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.

Getting Started

It's one of the great true stories.

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.

You can add more.
Who's Who

Mark Antony was one of three military leaders who divided the Roman Empire up after the assassination of Julius Caesar and the defeat of Brutus and Cassius. You may know his famous speech at Caesar's funeral, as rendered by Shakespeare in "Julius Caesar." He is a warrior, an athlete (he is in his track suit when we first meet him in that play), and a Machiavellian politician (after Caesar's assassination, he has hundreds of possible rivals killed and withholds the disbursement of Caesar's philanthropy.)

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.

Act I

Scene 1: The play opens in Cleopatra's court in Egypt. Some messengers arrive Octavius Caesar, Julius's foster-son, who at the age of 23 was a capable leader. Antony's men are talking about how Antony has lost his ability to lead because of his infatuation with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra enter. Instead of letting Antony hear the message, Cleopatra teases him about being married to someone else, and asks how much he loves her. He launches into a grandiose speech about how the love between himself and Cleopatra is infinite, how you'd have to create a new heaven and earth to encompass it, how the concerns of governing (in other words, how his behavior affects other people) are not worth his while. She calls him a liar, teases him about having to listen to Octavius, and gets him out of the room.

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.

Act II


Henry Tresham Engraving III ix

Act IV

Act V

Male Bonding

Except for a tendency to grand gestures, the hero of "Antony and Cleopatra" does not seem very likable. But for some reason his closest comrades love him. It's hard not to notice this, and be puzzled. What is happening?

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.

What's It All About?

Stuart Wilson and Sinead Cusack, Haymarket
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


The Play

Was Cleopatra Black?

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.
    Spark Notes
    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!

    turnitin.com -- anti-plagiary software
    Plagtracker.com -- a new, free plagiary-catcher service

    Shakespeare Playing Cards

Cabanel, Cleopatra testing poisons on criminals

Contemporary bust of Cleopatra


Productions: Northcott Theater

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    Gene Tyburn has written a new opera on Antony and Cleopatra, based on Shakespeare's play, especially its funny side. Click here.
    Cleopatra popularized a hairstyle

The Darker Side:

    Ancient Roman Piracy

    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 whipping 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 Jailhouse Rock to the controversial Starship Troopers.

Egyptian cobra

Shakespeare DC
Historic Sites

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.

    shakespeare.about.com -- lots of good contemporary essays.
    Absolute Shakespeare. Good introductions!

    Teachers: Click here to begin your search for online essays intended for would-be plagiarists. "Dishonesty was your tragic flaw, kid!" Good luck.

Lawrence Alma-Tameda 1883

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
King Lear
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Lady of Shalott
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Moby Dick
Oedipus the King -- including stuff about "tragic heroes"
The Book of Thel

Prometheus Bound
The Knight's Tale
The Seven Against Thebes
The Tyger
Twelfth Night

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.


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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.

Taser Video
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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.

Antony and Cleopatra on coins

By Luca Giordano

Burton and Taylor

Mark Antony, ancient bust

Theda Bara