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Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Character Analysis



Generous, likeable, and warm-hearted, Antony is one of the Roman Empire's three triumvirs. When the play begins, he has been living with Cleopatra and has fathered three children with her. He is a celebrated soldier who has somewhat outlived his reputation; during his time in Egypt he has been living what the Romans consider a degenerate life. His love for Cleopatra outweighs his Roman sense of duty, and he is well aware of avoiding his responsibilities as a triumvir. Indeed his love for Cleopatra is the driving force in his life. Considerably older than Caesar, Antony is touchy when he senses the younger man is trying to dominate him. His insistence on taking a dare of Caesar's—or what he perceives as a dare—leads him to make a catastrophic decision at the Battle of Actium, for he is dangerously impetuous and quick to make judgments. When he realizes how far he has fallen, he is a beaten man.


Cleopatra's highly charged sexuality and unpredictability are constants in her character; a deep-seated insecurity about Antony's love—he is married to someone else—underlies her every action with him. She is a woman with a past, having been mistress to both Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, and she views her sexuality as one of her main political assets. She loves Antony but can't resist teasing him, especially about his Roman connections. Some of the teasing comes from her insatiable need to control him; that she cannot do so makes her even more insecure. But she is also an intelligent, effective ruler, and she is capable of being treacherous, even to Antony. Cleopatra's egotism and her need to upstage others (including Antony) can make her seem exasperating. She is quick to anger and tends to blame any bearer of bad news. But she's infinitely charming and has a good sense of humor. The adoration and devotion of her ladies-in-waiting are signs of her charm. When it becomes clear suicide is the only way to avoid the humiliation of being Caesar's captive, Cleopatra meets death with composure and shows herself resourceful in managing to kill herself while under Caesar's guard, whose purpose is to prevent her suicide.


Octavius Caesar is an exemplar of Roman virtue—brave, stoic, temperate, correct—and he knows it. He finds Antony's defection from Rome intolerable, partly because he thinks Antony is avoiding his responsibilities and partly because Cleopatra disgusts him. He hates that she had an affair with his uncle, but he hates even more that she has taken Antony away from him. When Antony abandons Octavia, Caesar goes into a rage. Caesar is a rather dour sort. He disapproves of bodily appetites and stays sober when all his friends are drinking. He cannot understand people who don't put the Roman Empire above everything else. He is so competent he ends up doing more than his share of running the Roman Empire (which makes him even angrier at Antony). Not surprisingly, his battle plans are far more thorough and detailed than Antony's; not surprisingly, he is merciless in victory. But the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra soften him somewhat, and the play ends with a hint he may become more tolerant and less one-dimensional as he grows older.


Pompey's driving characteristic is the desire to avenge his father, killed by Julius Caesar. Pompey is confident of victory and certain he is loved by the populace. The triumvirs view him as enough of a threat to sign a peace treaty with him, whereupon he cheerfully invites them to a banquet aboard his ship. Pompey's sense of honor is hard to discern. He believes his cause is just and wants to help the Roman people. But when Menas asks for permission to kill the triumvirate during the banquet, Pompey regretfully turns him down, saying If Menas had killed the three men without telling him, Pompey wouldn't have minded; that Menas raised the question makes the assassination of his guests impossible. Pompey seems more concerned with the appearance of honor than with the substance of it.


Lepidus is something of a laughing stock to almost everyone who knows him, certainly not someone to be feared or even taken seriously. Even servants mock him, and Caesar shows him little respect. Lepidus's function in the triumvirate seems to be to placate Caesar and Antony. He praises their suggestions but has no ideas of his own. Lepidus's only memorable act occurs when he gets impossibly drunk at Pompey's banquet and has to be carried away. Soon after that, Caesar comes up with a reason to boot him from the triumvirate.


Enobarbus has a great deal of integrity and the courage to speak his mind even to Cleopatra. He is perceptive about Antony and understands the strength of his attachment to Cleopatra. He feels comfortable enough around Antony to snap at him once or twice. Intensely loyal, he remains with Antony when other followers have deserted him. When Antony's behavior finally forces even Enobarbus to desert, he regrets his decision so much that he dies of grief.


Octavia's demeanor is too reserved to give a good sense of her personality. She's a woman of virtue and is obedient to her brother, which is how she ends up marrying Antony. Though she can't see much in her new husband, she is a dutiful wife, as Roman ideals require, and she feels torn between him and her brother. She is so troubled by divided loyalties she travels to Rome to intercede for Antony where she learns he has returned to Cleopatra. After a few decorous words of grief, she disappears from the play.

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