Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Themes



The main characters must decide what honor means and how one demonstrates or acquires it. In the play's opening words, Philo mourns the change that has come over Antony since meeting Cleopatra. "His captain's heart ... is become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy's lust." For Romans, military glory, honor, and "behaving like a good Roman" are synonymous. Honor means courage, ruthlessness in battle, and holding onto power. A man behaving unlike a soldier—in Antony's case, an emperor—is a failure as a man.

In Cleopatra's world the Roman concept of honor as fulfillment of responsibility is incomplete and unsatisfying. People lucky enough to be rich should enjoy life, not behave as others would like or expect. Cleopatra is a powerful queen, but in Act 1, Scene 1, she mocks Antony's sense of duty. Urging him to listen to a messenger from Rome, she suggests, derisively, perhaps Caesar has a job for him to do: "Do this, or this; / Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that. / Perform't, or otherwise we damn thee." The suggestion is clearly that all of this ambition for ambition's sake is silly, not honorable. Antony outdoes Cleopatra in his willingness to forget duty. "Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space." Antony's irresponsibility here might trouble even someone without a strict Roman sense of virtue.

At the other extreme is Caesar, whose sense of honor dominates every aspect of his personality. In fact he barely seems to have a personality. As Cleopatra can't conceive of any reason to comport oneself like a Roman, Caesar is flummoxed by Antony's refusal to return to Rome and a proper way of life. Caesar says even if it were acceptable for Antony to fritter away his time in trivial pursuits during peaceful times, he's behaving inexcusably under current circumstances. There is no way to "excuse his foils when we do bear / So great weight in his lightness [absence]" (Act 1, Scene 4).

Enobarbus demonstrates the connection between loyalty and honor. Loyal to his leader, he defends Antony's conduct for most of the play. Indeed he seems to have internalized Antony's feelings about Cleopatra. When Antony brings news they must leave for Rome, Enobarbus jokes, "Why then, we kill all our women. We see / how mortal an unkindness is to them. If they suffer / Our departure, death's the word." When Antony reveals that Fulvia is dead and that he must deal with the resulting political mess, Enobarbus retorts, "And the business you have broached here cannot be without you, especially that of Cleopatra's, which / wholly depends on your abode" (Act 1, Scene 2). Later Enobarbus is so disgusted he deserts Antony, believing to remain loyal would be dishonorable

These characters' perceptions of honor undergo drastic changes.


Enobarbus deserts Antony because he believes it the honorable thing to do. Almost immediately he regrets this action. When Antony sends on the treasure Enobarbus left behind, the kindness of the gesture undoes him. "O Antony, / Nobler than my revolt is infamous, / Forgive me in thine own particular" (Act 4, Scene 9). But his conflict brings attention to a tricky element of honor: is it honorable to be loyal to a dishonorable ruler? Since the audience empathizes with Antony, the answer might clearly seem to be "yes," but if the play were written from another perspective, and Antony was represented as a shameful deserter, Enobarbus's loyalty to him might be interpreted as showing a lack of moral firmness.


Losing two crucial battles causes Antony to realize he has lost his self-image. "Here I am Antony, / Yet cannot hold this visible shape " (Act 4, Scene 14). With this loss he understands the value of the Roman ethos. Later he says, "Since Cleopatra died / I have lived in such dishonor that the gods / Detest my baseness" (Act 4, Scene 14). Not only has he been dishonored in battle, but Cleopatra (as he mistakenly believes) has been quicker to commit suicide than he. A good Roman prefers death to dishonor. But he has always claimed Cleopatra was more important than his honor. His tragedy is he doesn't quite die with honor. First he begs Eros to kill him; when Eros kills himself instead, Antony stabs himself and misses his aim. He accepts this failure with good grace, even though the undignified death highlights his overall diminishment. During his time with Cleopatra, Antony lets the honorable part of himself go; it has returned, but it does not give him a graceful death.


Cleopatra can't bear the thought of Caesar's parading her as a captive through Rome for all to jeer at. This is ego talking, not honor: the Queen is unable to tolerate such a conspicuous loss of status. Putting on a performance is one thing; being displayed is another. But Cleopatra's determination to control her fate is honorable by any standards, not just Roman ones. Throughout the play Cleopatra has flown into rages whenever her will has been crossed. Now cornered, she becomes calm, brave, and accepting. "Look, / Our lamp is spent; it's out. Good sirs, take heart ... What's brave, what's noble / Let's do 't after the high Roman fashion / And make death proud to take us." Before poisoning herself, she dresses in her "best attires." This action is partly ego driven: she wants to look good when Caesar finds her (and she succeeds). More important, however, putting on full regalia underscores her refusal to cringe in the face of death. She meets her honorable end proudly, and with more dignity than does Antony.


Caesar is the one character who believes he has behaved honorably, but his honor is questionable. He ignores the signed treaty, setting off a chain of disastrous events.

He has long disapproved of Antony and Cleopatra. He sees Antony as a weakling and Cleopatra as a whore. But when he hears Antony is dead, Caesar changes. He recalls the days when he and Antony shared power and friendship, as "mates in empire." With Antony dead Caesar's respect for him returns; he retroactively bestows on Antony the honor Antony lost in life.

Caesar's plans for disposing of Cleopatra may seem dishonorable. To Caesar, however, parading captured prisoners is one of the rewards of winning a war; it also may be a way to indicate to his people that the sensual, distracting threat of Egypt, represented by Cleopatra, has been tamed. In any case, pretending to be her protector is just good strategy. But when he views her corpse, Caesar softens as he did with Antony. He speaks admiringly of her: "Bravest at the last, / She leveled our purposes and, being royal, / Took her own way" (Act 5, Scene 2). Despite his plans being foiled by her death, he orders the lovers to be buried together. Caesar's concept of honor has broadened to include this famous pair.

Rome versus Egypt

Philo's opening speech sets the central conflict of the play: in turning toward Cleopatra, Antony has turned away from his Roman upbringing. Once, says Philo, Antony could be compared to Mars, the Roman god of war. Now his stern "captain's heart" has become "the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy's [Egyptian's] lust." One of the three emperors of Rome, a "triple pillar of the world," is now the plaything of a whore.

In Antony and Cleopatra Rome and Egypt are irreconcilably different—at least in the opinion of everyone but the lovers themselves, whose cultural differences are attractions. But for other Romans in the play Egypt is overripe, overfertile; Cleopatra, the symbol of the country she rules, is overfond of pleasure. To Cleopatra, on the other hand, Rome is cold, strict, and reined in—all the traits she wishes Antony didn't have. Egyptians host grand parties: the Roman Maecenas drools at the thought of "Eight wild boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there" (Act 2, Scene 2). Meanwhile at Pompey's banquet (which Antony brags doesn't come near the typical Egyptian party), abstemious Caesar looks on with disdain as everyone else on board has a grand, but inharmonious, time getting drunk.

In the West, Rome is ruled by men; even Octavia, Caesar's royal sister, is passively dutiful in her role as a bargaining chip. In the East, Cleopatra's court swarms with women and eunuchs. Because a stern, virtuous environment may be less appealing to describe than a lushly sensual one, Shakespeare is lavish with descriptions of Egypt and of Cleopatra. In describing Cleopatra on her barge, Shakespeare says she is more beautiful than Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty.

Both Antony and Cleopatra have internalized the idea that Egypt is Rome's opposite. After 10 years with Cleopatra, Antony has cast off much of the self-discipline he embraced in earlier days. In contrast with the "eight wild boars," Caesar speaks admiringly of Antony's years as a soldier, when he was forced to live on tree bark and horse urine. Cleopatra is furiously anxious at the idea of Antony's returning to Rome, while Antony feels guilty that "The beds i'the East are soft" (Act 2, Scene 6) and thinks Rome may be what he needs to regain the manly skills he has lost.

Antony feels torn, as Cleopatra and Caesar pull him in different directions. One reason the queen and Caesar dislike each other is that each wants dominance over Antony. His visit to Rome deeply disappoints Caesar, as does Antony's leaving Octavia to return to Egypt.

At this point Cleopatra and the East seem victorious—until Caesar's decisive victory sinks Egypt and Cleopatra with it. Rome has triumphed, at least politically. Strangely, East and West merge at the end of the play when Cleopatra commits suicide. She kills herself "after the high Roman fashion," magnificently dressed for the occasion, and wins even Caesar's reluctant approval.

Women with Power

Cleopatra makes most of the men in this play very nervous—even Antony. To the Romans she is an enticing strumpet with far too much power. As they see it, Cleopatra has lured Antony off the moral path into a bath of corruption. In Act 1, Scene 1 Philo speaks of Antony "when he is not Antony," the implication being Cleopatra has transformed him into a false version of himself. Antony himself calls Cleopatra a fairy; later, when he believes she has betrayed him, he growls, "The witch shall die" (Act 4, Scene 13).

Enobarbus is the one Roman who seems to respect Cleopatra, at least in the beginning. But he also believes she is literally irresistible to Antony. Her "infinite variety" is one reason Antony is in thrall to her, but Enobarbus believes there is another, less savory, reason. "Vilest things / Become themselves in her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish." If a loose woman can get even a priest to bless her, she must be an enchantress.

If any woman in the play is unthreatening, it's quiet, cool Octavia. No Roman thinks she's a witch. Caesar thinks of his sister as the "cement" that will keep him allied with Antony. But, the dutiful Octavia cannot control her new husband, and it is unfair to hang Rome's fate on her marriage. Perhaps Caesar already realizes this and is using Octavia to give himself another reason to war with Antony. Whether or not he expects the marriage to work, Caesar views his sister as a weapon, and Octavia couldn't be a worse choice for the task.

Cleopatra's feelings toward the extent of her power are hard to pin down, for her "infinite variety" makes her vacillate between insecurity and pride. Certainly she is obsessed with maintaining her power over Antony. When she decides to go fishing, she envisions herself "betraying" the fishes. "As I draw them up / I'll think them every one an Antony / And say "Aha! You're caught."

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