_____Antony and Cleopatra "is both a tragedy and a history play," like Richard II, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. And like Romeo and Juliet, it's a "double tragedy." But as a tragic figure, Antony "undergoes no apparent struggle, never defines or articulates the nature of his choice (which is, again, perfectly clear to the audience) or seems to foresee its consequences. Like Coriolanus, Shakespeare's other great Roman soldier, he never intellectualizes, has practically no soliloquies and acts always upon impulse."
In his inability (or refusal) to recognize the momentous nature of his choice or to face up to and learn from its consequences, Antony is unlike Shakespeare's other tragic heroes. Macbeth, by contrast, is entirely aware of the significance of Duncan's murder even before the commits it. Antony is shown to limited intellectually and even imaginatively.... He is often shown in situations in which he is overshadowed or worsted by sharper intellects such as Caesar's and especially by Cleopatra's.... He is most miserably degraded ... in his failure to perform the decorous suicide which he attempts and which, in retrospect, he likes to think he has accomplished. One has only to recall the death of Brutus to see the difference.The failure of Antony and Cleopatra to fit the pattern of Shakespearean tragedy bothered A.C. Bradley, who declined to rank it alongside the "famous four" (Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Othello) in his study of tragedies. It lacked the "consistently high seriousness to which he responded in Lear and Macbeth," and though he recognized that Shakespeare was trying "something different" in the play, he seems to have regarded the attempt as a failure.
Nothing purely good or evil can be found in the play and what seems admirable in one context is shown as ridiculous in another -- or rather, appears as both admirable and ridiculous at one and the same time. A tragedy founded on such assumptions could not satisfy Victorian readers who looked to it to console and sustain them. In the sceptical twentieth century it has been better appreciated.Antony and Cleopatra is also distinctive for its language and style: "Shakespeare fashioned for Antony and Cleopatra a way of speaking which he used in no other play." Plutarch refers to Antony as having adopted an "Asiatic" manner of speaking: "full of ostentation, foolish braverie, and vaine ambition." For the play, Shakespeare created an ornate and elaborate way of speaking for his lead characters "to reflect the Alexandrian way of life" -- as contrasted with the Roman. It depends on hyperbole: "Cleopatra expresses every possible emotion from rapturous joy and uncontrollable rage to suicidal despaire, but seems incapable of moderation, the Roman 'measure' or golden mean."
The imagery of the play is cosmic.
The impression that the play encompasses vast expanses of territory and that the conflict is one in which the politics of the world are at stake was one which the nineteenth-century actor-managers hoped to create by dramatic spectacle, but in fact such extravagant and cumbersome means were unnecessary. The impression is created more than sufficiently by Shakespeare's language.When he speaks to Octavia, Antony is "a great deal more sober and factual" than he is when he speaks to Cleopatra, leaving the impression that he has learned his "Asiatic" style from her. Antony and Cleopatra tend "to use similar words and figures of speech." Throughout the play, "the Romans are characterized by their moderation, their temperance and ability to control their feelings. Temperance is a virtue which Caesar admired in Antony before he encountered Cleopatra." Octavia is described as having "a holy, cold and still conversation." Cleopatra is anything but cold: She "sees herself as black from the 'amorous pinches' of the sun god." Even Enobarbus is affected by the contrast between Rome and Egypt: "in the early scenes [he] tends to speak prose ... an appropriate medium for the knowing, pragmatic, experienced soldier ... but once he recalls Cleopatra's spectacular arrival in her barge ... he modulates into the heightened figurative speech associated with Egypt."
Shakespeare's alterations to his source, North's translation of Plutarch, were many. Enobarbus was created in part to take the role of narrator, and he "has much of Plutarch's open-mindedness and detachment. It is he who, in what are almost entirely Plutarch's words, testifies in the 'barge' speech to Cleopatra's extravagance and magnetism ..., who, like Plutarch, foresees the folly of Antony's decision to fight by sea ... and perceives his increasing fool-hardiness." But he's more than just a chorus. "He is a fully realized character, loyal, sociable, sceptical, pragmatic, popular and ultimately tragic. He dies ... of remorse at his own disloyalty." In addition to Plutarch, Shakespeare seems to have read Antonius, the Countess of Pembroke's 1592 tragedy, which also has its roots in Plutarch, and Samuel Daniel's 1594 Cleopatra. But Plutarch is the major source.
Shakespeare also drew from mythology, comparing Antony to Mars and Cleopatra to Venus, and probably from the story as told by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, which was a source for Venus and Adonis. The primary mythological figure associated with Antony, however, is Hercules, who leaves Antony on the night before battle, as Bacchus does in Plutarch. The story of Hercules being infatuated with Omphale, who dressed him in women's clothes and made him spin thread while she brandished his club, is echoed "when Cleopatra recalls how she put her tires and mantles on Antony while she wore his sword Philippan." In another story of Hercules, told by Xenophon, the demigod is approached by two women, representing Virtue and Vice. The latter offers "a life free from hardship, effortlessly devoted to the pleasures of food, drink and love," whereas Virtue promises "only the toil and hardship which lead to glory." A similar choice is presented Antony "when he has to choose between Cleopatra and Octavia, and the implied allusion reflects both favourably on him in that he is associated with a demi-god, and at the same time unfavourably, since, unlike his supposed ancestor, he ultimately chooses the path of 'Vice.'"
Antony is also compared, or rather contrasted, to Aeneas, "lured from his duty to Rome by the love of a woman." Like Dido, Cleopatra "is a queen of a North African people and stages her own suicide after her lover has gone." Antony, preparing for his death, imagines that he and Cleopatra will join Dido and Aeneas in the afterlife, though in the Aeneid, when Aeneas sees Dido in the underworld she turns away from him. Shakespeare may also have had Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, in mind when writing Antony and Cleopatra. As for Cleopatra, she is identified with the Egyptian goddess Isis, and Shakespeare may have known from William Adlington's translation of Apuleius's Golden Ass that Isis was associated with serpents, and particularly with the asp.
Antony and Cleopatra was probably written shortly after Macbeth, in which there is an allusion to Antony: "When, having become king, Macbeth reveals a sense of inferiority towards Banquo, he recalls Mark Antony's similar uneasiness towards Octavius Caesar." In May 1608, Edward Blount acquired the rights to publish two works: "Pericles Prynce of Tyre" and "Anthony. & Cleopatra." They are described as "books" and not plays, but they are "almost certainly" Shakespeare's plays "if only because Blount was unlikely to have acquired the rights to two non-Shakespearean works with titles identical to those of plays by Shakespeare." There is no evidence, however, that Blount published Antony and Cleopatra, although there were two unauthorized publications of Pericles by someone else in the following year. There is some evidence that the play may have been written a year or two before Blount registered it, particularly in some echoes of Shakespeare's version in the revision of Samuel Daniel's Cleopatra in 1607. Daniel seems to have become familiar with Shakespeare's play, either in performance or in manuscript. Daniel had been a licenser of plays submitted for performance at court from February 1604 through April 1605. It's possible, then, that Shakespeare's play was "completed, though not necessarily performed, three or four years earlier than has hitherto been supposed." But there are no references to the play after Blount's registration of it in 1608 until 1623, when Blount and Isaac Jaggard registered it again, along with fifteen other Shakespeare plays, in preparation for the First Folio.
"Many features of the Folio text indicate that the copy used in Jaggard's printing house was not Shakespeare's 'foul papers' but a transcript of them, and not one prepared by the prompter for use in the theatre." ("Foul papers" are an author's working drafts.) There are some "ghost characters" in the Folio who are listed in the stage directions but don't speak or perform any significant action, suggesting that Shakespeare listed them but decided not to use them after all and forgot to delete their names. A prompter's copy would have eliminated them entirely. There are also some inconsistencies in stage directions, entries and exits, that suggest that the text used for the Folio was not a prompter's copy. Vague stage directions, "such as the entry of 'two or three Servants,'" also suggest that "Shakespeare supplied the general idea and left it to the players to decide how many people where available. These features point strongly to the author's manuscript as the copy used for setting the Folio text." The play is also one of six (including Troilus and Cressida, the second and third parts of Henry VI, Romeo and Juliet and Timon of Athens) that are not divided into acts and scenes in the Folio.