Doomed Bardic Romance of Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra presents us an odd twist: The monumental

Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra awaits Antony on her barge.

Antony of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar who used his strong mind, his powerful will, his courage and military genius to quiet senatorial rebellion becomes in the Bard’s hands and in the amorous arms of the queen of the Nile a doting fool. We knew he could be sensitive. We saw him mourn Brutus‘ death, but that display of humanity hardly prepared us for this portrayal of catastrophic collapse of independence, strength, courage and judgment.

In the tragedy, we see brief flashes of his former military brilliance and decisiveness, but they are quickly quenched by treachery and more often by the dominating power Egypt (Cleopatra) has over this Roman ruler. It makes him unwilling and too weak in the end to defend his (and her) interests.

Antony and Cleopatra at the naval conflict of Actium

Cleopatra’s retreat from the action at Actium brings Anthony’s fall. Painting at National Maritime Museum in London.

Cleopatra’s retreat from a naval battle (Battle of Actium) and Antony’s ensuing withdrawal assured his defeat and disgrace. Losing the battle to former ally and fellow Roman ruler Octavius, all that’s left for Antony is death by his own hand.

For Cleopatra, she must follow her betrayed lover into the shadows or be paraded and mocked in Rome. A smuggled-to-her asp quickly brings her painless, peaceful death (“the joy of the worm”).

In the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s death and the defeat of his assassins, Roman rule is divided geographically between three men: Octavius Caesar, Antony and Lepidus. Antony and Cleopatra, the play, traces the eclipse of the Roman Republic as first Lepidus falls, then Antony (only incidentally Cleopatra), leaving Octavius alone as Augustus Caesar, dictator of the Roman Empire and world and cornerstone of the then-possible Pax Romano.

The play is based on Plutarch and Samuel Day’s 1594 Cleopatra.

The message of Antony and Cleopatra? Lack of self control leads to destruction and being a Roman ruler is not a safe occupation and should be avoided if possible.

For pathetic, disabling, manipulative emotion being disguised as romance, I give Antony and Cleopatra one Bard:Reading Shakespeare to mark 450 years


Quotes I liked:

Messenger: The nature of bad news infects the teller.

Antony: What our contempts do often hurl from us, we wish it ours again.

Charmian: In time we hate that which we often fear.

Menecrates: We, ignorant of ourselves, beg often our own harms, which the wise powers deny us for our good; so find we profit by losing of our prayers.

Enobarbus: Every time serves for the matter that is then born in’t.

Lepidus: When we debate our trivial difference loud, we do commit murder in healing wounds.

Lepidus: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile? Antony: It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad as it hath breath: it is just so high as it is, and moves with its own organs: it lives by that which nourisheth it; and, the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.

Antony: If I lose my honor, I lose myself.

Antony: I have fled myself, and have instructed cowards to run and show their shoulders.

Antony: O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt? How I convey my shame out of thine eyes by looking back, what I have left behind ‘Stroy’d in dishonour.

Cleopatra: Is Antony or we in fault for this? Enobarbus: Antony only, that would make his will lord of his reason.

Enobarbus: I see men’s judgments are a parcel of their fortunes; and things outward do draw the inward quality after them, to suffer all alike.

Enobarbus: Mine honesty and I begin to square. The loyalty well held to fools does make our faith mere folly:—yet he that can endure to follow with allegiance a fallen lord does conquer him that did his master conquer, and earn a place i’ the story.

Enobarbus: To be furious is to be frighted out of fear

Enobarbus: When valour preys on reason it eats the sword it fights with.

Antony: My fortunes have corrupted honest men!

Octavius Caesar: The time of universal peace is near: Prove this a prosperous day, the three-nook’d world shall bear the olive freely.

Agrippa: Strange it is that nature must compel us to lament our most persisted deeds.

Cleopatra: Be it known that we, the greatest, are misthought for things that others do

Caesar: Make not your thoughts your prisons

Clown: A very honest woman, but something given to lie; as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty

Clown: I wish you all joy of the worm.

Next Up: Cymbeline

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2 Responses to “Doomed Bardic Romance of Antony and Cleopatra”

  1. Sam Says:

    That’s the idea, though- in Plutarch’s Life of Antony, Plutarch underscores how Antony’s promise was ultimately put to waste by his infatuation for Cleopatra. The moral of the story would be that any weakness in one’s personal life would bleed into one’s public affairs; yes, that excessive “lack of self control leads to self-destruction”, but even that mere love-blindness leads to a complete impairing of basic common sense. The Battle of Actium was a farce Antony could’ve avoided after all! But Antony’s normally shrewd military judgement forgot that his troops were stronger on land because Cleopatra wanted a fight at sea. Also, Shakespeare did mean to portray their relationship as “pathetic, disabling, manipulative emotion” because he understood that the dynamic between Antony and Cleopatra was tenuous and rather insincere- infatuation instead of affection. I personally loathe Antony and Cleopatra as a Shakespearean work and as a piece of literature in general, yet Shakespeare does deserve a little more credit for getting the finer nuances of both Antony’s character and the so-called “romance”.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for your insights. It’s also one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays. The second season (2015) of Shakespeare Uncovered includes a look at Antony and Cleopata. The series does a better job on some plays than others, but in case you’re interested and haven’t seen it, it’s look at A&C is available for watching at

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