48 pages 1 hour read

William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1607

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Antony and Cleopatra is a play by William Shakespeare that was first performed in 1607. The plot centers around the romantic affair between a Roman general, Mark Antony, and the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Shakespeare had previously written the tragedy Julius Caesar in 1599 and this play continues to follow the history of Rome’s transformation from a republic into an empire. Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, portraying the downfall of Mark Antony and Cleopatra and their eventual deaths due to a conflict with Octavius Caesar, the future Emperor Augustus.

This guide is based on the 2016 Folger Shakespeare Library edition.

Content Warning: This guide describes and analyzes the source text’s treatment of death by suicide. This guide also refers to the source text’s use of racist slurs against Romani people.

Plot Summary

Antony and Cleopatra begins in Egypt, where one of the powerful triumvirs of the Roman Republic, Mark Antony, has been residing in the court of Queen Cleopatra. Antony has been neglecting his duty to Rome after falling in love with Cleopatra, instead spending his days feasting and drinking. However, after learning that his wife, Fulvia, has recently died after attempting to rebel against his fellow triumvir, Octavius Caesar, Antony decides that he must return to Rome and fulfill his duties.

Octavius Caesar, great-nephew of Julius Caesar, summons Antony to help fight off an attack by Sextus Pompey. While Cleopatra demands that Antony ignore the message, he leaves for Rome, reassuring her that he still loves her. Antony meets with the other triumvirs, Caesar and Lepidus, and they agree that Antony will marry Caesar’s sister, Octavia, in order to reestablish peace between them. Antony agrees, although his friend Enobarbus doubts that Octavia will be able to compete with Cleopatra for his affection. Back in Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony’s marriage to Octavia and furiously beats the messenger until he reassures her that Octavia is less beautiful and regal than she is.

Antony, Caesar, and Lepidus make a treaty with Pompey and celebrate the truce with a feast. After the celebration, however, Caesar breaks the truce by ordering his navy to attack Pompey. Antony returns to Egypt, abandoning Octavia and allowing her to return to her brother. Caesar is furious that Antony has rejected his sister. He falsely imprisons Lepidus for treason and prepares to attack Antony in Egypt. Although Antony is considered to be the better soldier and has a stronger army, he insists upon fighting Caesar at sea using the inferior Egyptian navy. Furthermore, he allows Cleopatra to accompany him to battle on her own ship. During the engagement, Cleopatra suddenly flees from the fight and Antony orders his ships to follow, resulting in a catastrophic and dishonorable loss.

Antony is deeply ashamed of his defeat, and even his loyal companion Enobarbus decides to leave him to side with Caesar. Caesar sends a messenger to Cleopatra to try to persuade her to betray Antony, but Antony discovers this and has the messenger whipped. Enraged, Antony decides to fight with Caesar again. Meanwhile, Enobarbus realizes that Antony has sent him his treasures and possessions despite knowing that he abandoned him for Caesar. He is stricken by guilt after realizing how great of a man Antony is and decides to forsake Caesar and die a beggar.

During the second battle with Caesar, the Egyptian troops surrender to Caesar against Antony’s commands. He renounces Cleopatra, believing that she has also turned against him. Cleopatra tries to test Antony’s love for her by sending a messenger to him claiming that she has killed herself. However, Antony is so remorseful that he also decides to die by suicide. He stabs himself and then is carried to Cleopatra’s side before he dies, realizing that she is alive.

Cleopatra is taken captive by Caesar’s army, but she wishes to join Antony in death rather than live as a captive in Rome. After learning from the soldier Dolabella that Caesar plans to have her humiliated in a public ceremony known as a triumph, Cleopatra dies by suicide by using the bite of a poisonous snake. Her maids, Charmian and Iras, also die by poison. Caesar discovers their bodies and feels awed by her bravery and greatness, commanding that Antony and Cleopatra be buried together in a proper funeral.

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