Antony and Cleopatra in a Nutshell

Following hot on the heels of Macbeth and being first performed in late 1606 or early 1607, Antony and Cleopatra might be coupled with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s earlier tragedy about erotic recklessness, written eleven years earlier. If, however, Romeo and Juliet might be forgiven for the follies of their head-weak and heart-strong youth, no such excuse or mitigating circumstance applies to the characters of Antony and Cleopatra. They are older and much more seasoned in life and experienced in love. They should know better.

Their tragic weakness, the cause of their downfall, is that they are grown-ups who refuse to grow up. Unable (or at least unwilling) to accept their responsibilities, they wreck their own lives and the lives of others on the recklessness of their destructively self-indulgent passion.

The allegorical scene is set by the play’s very first lines which are spoken, significantly, by a character named Philo, the Greek word for “love.” Philo, the voice of authentic, self-sacrificial love, laments that Antony has forsaken such love for its erotic antithesis, which pursues sexual self-gratification. In the very first line, Philo expresses exasperation at Antony’s “dotage” which “o’erflows the measure”: “His captain’s heart…reneges all temper and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.”

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These lines are the cue for the entry of Antony and Cleopatra, whom we see for the first time, presumably exhibiting the intemperate “dotage” of their intoxicating lust for each other. Philo invites us to share in his own censorious disapproval of their behavior:

Look where they come,
Take but good note, and you shall see in him
The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see.

The moral perspective being established by the voice of Love himself, the remainder of the play is the playing out of the inexorable consequence of the choosing of self-indulgent lust over self-sacrificial love. There are moments when Antony recognizes his slavery to sin and the consequences of his recklessness. “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,” he says, “or lose myself in dotage.” Apart from the self-destructive consequences of his erotic addiction, there are the wider political ramifications of his “dotage”:

I must from this enchanting queen break off.
Ten thousand harms more than the ills I know
My idleness doth hatch.

As is so often the case, Shakespeare takes the drama to deeper allegorical depths through the intertextual employment of biblical allusions. It is, for instance, significant that Antony should send Cleopatra a pearl of great price. She is his heaven. His goddess. The object of his idolatry. As a token of his worship of her, he will sell everything he has: his wife, his country, the lives of his men. He offers the queen of his adulterous heaven everything he has. Every other person is betrayed; all duty is abandoned; every virtue is sacrificed on the altar erected to their vice.

If allusions to Scripture enable Shakespeare to plumb theological depths, nuggets of pure reason enable him to delve deep into axiomatic philosophical truths. We are told that Antony is culpable for the destructive consequences of his actions because he “would make his will lord of his reason.” When we try to subject reason to our will, rather than subjecting our will to reason, we are inevitably and inexorably on the path of self-destruction. 

We see this truth expressed and played out in many of Shakespeare’s plays, a truth that exposes the evil consequences of the philosophy of Machiavelli in Shakespeare’s own day and which prophesies the wicked consequences of the philosophy of Nietzsche, with its advocacy of the supremacy of pride over humility and its call for the will to be made the lord of reason. It is for philosophical insights such as these that Shakespeare remains perennially relevant, a poet and prophet who, as Ben Jonson reminds us, “was not of an age but for all time.”

As the play plummets toward the inevitable downfall of its eponymous protagonists, we are not surprised to see the emergence of another allegorically-charged character, who is aptly named Eros. A servant of Antony, Eros is almost a mere personified abstraction, signifying erotic “love” or lust. Fulminating over Cleopatra’s betrayal of him, Antony calls for his servant: “What Eros, Eros!” It is, however, not the servant who enters on Antony’s cue but Cleopatra, connecting the queen with eros itself. She exits again quickly, fleeing from Antony’s rage, and Antony once again calls for his servant: “Eros, ho!”

Telling Eros of Cleopatra’s treachery, Antony resolves to make a suicide pact with eros itself: “Nay, weep not, gentle Eros. There is left us ourselves to end ourselves.” He asks Eros to “unarm” him and Eros begins to remove his armor, which is allegorically suggestive of the way that erotic desire had disarmed Antony of every virtue. 

Keeping the suicide pact in mind, he tells Eros that they will walk “hand in hand” in the afterlife in the realm of erotic love ruled over by “Dido and her Aeneas,” the erotically besotted lovers in Virgil’s Aeneid, whom Virgil describes as being “prisoners of lust” who are “unmindful of the realm,” neglecting their duties to their respective peoples. Well might Shakespeare make the intertextual connection between his own “prisoners of lust” and those of his illustrious predecessor! 

Eros stabs himself, dying to “escape the sorrow of Antony’s death.” Antony follows suit, declaring that he had learned the art of self-destruction from Eros:

Come then, and, Eros,
Thy master dies thy scholar. To do thus
I learned of thee.

He then stabs himself. The moral is plain enough. Those who will not be masters of erotic desire will be mastered by it, with self-destructive consequences. The scene ends with the bodies of the dead Eros and the mortally wounded Antony being carried offstage.

Cleopatra’s words to Antony, in the final moments before his death, are characteristically self-centered: 

Hast thou no care of me? Shall I abide
In this dull world, which in thy absence is
No better than a sty?

All that remains is Cleopatra’s own selfish act of self-destruction, carried out in spite of Caesar’s warning that he would kill her children should she commit suicide. Her act of self-slaughter is, therefore, also a slaughter of the innocents. She chooses a serpent as the means by which she will take her own life, connecting the play’s final scene to the Book of Genesis. 

She chooses the serpent as the weapon of self-slaughter because its venom “kills and pains not.” Cleopatra chooses her own comfort in death as she had chosen it in life. She is the antithesis of the Christian who is called to accept and embrace suffering by taking up his cross and following Christ. “Peace, peace!” she proclaims as she holds the serpent to her chest. “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast that sucks the nurse asleep?”

Lest we should fail to connect the fall of Cleopatra with the fall of Eve, Shakespeare has the Guard report that the serpent had left a trail of slime on “these fig leaves,” indicating clear proof of the means by which she had died. In making this final biblical allusion, we are invited to see Cleopatra as more than merely a tragic heroine from ancient history but as a representative of fallen Eve and, by extension, our representative also. She is an Everyman figure. She is who we are and who we are doomed to be if we will not accept the redemption offered by Christ.

Editor’s Note: This is the twentieth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: Antony and Cleopatra – Act III, Scene IX]


  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is

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