Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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Notes on Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. This set of Tower Notes is 33 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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INTRODUCTION: ‘I AM FIRE AND AIR…’

Frank Kermode observes in his introduction to this play in the Riverside Shakespeare that Antony and Cleopatra shares many of the characteristics of one of Shakespeare's history plays. The histories are not without their tragic circumstances, but there is a different sense or colour to them compared to the tragedies; they certainly lack the intense focus on individual or collective disaster that is found, for example, in King Lear , Macbeth or Othello . In some ways, the ‘Roman plays’ of Shakespeare’s maturity ( Julius Caesar , Antony and Cleopatra , Coriolanus ) form a group that stands mid-way between the tragedies and the histories. Antony and Cleopatra , for example, is not just the story of the two lovers, but it also charts the triumph of Octavius – the Emperor Augustus as he was to become. However, it is striking (though, no doubt, the right judgement from a dramatic perspective) that Shakespeare denies his audience the almost inevitable encomium of a new age at the close of the play. Indeed the only hint of this frequent and traditional theme comes from Octavius himself before the Battle of Actium is even won, and is surprisingly brief:

The time of universal peace is near:
Prove this a prosperous day, the three-nook’d world
Shall bear the olive freely. (IV.vi.5-7)


Is this simply the poet and dramatist’s favour for the sheer passionate scale of Antony and Cleopatra as characters over the chillier souls of Octavius and Octavia? There may be something in that, but equally the audience may wonder exactly where the dramatic focus does lie at the conclusion of this play. Antony himself, who bears the mark of a traditionally conceived tragic hero (much more so, for example, than Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear), is dead before Act Five even commences. The final scenes of the play, therefore, inevitably focus on Cleopatra, and, in this important sense it is she who dominates our imaginations at the end, not Antony, and certainly not Octavius, who is denied the apotheosis of history that was his in fact.

Is she worthy of this attention? Is she, in truth, the most important character of the play? Put as bluntly as that, her tragic qualities may not seem immediately obvious. She probably bears more opprobrium than any other of Shakespeare’s tragic figures. Othello is similarly abused, but only really by his great enemy Iago; Cleopatra is berated by almost everyone – including Antony – and is described with such choice phrases as ‘You ribaudred nag of Egypt’ (Scarus, III.x.10), ‘a boggler ever’ and ‘Triple-turn’d whore’ (Antony, III.xiii.110 and IV.xii.13).

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William Shakespeare