Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare
336 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

Classic Shakespeare, but sensual topic and typical bawdiness.


The triumvirate of power formed between Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Aemilius Lepidus after the death of Julius Caesar is falling apart. Civil war brews within the triumvirate and Mark Antony, who could be expected to challenge the growing power of Octavius, is too helplessly entangled with Egypt's seductive Queen Cleopatra to help himself or his country. Through the power of Octavius, the foolishness of Antony and the machinations of Cleopatra, the love affair of Antony and Cleopatra is doomed to tragedy.


Very little. Antony is debauched, given to excess in everything, and completely dependent on Cleopatra. He was unfaithful to his wife, Fulvia (now dead). At one point he leaves Egypt to marry Octavius' sister, Octavia, but even then he has no intention of being faithful to her; very soon he is back in Egypt with Cleopatra. Such vices are mocked by other characters and never condoned outright, but no cogent argument is made against them, either. The general attitude is that his attitude is simply not "manly" or "Roman."

Loyalty and betrayal are minor themes. One friend betrays Antony, but bitterly regrets it. Cleopatra's handmaidens are devoted to her, as are some of Antony's servants to him. Suicide, a common Roman practice, is a major part of the plot.

Spiritual Content

Characters believe either in the Roman pantheon or the Egyptian gods, and frequent references are made to Isis, Venus, Jove, and others. The after-life is mentioned. A soothsayer (Shakespeare seems to have been fond of soothsayers) appears and foretells doom to Antony; other omens are interpreted.


Several characters commit suicide by falling on their swords; others die by snake-bite. Several battles are fought, but of course are merely related in dialogue. It is made clear that if Octavius should capture Cleopatra, he will lead her in triumph through the streets of Rome and probably have her meet a violent end.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Antony is much given to wine. At one point Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus feast, and all are drunk to one degree or another. Poisons are used.

Sexual Content

As the romance between Antony and Cleopatra is adulterous and is the focus of the plot, there is a great deal of this; Shakespeare's double entendres are more frequent and blatant than usual. Octavia is portrayed as a sweet and naive woman, willing to be devoted to her scamp of a husband, but Cleopatra rudely maligns all her virtues.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

A good deal, though perhaps no more than is usual for a Shakespearean play. Cleopatra is attended by eunuchs, and a whole section of dialogue makes much of that (Act I, Scene V). Her female attendants are also immodest in their talk (Act I, Scene II). "Harlot" and other derivations are used descriptively. See Sexual Content.


"Antony and Cleopatra" is one of Shakespeare's more popular plays, and as far as tragedies go, it stands out from the others for its portrayal of their tragic love affair. While a play like "Romeo and Juliet" represents an innocent romance, "Antony and Cleopatra" depicts an adulterous affair doomed by the couple's incompetence quite as much as by the antagonist himself. Indeed, by the end it can be difficult to see what the tragedy is: Antony is pitiable only in that he was such a fool as to get himself entangled with Cleopatra, and Cleopatra herself is either crying piteously or plotting something sly. However, despite these deeply flawed, hardly redeemable characters, Shakespeare manages to invest pathos in the demise of both - which says something for his dramatic genius.

If you are looking for one of Shakespeare's cleaner plays, "Antony and Cleopatra" is not it. The themes are all based on luxury (Egypt) versus austerity (Rome) and immodesty (Cleopatra) versus chastity (Octavia) - with heavy emphasis on luxury and immodesty. Antony and Cleopatra themselves are not role models, to say the least, nor do any of the minor characters claim such a position. The play depicts events and a time period full of licentiousness, exaggerated in Shakespeare's trademark dialogue.

Fun Score: 3
Values Score: 1.5
Written for Age: adult

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