In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare dramatizes a major event in world history, the founding of the Roman Empire around 30 BCE. Rome’s first emperor, Octavius Caesar (later to be called Augustus Caesar), has a prominent role in the play. In Shakespeare’s presentation of Octavius Caesar’s steady and, from our point of view, inevitable rise to supreme power, the future emperor controls much of the play’s action by skillfully and cold-bloodedly manipulating the other characters. This control is matched in its relentlessness only by the iron control that he exercises over himself, banishing from his life both conviviality and emotion. When the play begins, Caesar, as a member of Republican Rome’s second and last triumvirate, shares the governance of the city-state and its European, Asiatic, and African colonies. His fellow rulers are Mark Antony, Rome’s preeminent military leader, and the much weaker Lepidus. As long as Caesar needs Antony’s forces and military reputation in order to fend off other Roman strongmen, like Pompey, Caesar seeks to bind Antony to him. Caesar goes so far as to offer his widowed sister Octavia to Antony as a bride to cement the men’s alliance against Pompey, even though Antony’s notorious reputation as a libertine makes the success of such a marriage doubtful and even though the rivalry between the new brothers-in-law is of long standing and threatens to break out again whenever they may later disagree.
As soon as Caesar manages to defeat Pompey, the future emperor no longer needs allies. So he brings charges against Lepidus and denies Antony a share in the spoils acquired in Pompey’s defeat. Once Octavia returns to Caesar, he suddenly turns against Antony and quickly seizes cities in the eastern Roman colonies that Antony rules. Now Shakespeare’s stage is set for the final conflict between the soon-to-be-supreme Octavius Caesar and the once-preeminent Antony.
Perhaps because the outcome of this conflict was so familiar to Shakespeare’s audience, the dramatist does not give its representation much emphasis. Instead he directs attention toward those whom Caesar defeats, Antony and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, Antony’s wealthy ally who pays for a great part of their costly war against Caesar. While Shakespeare in no way mitigates either the flaws in Antony and Cleopatra that contribute to their defeat or the bitterness of the loss, he also grants his defeated heroes opportunities to best their conqueror Caesar. He first has them rise above the self-repressed Caesar in their love for each other. Antony is the envy of the Roman military caste because he has enjoyed the woman whom earlier Roman great men, like Julius Caesar, had loved. Cleopatra is an object of enduring fascination to the Romans: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” The play does not sugar over their famous love affair; instead Shakespeare puts on stage Cleopatra’s calculated attempts to seduce Antony from his responsibilities in Rome, as well as Antony’s jealous rages and threats against Cleopatra’s life when he thinks she has betrayed him to Caesar. Nonetheless, Antony and Cleopatra are represented as finding together such sensual and emotional satisfaction in their love for each other that each yearns for an afterlife in which they may renew their union. Shakespeare lavishes such rich figurative language on his heroes’ recollection of their shared past and dreams of a future together that Caesar’s success in the business of world conquest seems a smaller thing than what Antony and Cleopatra have found in each other.
Shakespeare also has Antony and Cleopatra rise above their conqueror in a second way as they attempt to frustrate his dearest wish. It is not enough for Caesar that he has beaten Antony and Cleopatra in war. He wants to capture for himself the fame of the defeated heroes by dragging them as captives at his chariot wheels through the streets of Rome in a triumphal procession that will be remembered forever because of their role in it. Much of what is presented in the concluding acts of Shakespeare’s love tragedy concerns the struggle not over who will win the military contests but over which images of Antony and Cleopatra are going to be handed down throughout subsequent history—images of humiliated captives or of triumphant lovers.