In this lesson, you’ll learn about the tragic love affair between Mark Antony and Cleopatra and the historical context in which it takes place.
You’ll also explore an analysis of this Shakespearean tragedy.
As William Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra begins, it’s 41 B.C.
and Mark Antony, one of three rulers of the Roman Empire, is having an affair with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. Antony is uneasy because he’s been hearing rumors lately that he is losing face in Rome for being the Queen of Egypt’s pet. So, when a message arrives informing him that his wife Fulvia is dead and that Pompey is raising a rebel army, he resolves to return to Rome and be a soldier once more.In Rome, there is chaos.
Wars are being waged left and right, and as soon as Antony resolves one issue, another pops up. Realizing that an alliance is necessary to defeat Pompey, Antony and Caesar, another ruler of the Roman Empire, agree that Antony will marry Caesar’s sister Octavia. The alliance is a successful one and Pompey is defeated. On behalf of himself, Caesar, and the third ruler of the Roman Empire, Lepidus, Antony negotiates a truce with the rebels.
Meanwhile in Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony’s marriage to Octavia and flies into a jealous rage. But, when a messenger delivers word that Octavia is a plain and timid woman, Cleopatra feels confident that she will win Antony back.Back in Rome, Antony and Octavia are setting off on their honeymoon to the city of Athens, Greece. But, as soon as they are gone, Caesar betrays Antony. He breaks the truce with Pompey, wages war against him, and, using Lepidus’ army, defeats him once again.
Then Caesar betrays Lepidus as well, accuses him of treason, imprisons him, and takes all that he owns, including his land.Antony hears of Caesar’s treachery, and decides to go to war against him. But Octavia pleads with Antony to maintain a peaceful relationship with her brother, and Antony decides to send her to Rome on a peace mission. Once she’s gone, however, Antony returns to Egypt and Cleopatra.In Egypt, Antony raises a large army to fight Caesar, and Caesar, angered by Antony’s treatment of his sister, commands his army and navy to Egypt. Ignoring all advice to the contrary, Antony elects to fight him at sea, allowing Cleopatra to command a ship. But, in the heat of battle, Cleopatra’s ship flees and Antony follows her, leaving his fleet to be defeated.
Antony condemns Cleopatra for leading him into abandoning his fleet, but just as quickly forgives her. He sends a request to Caesar that he be allowed to live in Egypt. Cleopatra sends a request, as well; that her kingdom be passed down to her rightful heirs.
Caesar dismisses Antony’s request, but promises Cleopatra a fair hearing if she will betray her lover. Antony curses her for her alleged treachery, only to forgive her moments later. It is at this moment that Enobarbus, Antony’s once-loyal servant and friend, decides that Antony has finally lost his mind altogether and deserts him to join Caesar.
Soon, however, he dies, undone by his shame and the weight of his disloyalty.Another day brings another battle, and once again Antony meets Caesar at sea. As before, the Egyptian fleet abandons the fight and leaves Antony to suffer defeat. Convinced that his lover has betrayed him, Antony vows to kill Cleopatra. In order to protect herself, Cleopatra hides in her monument and sends word to him that she has committed suicide.
Antony, racked with grief, commands one of his attendants to kill him. But, the attendant kills himself instead, so that Antony must fall upon his own sword. Then, mortally wounded, he is carried by his remaining attendants to Cleopatra’s monument, where he dies in her arms.As the play ends, Cleopatra, thinking of joining Antony while also of defeating Caesar by robbing him of conquering her, kills herself with the help of poisonous snakes smuggled to her in a basket of figs. She dies with her pride intact, and when Caesar finds the lovers, he orders that they be buried side by side, letting them be forever together in death, as they could not in life.
In the opening of the play, Philo complains to Demetrius that Antony has abandoned his military duties and is gaining a reputation for having lost his edge because of his affair with Cleopatra.
These are the rumors that Antony hears and that instigate his decision to return to Rome, which stages both an open quarrel between Antony and Cleopatra and an internal conflict within Antony himself.In a monologue, Antony expresses his feelings of being trapped in his relationship with Cleopatra, and his own sense that all the pleasurable reveling and luxury of Egypt and Cleopatra’s company have taken away his hard Roman edge. The rumors have found a fertile soil in Antony’s inner turmoil. Even as he loves and enjoys Cleopatra, there is within him a rebellion against this soft and, in his Roman eyes, emasculating love affair.As Antony’s mistress, Cleopatra is jealous and causes a scene when he tells her of his decision to return to Rome. The fact that his wife is dead is irrelevant in her eyes, as it is a matter of leaving her, whether for his dead wife, for Rome, or both.
This creates another kind of internal conflict within Antony as he is both reluctant to leave Cleopatra and bound by his duty to Rome.As the play progresses and Antony returns to Rome, he’s manipulated by Caesar into marrying Octavia, Caesar’s sister, and the epitome of the perfect Roman wife. Caesar is able to trap Antony into agreeing to marry Octavia by attacking his Romanness. For to Caesar, the Queen of Egypt is no more than a whore with a flair for drama, and Antony nothing more than her puppet on a string. Antony is no longer Roman in Caesar’s eyes.Still, it is with Cleopatra that Antony’s love lies.
So when Caesar betrays both Antony and Lepidus, and breaks the truce with Pompey, Antony agrees to send Octavia to Rome to make peace with Caesar and returns to Cleopatra. This angers Caesar, and the Roman army and navy are quickly dispatched to Egypt.War has broken out and, submitting to Cleopatra’s will, Antony decides to fight Caesar at sea. Then, Antony rashly sacrifices his military position by letting Cleopatra command a ship. Cleopatra flees the battle, and to make matters worse, Antony follows her.
He is so conflicted that he abandons his own men to defeat.Antony is now a traitor to his homeland, an outcast, and as his Roman allies, even the ever-faithful Enobarbus, abandon him, Antony feels that he has, indeed, lost himself. So when he learns that Cleopatra has (allegedly) committed suicide, he decides to kill himself, as well. He botches this attempt however, since the servant he has charged to kill him, kills himself instead. Antony has lost himself, his Roman self, to the extent that he can no longer even command his own servants.
He has become, in the end, a man defeated by his passion for Cleopatra; no longer Roman, and the puppet Caesar saw him to be.But, unlike Antony, Cleopatra refuses to allow herself to be turned into an Egyptian puppet; in her case, for the entertainment of the Roman people. She dies, in the end, on her own terms, and regardless of Caesar’s triumph over the land of Egypt, she herself remains unconquerable. She has, after all, seduced a decorated Roman general, a ruler of the empire, and persuaded him to follow her into defeat and, in the end, into death. Even Caesar is forced to admire her and all her machinations when he sees her dead body: ‘.
. . she looks like sleep / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace’ (5.2.
William Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra details the tragic affair of Mark Antony, one of three rulers of the Roman Empire, and Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. While the story is riddled with open quarrels between Antony and Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar, Caesar and Lepidus, and Antony and Enobarbus, perhaps the biggest battle is the internal conflict within Antony himself. His blind love for Cleopatra leads him to abandon his own men to defeat. Branded both a traitor and an outcast of the Roman Empire, Antony ultimately takes his own life.
Lesson at a Glance
The love between Antony and Cleopatra in the William Shakespeare’s eponymous play ultimately caused their own deaths. The love and deceit, jealously, rage, and the betrayal between them and family members, as well as the internal struggles that Antony experienced are prevalent throughout the tragedy.
Take stock of your ability to complete these actions after studying the lesson:
- Deliver a synopsis of Antony and Cleopatra
- Analyze key scenes and events from the play