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Antony and Cleopatra - Tragedy or not


This is one of Shakespeares first efforts at tragedy and makes us question whether or not we pity the hero .

It is unclear whether or not Shakespeare wanted us to experience feelings of katharsis when seeing Antony's actions .

Recommendable Yes:

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How does it compare to similar works?Very good

How does it compare to works by the same author?Very good

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In classical terms, a play must have certain features for it to be a tragedy. This is called “tragic theory”. Tragic theory dictates that, in order for a play to be a tragedy, it must fulfil specific criteria. There must be a tragic hero; somebody who has great reputation or prosperity. This tragic hero is to some degree responsible for his own demise; he makes an error of judgement, a tragic flaw. However, this is also seen as inevitable, he is seen as destined to this tragic end. Is Marc Antony a tragic hero? Are we, when watching the play left with the feelings (pity and fear) that are associated with a tragedy? Does “Antony and Cleopatra” have tragic effect?

We hear about Mark Antony very early in the play; in the first scene Philo’s opening speech tells us how Antony is and has been:

Philo: Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front….

This is the opening passage of the play and, already, it shows Antony has tragic potential. He has been great - Philo is almost making him out to have been god like. This deification shows us that Antony was a man of extremely high reputation. However, his speech also tells us that Antony is falling from greatness, by saying that he is becoming besotted with a woman - Cleopatra. This makes Antony out to be a tragic hero right from the outset. It also makes a suggestion as to what his tragic flaw is - Cleopatra or, rather, his infatuation with her. This opening is a kind of preparation for what is to come in the play, not unlike the opening lines of “Romeo and Juliet”.

Although we have seen that Antony has tragic qualities from the very beginning, we also understand that fate has an important role to play in his demise. Antony is destined to fall from greatness and, even though we have seen Antony’s tragic flaw, there is a feeling that Antony’s future is somehow preordained. This is shown in III. xiii. 173, where Antony says, “I will oppose his (Caesar’s) fate” This shows that Antony believes that Caesar somehow has luck on his side and that Antony is seeking to overrule this destiny. Another example of Antony’s belief that Octavius Caesar has all of the luck is shown when he consults the Soothsayer (II. iii. 10-39) who tells him that Caesar has infinitely more luck than Antony:

Soothsayer: If thou dost play him (Caesar) at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and of that natural luck
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds…

After this Antony makes a very interesting speech (II. iii. 32-39), which shows us that he already knew Caesar had luck on his side: He says, “He (the soothsayer) hath spoken true.” He continues to verify the point by showing how bad this is for him:
Antony: If we draw lots, he speeds (wins);
His cocks do win the battle still of mine
When all is to naught, and his quails ever
Beat mine, inhooped, at odds.

This speech endears Antony to us; we see how futile he must feel by fighting against Caesar and this incredible luck that he seems to have. We see that Antony’s efforts fighting Caesar will probably not be enough, even if he has a better army and the odds in his favour. This is another tragic technique; we accept that Antony has probably caused many of his problems but also see that his demise is, perhaps, inevitable due to Octavius Caesar’s apparent good fortune.

As well as Caesar’s good fortune, there are also the errors of judgement that Antony makes which lead to his fall from greatness. In short, we see that Antony has brought most of his problems on himself due to an apparent lack of foresight. The first of these is that he spends most of his time in Egypt, making Caesar angry with him. The most ill informed decision was that of Antony to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia. On the other hand, we see that Antony is attempting to appease Caesar and this decision, even though we doubt whether Antony can be faithful to Octavia, is seen as necessary – or at least difficult for Antony not to go along with without giving greater offence to Caesar. This makes Antony’s marriage to Octavia seem the only way out for him but, Shakespeare puts many misgivings into our minds at this time by the words of Enobarbus, Antony’s closest and most loyal servant:
Agrippa: Now Antony must leave her (Cleopatra) utterly.
Enobarbus: Never. He will not.

This is only just after Antony has told Caesar that he will marry his sister. If Enobarbus does not believe that Antony will leave Cleopatra then it confirms what we suspected anyway; Antony will return to Egypt to see Cleopatra – it is inevitable.

The further Antony seems to fall from greatness, the longer the play goes on, we begin to see his judgement becoming worse and worse. He starts to make blatant errors and becomes almost foolish in his decisions. One example of this is where he opts to fight Caesar by sea; a decision that he comes to after all of his top soldiers told him that they did not stand a chance by sea. The reason why he came to this decision was because Claopatra suggested it. She is clouding his, once great, judgement and she has power over him. When Cleopatra turns her boat around and flees, Antony follows, causing his fleet to do likewise when they were doing well in the battle. This is another reason why Antony’s actions are seen as tragic; even when things are beginning to go well for him; he makes a bad decision and undoes it. This does create feelings of pity and fear for Antony as we can see that it is impossible for Antony to make good decisions in the battle when he is with Cleopatra. But, as we have seen, it is also impossible for him to leave Cleopatra – this is the great tragedy.

Antony himself recognises the folly of his decision to fight at sea and we see his deep regret in act 3 scene 11. His speeches here show us how utterly ashamed he is of himself. He says, “I have lost command”, which he has never done before and he is truly ashamed of; we pity him at this time, perhaps because this speech is very self-pitying. It is an especially tragic moment, Antony can see no way out of his problem and we fear for him.

After this loss at sea and Antony’s apparent complete loss of all reason with regards decisions in the battlefield, many of his followers begin to desert him for Caesar. Again, this illustrates Antony’s situation; some of his closest and most loyal servants can see that he is no longer as great as before. These deserters give us the impression that Antony’s position as the joint leader of the world is slipping from his grasp.

When Antony hears of Cleopatra’s suicide, his speeches indicate the magnitude of his fall from greatness:
Antony: Since Cleopatra died
I have lived in such dishonour that the gods
Detest my baseness. I, that with my sword
Quartered the world, and o’er green Neptune’s back
With ships made cities, condemn myself to lack
The courage of a woman…

Antony tells us that he “quartered” the world; he divided and conquered it. He has been great, one of the mightiest warriors that has ever lived, and yet he has fallen from this. So far has he fallen he now has not even “the courage of a woman”, which, particularly in Shakespeare’s times, is starkly opposite to the powerful man he once was. Indeed, after Antony’s bungled suicide, the tragedy is put into words by one of the guards: “The star is fall’n.” (IV. xiv. 117).

This final tragedy for Antony, his death, in the context of the play as a whole, is perhaps not a tragedy at all. This is because his death does not generate the tragic emotions of pity and fear, it, conversely, makes us feel pleased, that Antony has denied Caesar the opportunity of being triumphant over him. It is this fact that can lead us to believe that “Antony and Cleopatra” is not a tragedy at all. One could argue that, because of the ending, Antony is restored to greatness and, because of this, his demise has not been complete. Although the world has become poorer for the loss of Antony, it has become united because of it. Critic T. McAlindon says that “The last scene leaves us with an impression not of waste and failure but of fulfilment and triumph.” In other words, Antony’s final act makes him triumphant once more: as it says in I. ii. 162, all “grief is crowned with consolation.” However, Antony’s actions up to his death and even his suicide itself, make the play tragic. His previous greatness is undeniable, the fact that he is no longer as great equally so and the fact that he cannot even succeed at killing himself increases our pity for him; the “old” Antony would, we assume, have had no trouble.

The treatment of Antony after his death magnifies his tragic qualities. This is mainly the way in which other characters describe Antony’s former greatness. There is much more apotheosis when they are describing Antony after he has killed himself. For example, Caesar says “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack.” His reference to Antony as a thing, rather than a man is an example of this deification. However, when he was alive, Caesar did not pay him the same respect.

Shakespeare shows us a tremendous amount of tragedy through Antony’s language and actions. We see Antony’s fall from greatness, his actions and decisions become foolish. His great, self-pitying speeches suggest his frustration at what he can see is his own demise. Antony, towards the end of the play, becomes more and more irrational, in an attempt to restore himself, but to no avail, he only succeeds in making matters worse. Antony’s final action encapsulates the way things have become, as he cannot even despatch himself properly when he falls on his sword. As we go through the play, Antony’s actions lead us to fear for him and pity him. The things that he says increase these feelings as it becomes clear that he has fallen from being a great leader of the world to someone who “lacks the courage of a woman” and has difficulty even in killing himself. Antony is definitely a tragic character, whom we pity.
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Comments about this review »

chicane 23.08.2001 10:26

i'm sorry but i have to comment! although the chronology of shakespeare's plays is by no means certain it is generally accepted that Anthony and Cleopatra was written around 1608 AFTER Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear all accepted as great tragedies therefore Anthony and Cleopatra is hardly the first outing in tragedy for Shakespeare that you suggest (perhaps you know something i dont?). Also the play is called Anthony and CLEOPATRA indicating not a single protagonist but a playing around by shakespeare with the theory of tragedy, with the role of hero, as Cleopatra is equally as tragic as Anthony so to ignore her in your op is missing half the play (in my opinion). sorry to be so critical but i love shakespeare and hate to see him portrayed falsely (which you only do in part) i like the bit at the end though about triumph and tragedy, that was very good and VH - sam

darrenloud 22.08.2001 23:53

A truely superb opinion. You have a terrific writing style! Cheers.....Darren

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Type Play
Title Antony and Cleopatra
Author William Shakespeare


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This review of Antony and Cleopatra - William Shakespeare has been rated:

"very helpful" by (71%):

  1. arbie
  2. seagulls-lost-horizon
  3. Boris

and 2 other members

"helpful" by (29%):

  1. eeeekkk
  2. chicane

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