Places: Antony and Cleopatra

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1623

First produced: c. 1606-1607

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: c. 30 b.c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Egypt

*Egypt. Antony and CleopatraLocated on the outskirts of the vast Roman Empire, the Egypt of 30 b.c.e. is portrayed as an exotic land of mystery, fecundity, extravagance, and unconventional behavior, where the Nile River rises and falls to signal the crudely designed planting and harvest seasons, and open sexual experimentation includes transvestism. Cleopatra embodies Egypt in her wildly extravagant behavior and passion. As one of Rome’s three rulers after the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony has been sent in a period of political instability to govern Egypt but soon wavers in his commitment to Roman values and falls in love with Cleopatra. As the scenes shift rapidly between Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria and various locations in Rome, Italy, and Greece, the shifting of place symbolizes the conflict of values in Antony’s mind. In act 1, Antony feels guilty about his un-Roman behavior and temporarily returns to Rome, where he marries Octavia to strengthen his political power, but he soon quarrels with Octavius, his fellow triumvir, and returns to Egypt in act 3. As Antony battles Octavius for political power, the scenes shift rapidly between Cleopatra’s palace and various battle scenes in the eastern part of the empire until Antony finally loses the political struggle with Octavius.


*Rome. Rome is seen in the play as the center of a highly ordered and established civilization with stately political and social values. In the first words of the play, set in Cleopatra’s palace, Antony is being judged harshly by his followers for ignoring his Roman duties in order to satisfy sensual pleasures. When a messenger from Rome arrives with news from Octavius, Antony dismisses the him, symbolizing his break with Rome. From the very first moments of the play, then, Shakespeare is juxtaposing the two cultures and forcing the audience into a complex assessment of their competing values. This conflict has been described in various ways, for example as a conflict between culture and barbarity, reason and passion, duty and desire, or decorum and hedonism. Plutarch, the source for Shakespeare’s story, clearly chooses sides in this conflict and sees Antony as a foolish old man, but Shakespeare remains uncommitted, suggesting value and limitations in both cultures. This leaves the thematic conflict richly open-ended and the rapidly shifting places that embody this thematic conflict serve as another reflection of the play’s great tension.

Cleopatra’s monument

Cleopatra’s monument. The play ends in this mausoleum near Cleopatra’s Alexandria palace as she takes her own life after learning of Antony’s suicide at the end of act 4. The scope of the play’s action shrinks after act 3, scene 6, in which Rome is last used as a setting. Thereafter, the action begins moving eastward, contracting toward the more intimate setting of the tragic conclusion. The intimacy of Cleopatra’s monument is contrasted with the epic scope at the beginning of the play, but even here, with Antony close by in Cleopatra’s palace, Shakespeare emphasizes how distant the lovers are from each other. Cleopatra’s sequestration and initially false report of suicide leads to Antony’s real suicide. Then the two struggle, almost comically, to be near each other, as Antony’s body is hoisted up the monument walls for a final kiss. After he dies, Roman soldiers invade Cleopatra’s space and Rome and Egypt are finally merged, with Cleopatra a prisoner and in danger of being carried to Rome to be put on humiliating display as a trophy of war. In her own suicide, Cleopatra thwarts this plan and “marries” herself to Antony at last.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Bloom’s concise anthology of major Shakespeare criticism of the 1970’s and 1980’s judiciously samples postmodernist, new historicist, feminist, and deconstructionist discussions of Antony and Cleopatra. See especially the essays by Jonathan Dollimore, Linda Bamber, and Laura Quinney.Charney, Maurice. Shakespeare’s Roman Plays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. Chapter 3, the centerpiece of Charney’s influential book, brilliantly analyzes the imagery of Antony and Cleopatra; Charney gives particular attention to the imagery that clusters around the Egypt-Rome polarity, thereby constituting it as a complex central theme.Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol. 1. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946. Granville-Barker’s prefaces remain timeless monuments to a golden age of Shakespearean scholarship and theatrical performance. The preface to Antony and Cleopatra offers valuable insights into staging and characterization from the perspective of an influential stage director and critic.Riemer, A. P. A Reading of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press, 1968. A monograph-length, lucid introduction to the background of the play and its plot, characterization, and dramatic structure. Also contains a very useful chapter that discusses important criticism of the play during the early and mid-twentieth century.Traversi, Derek. Shakespeare: The Roman Plays. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. In chapter 3 of this classic study, Traversi offers a methodical, analytical commentary on Antony and Cleopatra. Sees the play as a profound work of art that in its spaciousness, episodic form, and morally ambivalent valuations of Rome and Egypt escapes traditional definitions of tragedy.
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