Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"...

From commentary by Andrew Bradley (1906):

On Antony:

"...we sympathise warmly with Antony, are greatly drawn to him, and are inclined to regard him as a noble nature half spoiled by his time...His nature tends to splendid action and lusty enjoyment. But he is neither a mere soldier nor a mere sensualist. He has imagination, the temper of an artist who revels in abundant and rejoicing appetites, feasts his senses on the glow and richness of life, flings himself into its mirth and revelry, yet feels the poetry in all this...When he meets Cleopatra he finds his Absolute. She satisfies, nay glorifies, his whole being...To love her is what he was born for. What have the gods in heaven to say against it? To imagine heaven is to imagine her; to die is to rejoin her. To deny that this is love is the madness of morality. He gives her every atom of his heart...He is more than love's pilgrim; he is love's martyr."

On Cleopatra:
"Cleopatra stands in a group with Hamlet and Falstaff...They are inexhaustible...What raises Cleopatra at last into pure tragedy is, in part, that which some critics have denied her, her love for Antony...That which makes her wonderful and sovereign laughs at definition...The spirit of fire and air within her refuses to be trammelled or extinguished; burns its way through the obstacles of fortune and even through the resistance of her love and grief; and would lead her undaunted to fresh life and the conquest of new worlds...in the final scenes of her life, [these qualities] flame into such brilliance that we watch her entranced as she struggles for freedom, and thrilled with triumph as, conquered, she puts her conqueror to scorn and goes to meet her lover in the splendour that crowned and robed her long ago..."

(It should be noted that A.C. Bradley does not consider this to be one of the great tragedies...however, his words here do show tremendous understanding of the characters, I think.)


I love this play. It is my favorite of the tragedies (...or histories...or romances...what is it?) and my favorite tale of romance in Shakespeare because it is so complex and believable. For all of the history, it is really only about the relationship between two people. It is the most intimate of Shakespeare's plays, in my opinion, and it is too simplistic to say that the problem is that the two of them mix up Rome/masculine and Egypt/feminine in a way that leads to their downfall. Yes, that is in there, of course. The merging of their characters (people confusing Cleopatra for Antony and the two of them being unable to separate themselves from one another) mirror Catherine screaming out, "I am Heathcliff!" in Wuthering Heights. The interlacing of Cleopatra and Antony achieves a unity and depth that I often struggle to find in other romantic couplings in Shakespeare.
I also find it amusing that some critics mention that this play is the least intimate play of all because we never see Antony and Cleopatra alone, except for one short moment. Bloom talks about this. BUT, since when did intimacy have to occur when people are alone? To me, the intimacy between these two is a given. It is always there, sucking the energy out of everything else. If anything, the unspoken intimacy, along with the spoken, in this play is the most powerful in all of Shakespeare. Examples? Here...

Antony: "...You did know/How much you were my conqueror, and that/My sword, made weak by my affection, would/Obey it on all cause." (3.11.65-68)

Cleopatra: "It is my birthday. I had thought t'have held it poor, but since my lord/Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra." (3.13.190-192)


Antony to Cleopatra: "O thou day o' the world,/Chain mine arm'd neck; leap thou, attire and all,/Through proof of harness to my heart, and there/Ride on the pants triumphing!" (4.8.13-16)

These lines reveal incredible intimacy, even if they are said in the presence of others. Just because we aren't privy to a bedroom scene or "alone time" does not mean that we can't see the intimacy. (All you have to do is look at the photo of Rickman and Mirren. Bloom does like Cleopatra's character and says that Mirren played the part best.) The most intimate scene, however, is one that takes place as Cleopatra dresses Antony for battle. You know it is killing her, but she does it anyway. There are lots of people around them, but Cleopatra tries her best to help dress them. You can almost hear her ask softly, "Is not this buckled well?" To which Antony replies, in my opinion very considerately and intimately: "Rarely, rarely:/He that unbuckles this, till we do please/To daff't for our repose, shall hear a storm."

The first time I read the play was five years ago, in Sara Deats's class at the University of South Florida. Her passion for the play was undeniable, but for the first time that semester (it was a class on tragedies), I walked into the first lecture on Antony and Cleopatra with a clear sense of connectedness with the play. I loved the complexity of gender and the struggle for autonomy and for agency within and without the relationship. The play is a later play and the language is complex but poetic. Many people don't like the play. It is long (I think the third or fourth longest play he wrote?) and covers a huge time span (10 years I think...a reason people think it doesn't work onstage). But I love it. It gives me everything I want to believe that Shakespeare is supposed to give me. I have to believe that he knew what he was doing, considering that this comes so late in his career. That being said, I can see where it might be awkward on the stage...still, on the page, where it matters most to me, it is pure genius.


Shakespeare used Plutarch's account of Cleopatra's response to Antony's death and their last moments together. Here is the translated text from Plutarch:
When he understood she was alive, he eagerly gave order to the servants to take him up, and in their arms was carried to the door of the building. Cleopatra would not open the door, but, looking from a sort of window, she let down ropes and cords, to which Antony was fastened; and she and her two women, the only persons she had allowed to enter the monument, drew him up. Those that were present say that nothing was ever more sad than this spectacle, to see Antony, covered all over with blood and just expiring, thus drawn up, still holding up his hands to her, and lifting up his body with the little force he had left. As, indeed, it was no easy task for the women; and Cleopatra, with all her force, clinging to the rope, and straining with her head to the ground, with difficulty pulled him up, while those below encouraged her with their cries, and joined in all her effort and anxiety. When she had got him up, she laid him on the bed, tearing all her clothes, which she spread upon him; and, beating her breasts with her hands, lacerating herself, and disfiguring her own face with the blood from his wounds, she called him her lord, her husband, her emperor, and seemed to have pretty nearly forgotten all her own evils, she was so intent upon his misfortunes. Antony, stopping her lamentations as well as he could, called for wine to drink, either that he was thirsty; or that he imagined that it might put him the sooner out of pain. When he had drunk, he advised her to bring her own affairs, so far as might be honorably done, to a safe conclusion, and that, among all the friends of Caesar, she should rely on Proculeius; that she should not pity him in this last turn of fate, but rather rejoice for him in remembrance of his past happiness, who had been of all men the most illustrious and powerful, and, in the end, had fallen not ignobly, a Roman by a Roman overcome.

It seems that Shakespeare uses some of this, yet he also alters the moment to give Cleopatra tremendous strength and to unify the couple in a way that is more...dare I say it?...intimate. :) Some of Cleopatra's final words about Antony before she allows the asp to bite her shows the depth of her admiration and love and connection with Antony:

"My resolution's placed, and I have nothing/Of woman in me. Now from head to foot/I am marble-constant. Now the fleeting moon/No planet is of mine." (5.2.237-240)

and...

"Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me/...Husband, I come!/Now to that name my courage prove my title!" (5.2.279-287)

Antony may be dead, but she makes him a part of the scene regardless...while still retaining her agency. It is remarkable. Not intimate? The man is dead and the body gone. But the relationship is alive.

By the way: In spite of my absolute adoration of all things Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I don't "love" Cleopatra, the film. I like it just fine...it has its moments and it is really fun to watch. But, Cleopatra, alas, is NOT the Shakespeare version. I would have LOVED to have seen the two of them in the play.

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