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Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Motifs



Antony and Cleopatra abounds in water imagery. The first image is Philo's metaphor describing Antony's lovesickness. "This dotage of our general's / O'erflows the measure." By Roman standards everything about Egypt is overflowing. The Nile floods its banks; Antony spends too much time fishing; there's too much drinking.

Water imagery appears several times in association with Cleopatra. She first meets Antony as she floats down the river Cydnus in a golden barge with silver oars. Her attendants are dressed like sea nymphs, and a servant in a mermaid costume steers the boat. The water of the river is "amorous" of the silver oars rowing through it (Act 2, Scene 2). Cleopatra is presenting herself as the goddess of the river, and Antony is suitably dazzled. Elsewhere Enobarbus says Cleopatra's sighs and tears are "greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report" (Act 1, Scene 2).

According to Caesar the Roman populace is as inconstant as water. "This common body, / Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, / Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide / To rot itself with motion." When Antony loses the Battle of Actium—on the water—he grieves his vanished identity is "Indistinct / As water is in water" (Act 4, Scene 14).

In such a dramatic story, there are many tears. In Act 1, Scene 3 Cleopatra depicts tears as tribute that can be quantified. "Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill / With sorrowful water?" she chides Anthony. A few lines later, she says, "I prithee turn aside and weep for [Fulvia], / Then bid adieu to me and say the tears / Belong to Egypt" (Act 1, Scene 3). Antony and Cleopatra both bid their servants not to cry over their deaths, and when Cleopatra weeps over the loss at Actium, Antony gallantly says, "Fall not a tear, I say; / one of them rates / All that is won and lost." He even remarks about Octavia's tears, comparing them to April rains—a much less startling or original image than other water images. And Caesar himself cries when he learns about Antony's death: "The gods rebuke me, but it is tidings / To wash the eyes of kings" (Act 5, Scene 1).

Finally, there is the sea, which in this play is associated with war. Pompey, says Antony "commands the empire of the sea" (Act 1, Scene 2), and Pompey's attack on Rome is one of the reasons Antony leaves Egypt. Pompey's lieutenants, Menecrates and Menas, "[Make] the sea serve them, which they ear and wound / With keels of every kind ... the borders maritime / Lack blood to think on't" (Act 1, Scene 4). Pompey himself exults, "The people love me, and the sea is mine" (Act 2, Scene 1).

Pompey is temporarily halted when he signs a treaty with the triumvirs, and for the second half of the play Caesar is master of the sea. In Act 4, Scene 7 Antony wonders how Caesar can have "so quickly cut [through] the Ionian Sea." Instead of taking this as a warning, Antony—the best land fighter in the Roman Empire—decides to fight Caesar by sea. By so doing he brings doom upon himself and Cleopatra. After his death Cleopatra is left to dream about a man whose "legs bestrid the ocean"—a sad wish things could have ended differently.


In this play 35 messages are delivered—almost one per scene. The first one, in Act 1, Scene 1, sets the tone for all subsequent messages. The Messenger barges in on Antony's and Cleopatra's rapturous opening lines about their limitless love. Perhaps because he's irritated at being cut off in mid-speech, perhaps because he has lost his sense of responsibility, Antony refuses to listen to the message. Cleopatra repeatedly urges him to hear what the Messenger has to say, but not because she's appealing to his sense of duty. She wants to find out whether the message is about Antony's wife, Fulvia. But he can't avoid the second Messenger, who arrives soon after Antony has dismissed the first.

Cleopatra herself proves to be a feared recipient of messages she doesn't like. When a Roman Messenger tells her Antony has married Octavia, she strikes him repeatedly and then "hales him up and down." The Messenger pleads, "Gracious madam, / I that do bring the news made not the match" (Act 2, Scene 5). It doesn't work: Cleopatra pulls out a knife and announces, "Rogue, thou has lived too long," and the Messenger promptly exits. Still Cleopatra can't resist knowing more about Antony's new bride. She orders the Messenger to go back to Rome, take a good look at Octavia, and return to her with the information. On his second visit, the Messenger knows how to keep Cleopatra from attacking him. Everything he says about Octavia can be interpreted as unflattering. He does make a mistake when he volunteers, "And I do believe she's thirty." Cleopatra is older than that but happy enough to ignore the remark.

One interesting feature about messages in this play: the majority convey information the audience already knows. By the time Cleopatra hears Antony is married, the audience has "met" Octavia and learned of the marriage. This device draws focus not on the message but on the way the hearer receives it. The way a character reacts to (usually bad) news reveals a great deal.


Enobarbus's famous description of Cleopatra portrays her on her beautiful barge on the Nile. The motif is one of overwhelming beauty and connection to nature. But scenes set on boats and the sea are, throughout the play, moments of crisis, uncertainty, and transition. Antony's army is weaker on sea than on land; agreeing to a confrontation on the sea is his undoing. Moreover, Cleopatra's flight from the Battle of Actium—also on a ship—is a distracting, devastating temptation; Antony complains that Cleopatra must have known that "[m]y heart was to thy rudder tied by th'strings, / And thou shouldst tow me after."

In the disturbing scene on Pompey's ship, an ostensible truce is undercut by tension and by the possibility of betrayal: the men are supposed to be carousing together, but Caesar refuses to participate and Menas casually suggests that he might cut the throats of Pompey's new allies.

Even Cleopatra's barge, which seems to stand at such a contrast to Roman warships, is problematic. While the image is a positive one for Enobarbus, the temptation that Cleopatra's appearance poses to Antony, and its role in his eventual diminishment and death, makes the image subversive and potentially sinister.

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