers suggests, he's hoping
for a tip) delay Cleopatra's death and thereby create suspense but they also
modify our impression of her final speeches during which, as Mack remarks,
‘we also hear echoing between the lines the gritty accents of the opposing
voice’ (Mack, 23).


Such radically differing attitudes are expressed not only by different

individuals but by the same person, depending on the mood and
circumstances in which characters find themselves. To Antony, Cleopatra is at
one moment ‘this enchanting queen’ and at another a ‘triple-turned whore’,
and to Cleopatra the messenger from Rome is at first a ‘horrible villain’ and
later ‘a fellow of good judgement’, ‘a proper man’. These conflicting ways of
interpreting experience had long preoccupied Shakespeare but in this play
they are also a preoccupation of the characters. On hearing of Fulvia's death,
Antony reflects, as though it were axiomatic.

The present pleasure,

By revolution lowering, does become

The opposite of itself


and Caesar, contemplating the growing support for Pompey, states it as a law
of nature that

he which is was wished until he were,

And the ebbed man, ne'er loved till ne'er worth love,
Comes deared by being lacked.


It is when he himself hears of Antony's death that his contempt for the ‘old
ruffian’ turns into grief and he weeps for the loss of his ‘brother’, his ‘mate in
empire’ and the heart which kindled his own thoughts (5.1.40-8). Nowhere
else in Shakespeare do we meet characters given to such persistent
oscillation of feelings, such violent veering between emotional extremes. In
the case of Cleopatra it is at times deliberately practised, part of her technique
of exhibiting her infinite variety in order to keep monotony at bay, her method
of tantalising Antony by providing moods that are emotional foils to his own.

(Schanzer, Problem Plays, 143)

The actress who by all accounts conveyed this quality most faithfully was
Dorothy Green, who played the role in three major productions between 1912
and 1930. Of the second of these, the Times critic wrote (25 April 1921):

She realises, as few players of the part in recent years have done, the ‘infinite
variety’ of the Queen's moods. Stately, sinuous, arrogant, seductive, pleading,
passionate—Miss Green is everything in turn, but she rises to her greatest
height in the scene of sheer fury when she learns from the Messenger of
Antony's marriage to Octavia, and all but strangles him in her madness.

Judging from the photographs, she was also sinister, a femme fatale like
Swinburne's Dolores or Wilde's Salomé, and the reviewers sensed this: ‘What
evil there is in the woman, gathered scene by scene as one might gather
flowers, and what superb and dreadful tenderness when the asp is at her
breast’ (The Times, 25 November 1930). She was very much the actress,
fascinating, temperamental, and dangerous, as was also the great nineteenth-
century Cleopatra, Isabella Glyn, though she was a good deal more majestic:

Gorgeous in person, in costume, and in her style of action, she moved, the
Egyptian Venus, Minerva, Juno—now pleased, now angry, now eloquent, now
silent—capricious and resolved, according to the situation and sentiment to be
rendered. Withal she was classical, and her poses severely statuesque. Her
death was sublime. … Altogether Miss Glyn's performance of Cleopatra is the
most superb thing ever witnessed on the modern stage.

(Illustrated London News, 27 October 1849)

A contemporary illustration shows her in one of her poses offering her hand to


The sense of the inconstant, shifting nature of our impressions that is

expressed by the structure of the play and the preoccupations of the
characters extends also to its distinctive images, which, as Charney points
out, are of ‘melting, fading, dissolving, discandying, disponging and losing of
form’: ‘Shakespeare seems to be creating his own vocabulary to establish the
feeling of disintegration in the Roman world’ (Charney, 140). Indeed the whole
play portrays the gradual process of Antony's disintegration to the point when
‘The crown o'th' earth doth melt’ (4.15.65). Shakespeare's playhouse was
probably better able than ours to convey this impression to an audience. What
was in front of them was, of course, an empty platform with the tiring-house
wall at the back, but Shakespeare could transform it into wherever he chose,
as when in A Midsummer Night's Dream (another play much preoccupied with
the fluid nature of reality) Theseus' court melts into a forest. Similarly
in Antony and Cleopatra Alexandria melts into Rome and the battlefield
becomes Cleopatra's monument. This effect is well described by Granville-
Barker, who says that the Elizabethan dramatist, having made use of a
location, ‘would neglect and obliterate it without further consideration. The
consciousness of it in the audience's imagination might be compared to a
mirage, suddenly appearing, imperceptibly fading’ (Granville-Barker, ‘Note’,
64). On a realistic, nineteenth-century stage with its solid sets and frequent
scene changes this was no longer possible. The actor in Chatterton's
production, James Anderson, describes the effect of such scene changes on
an actor:

I must … acknowledge my own inability to make a serious impression on the

audience; I could do nothing, being stunned and cowed by the furious noise of
preparation for ‘heavy sets’ behind the scenes that destroyed all power of
acting in front.

(J. Anderson, 316-17)

The fullest expression of the melting, dissolving nature of perception is given

by Antony in one of those insights which Shakespeare's tragic heroes
experience shortly before their deaths. As a great soldier who knows he has
undergone his final defeat, he contemplates the shifting patterns of the clouds
and feels that he, too, is no longer ‘himself’:
That which is now a horse, even with a thought

The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct

As water is in water.

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is

Even such a body. Here I am Antony,

Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

(4.14.9-11, 12-14)


This idea was not unique to Shakespeare but also preoccupied some of his
contemporaries. Bacon was certainly aware of each individual's tendency to
interpret the world subjectively, ‘owing either to his own proper and peculiar
nature’ or ‘to the differences of impression, accordingly as they take place in a
mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled’. ‘The
spirit of man’, he concludes, ‘is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation’
(Bacon, 54). The writer who most immediately comes to mind is, however,
Montaigne, with whose Essayes Shakespeare was certainly acquainted by the
time he came to write The Tempest and who contemplated with a melancholy
curiosity the transience both of the world and of mankind:

There is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. And
we and our judgement, and all mortall things else do uncessantly rowle, turne
and passe away. Thus can be nothing certainely established, nor of the one,
nor of the other; both the judgeing and the judged being in continuall alteration
and motion. … Thus, seeing all things are subject to passe from one change
to another; reason, which therein seeketh a reall subsistence, findes her selfe
deceived as unable to apprehend anything subsistent and permanent;
forsomuch as each thing either commeth to a being, and is not yet altogether:
or beginneth to dy before it be borne.

(Montaigne, 323)

Both Bacon and Montaigne express the renewed influence of philosophical

scepticism which appeared in Europe towards the end of the seventeenth
century, but transformation is also the central theme of
Ovid's Metamorphoses, perhaps the most lasting influence on all
Shakespeare's work and which he must have read as a schoolboy. The
Roman poet's prolonged meditation in the last book of the Metamorphoses on
the ceaseless flux of creation probably lies behind this distinctive element of
the play.


Against such an irresistible force, Shakespeare's characters attempt to create

some sort of defence which will keep them stable and upon which they can
rely. Caesar, foreseeing that his own and Antony's temperaments are so
incompatible that their friendship is unlikely to last, longs for a ‘hoop’ which will
hold them ‘staunch’ or watertight (2.2.121-3); Antony, ashamed of his lost
reputation and his pitifully botched suicide, hopes that his fame as ‘the
greatest prince o'th' world’ will remain intact (4.15.53-7), and Enobarbus
recognizes that a servant willing to remain loyal to a ‘fallen lord’ will ‘[earn] a
place i'th' story’ (3.13.44-7) as, by his death, he does. Similarly the poet of
the Sonnets hopes that the beauty of the fair youth will be eternalized in his
verse when all other things have changed or been forgotten. Finally,
Cleopatra becomes ‘marble-constant’ in her resolve to leave ‘the varying
shore o'th' world’ and find eternal stability with Antony in an existence beyond
change. Whether or not she does so we have no means of knowing. We know
only that she is convinced that she will, and that by her suicide she has
earned a place in the story which Plutarch and Shakespeare and others have
repeatedly told.


In the principal source of Antony and Cleopatra, the ‘Life of Antony’, Plutarch
displays a disinterested attitude towards the two major figures. He
acknowledges their strengths and virtues—Antony's courage and
magnanimity, Cleopatra's vitality, her magnetism—yet this responsive
sympathy does not prevent him from judging them. Even in his youth, says
Plutarch, Antony was lured into ‘great follies and vain expences upon women,
in rioting and banketing’ (North, 255) and he lays the blame for Antony's
decline squarely on Cleopatra (North, 273).

Shakespeare's judgement of his characters is less easy to discern. This is

partly because, whereas Plutarch tells his story as a narrative on which he
comments from time to time in his own person, Shakespeare transformed it
into a play in which each character expresses him or herself and no character
speaks with the voice of the dramatist. There are characters such as Philo,
Pompey, Enobarbus and especially Caesar who unhesitatingly criticize

If he filled

His vacancy with his voluptuousness,

Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones

Call on him for't. But to confound such time

That drums him from his sport, and speaks as loud

As his own state and ours, 'tis to be child

As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,

Pawn their experience to their...”