William Shakespeare – Antony and Cleopatra (Play Summary)

Let’s talk about Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra which has been seen on one hand as a romance on the transcendence over the mundane, and on the other as a lesson against neglect of duty; as an exaltation of love and as a rejection of lust. Antony has been seen as a sordid politician who is transfigured by the love of Cleopatra, a courtesan who is similarly transformed. He has also been seen as a fool who sacrifices his nobility to sensual gratification—in more modern terms, a weak individual who indulges in pleasure to escape reality. The play seems to offer no definite conclusion as to the priority of duty or sensuality.


SOURCES OF THE PLAY

By far the most important source for Antony and Cleopatra was the ‘Life of Marcus Antonius‘ in Sir Thomas NORTH’S Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (1579), which was a translation of Jacques AMYOT’S French version (1559-1565) of PLUTARCH’S original Greek (c. 125 A.D.). The playwright followed Plutarch’s historical account fairly closely, though he gave different emphasis to its incidents. An earlier play on the subject, Samuel DANIEL’S Cleopatra (1594), apparently influenced Shakespeare in these variations, especially in his treatment of Cleopatra’s suicide. Shakespeare’s descriptions of Egypt, particularly in 2.7, probably derive from LEO AFRICANUS as translated by John PORY in A Geographical History of Africa (1600).


TEXT OF THE PLAY

Antony and Cleopatra was written before the spring of 1608 when it was registered with the STATIONERS’ COMPANY by Edward BLOUNT. Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra was altered between its editions of 1605 and 1607 in ways that reflect the influence of Antony and Cleopatra, which may therefore have been written as early as 1606. Barnabe BARNES’ play The Devil’s Charter contains an apparent echo of Antony and Cleopatra; it was performed in February 1607, then revised and published in October, suggesting that Shakespeare’s play had been performed in 1607 or 1606. That it was not written earlier than 1606 is clear in light of the unaltered 1605 version of Daniel’s work, as well as on stylistic grounds.

Antony and Cleopatra was registered for publication in 1608, but if a printed book was indeed actually produced, no copy of it has survived, and the earliest known text is that published in the FIRST FOLIO (1623).


THEATRICAL HISTORY OF THE PLAY

No early performances of Antony and Cleopatra are recorded, but a production of c. 1606—presumably the initial staging—is probable in view of the 1607 alterations made to Samuel Daniel’s Cleopatra. Richard BURBAGE is presumed to have originated the role of Antony. No other production is recorded for a century and a half, though John DRYDEN wrote a play about the lovers—All for Love, or the World Well Lost (1678)—that was influenced somewhat by Shakespeare’s play. In the second half of the 19th century Antony and Cleopatra increased in popularity, and several productions were ventured.

SYNOPSIS

Act 1, Scene 1
In ALEXANDRIA the Roman PHILO laments to DEMETRIUS that their leader, ANTONY, is involved with the Egyptian queen, CLEOPATRA, and neglects his military duties. Cleopatra and Antony appear as news from ROME arrives, and she taunts him and accuses him of subservience to his wife and the Roman senate. He therefore refuses to hear the messages.

Act 1, Scene 2
An Egyptian SOOTHSAYER predicts that Cleopatra’s waiting-woman CHARMIAN shall outlive her mistress, and adds that she has seen better times in the past than she shall in future. He sees an identical fortune for another waiting-woman, IRAS. The two women laugh over these predictions with their fellow servant ALEXAS. Cleopatra arrives and declares that she will not speak with Antony, who is approaching, and then leaves with her servants. Antony arrives accompanied by a MESSENGER who bears the news that Antony’s feuding wife and brother had united to fight against
Octavius CAESAR, but were defeated. The Messenger also states that a renegade Roman general has led the Parthians in a conquest of Roman territory. Antony is angry with himself, for the conquered lands were lost while he was dallying with Cleopatra. More news arrives: Antony’s wife has died. Antony dismisses the messengers and reflects that he had wished his wife dead and now regrets it; he now wishes he could break away from Cleopatra. He summons his lieutenant ENOBARBUS, who makes bawdy jokes about Antony’s affair with the queen until Antony sternly orders preparations for a return to Rome where he is needed to aid Caesar against a rebel, POMPEY.

Act 1, Scene 3
Charmian advises Cleopatra to accommodate Antony in every way if she wants him to love her, but the queen rejects this idea. Antony appears and announces his departure; Cleopatra taunts him, but he remains determined, and she finally wishes him well. He assures her of his love.

Act 1, Scene 4
In Rome Caesar disgustedly tells LEPIDUS of Antony’s debauchery with Cleopatra. News arrives of the rebel Pompey, aided by the pirates MENECRATES and MENAS. Caesar hopes that Antony will return to the soldierly ways he was once famous for.

Act 1, Scene 5
In Alexandria Cleopatra grieves over Antony’s absence and praises him enthusiastically. Charmian teasingly reminds her that she had once felt the same about Julius CAESAR when he was in Egypt years earlier.


Act 2, Scene 1
In MESSINA Pompey confers with Menas and Menecrates. He states that his chances of defeating Caesar and Lepidus are good since Antony, their ally, dallies in Egypt. News arrives that Antony is about to rejoin his friends; Pompey worries but continues to hope for the best.

Act 2, Scene 2
Lepidus entreats Enobarbus to encourage in Antony a peaceful attitude towards Caesar, but Enobarbus declares that Antony’s honour comes first. Antony and Caesar arrive to negotiate. Antony denies any part in the rebellion of his wife and brother. He apologises for not having assisted Caesar against it and admits that he has been too decadent in Egypt. The two leaders agree to put the issue aside and fight together against Pompey, and to further their alliance Antony shall marry Caesar’s sister OCTAVIA. The leaders leave together while their followers remain, and Enobarbus tells MAECENAS and AGRIPPA about the gorgeous Cleopatra. He predicts that Antony will never leave her for good.

Act 2, Scene 3
Antony, married to Octavia, promises faithfulness. He consults the Soothsayer who has come to Rome with him. The seer advises him to return to Egypt because Caesar’s presence diminishes his prospects for success. Antony decides to follow this advice.

Act 2, Scene 4
Lepidus, Maecenas, and Agrippa prepare to leave Rome; they will meet Antony on campaign against Pompey.

Act 2, Scene 5
In Alexandria Cleopatra receives word that Antony has married Octavia. Raging, she threatens the MESSENGER with death; calming, she sinks into depression.

Act 2, Scene 6
Pompey agrees to a truce with Antony, Caesar, and Lepidus. The leaders leave to attend a celebratory feast aboard Pompey’s ship. Enobarbus and Menas stay behind and gossip; they agree that Pompey should have maintained his rebellion while he could. Enobarbus predicts that Antony will abandon Octavia for Cleopatra.

Act 2, Scene 7
At the banquet the drunken Lepidus is teased by the other leaders. Menas takes Pompey aside and suggests that they kill all three Roman leaders, leaving Pompey the sole ruler of the empire, but Pompey declares that while he could approve such an action after it was done, he cannot honourably order it ahead of time. To himself, Menas declares that he will desert this foolishly scrupulous master, for Pompey will obviously lose in the political wars. Caesar declares that their drunkenness is wasteful and leaves. The other leaders follow.


Act 3, Scene 1
Antony’s general VENTIDIUS, who has defeated a Parthian army, tells his lieutenant SILIUS that he will not pursue the fleeing enemy. He states that he does not want to succeed too thoroughly lest Antony feel overshadowed and in revenge crush his military career. Silius admires Ventidius’ political shrewdness. They go to meet Antony in ATHENS.

Act 3, Scene 2
Antony and his followers prepare to depart from Rome. Caesar and Octavia are deeply moved at the separation, while he and Antony exchange tense and suspicious farewells.

Act 3, Scene 3
Cleopatra interrogates the Messenger about Octavia; he tells her that Antony’s new wife is an unattractive woman and details her unappealing features. The queen is greatly relieved.

Act 3, Scene 4
In Athens Octavia is upset by the rising enmity between her husband and her brother and begs to be sent as an intermediary between them. Antony agrees, and she prepares to go to Rome.

Act 3, Scene 5
EROS informs Enobarbus that Caesar and Lepidus have defeated Pompey, but that Caesar has arrested Lepidus and sentenced him to death. Enobarbus anticipates war between Antony and Caesar.

Act 3, Scene 6
In Rome Caesar angrily reports that Antony, now in Egypt, has crowned himself and Cleopatra rulers of the eastern empire—a betrayal of both Octavia and Caesar and a virtual act of war against Rome. Octavia appears to negotiate for Antony, whom she believes is still in Athens.

Act 3, Scene 7
At an army camp near ACTIUM Enobarbus tells Cleopatra that her presence is a distraction to Antony, but she insists on remaining. Antony appears and remarks that Caesar has made a very rapid advance. He declares he will accept Caesar’s challenge to fight a naval battle, despite the objections of his advisers that they are weakest at sea.

Act 3, Scene 8
Caesar warns his general TAURUS not to fight on land until after the sea battle.

Act 3, Scene 9
Antony orders Enobarbus to establish a post from which to observe the sea battle.

Act 3, Scene 10
Troops from both sides march past; a sea battle is heard. Enobarbus despairs as he sees Antony’s flagship retreat, SCARUS reports that just as the battle might have been won by Antony’s navy, Cleopatra sailed away from it. Antony followed, and the rest of the fleet followed him. CANIDIUS arrives and confirms the news of defeat. He declares that he will surrender his forces to Caesar.

Act 3, Scene 11
Antony tells his attendants to flee, for he no longer deserves their loyalty. He declares to Cleopatra that though he is filled with despair, his love for her still seems worth all that has been lost.

Act 3, Scene 12
An AMBASSADOR delivers to Caesar Antony’s request that he be permitted to live in Egypt or Athens and that Cleopatra continue to rule Egypt. Caesar sends him back with a rejection of Antony’s request and an assurance to Cleopatra that she can have whatever she wants if she will kill Antony or drive him from Egypt. Then he sends THIDIAS to her with the same message, telling him to make her any promises he chooses.

Act 3, Scene 13
Thidias arrives and declares to Cleopatra that Caesar believes she had joined Antony out of fear, not love. The queen accepts Caesar’s offer of deliverance from Antony. Antony appears as Thidias kisses Cleopatra’s hand in acknowledgement of her alliance with Caesar. Antony has his SERVANTS carry Thidias away and whip him, and he accuses Cleopatra bitterly. When the beaten Thidias is returned, Antony sends him back to Caesar with a defiant message. Cleopatra says that despite her surrender to Caesar she still loves Antony. He takes heart and declares that he is prepared to carry on the war against Caesar, who has arrived at Alexandria, with the remnants of his forces. He says that they will have a grand banquet that night, as in the past, and he and Cleopatra leave to prepare for it. Enobarbus reflects on Antony’s folly and decides that he will desert him.


Act 4, Scene 1
Caesar describes Antony’s contemptuous challenges. Maecenas recommends attacking immediately, for Antony’s judgement is clearly clouded by anger, and Caesar agrees.

Act 4, Scene 2
At the banquet Antony declares that he’ll fight to the end and either win or recover his honour in death. When he bids the SERVITORS farewell he suggests that this night might be his last. When the servants and Enobarbus weep, he declares that, on the contrary, they will triumph the next day.

Act 4, Scene 3
A group of Antony’s sentries hear strange noises that they take to be a bad omen for the forthcoming battle.

Act 4, Scene 4
Antony lets Cleopatra help him into his armour, and he leaves for the battle in high spirits.

Act 4, Scene 5
Antony learns that Enobarbus has deserted to Caesar but he is not angry. He recognises that his own faults have driven his subordinate to despair. He orders Enobarbus’ belongings sent to him.

Act 4, Scene 6
At Caesar’s headquarters a SOLDIER brings Enobarbus the belongings sent by Antony, and the deserter is stricken by pangs of conscience. He declares that he will die of a broken heart.

Act 4, Scene 7
Agrippa and his troops retreat before Antony and Scarus’ forces. Scarus is wounded but insists on continuing the pursuit.

Act 4, Scene 8
Victorious in the day’s fighting, Antony returns to Cleopatra. He praises Scarus for his great bravery and prowess.

Act 4, Scene 9
Outside Caesar’s camp a SENTRY and his WATCHMEN discover the dying Enobarbus, who regrets his disloyalty and grieves for his lost honour.

Act 4, Scene 10
Antony and Scarus prepare for a combined battle on both land and sea.

Act 4, Scene 11
Caesar decides to concentrate on fighting at sea.

Act 4, Scene 12
Scarus muses on bad omens and on Antony’s fretful mood. Antony announces that Cleopatra’s navy has deserted to Caesar and that the battle is lost. He sends Scarus to order a general retreat, and he reflects that his desperate condition is the fault of his infatuation with Cleopatra, whom he believes has betrayed him. Cleopatra appears and Antony drives her away with his rage. He declares that he will kill her.

Act 4, Scene 13
Cleopatra flees from Antony and takes refuge in a monument. She sends him word that she has committed suicide, speaking his name as she died.

Act 4, Scene 14
As Antony contemplates suicide, he is brought word that Cleopatra has killed herself, and he decides to do so, too. He orders Eros to kill him, but Eros kills himself instead. Antony then attempts to fall on his sword, but succeeds only in wounding himself, DÉCRÉTAS appears and takes Antony’s sword to Caesar to ingratiate himself with the conqueror, DIOMEDES brings word from Cleopatra. Realizing that Antony might kill himself, she reveals her lie and summons him. Antony orders himself carried to her on a litter.

Act 4, Scene 15
Antony, on his litter, is hoisted up to Cleopatra’s hiding place in the monument. He tells Cleopatra that she should trust only PROCULEIUS among Caesar’s court. He proudly states that in killing himself he has prevented Caesar from killing him, and he dies. Cleopatra declares that she too will die in the proud Roman fashion.


Act 5, Scene 1
Caesar sends DOLABELLA to demand that Antony surrender. Décrétas arrives with Antony’s sword and word of his suicide. Caesar and his friends mourn the death of a great man even though he was their enemy. An EGYPTIAN appears, sent by Cleopatra to receive Caesar’s orders. Caesar sends him back with assurances that he offers mercy to the queen; he sends Proculeius and GALLUS to Cleopatra to confirm the message.

Act 5, Scene 2
Cleopatra says that she is content to die. Proculeius arrives and assures her that Caesar will give Egypt to her son. Gallus appears with soldiers to guard Cleopatra. When she sees this, she attempts to stab herself but is disarmed by Proculeius. Dolabella arrives to replace Proculeius; moved by Cleopatra’s elegy for Antony, he confides that Caesar intends to parade her ignominiously through the streets of Rome. Caesar arrives and generously offers mercy to Cleopatra, who submits, giving him a list of all her possessions. However, her treasurer SELEUCUS asserts that the list is incomplete. Cleopatra rages at him, but Caesar assures her that it does not matter for she can keep whatever she wants. He leaves, and Cleopatra sends Charmian on a secret errand as Dolabella returns to tell the queen that Caesar intends to transport her to Rome in three days. Charmian returns and a CLOWN arrives with poisonous snakes. After he leaves Cleopatra prepares to die. Iras dies, brokenhearted, as Cleopatra applies two asps to herself and dies when they bite her; Charmian does the same. Dolabella and Caesar return, and Caesar declares that Cleopatra shall be buried with Antony after a grand funeral celebrating the nobility of their love.


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