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Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Symbols



Unlike other Shakespeare plays in which a sword is a sword, in Antony and Cleopatra swords are symbols of martial power and male pride. After Egypt loses the Battle of Actium, Antony, the foremost soldier of his earlier days, is tortured by the memory of how poorly Caesar fought in earlier battles. "He at Philippi kept / His sword e'en like a dancer, while I struck / The lean and wrinkled Cassius" (Act 4, Scene 11). The younger man never unsheathed his sword, instead treating it like the ornamental swords worn to dances. Antony's misery at defeat is compounded by being beaten by a cowardly swordsman.

The memory of wearing Antony's sword still thrills Cleopatra. "Next morn, / Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed, / Then put my [clothes] and mantles on him, whilst I wore his sword Philippan" (Act 2, Scene 5). She tells the story to amuse her ladies-in-waiting but sees it as more than a joke. Cleopatra longs to control Antony and becomes enraged when she doesn't succeed. Of course it's funny that she dressed the passed-out Antony in women's clothes and then wielded his sword. More importantly, this was a moment when she dominated him totally. Asleep, he was under her control, and she made the most of her chance.

In Act 4 when Antony bungles his suicide, he begs the men around him to finish the job for him. Instead Dercetus grabs Antony's sword, the symbol of his power, and makes off with it. A soldier like Antony never parts with his sword, and thus there could be no clearer symbol of Antony's death than that stolen sword. Having betrayed Antony symbolically, Dercetus now betrays him literally when he offers to serve Caesar.


Snakes symbolize treachery and death because of their slyness and venom. Antony famously calls Cleopatra his "serpent of old Nile," and the nickname is appropriate. There is more than a touch of venom in the way she sometimes treats him! When Antony tells Enobarbus they must leave Egypt for Rome, he compares the "breeding" political situation to a trough of water with a horse's hair in it—an image recalling the old superstition that horsehair could turn into a worm. Extending the metaphor, Antony adds the notion of the worm growing into a poisonous snake. Antony wants to get to Rome as soon as possible, before the worm gets too big.

Shakespeare conflates snakes and worms in an unsettling way in the last act as well: the countryman in Act 5 calls the asps he brings Cleopatra "worms." "I wish you joy of the worm," he chillingly says as he leaves.


Changeable and impermanent, clouds symbolize Antony's lost identity. In a poignant moment in Act 4, Scene 14 Antony, desolate at having lost to Caesar and even more desolate to think (mistakenly) Cleopatra has betrayed him, muses to Eros on the shapes of clouds. "Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish, / A vapor sometime like a bear or lion." These shapes, he says, "mock our eyes with air." They're so impermanent that they vanish "even with a thought" and become as "indistinct / As water is in water." In happier times Antony's strongest self-identification came from knowing he was a great soldier. Now, stripped of that knowledge, he feels himself to be floating wispily and about to dissolve, unable to hold onto any shape in the same way clouds shift easily from one form to another with no structure to keep their form.

Antony and Cleopatra features several images of metamorphosis. A horsehair can change into a snake; Cleopatra can wield Antony's sword and call herself a conqueror. But these are examples of matter's assuming another form. Antony's description of drifting into nothingness, in effect dematerializing, is one of the eeriest and most arresting passages in the play. Clouds are the closest representation of his transformation.

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