Antony & Cleopatra Synopsis
Period written: 1607-1608
First known performance:
Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus are a triumvirate ruling the Roman Empire; but Antony prefers to spend his time at leisure in Egypt as a consort to Queen Cleopatra rather than in Rome. News of his wife’s death, and of a threatened revolt by young Pompey, motivates his return, much to Cleopatra’s disapproval.
A meeting takes place between Caesar, Lepidus, and Antony, at which they acknowledge the importance of maintaining their alliance. As a sign of good faith, Antony agrees to marry Octavia, Caesar’s widowed sister. Cleopatra receives news of this arrangement with great anger, to the discomfiture of the messenger who brings it.
The triumvirs and Pompey meet and agree a peace, which they celebrate with a drunken feast. Following the successful campaign of Antony’s general Ventidius in Parthia, Antony and Octavia leave Rome. However, it is not long before Antony receives news of Caesar’s increasing disaffection, and of renewed wars by Pompey. He allows Octavia to return to Rome to attempt a reconciliation. But he then returns to Egypt, and to Cleopatra, which incenses Caesar further. Lepidus meanwhile has been arrested for conspiracy, leaving the stage clear for a confrontation between Caesar and Antony.
Antony ignores advice from his officer and friend Enobarbus not to meet the Romans at sea, and is defeated near Actium, following the flight of Cleopatra and the Egyptian fleet. Caesar sends Thidias to negotiate with Cleopatra, but Antony has him whipped and sent back to Rome. Enobarbus then deserts Antony for Caesar, leaving his personal treasure behind; but when Antony generously sends this after him, Enobarbus dies is consumed with grief, and dies.
Caesar and Antony continue their conflict. Antony has some success by land, but the Egyptian fleet once again loses at sea, and he charges Cleopatra with betrayal. In an attempt to win back his affection, she takes herself and her maids off to her burial monument, sending him word that she is dead. Grief-stricken at the news, Antony asks his servant Eros to kill him, but Eros kills himself rather than carry out the task.
Antony then attempts to kill himself, wounding himself grievously, only to hear that Cleopatra is still alive. He is carried to her monument, where he dies in her arms.
Antony’s follower Decretas informs Caesar of his death, and Proculeius is sent to bring Cleopatra to Rome. Cleopatra knows she will become a public spectacle there, and attempts to kill herself, but is prevented. She has a meeting with Caesar, where she feigns total submission, but her attempt to conceal some of her wealth is revealed by her treasurer Seleucus. Arrangements to take her to Rome are made, but she manages to have a clownish rustic smuggle in a basket of figs containing asps, and she and her maids all die from their bite.