Agrippa is a friend and follower of Octavius Caesar. It is Agrippa who suggests that the differences between Antony and Octavius might be resolved through marriage between Antony and Caesar’s sister, Octavia. Later, Agrippa leads Octavius Caesar’s forces against Antony.
Alexas is an attendant to Cleopatra. He jokes with Cleopatra’s maids, Charmian and Iras, at the beginning of the play. Late in the play, Alexas is reported to have joined with, and then been executed by, Octavius Caesar.
Antony is the Roman triumvir, or co-leader, and lover of Cleopatra. He spends a great deal of his time in Alexandria with Cleopatra, much to the disgust of his younger fellow triumvir, Octavius. After his first wife, Fulvia, dies while rebelling against Octavius, Antony marries Octavius’s sister, Octavia, to achieve reconciliation with the Roman triumvirate. Antony, however, soon returns to Cleopatra, and Octavius angrily declares war against them both. After losing the battle at Actium, Antony asks to be allowed to retire to Egypt with Cleopatra, but Octavius refuses to grant his request. Antony resumes his war with Octavius, winning one skirmish but badly losing another. In despair over his lost honor and the apparent death of Cleopatra, Antony mortally wounds himself. He goes to Cleopatra’s monument and the two lovers are reconciled before he dies.
While there is critical consensus that Antony functions as a tragic hero in the play, there is disagreement concerning exactly when he becomes a tragic figure and what it is that transforms him. Those commentators who describe Antony as torn between his Roman values of duty and valor and his Egyptian obsession with sex and dissipation assert that he achieves tragic status when he reclaims his honor through the Roman death of suicide. Similarly, critics have suggested that, as long as Antony allows himself to be treated in Egypt as ‘‘a strumpet’s fool’’ (act 1, scene 1, line 13), he remains a ridiculous figure. After he is defeated at Actium, however, Antony’s shame is so intense that his fate becomes tragic. Some critics regard Antony’s own ‘‘weakness’’ as the source of his tragedy. In essence, these critics argue that Antony’s tragedy is that he sacrifices everything—physical strength, honor, political power, respect—simply to indulge his senses with Cleopatra in Egypt. Finally, some scholars assert that Antony stumbles tragically when he tries to have it all—power and respect in Rome alongside ease and love in Egypt.
An alternative view of Antony’s tragic status is that he operates according to a moral code different from the one followed by Octavius. According to this view, the public-oriented Octavius adheres to a standard Roman code of honor that takes into account such issues as political expediency. Antony, on the other hand, defines honor in more personal terms. Loving Cleopatra and enjoying himself in Egypt at the expense of his duties in Rome do not impinge on his sense of honor. However, retreating during the sea battle at Actium is, according to Antony, a cowardly act and is therefore highly dishonorable. In light of this assessment, Antony’s role in the play is a tragic one because he is unable to reconcile his private concept of honor with the general one exemplified by the activities of the triumvirs in Rome.
Antony’s tragic status has also been discussed in tandem with Cleopatra’s role. Commentators who view the lovers as equals argue that, at the beginning of the play, both are self-absorbed despite their love for each other and thus, they are continually in conflict. These critics note that toward the close of the play, Antony and Cleopatra transcend their selfishness as a result of their suffering, and then they learn to recognize each other’s worth and together achieve status as tragic heroes.
Canidius is lieutenant-general to Antony. Along with Enobarbus, Canidius advises Antony against engaging Octavius Caesar in a sea battle at Actium. After the defeat at Actium, Canidius decides to desert Antony and join Octavius.
Charmian is an attendant or maid-in-waiting to Cleopatra. She and Iras are Cleopatra’s closest servants. A soothsayer predicts that she will outlive the lady whom she serves, which proves true, if only by a few minutes. Charmian attends Cleopatra in the monument where the queen commits suicide; after mournfully straightening Cleopatra’s crown, Charmian follows her example by poisoning herself to death with the bite of an asp, a type of venomous serpent, possibly an Egyptian cobra.
Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt and lover of Antony. Although she is aging, Cleopatra is celebrated in the play for her beauty and sexual magnetism. She is jealous of Antony’s connections with Rome and of his apparent subservience to Octavius Caesar. She and Antony join forces to fight Octavius, but when they are ultimately defeated by him, Antony accuses Cleopatra of betrayal. She responds to Antony’s anger by locking herself away in her monument and feigning suicide. Antony himself commits suicide as a result of her apparent death, and Octavius arrives claiming victory over Egypt. Mourning Antony, and afraid of being led in captivity back to Rome, Cleopatra uses asps, to kill herself in her monument.
Critical reaction to Cleopatra has been strong and often negative. Early commentators in particular characterized the Egyptian queen as selfindulgent, self-pitying, capricious, and treacherous. They considered the character Philo’s description of her in act 1 as a lustful ‘‘strumpet,’’ or whore, to be appropriate. They found her taunting of Antony cruel, and her apparent acceptance of Octavius Caesar’s bribe in act 3 reprehensible. They roundly blamed her for Antony’s downfall. Today, scholarly evaluations of Cleopatra are more moderate. Increasingly, commentators have come to regard Antony and Cleopatra as mutually responsible for their fates. Several critics have described the earlier assessments of Cleopatra as extreme and sexist; they emphasize the importance of objectivity to any discussion of the Egyptian queen; further, they observe that she deserves no more and no less sympathy than does, for example, a tragic hero like King Lear or Othello.
Those commentators who view Cleopatra in a negative light usually insist that she is too self-absorbed to qualify for tragic status. There are those, however, who regard her selfish ignorance as the very source of her tragedy. A more temperate version of this argument is that Cleopatra acts out of self-interest until she witnesses Antony’s death. At that point, some critics assert, she recognizes, too late, Antony’s worth and the extent of her love for him; as a result, she achieves tragic status. Cleopatra’s tragedy has also been ranked as commensurate with Antony’s. Scholars contend that both characters are initially self-interested and untrustworthy in love: Cleopatra is jealous of Antony’s preoccupation with Rome; at the same time, Antony tries to satisfy political ambitions through marriage with Octavia. Neither, some commentators assert, achieves tragic status until both reach mutual understanding and love before their deaths at the close of the play.
Some commentators dispense with any discussion of Cleopatra’s qualification as a tragic hero and concentrate instead on the lines accorded to her in the play. She is, they observe, the vehicle for some of Shakespeare’s most eloquent poetry. Her remembrance in act 1, scene 5, for example, of her youth as her ‘‘salad days, / When [she] was green in judgment, cold in blood,’’ (lines 73–74) and her vision of Antony in act 5, scene 2, as someone so remarkable as to be ‘‘past the size of dreaming’’ (line 97) are evocative, and justifiably famous.
The Clown is a comical, rustic character. At Cleopatra’s command, the Clown brings her venomous serpents, or asps, hidden in a basket of figs. Thus, the Clown delivers to Cleopatra her means of suicide in act 5.
Demetrius is a friend and follower of Antony who discusses Antony’s decline with Philo in the first scene of the play.
Diomedes is an attendant to Cleopatra. He is sent by a worried Cleopatra to tell Antony that she is not really dead. But her message comes too late, and the dying Antony asks Diomedes to deliver the final deathblow with his own sword. Diomedes refuses and instead helps deliver Antony to Cleopatra in her monument.
Dolabella is a follower of Octavius Caesar. In act 5, Dolabella warns Cleopatra that Octavius Caesar plans to humiliate her by parading her in disgrace back to Rome. Thus Dolabella precipitates Cleopatra’s decision to commit suicide.
Enobarbus is a friend and follower of Antony. He delivers the famous description of Cleopatra on her barge and accurately predicts that Antony will never be able to leave the Egyptian queen for Octavia. After the sea battle of Actium, Enobarbus decides to desert Antony, whom he thinks is overly influenced by Cleopatra. When Antony learns of his betrayal and generously sends him his belongings, Enobarbus is stricken with guilt and dies of remorse.
Eros is a servant to Antony. In act 3, Eros announces the resumption of war between Octavius and Pompey as well as Octavius’s imprisonment of Lepidus. In act 4, Antony (who is in despair over his losses to Caesar and the apparent suicide of Cleopatra) orders Eros to kill him. The devoted Eros responds to this command by killing himself instead.
Iras is an attendant or maid-in-waiting to Cleopatra. She and Charmian are the Egyptian queen’s closest servants. Along with Charmian, Iras waits upon Cleopatra in the monument. Iras helps to dress Cleopatra, then dies of grief shortly before the queen commits suicide.
Lepidus is the third and weakest member of the Roman triumvirate. Lepidus tries to act as conciliator between the two rival members of the triumvirate—Antony and Octavius. He has a minor role in the peace negotiations with Pompey. Afterward, Lepidus becomes the most drunken participant in the celebration on Pompey’s galley. In act 3, it transpires that Lepidus has been accused of treason and imprisoned by Octavius, who intends to have him executed.
Mardian is a eunuch in attendance at Cleopatra’s court. Mardian entertains Cleopatra with sexually suggestive jokes in act 1. In act 4, the queen sends him to Antony with false news of her death, thus precipitating Antony’s own suicide.
Menas is a pirate and supporter of Pompey. In act 1, it is reported that Menas is having great success at sea and making raids on the coasts of Italy. Menas believes that Pompey is too cautious in his dealings with the triumvirate. After Pompey refuses to follow Menas’s advice to assassinate the triumvirs while they are celebrating on his galley, Menas deserts him.
Octavia is the sister of Octavius Caesar. Octavia’s marriage to Antony is meant to result in reconciliation between the two antagonistic triumvirs. Although devoted to her brother, Octavia is loyal to Antony once she becomes his wife, and thus she tries—unsuccessfully—to mediate between the two men and their disagreements. In personality, Octavia is the opposite of Cleopatra. Whereas Cleopatra is lively and flirtatious, Octavia is worthy, dutiful, and dull. Enobarbus sums up Octavia when he predicts that the newly married Antony will soon leave his wife for Cleopatra: ‘‘Octavia is of a holy, cold, and still conversation.’’
Octavius Caesar is the Roman leader and head of the triumvirate that includes himself, Antony, and Lepidus. Octavius is younger than Antony, and Cleopatra calls attention to his youth in act 1, when she refers to him as ‘‘the scarce-bearded Caesar.’’ Octavius is disgusted with Antony’s love for Cleopatra and condemns Antony for luxuriating in Alexandria while there are wars to be fought in the empire. Octavius and Antony are briefly reconciled through Antony’s marriage to Octavius’s sister, Octavia. Octavius imprisons Lepidus—the weakest member of the triumvirate—and declares war on Antony, claiming that he has betrayed Rome by deserting Octavia and returning to Cleopatra. Octavius ultimately defeats Antony and Cleopatra’s forces, and becomes sole emperor of the known world. But Octavius is saddened by Antony’s suicide, and is prevented from parading Cleopatra in triumph back to Rome by her suicide.
While earlier critics regarded Octavius Caesar primarily as a representative of Imperial Rome, today most commentators look to the play for what it reveals about Octavius as a character. Significantly, it has been noted that this leader of the triumvirs delivers no soliloquies or personality-revealing asides. Octavius is so terse in his remarks that several commentators are in disagreement concerning such details as whether or not he becomes drunk along with the other triumvirs on Pompey’s galley in act 2.
Most scholars agree that Caesar is cold and self-restrained. Some argue that he is thus meant to function as a foil to the extravagant lovers, Antony and Cleopatra. Others consider his prudish criticism of Antony as hypocritical in light of the fact that he cruelly betrays the weakest triumvir, Lepidus. There is a general consensus that Octavius carefully calculates each move he makes and that he is a manipulator. Thus he exploits Antony’s sensitivity about his honor by challenging his competitor to a sea battle in act 3. Similarly, Octavius sends Thidias to Cleopatra in act 3, hoping to bribe and flatter her away from Antony. After Antony’s death, Octavius lies to Cleopatra, telling her she has nothing to fear from him, when he is in fact planning to capture her and exhibit her in Rome.
An alternative perspective on Octavius Caesar is that he lacks imagination and empathy and is therefore vulnerable to faulty judgment. So, for example, he is unable to prevent either Antony or Cleopatra from committing suicide and as a result is robbed of the satisfaction of parading them—and their defeat—through Rome. According to this view, Octavius is less in control than he thinks he is or than he wishes to be.
Philo is a friend and follower of Antony. As the play opens, Philo tells Demetrius of his disgust with Antony’s ‘‘dotage’’ or infatuation with Cleopatra.
See Sextus Pompeius.
Sextus Pompeius, known as Pompey, is a rebel against the triumvirate. Pompey feels secure in the strength of his forces as long as the strongest member of the triumvirate—Antony—is luxuriating in Egypt. Once Pompey hears of Antony’s return to Rome, he decides to seek peace with the triumvirate, and the negotiated settlement is celebrated on board Pompey’s galley. During the celebration, Pompey rejects Menas’s dishonorable offer to assassinate the members of the triumvirate while they are drunk on board his galley. Pompey and the triumvirate are at war again later in the play, and in act 3, we hear that Pompey has been murdered.
Proculeius is a friend and follower of Octavius Caesar. When Antony is dying, he tells Cleopatra that Proculeius is the only follower of Octavius whom she can trust. Proculeius in fact proves unreliable: on orders from Caesar, he lies to Cleopatra and prevents her from committing suicide so that she can be brought back to Rome in humiliation.
Scarus is a friend and follower of Antony. In act 3, a distressed Scarus describes Antony’s retreat at Actium; unlike Enobarbus and Canidius, Scarus remains faithful to Antony throughout his defeats.
Seleucus is a treasurer to Cleopatra. In act 5, Seleucus contradicts Cleopatra, claiming that she has purposely lied to Caesar regarding the extent of her wealth. An angry Cleopatra berates him and cites his betrayal as an example of her ebb in fortune.
The Soothsayer is an Egyptian fortune-teller. He predicts that Charmian’s fortunes are in decline; her best days are behind her. He says the same about Iras. The Soothsayer travels to Rome with Antony where he declares that Caesar’s fortunes will rise higher than Antony’s, and that Antony should not stay close to him. Whenever they are close, the Soothsayer says, Caesar has more luck than Antony.
Thidias is a follower of Octavius Caesar. After Antony’s defeat at Actium, Octavius sends Thidias to bribe Cleopatra to abandon Antony. When Antony catches sight of Thidias kissing Cleopatra’s hand, he orders that the man be whipped and returned to Octavius.
Varrius is a friend and follower of Pompey. He informs Pompey of Antony’s return to Rome, thus setting in motion the peace treaty between Pompey and the triumvirate.
Ventidius is a subordinate of Antony who commands an army that triumphs over the Parthians in Syria.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007