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Theatre / Antony and Cleopatra

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As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
This will end well...

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.
Enobarbus, on Cleopatra 2.2.244

A Roman tragedy by William Shakespeare. It can be viewed as a sequel to Julius Caesar, since Caesar, and his assassins, are repeatedly alluded to in the play. Thematically it can be seen as a counterpoint to Romeo and Juliet, contrasting the naive young lovers of the earlier play with the older, more experienced lovers here. Shakespeare's source for the play was Thomas North's 1579 translation of Parallel Lives and the play is essentially an adaptation of it, adapting dialogues, scenes, and entire descriptions from it, almost word-for-word.

The play focuses on the fall of Mark Antony, a Roman general, as he is seduced by Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. Antony spends much of the play ignoring his duties as a general to Rome, while living it up in Alexandria with Cleo. Octavian Caesar, nephew of Julius, is unhappy with this, because Rome is involved in a war with Pompey and could really use Antony's help, but he's also shrewd because this gives him a window into finally offing his fellow triumvirs (Antony, Lepidus) and become Emperor. Antony leaves Alexandria for Rome, not realizing Octavius envies his power and plots to overthrow him when the war is over. Meanwhile, Cleopatra pines for Antony in his absence. Events then unfold, as Antony and Octavian Caesar fall out, and a Civil War brews over who will be the single master of the Empire, with the independence of Egypt hanging in balance.

The story is set in both Rome and Alexandria, and jumps from location to location constantly. It includes a battle at sea, cross-dressing, drunken reveling, a eunuch, and a very poignant suicide attempt which is interrupted by a clown. One of the most memorable aspects of the play is Cleopatra; she's considered the most complex female character in the Shakespeare canon, and she's certainly the most emotionally extreme.


  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Enobarbus' despair, after his Face–Heel Turn, is given much more time than in the Plutarch.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: Ambiguous. Even though Caesar ultimately triumphs, the death of his former close friend affects him deeply, and he decides to arrange a funeral for him. Given Caesar's personality, though, it's equally plausible that he's mourning just for political points.
  • Ascended Extra: Enobarbus has only a few lines in the Plutarch.
  • Athens and Sparta: Cleopatra's Alexandria is contrasted heavily with Rome, and Octavius finds it only too easy to spin Antony's romance with Cleopatra as being "un-Roman" and seeing the worldliness and richness of Alexandria as unbecoming of stern, and austere Rome.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Caesar gets the Republic all to himself and destroys whatever semblance of constitutional law it had left.
  • Bearer of Bad News: The messenger; Cleopatra beats him up for daring to report that Antony has married Octavia. He catches on, though, and later only brings Cleo good, if questionably truthful, news. The first messenger in Act 1, Scene 2 also lampshades how anyone who brings the bad news is often blamed for it.
  • Big Bad: Octavius Caesar fights against the titular couple to gain control of Rome and turn it into an empire, with himself as its Emperor.
  • Bungled Suicide: Antony has a hard time stabbing himself.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Lepidus. He tries to be the mediator between Octavius and Antony and ends up getting jailed.
  • The Charmer: Cleopatra, just another way for her to wrap you around her finger.
  • A Child Shall Lead Them: Octavius Caesar, though older than most examples, is often noted for only being in his twenties and ruling Rome.
  • Civil War: In Italy. It's what spurs Antony to want to leave Egypt.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Yet another persona of Cleopatra's large tool box for twisting Antony and others to doing what she wants.
  • Clothing Switch: Cleo says in Act 2 Scene 5 that she and Antony swapped clothes.
    Cleopatra: I drunk him to his bed
    Then put my tires and mantles on him whilst
    I wore his sword Phillipan.
  • Comically Missing the Point: The soothsayer predicts that Charmian will outlive Cleopatra. Instead of noticing the vague portent of Cleopatra's death that this prediction carries, Charmian is simply happy to hear that she'll live long. (It' up to the reader, the actor or the director to decide whether this is genuine stupidity on Charmian's part or just an intentional joke.)
  • Complexity Addiction: Cleopatra can't simply say something straight to your face or ask you for something, she'll make sure to manipulate your emotions and thoughts to get what she wants, even when it's completely unnecessary or even counterproductive.
  • Conflicting Loyalty:
    • A major part of Antony's character. He's stuck between his love for Cleopatra and his duty to serve Rome.
    • Enobarbus is conflicted between his love for Antony and his duty to Rome.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Enobarbus, who always has something snarky to say about Antony's behaviour around Cleo. In the boat party scene, he has a great line:
      Enobarbus (seeing a man carry an unconscious Lepidus back to shore): There's a strong man, Menas.
      Menas: How so?
      Enobarbus: A' bears a third part of the world!
    • Throughout Act 1, Scene 2, Charmian makes snarky remarks about all of the soothsayer's predictions. The soothsayer eventually gets in the game when Charmian asks how many children she will have.
      Soothsayer: If every of your wishes had a womb,
      And fertile every wish, a million.
  • Death by Despair: Enobarbus. But not before he finishes his nice long monologue, of course.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Being a Shakespearean play, this happens to many characters. Enobarbus, for exactly, actually dies from despair.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: At the beginning of the play, Pompey seems to be the major threat, but he's settled before the halfway mark and the real threat turns out to be conflict between the Romans formerly allied against him.
  • Double Entendre: There are several scattered throughout the play, some of them quite sly. Antony and Cleopatra is rife with sexual imagery. When Charmian says "Oh, excellent! I love long life better than figs.", she's not talking about fruit.
  • Downer Ending: Well, you knew it was coming. With the power struggle turning to Caesar's favor, and their relationship irreparably torn apart, both Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide, and the Roman Republic is transformed into an absolute monarch-led dictatorship. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that the newly-crowned Emperor Augustus (Caesar) is saddened by their deaths and arranges a state funeral for them.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Whilst Antony and Cleopatra are more sympathetic overall, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that the world would be better off with them in charge rather than Caesar, at least if you measure authority by piety, probity, and other conservative values.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Deconstructed with Enobarbus - his betrayal makes him so upset, he dies.
  • Faking the Dead: Cleopatra decides to make Antony regret yelling at her by having her messenger announce she is dead. This prompts Antony to kill himself. Bad move, Cleo.
  • Femme Fatale: Cleopatra, though she does genuinely love Antony.
  • The Fettered: A common trait among Romans and especially Antony. When he hears his home is under attack, his first instinct is to return with his men and defend Italy.
  • Foil: While all of the characters have some foil to another character, the largest one is between the general attitudes of the Roman people and the Egyptian people, to the extent where Egypt embodies the id while Rome embodies the superego.
  • Fortune Teller: The soothsayer. He tells Antony that Octavius is Born Lucky, will always win at dice, in bets, and that Antony's fortune will only diminish before Octavius.
  • Four-Star Badass: Antony and Taurus. Even Caesar respects Antony's military prowess.
  • The Hedonist: Egypt's inhabitants exemplify this to some extent. Mark Antony, having lived in Egypt for a while now also seems to be holding these ideals closely.
    Mark Antony: There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
    Without some pleasure now.
  • Historical Domain Character: Augustus, Agrippa, Cleopatra VII, Mark Antony, Sextus Pompey, Lepidus, Octavia, and even Cleopatra's handmaidens, are retained from Plutarch.
  • Honor Before Reason: Sextus Pompey has every single one of his enemies drunk and onboard his flagship. When Menas suggests that they simply sail away and force the others to terms, Pompey refuses, albeit not out of moral considerations. As he explains, if Menas, having come up with that plot, acted on it and done it, giving Pompey plausible deniability, he would have pardoned and condoned Menas after the fact, but he cannot fully embark on this plan himself, since it would violate and compromise him forever among the Romans, and give him no base on which to act.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: According to Enobarbus, men to women, because women supposedly can't control their emotions.
    Enobarbus: 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.
  • Loss of Identity: Another part of Antony's character due to his self view as a Roman soldier and his hedonistic actions and time spent in Egypt.
  • Love Hurts: It's a Shakespearean Tragedy, it's going to hurt quite a bit before the story is done.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Caesar - no-one, not even his own sister, is safe from being a tool in his schemes.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Cleopatra, to some extent or another, tries manipulate everyone around her, to the point where it begins to backfire on her and largely contributes to her and Antony's deaths.
  • Manly Tears: Antony's men complain that Antony is making them cry during his supposedly-Rousing Speech.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Inverted, due to the time period's values and according to Enobarbus, women are.
    Enobarbus: When it pleaseth their deities to take the wife of a man from him, it shows to man the tailors of the earth, comforting therein, that when old robes are worn out, there are members to make new. If there were no more women but Fulvia, then had you indeed a cut, and the case to be lamented.
  • Old Maid: Charmian is rather unhappy about having no children.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Cleopatra's specialty and one of her many means of trying to manipulate other people.
  • Popularity Cycle: Both Antony and Cleopatra are guilty of this. It gets lampshaded by Cleopatra, who is disappointed in Antony's lack of apparent grief for his first wife, Fulvia, whom he claimed to love. Later, Cleopatra's maid Charmian calls her out on claiming that she did not love Caesar as much, snarking that Cleopatra said the exact same compliments about Caesar.
    Cleopatra: Excellent falsehood!
    Why did he marry Fulvia, and not love her?
    I'll seem the fool I am not; Antony
    Will be himself.
  • Posthumous Character: Fulvia's dead before she ever gets on stage.
  • Pride: A trait that the Romans exemplify quite a bit, to the point where they view the Egyptians as inferior for their lifestyle.
  • Really Gets Around: Certain Romans dissatisfied with Antony's behavior often call Cleopatra a whore. This is somewhat unfair. She had three affairs with famous men, twice to protect her realm and once for love, and cares deeply for the children arising from the second one.
  • Roaring Rampage of Romance: The affair between Anthony and Cleopatra starts a war and turns all their people against them.
  • Rousing Speech: Subverted — Antony's speech to his troops is rather... depressing.
  • Shaped Like Itself: Antony describing the crocodile to Lepidus is the Trope Namer.
    Lepidus: What manner o' thing is your crocodile?
    Mark Antony: It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs: it lives by that which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
    Lepidus: What colour is it of?
    Mark Antony: Of its own colour too.
    Lepidus: 'Tis a strange serpent.
    Mark Antony: 'Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Weirdly averted — at the play's climax, after Antony has died and Cleopatra has decided to kill herself rather than be paraded to Rome as Octavius' trophy, she calls for someone to bring her some asps... and that someone is a Clown, who proceeds to make bawdy puns about the "worm" eating women. This happens right before Cleopatra kills herself.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Cleopatra very, very nearly does so with with the messenger who informs her Octavia has married Antony. She just barely holds herself back, but it's a perfect example of how terrifying her mood swings can be.
    "Rogue, thou hast lived too long."
  • Sympathy for the Hero: Caesar seems to pity Antony even while in the midst of taking him down. While some performances may turn the "Poor Antony" line into something more mocking, Caesar's grief at Antony's death shows true concern and feeling for Antony.
  • Tag Team Suicide: Two examples, actually; Antony's servant decides to off himself when Antony does, leaving Antony to kill himself... himself. He screws up, though, and gets brought to Cleopatra, who also decides to kill herself.
  • Tsundere: Cleopatra acts this way for a short while in Act 1 Scene 3 to manipulate Antony into doing... something?
  • Who Would Want to Watch Us?: "The quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us and present / Our Alexandrian revels. Antony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore." - Cleopatra's opinion of what plays Romans will make about her and Antony to humiliate them in her captivity. Unfortunately, this particular play is actually a tragedy.
  • Worthy Opponent: Sextus Pompey to the triumvirate. He refuses, for example, to kill the leading members when they're in a vulnerable position.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Caesar pulls one in marrying his sister to Antony - if Antony is faithful, it breaks his influence in Egypt and binds him to Caesar. If he is not, it gives Caesar an excuse to go to war with him, as well as a propaganda coup.