Here’s a Literature Essay on Shakespeare’s play ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ — Public Events and Private Feelings.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of my favourite ever plays and I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing this one.

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‘The Roman plays reveal the extent to which public events are determined by private feelings.’ Discuss.

THE ESSAY — Public Events and Private Feelings

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Roman culture is uniform throughout the entirety of the Roman plays. The values of Roman society are political efficiency, organization, and ruthlessness. We would assume, therefore, that political motives lay behind most of the decisions that are made and events that ensue. However, this is not always the case and the public events that occur often appear to be fuelled by emotional disputes. The shocking ruthlessness which occurs in Titus Andronicus, for instance, is sparked off by Titus’ decision to sacrifice Tamora’s son, which he feels will avenge his own dead sons. Although the sacrifice is also an issue of honour and an ostentatious display of military conquest, both of which are ostensibly Roman tenets, there is still a sense of true grief and emotional turmoil following the loss of his children. Coriolanus is also a flawed character whose character flaws eventually lead to his political downfall despite his status and military prowess. In Antony and Cleopatra, public events appear to be influenced almost exclusively by private feelings, as Antony’s actions and decisions throughout the play are determined by his love for Cleopatra, and he appears bound to her will. In this essay, I shall focus primarily on Antony and Cleopatra, where the political scope of the events is complemented by the emotional scope of the characters.

It is clear from the beginning of the play that the political and personal identities of the three main characters in Antony and Cleopatra are inextricably bound; Cleopatra, for instance, is referred to as ‘Egypt’ throughout. As the characters represent more than just themselves, the decisions they make can never be purely personal, and so inevitably will have repercussions on the rest of the world. The emotionally driven characters of Antony and Cleopatra and their impulsive actions are therefore set in sharp contrast to Caesar’s pragmatic and Machiavellian approach to decision-making. John Wilders notes that

‘As in all his political plays, Shakespeare portrays this struggle in terms of the central personalities engaged in it. In other words, Caesar ultimately wins and Antony loses because of the kind of people they are and because of the irresistible power which Cleopatra exercises over Antony.’ [1]

Political conflict within the play is not based on ideology or cultural differences, but instead on personal displays of power and the potential for private gain. Although Antony can be seen to betray Rome, its people and its ideologies in favour of the more exotic Egyptian way of life, Caesar also acts purely for his own self-improvement, showing little regard for the Roman people or even any care for his own sister, whom he forces to marry Antony in an attempt to keep the peace. Frank Kermode acknowledges that all of the characters are in a sense governed by their flaws and that these, in turn, are what determine the outcome of the political events, which occur:

‘What will decide the fate of the world? The answers are multiple; there is the cowardice of Cleopatra at Achim; the weakness of Antony in fleeing with her; and the “luck of Caesar”. ’[2]

Here Kermode asserts that Caesar’s rational and calculated approach to politics does not necessarily make him a good leader or worthy of his success and that his win was brought about because the flaws of Antony and Cleopatra were greater than his own in regards to political and military spheres. None of the characters appears responsible enough to be in control of the world, and this is because they allow their private lives to encroach too much on public events. The fact that ‘the fate of the world’ hangs on their actions means that the implications of their decisions have much more gravitas than they would for ‘normal’ people, and consequently that their character flaws are magnified.

‘Mass Man’ by Derek Walcott – Context and Attitudes

Cleopatra’s character and allure are so forceful that she makes Antony change roles. In Julius Caesar, he is portrayed as a brave, intelligent figure whose conquests are numerous and whose speeches have the power to change the opinion of entire crowds. Here, the audience is faced with another side of Antony, an older Antony who plays the role of the lover whose previous values have been eclipsed by his obsession with Cleopatra. He becomes increasingly governed by his emotions and acts impulsively rather than rationally. At the beginning of the play, his actions still retain some semblance of political motives. His marriage to Octavia, for instance, is a pragmatic and political decision that is orchestrated to keep the peace between himself and Caesar. However, his decision to carry on cavorting with Cleopatra despite the marriage indicates that from the offset his emotions preside over his rational thinking. We are arguably faced with a portrayal of a great man in decline, and throughout the play, there is little evidence of the great warrior and political figure he once was. H.A. Mason notes that

‘We are told I don’t know how many times that he was a supreme specimen of humanity, so lofty indeed that to indicate the scale it was necessary to suppose that his nature partook of the divine. The Antony who is presented dramatically never makes us believe in these reports.’ [3]

Antony himself appears at several points throughout the play to acknowledge that he is no longer the man he once was. When trying to reclaim the Roman ideals and authority he once had, he declares ‘I am/Antony yet.’ (3.1.98–9) suggesting that he is aware of his earlier status and that he is no longer the same man. [4] The split in the concept may also indicate uncertainty. Cleopatra is also aware of the change in Antony. He does, however, retain traces of his old self, which is manifest in some of his more empowering speeches:

‘I will be treble-sinewed, hearted, breathed,

And fight maliciously. For when mine hours,

Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives

Of me for jests. But now, I’ll set my teeth

And send to darkness all that stop me.’


Throughout the play, there is recurrent imagery concerning change, transformation, merging, and melting. The word ‘become’ and its derivatives appear 17 times throughout the play. Antony’s character, in particular, is suspended within the transitional process of ‘becoming’: ‘Authority melts from me’ (3.13.96), he declares, while the world around him dissolves and reshapes itself. The instability of the political situation, with constant revisions of decisions and breaking of oaths, mirrors the emotional instability of the characters. Cleopatra, in particular, is an extremely volatile character, and a sense of the scope and depth of her character can be glimpsed through Enobarbus’ opulent description of her on a barge:

‘It beggared all description: she did lie,

In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,

O’erpicturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork of nature’


Such a description almost justifies Antony’s infatuation, and appears to align Cleopatra’s beauty with an ethereal otherworldliness which is dangerously alluring. Anna Jameson writes that

Cleopatra is a brilliant antithesis, a compound of contradictions, of all that we must hate, with what we most admire […] What is most astonishing in the character of Cleopatra is its antithetical construction — its consistent inconsistency.’[5]

The inconsistency of her character translates into the inconstancy of her actions — she is fickle towards the messengers, praises Antony one moment and chides him the next and, above all, pledges to fight side by side with Antony and then flees the battle. Wilders observes that ‘The sense of the inconstant, shifting nature of our impressions that is expressed by the structure of the play and the preoccupations of the characters extends also to its distinctive images’, such images being of melting, fading and transforming, which reflect both the feelings and relations of the characters and the world which they inhabit.[6]

The Roman and Egyptian archetypes are set in sharp contrast against each other, and are embodied within Caesar and Cleopatra. Caesar signifies a political, military, pragmatic, rational and masculine ideal, which supports the notuon of subservience of the individual to the common good of the state; Cleopatra signifies an emotional, luxurious, impulsive and exotic ideal where social responsibility gives way to the demands of sensation. Antony, on the other hand, oscillates between the two, and is caught between his sense of duty and his love for Cleopatra (it is befitting, therefore, that the battle should take place at sea). His roles differ between the two worlds — in Rome he is an old soldier with great past achievements; in Egypt he is a new lover. The weight of the forces of these opposing worlds which bore down on him can be felt even after his death. The eulogy given by Caesar in recognition of Antony’s reputation –

‘Thou didst drink

The stale of horses and the gilded puddle

Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign

The roughest berry on the rudest hedge.

Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,

The bark of trees thou browsed […]

And all this –

It wounds thine honour that I speak it now –

Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek

So much as lanked not.’


– expresses the heroic qualities which Ceasar himself admires, and strives for. Cleopatra, on the other hand, sees Antony in a different light:

‘I dreamt there was an emperor Antony.

O, such another sleep, that I might see

But such another man! […]

His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck

A sun and moon which kept their course and lighted

The little O, the earth. […]

His delights

Were dolphin-like: they showed his back above

The element they lived in. In his livery

Walked crowns and crownets; realms and islands were

As plates dropped from his pocket’


Both characters project the qualities they most value onto Antony, Ceasar’s portrayal is a retrospective and glorified insight into his reputable past whereas Cleopatra’s is a dream vision which elevates him to the status of a god. The reality, however, is that Antony is a flawed character who is no longer the great soldier he once was or as free a man as he’d like to be. It is his imperfections which allow the audience to empathise with him, and the suspension of his character between the two worlds which fuel the action within the play.

Although the private feelings of the characters inevitable shape the events which occur in the play, the extent to which they do so can also to some degree depend upon how they are performed. Often the audience can empathise more with Antony because of his deliberations and the scope of his emotions, and less with Caesar, whose pragmatism, calculated militance and double-crossing come across as devious and expedient. However, it is possible to portray Antony and Cleopatra’s behaviour as unnecessarily ostentatious, fickle and irrational and Caesar, who is often the ‘villain’ of the piece, as rational and to some extent diplomatic (as he does on several occasions attempt to ‘save’ Antony from his ‘lascivious wassails’ (1.4.57). Equally, the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra can be portrayed as honourable and transcendent, as G. Wilson Knight notes –

‘We see the protagonists, in love and war and sport, in death or life or that mystery containing both, transfigured in a transfigured universe, themselves the universe and more, outpacing and wheeling orbs of earth and heaven […] so Cleopatra and Antony find not death but life.’[7]

– or as a cowardly escape from the consequences they would have to face if they lived. Cleopatra’s motives for suicide could be that she genuinely loved Antony so much that she couldn’t bear life without him, but also that she couldn’t bear a compromised life as Caesar’s wife. Antony’s motives for suicide are just as ambiguous — it is unclear whether he wants to die because he hears of Cleopatra’s suicide or because he knows he will lose the battle and refuses to be bound by Ceasar’s will.

In conclusion, it is impossible to extricate the characters in Antony and Cleopatra from their actions, and so the events which occur are undoubtedly determined by the impulses and emotions, whims and thoughts of the three main characters. The political conflict which occurs is centred around personal loss or gain, and not around ideaology, and so the conflicts are fuelled by private emotions. There is also, however, an element of there being an inherent difference between the Roman and Egyptian worlds, and the feelings of the characters are determined to a large extent by which side they choose to empathise with. This conflict between passion and reason is ultimately what transfers into a battle of worlds and, as the Cleopatra and Caesar embody the two spheres, their private feelings are an inherent part of that. Antony’s private feelings appear to oscillate between wanting to recapture his past military glory and searching for a new type of transcendent glory through his love for Cleopatra, and it is ultimately his indecision to commit fully to either which leads to his downfall. Although the portrayal of the characters in performance has the ability to shed new light on their personalities and present them from slightly different perspectives, the events which occur are undeniably a result of personal conflicts and decisions.


[1] William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, 3rd edn., ed. John Wilders (London: Routledge, 1995) p.2

[2] Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language, (LOOK UP BOOK), p.221

[3] H.A. Mason, ‘Antony and Cleopatra: Telling versus Showing’, The Cambridge Quarterly Vol.1 (1966), p.202

[4] All quotations from Antony and Cleopatra are from William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra, 3rd edn. ed. John Wilders., (London: Routledge, 1995)p.217

[5] Anna Jameson, The Romantics on Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Bate (London: Penguin, 1992)

[6] Wilders, p.34

[7] G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, (London: Routledge, 1965) p.62

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