Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1

The play begins by showing the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria, Egypt. Antony is one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire; Cleopatra is Queen of Egypt. Antony has been neglecting important duties in Rome and his rule of one third of the Empire to remain with Cleopatra in a longstanding passionate and extravagant affair that provokes questions and criticism from his counterparts.

Antony and Cleopatra devote their time and energy to indulging themselves, but such indulgence and negligence can continue for only so long. When enemies threaten the rulers of the Empire in Rome, and his wife dies unexpectedly, Antony must force himself to break away from Cleopatra to attend to the situations at home. Together with his aide-de-camp, Enobarbus, Antony leaves an unhappy Cleopatra in Egypt and departs for Rome, where the other two triumvirs, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, are increasingly impatient and critical of Antony, once Rome's greatest general. Their common enemy, Pompey, who controls the sea, is now threatening war.

Left in Alexandria, Cleopatra misses Antony deeply and remembers her previous affair with Julius Caesar in her "salad days" when she was young and had not developed the depth of passion she now feels for Antony.

Act 2

Antony meets with his co-rulers in Rome. Caesar is distant, for Antony's brother was causing troubles for Caesar by leading an insurrection against him. However, the immediate threat is from Pompey, and the triumvirs believe an alliance is necessary. Antony tries to readjust to his political role and responsibilities and agrees to marry Caesar's widowed sister Octavia to improve relations between the two men. Such a marriage should help ease the tensions and ally the families.

Enobarbus, however, is less hopeful about the union, knowing Antony will find it difficult, at best, to resist Cleopatra's allure. In a famous speech, Enobarbus describes the lovers' first meeting, as the glorious Cleopatra, aboard the golden-hued royal barge with its silken sails and silver oars, sailed down the Nile and captured Antony's heart.

When Cleopatra, in Egypt, hears of the marriage, she is enraged and even tries to kill the messenger. Eventually she accepts what she hopes will be a loveless marriage of convenience and feels confident that Antony will return to her.

In Rome Caesar, Antony, and Lepidus face their common enemies, including Pompey who is tempted by Menas to kill all three that evening. However, in attempting to appear honorable, Pompey must refuse Menas's offer, which he would have gladly condoned had Menas done the deed and informed him later. Despite grudges and mistrust, Pompey and the triumvirs reach a truce agreement. Pompey then invites all to a party on his yacht. The men are shown carousing and drinking heavily. Lepidus, the weakest of the triumvirs and perpetual "peacemaker" gets very drunk; Caesar, the strongest triumvir at this time, conspicuously and disdainfully abstains.

Act 3

Political and personal relations are strained in Rome among the rulers, even after Antony marries Octavia. He and Caesar still distrust each other. Antony leaves with Octavia for Athens, where they remain for a time. Torn between her brother and her husband, Octavia returns to Rome to try to ease tensions. While she is in Rome, however, Antony returns to Cleopatra. Caesar and Lepidus have fought with Pompey, despite the truce; their fighting results in Pompey's death and Caesar's imprisonment of Lepidus, allegedly because Lepidus was too involved with Pompey. Tensions continue between Antony and Caesar, who becomes even angrier when he learns Antony has participated with Cleopatra in an elaborate deification ceremony, making their children heirs.

As preparations for a showdown between Caesar and Antony get underway, Antony is warned not to fight at sea because Caesar, having gained control of Pompey's defeated navy, is far stronger there than Antony. However, Cleopatra and he insist they can win with their combined forces and dare to take on the stronger foe. The sea battle goes badly for Antony and his men. Cleopatra retreats rather than fight, and Antony follows her, abandoning his forces, humiliating himself, and blaming Cleopatra for the defeat. Caesar accepts Cleopatra's surrender and wants her to reject Antony in favor of him, which she at first pretends to do. But she and Antony reconcile.

Act 4

The enemy forces of Caesar and Antony fight again, this time on land. Although many men have left Antony and defected to Caesar's side, Antony is victorious in this battle. Even Enobarbus at the end deserts Antony but leaves behind all his belongings. Antony nobly accepts the desertion and sends Enobarbus's possessions back to him. Wracked with remorse and guilt at having deserted his friend, Enobarbus dies from shame and grief.

Thinking Caesar will now want to fight at sea after losing on land, Antony prepares for a naval confrontation. Antony and Cleopatra's forces do well at first, but they are not strong enough. Caesar's forces conquer them all, and Cleopatra again retreats with her ships. Antony is defeated and angrily blames her again; he is so angry he wants to kill her.

Afraid, she runs from him and hides in her monumental tomb. She has Antony informed she has committed suicide from remorse so that she can judge his reaction. Believing her dead, he asks the loyal Eros to kill him. Eros cannot bring himself to act on Antony's order and instead kills himself. At this point Antony attempts suicide and wounds himself badly. When Diomedes arrives at the scene with the message that Cleopatra is alive, Antony asks his aides to bring him to Cleopatra in the tomb, where he dies in her arms.

Act 5

Caesar, whose earlier advances Cleopatra has rejected, now comes to the conquered Queen who must surrender. He pretends to make an agreement to appease her because he wants to take her alive as a captive to Rome to build his own image. On the pretense of protecting her, Caesar has her guarded to prevent her suicide, for he knows she is too proud to be humiliated by being paraded as a prisoner in Rome. Cleopatra does not trust Caesar, and her suspicions are confirmed by Dolabella, who reveals Caesar's intentions.

Despite the guards and the presence of Caesar himself, Cleopatra has arranged for a basket of figs to be delivered to her; inside the basket under the figs are asps. After Caesar leaves, she has her ladies-in-waiting dress her regally as she prepares to die. She then allows the snakes to bite her. Her loyal ladies-in-waiting die along with her—first Iras, from shock and grief, and then Charmian, after Cleopatra and in the same manner.

Caesar returns to find them dead. Despite earlier threats, he softens and decrees Antony and Cleopatra will be buried together. Caesar praises them, ending the play with an acceptance that the fatal affair is over and it is time to return to Rome and consolidate power.

Antony and Cleopatra Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Antony realizes he must leave Alexandria for Rome.

Rising Action

2 Antony marries Octavia to keep peace with Caesar.

3 Antony, Caesar, and Lepidus sign a treaty with Pompey.

4 Antony and Octavia move to Greece.

5 Antony returns to Egypt and Cleopatra.

6 Caesar declares war on Egypt.

7 Cleopatra's ship flees at the Battle of Actium.

8 Antony's ship follows Cleopatra's.

Climax

9 Caesar and Rome defeat Egypt and Antony.

Falling Action

10 Antony commits suicide when he believes Cleopatra is dead.

11 Cleopatra commits suicide rather than become a prisoner.

Resolution

12 Antony and Cleopatra are buried together.

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