Antony and Cleopatra abbreviated

Mark Antony and his forces defeated Brutus and Cassius on the Plains of Philippi in 30 BC.  That historic time may have been only a few months before this play begins. Brutus and Cassius had been the leaders of the Conspirators who murdered Julius Caesar in 32 BC.  Mark Antony had been Julius Caesar’s chief of staff.  Julius Caesar had been stabbed to death there on the steps of the Roman Senate by the Conspirators on the ides of March, the fifteenth of March, 32 BC.  His death created a political vacuum in Rome; a vacuum that was soon filled by Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, the three of them becoming known as the triumvirate. The triumvirate had no competition following their win at Philippi. 

Pompey the Great had died in 48 BC and had by reference an important role in the very beginning of the play Julius Caesar.  He also by reference plays an important role in this play, having around 50 BC fled to Egypt after losing a battle.  He was murdered there.  Egypt to a considerable extent was important in this period of Roman history. Roman leaders were spending a good amount of time there, often with Cleopatra, Pompey the Great having been one of them.  In this play, Sextus Pompeius, one of Pompey the Great’s sons, known here less dramatically as Pompey, plays a significant role as an external threat to Rome and the triumvirate.  The triumvirate also had to deal with plenty of internal issues, a central theme of this play. 

Soon after this play begins, Antony, there in Alexandria to be with Cleopatra, learns that his wife Fulvia has died. He also learns that Pompey, who controls the seas, along with help from the pirates Menecrates and Menas, is challenging Antony’s tri-leader Octavius Caesar. (Reflection, Act 1, Scene 2) As a result of Fulvia’s death and the threat posed by Pompey, Antony desperately feels the need to return to Rome, but he has a difficult time telling Cleopatra, and she has a difficult time hearing it. (Jealousy, Act 1, Scene 3) Cleopatra vows to write to him every day.  Rhetorically, Cleopatra asks Charmian, one of her aides “if she ever loved Caesar so,” meaning Julius. (Love, Act 1, Scene 5)  She also reminisces about her time with Pompey the Great. She was quite the woman.

Antony does return to Rome and does meet with Octavius Caesar, but the meeting is frosty. Antony’s wife and her brother had made mischief for Rome while Antony was off carousing in Egypt, all of which have understandably upset Caesar.  Caesar’s aide, Agrippa, changes the tone of the meeting when he suggests that perhaps Antony marry Octavia, Caesar’s newly-widowed sister.  Antony and Caesar promptly agree to the suggestion; Octavia unaware of what her future holds; Antony not planning to not continue to see Cleopatra.  When the principals exit, Enobarbus, an aide to Antony, gloriously describes to Maecenas and Agrippa (two of Caesar’s aides) the scene when Antony first laid eyes on Cleopatra. Shakespeare lays out quite a description of her charismatic charm when she and Antony were first together. She captivated him totally. (Enchantment, Act 2, Scene 2)

Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra berates the messenger when she learns Antony has married Octavia.  We also learn that Enobarbus (Antony’s chief aide) believes that Antony’s marriage to Octavia will lead to more stress between Antony and Caesar.  Enobarbus has it right.

In Rome, trying to negotiate a resolution to his differences with the triumvirate, Pompey invites his adversaries to join him aboard his galley. (History, Act 2, Scene 6) While on the ship, Pompey rejects Menas’ suggestion that they cut the throats of the “three world-sharers.”  While on the ship, Lepidus has too much to drink, the party going on for some time.  He is later carried off the vessel.  The other principals, including Pompey, leave the galley aware that they too are feeling the effects of the wine.

As a side issue and to make a point, Shakespeare has one of Antony’s military officers suggest to another that he put “garlands on his head” and that he ride his chariot proudly through Mesopotamia, the two soldiers having led Antony’s army in a far off land to a convincing victory over the Parthians.  To make his point, Shakespeare has the other officer wisely note that “’tis better to leave undone than by our deed acquire too high a fame when him we serve is away.” (Insight, Act 3, Scene 1)

Antony and Octavia leave for Athens, Antony being a little miffed with Caesar, feeling he does not treat him with enough respect.  Caesar and his sister Octavia have a very nice relationship.  Octavia soon leaves Athens for Rome to see her brother and to see if she can help mend the rift.  Caesar and Lepidus engage Pompey in a battle.  Pompey is killed, rumored to be the result of action by one of Antony’s officers.  Consolidating his power, Caesar has Lepidus imprisoned, accusing him of having been too close to Pompey.  Octavius Caesar secures Pompey’s renowned navy.  Antony leaves for Alexandria; Antony and Caesar’s rocky relationship deteriorates. 

Antony unilaterally decides to confront Caesar at sea, rather than on land, as advised by his advisors.  Cleopatra offers her sixty ships to help the cause; help that ends up being worthless.  Antony’s navel forces and the Egyptian navy fall quickly. (Capitulation, Act 3, Scene 11) An embarrassed and depressed Antony indirectly asks Caesar for a pardon.  His request is denied.  Caesar sends an agent to Cleopatra to determine if she is willing to leave Antony; to begin spending time with him. She isn’t. A jealous Antony learns of the request, is infuriated, and decides to regroup his and her navies and once again go after Caesar. Antony has a strong army, but he wants to redeem himself at sea.  Cleopatra lauds his bravery.  It’s her birthday.  They party. 

Antony writes a taunting letter to Caesar.  Antony and Caesar prepare for land and sea battles.  Antony’s long-time friend Enobarbus, thinking he sees the handwriting on the wall, leaves Antony for Caesar before the land battle begins.  While the servants prepare a feast, Antony thanks those around him for their service. It’s a very nice moment. A land battle ensues.  Caesar’s forces retreat and retire. (Capitulation, Act 4, Scene 12) Enobarbus dies, but not in the battle.  Antony and his troops return victoriously to Alexandria.  His thoughts promptly turn to another sea battle.  As the sea battle begins, Antony, from a distance, watches his and Egypt’s navies concede the battle to Caesar.  Antony, having had little sleep, turns on Cleopatra, claiming she has betrayed him. He lashes out at her. Believing he is mad, Cleopatra rushes to her tomb to hide. (Anger, Act 4, Scene 12)  Falsely, Antony is told that Cleopatra has died.  Antony demands Eros kill him, Eros having been his slave, now being his servant.  When Antony turns his head, Eros denies him, stabbing and killing himself.  A distraught Antony then tries to kill himself and fails, but in the suicide attempt injures himself seriously.  Learning that Cleopatra is not dead, Antony has his servants carry him to her, where he talks with her briefly and then dies. (Death, Act 4, Scene 15)

Learning of Antony’s death and upset that Cleopatra has denied his interests in her, Caesar (semi-secretly) decides to parade Cleopatra through the streets of Rome as a spoil of war.  Dolabella, an aide to Caesar, but having sympathy for Cleopatra, tells her of Caesar’s plan. Caesar visits Cleopatra and tries to win her over, but she holds her own, Caesar unable to convince her that he will provide her with a safe haven. (Love, Act 5, Scene 2) Cleopatra then famously has a countryman from the Nile provide her with a basket of poisonous snakes. Caesar makes an attempt to capture her, but before he can get to her, stoic Cleopatra, Charmian, and Iras let the snakes bite them, the three women dying promptly.  With some beautiful comments to Dolabella, as Shakespeare can so easily do, Caesar honors Antony and Cleopatra. (Honor, Act 5, Scene 2)

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