Enjoying "Antony and Cleopatra", by William Shakespeare
by Ed Friedlander MD
If you are a student or adult approaching "Antony and Cleopatra", this site should make your experience more enjoyable.
Shakespeare wrote "Antony and Cleopatra" for adults. If you want something pretty and nice, please leave now.
Mark Antony's family claimed descent from Anton, a son of Hercules. Today, probably everybody named "Tony" derives his name from Mark Antony (usually via a Christian saint or two). Both "Antony" and "Anthony" are in common use for our hero's name, and in the title of our play.
Cleopatra is probably the most interesting woman of her era, with enormous talent and energy, and major player in her own right on the world stage.
I was just starting to notice girls when Elizabeth Taylor starred in "Cleopatra". Her affair with Richard Burton wasn't much by today's standards. But it created a sensation in its time and heralded a new era of sexual freedom and openness.
My fascination with Shakespeare coincided with the Vietnam war. "Antony and Cleopatra" tells about moral ambiguities, government waste and stupidity, and monumental egomania that caused the death of thousands of good, ordinary soldiers.
As you are reading the play, notice how Antony and Cleopatra treat the people they govern. All of these events are recorded in Plutarch.
Cleopatra was fluent in 9 languages, and had already had a personal army that was loyal to her during the infighting that preceded the Roman conquest of Egypt. She managed to get herself smuggled into Julius Caesar's presence hidden inside a rug, and impressed him with her ability. There are legends (I've not been able to find the source, and it may be scurrilous propaganda) of the sexual escapades by which she won the affection of Caesar's officers. Be this as it may, Caesar thought she would be a good ally, killed her rivals, and placed her on the Pharaoh's throne. He made her one of his mistresses, took her to Rome, which created a scandal. After his assassination, she fled back to Egypt.
When Mark Antony arrived in Egypt, Cleopatra put on a spectacle and won his affection. He left his wife Fulvia behind, and she made trouble, eventually allying with his brother against Caesar. Both lost, and Fulvia got sick and died soon after - perhaps poisoned.
Scene II: Iras and Charmian, Cleopatra's ladies-in-waiting, get their fortunes told by a visitor. Charmian is told that she will be far more beautiful than she is now, that she will love more than she is loved, and that she will outlive Cleopatra. Iras is told that her fortune is like Charmian's. Enobarbus comes in, and evidently it is he who has gotten Antony to confer with the first messenger after all. There are two pieces of bad news. First, his wife Fulvia and his brother Lucius, who had been at odds, had mounted a battle against Caesar and had lost. Second, the Parthian forces have invaded the Roman territories in the Near East. The messenger cannot bring himself to be frank with Antony, but Antony himself says that people are right to criticize him for remaining uninvolved. He says to himself that he must break away from Cleopatra. A second messenger enters and tells him that Fulvia is dead of disease. Again, Antony says to himself that he must leave Cleopatra, or cause great harm to himself and others. Antony tells Enobarbus that he'll have to make a diplomatic / military trip. Enobarbus jokes that this will upset Cleopatra, and will it be worth it? The irony only begins here; it will be complete later.
Scene III: Cleopatra sends one of her ladies to Antony with the instruction to see what kind of mood he is in, and tell him that Cleopatra is in the opposite. Charmian suggests that perhaps she should try to be pleasant and go along with Antony. Cleopatra replies that this would lose him -- to keep a man, play hard-to-get. Antony comes in and tells Cleopatra that Fulvia has died and that he will have to make a trip. Cleopatra mixes ridicule, self-pity, and flattery. However, she is savvy enough to know that Antony will be of no use to her if he loses a war, so she finally sees him off.
Military service bonds men. It brings meaning and happiness, and it destroys Eros and Enobarbus. Shakespeare's study of the irrational power of male bonding forms a counterpoint to the study of overwhelming sexual love.
To discern an author's intent, a reader looks for elements that do not advance the plot or especially please the intended audience. When we read the play in high school, my male friends thought "she's just playing him", and "don't see why anybody talks about this 'noble Cleopatra', 'transcendent love' business." I was more of a romantic, but the contrast between the two views of the love story must have jarred Shakespeare's audience as it does us.
Somebody is going to tell you that Antony is a vulgar fool and that Cleopatra is a cynical manipulator. She plays him. He know she is playing him. They waste the lives of their followers and the resources of their countries. They don't care.
Somebody else is going to tell you that Antony and Cleopatra are merely trying to do the best they can for their own people in a world where might makes right. Their extraordinary love affair defied public opinion and gave meaning and transcendence to their lives in a dark time.
Shakespeare is asking the age-old question about illicit love... Does uncontrolled sexual passion give dignity and beauty to human life? Or does it degrade and debase it?
I don't know the answer. (Enobarbus wondered, too.)
To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (2003) Enjoying "Antony and Cleopatra" by William Shakespeare Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/ac.htm
Was Cleopatra Black?
Of course you must make your own decision. If you say, "Well, maybe yes, maybe no, we can't tell", be careful about carrying such radical skepticism into real life. People will find it easy to take advantage of you. Be careful. The world is full of deception.
even Ibrahim Sundiata tacitly admits Cleopatra was not black
Cultural Fictions and Cultural Identity -- even the guy from wayout-liberal Berkeley tacitly admits Cleopatra was not black
"I have a dream" speech by Martin Luther King. You can find this in many different places. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character."
|Resources for Students|
Antony and Cleopatra -- Pink Monkey. You'll need to decide for yourself whether the statement of the themes of this complicated play is adequate ("Egypt is portrayed as feminine and passionate, which according to the play's values, means weak"), and why the author author describes Antony as the sole protagonist.
If you visit "Gradesaver / Classic Notes", you'll need to decide for yourself about the statement of the themes, especially whether "predestination" is really an issue. But here's my prophecy -- if you plagiarize or buy a paper online, you ARE predestined to be caught and you WILL pay a high price. People will even say "This is your tragic flaw!" Ha, ha!
Contemporary bust of Cleopatra
The Darker Side:|
The whipping scene in "Antony and Cleopatra"
was written to be carried out offstage.
By stretching the surface nerve twigs, whipping produces substantial
pain without substantial danger to the subject. (By contrast,
Roman flogging was often to the death.) Delaware used
as an alternative to jail as late as the 1960's. According
to its proponents, the skin was almost never broken,
and its real purpose was to embarrass the
perp and let him know he's being punished. Cheaper and
(I think) more humane than jail time, but we can be glad
that "community service" serves the same purposes even better.
Good or bad, scenes are familiar from Shakespeare's successors, from
to the controversial
More about Shakespeare:
Shakespeare's Sonnets. A remarkable sequence even by today's standards. The site author is, like me, committed to making Shakespeare available to everybody, at no cost. Enjoy.
Teachers: Click here to begin your search for online essays intended for would-be plagiarists. "Dishonesty was your tragic flaw, kid!" Good luck.
To the best of my knowledge, all the links on my literature pages are to free sites. In August 2000, the operator of the large for-profit help-with-homework online Shakespeare site offered to buy these pages out "for a price in the low four figures." I refused, and the site owner replied that "I wish you would just close down the domain and spare everybody from a lot of wasted time. It's a shame." This site will always remain free, to help everybody enjoy the works that I have, myself, enjoyed so much. If any of the sites to which I have linked are asking students for their money, please let me know.
Words and phrases by Shakespeare -- under development
Julian of Norwich
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Lady of Shalott
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Oedipus the King -- including stuff about "tragic heroes"
The Book of Thel
You may find it more rewarding to focus on something at once more obvious and more profound. Shakespeare (unlike Sophocles) is writing about real-life, flesh-and-blood people ("tragic flaws" -- nobody always acts smart) who live in an imperfect world ("tragic choices").
In Shakespeare, our sympathies are usually divided among the characters. For this reason, Aristotle's thoughts on tragedy (i.e., people are imperfect) really seem more useful in discussing Shakespeare than in discussing Sophocles.
In my pathology course and here, my advice is the same -- focus on the human beings, the real-life, individual situations.
The Knight's Tale
The Seven Against Thebes
I'm an MD, a pathologist in Kansas City, a mainstream Christian. a modernist, a skydiver, an adventure gamer, the world's busiest free internet physician, and a man who still enjoys books and ideas.
I hope you like Antony and Cleopatra, and that I've been of some help.
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This website collects no information. If you e-mail me, neither your e-mail address nor any other information will ever be passed on to any third party, unless required by law. I have no sponsors and do not host paid advertisements. All external links are provided freely to sites that I believe my visitors will find helpful. This page was last modified April 1, 2010.
Fellow English majors -- Okay, okay, I know the commas are "supposed" to go inside the
quotation marks and parentheses. This became standard to protect fragile bits of movable type. My practice lets me know I'm the one who's
typed a particular document.
|New visitors to www.pathguy.com
reset Jan. 30, 2005:
Stay away from drugs, work yourself extremely hard in class or at your trade, play sports if and only if you like it, and get out of abusive relationships by any means. If the grown-ups who support you are "difficult", act like you love them even if you're not sure that you do. It'll help you and them. Antony and Cleopatra both commit suicide. As a physician, I would not presume to judge a choice made by someone living with extreme pain/disability. But a quarter-century in medicine has taught me that in today's world, if you are reasonably healthy and you are not a secret agent with information to protect, suicide is ALWAYS a BAD idea. In one series of people who had tried and failed, 99% were VERY glad they failed a year afterwards. You'll eventually be able to get out of whatever rotten situation you are presently in, and if you work hard and live clean, you'll find real love. In fact... better than "Tony and Cleo" ever did. The best thing anybody can say about you is, "That kid likes to work too hard and isn't taking it easy like other young people." Health and friendship.
|Travis Morgan -- gym buddy, skydiver, long-term friend --
has a new site to help ordinary folks catch computer misbehavior.|
Click here to
see the author prove you can have fun skydiving without being world-class.|
Click here to see the author's friend, Dr. Ken Savage, do it right.