Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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Antony joined forces with Octavius (Caesar’s adopted son) and Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate. War was declared on Brutus and Cassius, who were defeated at the Battle of Philippi. This is the origin of the political situation at the beginning of Antony and Cleopatra . Tensions are already evident between Antony and Octavius as they had been before between Caesar and Pompey: essentially a similar power-struggle takes place between them in the course of the play, ending with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. This concludes a long period of civil strife in Roman history and leaves Octavius triumphant.

OCTAVIUS CAESAR. The name denotes his (adoptive) family relationship with Julius Caesar. During the play, he shares power with Antony and Lepidus, but after Antony’s death, he becomes the first Roman Emperor, taking the name Augustus. The Augustan period was looked upon as a golden age of peace, prosperity and literary creativity.

M. AEMILIUS LEPIDUS. His position in the triumvirate was based on wealth, rather than military power. In the conflict between Antony and Octavius he is, therefore, of little importance.

SEXTUS POMPEIUS. Son of Pompey the Great. As would be expected, he is keen to revenge his father’s death and restore the flagging fortunes of his dynasty.

MAECENAS and AGRIPPA. Well-known as patrons and advisors to the Emperor in the Augustan Age that follows the action of the play.

CLEOPATRA. Last descendant of the Ptolemy dynasty, rulers of Egypt. The family practised in-breeding, and she was the wife of her brother Ptolemy, though no issue resulted. She owed her throne to Julius Caesar, whom she seduced (he was 52, she 21), and who supported her position in preference to her brother (despite the latter’s murder of Pompey). She became his mistress, later transferring her affections to Mark Antony after his death. She had a son by Caesar (Caesarion) and three children by Antony.

THE PLAY

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE

With admirable compression, Shakespeare establishes his opposing viewpoints – Rome against Egypt, temperance against excess, duty against love – in just sixty-two lines. The Roman, negative, appraisal of the situation is given first, by Demetrius and Philo, and then the two central characters provide the counterpoint themselves.

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William Shakespeare