Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Anthony and Cleopatra

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Caesar bids Dolabella — another interesting name, meaning “sad beauty” or “beautiful sorrow” (?) — to summon Antony into his presence. But from one of Antony’s men carrying Anthony’s bloody sword, Caesar learns that Antony is dead by his own hand. Caesar seems surprised: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack” (V.i.14-15). Caesar does seem sincerely sorrowful: “it is tidings / To wash the eyes of kings” (V.i.27-28). But perhaps his eulogy is ambivalent, and he does blame the stars for human fate. A messenger reports that Cleopatra awaits Caesar’s instructions, and Caesar seems to snap back to being a wretch. He wants to make sure she does not kill herself, “for her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph” (V.i.65-66). And he exits saying,

Go with me to my tent, where you shall see
How hardly I was drawn into this war,
How calm and gentle I proceeded still
In all my writings. Go with me, and see
What I can show in this. (V.i.73-77)

So the contrived spin-doctoring is immediate.


Some say that Cleopatra finally comes to true love in Act V. But perhaps it’s more that instead of the perpetual actress, she becomes the playwright now.

Cleopatra obviously plans to end her own life and calls Caesar a paltry “Fortune’s knave” (V.ii.3). Proculeius brings Caesar’s greetings and Cleopatra demands Egypt for her son, but also says, “I hourly learn / A doctrine of obedience” (V.ii.30-31) and wants to see Caesar in person. He’ll report this, but signals soldiers to hold Cleopatra captive, at which her maids are aghast. Cleopatra pulls a knive but is disarmed so that she may not kill herself and rob Caesar of showing the world his “nobleness.” Obviously, Cleopatra is to become the perpetual circus act for Caesar’s greatness when he carts her back to Rome, and Cleopatra insists it’ll never happen. She goes into a rapture about Emperor Antony so that Dolabella cannot get a word in. She gets him to believe that she believes that Caesar will lead her in triumph instead of captivity. A reference to dolphins’ backs indicates that Shakespeare has been to sea (V.ii.89f).

Cleopatra kneels to Caesar when he enters. Caesar warns her that if she tries suicide he’ll kill her children. (This is an empty threat, as neither Cleopatra nor Antony ever cared much about them — the play ignores Antony’s children by Octavia, and only obliquely alludes to the three — twins in about 41 bce and another son later — of Antony and Cleopatra during their eight-year affair. Octavia looked after these three of Antony’s children after Cleopatra’s death. In any case, familial ties are usually negative in Shakespeare. And in life.)

Here’s an interesting scene that the BBC leaves out. Cleopatra forks over a scroll listing her possessions: money, plate, and jewels. She calls for her treasurer Seleucus, who, apparently surprisingly betrays her by revealing that she has cooked the books and is withholding more than half her treasures. Caesar approves her “wisdom” (V.ii.150). She insults Seleucus but notes that she does not go into a rage at him, and downplays her withholdings as “some lady trifles” (V.ii.165). Caesar will not take her possessions, saying, “Caesar’s no merchant” (V.ii.183); he politely leaves.

The holding back of possessions probably reads, to Caesar, as self-preservation, as if she is still clinging to life despite defeat. But isn’t this a prearranged ruse? and a better one than Caesar could muster in Act II? Is Seleucus acting out of treachery or on orders? Is this little drama contrived or spontaneous? Plutarch says that Cleopatra deceived Caesar into believing that she wanted to live, but doesn’t say how she managed it. Shakespeare implies it here: she staged this scene to fool Caesar, and it seems to have worked perfectly — she has gained the opportunity for her final plot.

When Caesar leaves, Cleopatra remarks, “He words me, girls, he words me” (V.ii.191). She tells Iras what being taken to Rome will entail: being put on show. “Mechanic slaves / With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall / Uplift us to the view…. Saucy lictors / Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers / Ballad ‘s out a’ tune” (V.ii.209-216). She then anticipates more:

The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.

CleopatraHere Shakespeare sounds pretty rueful about the Elizabethan stage. Iras indicates she’d sooner scratch her own eyes out than see such a spectacle (V.ii.223-224).

Cleopatra sends for her finest clothes in which she’ll meet Antony again. A man is allowed in, and Cleopatra asks him if he has in his basket “the pretty worm [serpent] of Nilus there / That kills and pains not” (V.ii.243-244). It is, and “his biting is immortal” (V.ii.246-247). This man is cast as a “clown,” and leaves only after some sexual (?) quibbling, wishing Cleopatra “all the joy of the worm” (V.ii.260, 279).

“Worm” is an archaic term for serpent, and the intrusion of this “clown” material seems odd. It is suggested that one read this portion of the scene (of a figure with impunity speaking frankly with a female monarch) with this in mind: the phrase “o’ th’ worm” in French would be “de Ver.” And the work of the worm would be the plays themselves, which no doubt did mortify occasional courtiers. The clown wishes the monarch the joy, not the pain, of the worm.

“Cleopatra sees death not (like Hamlet) as a sinking into silence or (like Macbeth) the end of a meaningless tale, but as the ultimate consummation of her relationship with Antony” (Wells 311) — a liebestod. “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, / Which hurts, and is desir’d” (V.ii.295-296). Iras inexplicably falls dead, and in an apotheosis of insane jealousy, Cleopatra wants to hurry her own death so that Antony doesn’t have a chance to kiss Iras on the other side. Cleopatra holds an asp to her breast and another to her arm, and dies.

As the guards enter, Charmian also applies an asp and dies. Dolabella tells Caesar, “O, sir, you are too sure an augurer; / That you did fear is done” (V.ii.334-335) — simultaneously a bit of flattery and a jab. Caesar asks a bit about the deaths and concludes that they poisoned themselves with the figs. A guard draws his attention to other evidence and Caesar changes his informal coroner’s report to death by asp. For the first time he seems impressed with Cleopatra’s integrity. He instructs that she be “buried by her Antony” (V.ii.358).


There’s more wondering at than identifying with the tragic figures, Antony and Cleopatra, after “the big four” (Wells 300). That there are no real soliloquies in the play also creates this distancing. And according to a Cleopatra historian, perhaps we’re not supposed to identify with these two:

Shakespeare allows passion to speak eloquently for itself. He pictures it gorgeous and seductive, generous and brilliant — but he does not, finally, give it his endorsement…. So intoxicating is the verse in which he allows them to hymn their own passion that the modern reader — accustomed to the Romantic notion that love ennobles the lover — tends to accept their own valuation of themselves and their relationship and is therefore frequently disappointed or startled to notice how ignoble, in fact, they are. Few people in Shakespeare’s first audience would have been thus surprised. (Hughes-Hallett 133)

Caesar may have come across as nobler to the Elizabethan audience than he does to us, but Shakespeare does seem to recognize some other principles too, so although Antony and Cleopatra are a bit much, they’re preferable to insecure administrators, bitchy little Caesars.

For all that they [Antony and Cleopatra] were both quite evidently ambitious and energetic workers in government and politics, Cleopatra and her lover, in their Dionysiac association, are imagined to have slipped the net of social duty. This is what makes them seem so threatening, so abominable to the Apollonian Roman, a type of which Octavius proudly proclaimed himself the prime example. It is also what made their story so attractive. For the dutiful, well-regulated Apollonian, limiting himself to ‘moderation in all things’, must always feel a fleeting envy of the Dionysiac, whose way seems so easy, so self-indulgent, even though it leads in the end to what is, for the Apollonian, the ultimate horror, the annihilation of the self. (Hughes-Hallett 98)

Hear, hear!
Goddard, as usual, has the last poignant perspective:

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in. That is a hard saying for hardhearted men to accept, but it is true. Stories are told, grow old, and are remembered. Battles are fought, fade out, and are forgotten — unless they beget great stories. We put up massive monuments to military heroes because otherwise their very names will be erased. We do not need to put up monuments to great poets nor to those heroes they have made immortal…. He that ruleth himself is better than he that taketh a city. (Goddard, II 208)