Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

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The reason for this is crystallised in her speech in the final scene when she prepares for her suicide:

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have
Immortal longings in me…
…Husband, I come:
Now to that name, my courage prove my title!
I am fire, and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.

As she vests, she is becoming her ‘mythological’ self, all the many lines of the play that have made her a goddess, some kind of personification of Egypt and the Nile, she makes reality at last, through dying for love (and her desire to avoid being led in triumph by Octavius is surely forgotten as a motive in these final moments). She has asked earlier to be dressed as if she were ‘again for Cydnus/To meet Mark Antony,’ and it is to Enobarbus’ great speech that the audience are recalled by the lines quoted above. There, indeed, Cleopatra was ‘fire, and air’ – she ‘burn’d on the water,’ and with her perfume ‘the winds were love-sick.’ Here she becomes her ‘elemental’ self, a being who cannot be contained within, or restrained by, the proprieties of Rome. She is not, like Antony, a figure of tragedy throughout the play, but she becomes one at the end, and her faithfulness in death seals her fame and his.


MARK ANTONY. An important protégé and general of Julius Caesar. The latter’s ambition helped to break up the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey the Great and Crassus. The republican government of Rome was gradually buckling under the strain of the large territorial conquests of Caesar and Pompey, and the triumvirate system was an attempt to stabilize the political situation by balancing the powers of competing generals. Not surprisingly, it failed, and Caesar defeated Pompey (his main rival) at the Battle of Pharsalus (in Greece) in 48 BC (Crassus had earlier been killed in battle with the Parthians). Pompey fled to Egypt, but was murdered on the orders of Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy, who sought to ally himself with Caesar. Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar begins at this point in history with Caesar’s return to Rome as the most powerful man in the Republic. He flirts with the idea of becoming king or emperor, something the fiercely anti-monarchist Roman aristocracy would have detested. A conspiracy arose against him, led by Brutus and Cassius, and he was assassinated. The conspirators achieved some measure of popular support for their actions, but when Brutus foolishly allowed Antony to make a funeral oration over Caesar’s corpse (famously beginning ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen...’ in Shakespeare’s version), the mob turned against the conspirators who were forced to flee Rome.

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William Shakespeare
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