Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
This play is so good, it is not merely a masterpiece: it is a mystery. The two protagonists are alternately noble and petty, wise and foolish, and yet they never seem inconsistent or self-contradictory because Shakespeare--here is the mystery--consistently maintains a tone that is paradoxically both ironic and heroic. Part of it is the language, which shifts seamlessly from mellifluous monologues adorned with cosmic imagery (comparing Anthony and Cleopatra to continents, stars,etc.) to the most modern-sounding, most casual and wittiest dialogue of Shakespeares career. Part of it is the larger-than-life characterization which transforms each vicious and pathetic absurdity into a privilege of the lovers protean magnificence--as undeniable and unquestionable as the sovreign acts of Olympian gods. Whatever the reason, this play makes me laugh and cry and leaves me with a deep spiritual reverence for the possibilities of the human heart.
I wrote the paragraph above two and a half years ago, and it still reflects my opinion of the play. This time through, though, I was particularly struck by how much the voices of the military subordinates and servants--Enobarbus and Charmion, Ventidius and Alexis, and many others, including even unnamed messengers and soldiers--contribute to this double movement of the ironic and heroic, celebrating the leaders mythic qualities but also commenting on their great flaws. Enobarbus--with his loyal (albeit amused) appreciation, his disillusioned betrayal, and his subsequent death from what can best be described as a broken heart--is central to this aspect of the play.
Antony and Cleopatra Summary
Act One. Attended by Egyptian and Romans at Cleopatra 's palace in Alexandria, Antony and Cleopatra are the celebrity couple of the known world. Antony's men watch disapprovingly as, from their perspective, a mighty Roman general is reduced to a whore's fool. But Antony and Cleopatra themselves seem above this crude appraisal, and their love affair is full of drama, extravagant gestures, and decadence. Absorbed in the luxuriant life of the East and his passion for Cleopatra, Antony ignores his duties as triumvir [see character list] until affairs reach a boiling point. Their idyllic life is interrupted when Antony receives bad news from different parts of the empire. His wife Fulvia and his brother have made war on Octavius, his fellow triumvir.
Antony and Cleopatra
After defeating Brutus and Cassius, following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony becomes one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire, together with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, and is responsible for the eastern part of the empire. They make peace with Pompey. Cleopatra goes to her tomb and sends a message to Antony that she is dead. Antony is devastated and decides to kill himself. He botches the suicide and wounds himself without dying. Having lost Antony and being at the mercy of Caesar, she resolves to commit suicide.
This act serves to introduce the main characters — Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar; it also outlines the main forces which motivate each of them. The first scene is set in Alexandria, where two of Antony's men, Demetrius and Philo, describe the lovers' relationship. Caesar appears in a later scene, and we see how he perceives Antony and Cleopatra's relationship. In addition, his comments about Antony reveal a great deal about his own character. We also have ample evidence in this act that Antony and Cleopatra are deeply in love, but Antony does not realize the tragic possibilities of their infatuation, yet he is torn by divided loyalties. In short, this first act sets out what the relationships are among the main characters, and it establishes the basic conflicts that dominate the rest of the play: first, Antony and Cleopatra and their love for one another; and second, Antony's rivalry with Caesar. In this act, Shakespeare accelerates the inevitable final conflict between his primary characters.
Antony is summoned back to Rome, where he clashes with another ruler Octavius before returning to Cleopatra in Egypt. Now in battle with Octavius, Antony and Cleopatra suffer losses and miscommunication, and both eventually commit suicide. Mark Antony commands the eastern Mediterranean and lives in Egypt. He has also become infatuated with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. After the death of his wife, Fulvia, and the rebellion of Pompey against his fellow ruler Octavius, Antony is forced to leave for Rome. He travels with his friend Enobarbus.