After William Shakespeare’s successful and memorable tragedy Julius Caesar, his other well-known play based on Plutarch’s lives is Antony and Cleopatra, thought to have been written in about 1606.
This play compresses about a decade of real time into a great many short scenes, making it a challenge for the stage. This limited its revival during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it has consequently been little painted, although popular with illustrators. Overlap between the play and Plutarch’s account also makes it hard to determine which is the primary source for paintings which don’t portray stage productions, but were inspired by Shakespeare’s words rather than Plutarch’s.
Antony and Queen Cleopatra are in Alexandria, where they refuse to see a messenger sent from Octavius Caesar. Soothsayers ominously warn the Queen’s attendants that they’ll outlive her, and the best parts of their lives are already over.
Tiepolo painted the couple eating together in two major paintings. This large finished version of The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44), now in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, shows a more formal meal.
Tiepolo’s later fresco in the Palazzo Labia, Venice, painted in 1746-47, substitutes a background garden and obelisk, moves the feast further indoors, and adds a gallery of musicians above the banquet.
Antony learns of his wife Fulvia’s death, and troubles at home, so announces that he must leave for Rome, where Pompey and others are threatening the triumvirate of Octavius, Antony and Lepidus by sea.
When the triumvirate meets there, Antony disavows himself from his wife’s actions, and defends himself against the claim that he has denied Caesar military aid. Antony and Caesar agree to cement their relationship with the marriage of Antony to Caesar’s sister, Octavia. However, Antony’s second-in-command Enobarbus tells Caesar’s staff that marriage won’t keep Antony away from Cleopatra. Antony is warned by a soothsayer to keep away from Caesar, and decides to return to Alexandria, sending his general Ventidius to deal with the advancing Parthians.
When Cleopatra hears of Antony’s intended marriage, she is livid, then grieves for their love.
John William Waterhouse’s portrait of Cleopatra from 1888 shows her sultry and lost in thought.
Pompey sues for peace with the triumvirate, then he and the other leaders go to feast on his barge. At their feast, Pompey is urged to kill the members of the triumvirate, but refuses.
Ventidius is successful against the Parthians, but avoids pursuing his advantage to the point where Antony could become jealous. Antony and Octavia then leave for Athens, but she soon has to return to Rome to mediate between her brother and the defeated Pompey. This allows Antony to continue gathering his forces against Caesar.
Caesar defeats and kills Pompey in battle, before deposing Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirate, and seizing his share of the empire. Caesar hears that Antony, now back in Alexandria with Cleopatra, has granted her and her children the kingdoms of the eastern empire. Octavia then informs Caesar of Antony’s preparations for war.
When they are near Actium, Enobarbus advises Cleopatra to avoid getting involved in his military campaign, but she refuses, and she and Antony decide to fight Caesar at sea.
Johann Heinrich Tischbein’s Antony and Cleopatra from 1773 shows the Roman about to go outside to their fleet, with the dark clouds of war gathering in the distance.
As the two armies engage, the sound of the naval battle is heard. This turns into a disaster when Cleopatra’s flagship flees, taking with it the rest of her fleet, followed by Antony’s ship. One of his commanders is so disgusted at this defeat that he deserts.
Antony urges his attendants to leave him, then rages at Cleopatra for their defeat before weakening when she cries. He sends Caesar an offer of peace on condition that Cleopatra remains queen, and he is allowed a private life in Alexandria or Athens. Caesar will only accept the Queen’s request if she expels or kills Antony, and sends an emissary to lure her away from Antony.
Antony responds by challenging Caesar to single combat, and has Caesar’s emissary whipped for daring to kiss the Queen’s hand. He feasts his commanders again, but Enobarbus decides to defect to Caesar.
Caesar and Antony prepare for battle again, and Antony’s sentries hear music they believe is Hercules abandoning him to his fate. Caesar orders defectors from Antony’s forces, including Enobarbus, to be put on the front line in battle.
In the first day’s battle, Antony and his forces pursue Caesar’s retreating army. On the second day there’s a battle at sea, in which Cleopatra’s navy surrenders. Antony drives Cleopatra away, threatening to kill them both. She retreats to the monument, where she orders her eunuch to tell Antony that she has killed herself, and to observe his reaction.
When Antony hears that, he tells his attendant to kill him, but the attendant kills himself, and Antony is unable to end his own life. He is then carried off to the Queen, who has him lifted up into the monument. As Antony is dying he urges Cleopatra to seek safety with Caesar, but only to trust one of his followers. After a parting kiss, Antony dies, and the Queen makes a long and passionate lament.
Alexandre Bida’s undated Cleopatra Holds the Dead Antony shows the Queen in that lament.
On hearing of Antony’s death, Caesar expresses regret at the passing of his old ally, and sends Cleopatra’s messenger back to reassure her that he only intends to be kind towards her, and wants to prevent her suicide.
Cleopatra has remained at the monument, where Caesar’s men disarm her to stop her from stabbing herself. But she is warned that Caesar only wants to preserve her life so that he can parade her through Rome in his triumph. She’s further warned of her fate, and arranges for a peasant to bring a basket with asps hidden in figs.
Eugène Delacroix painted this scene in his Cleopatra and the Peasant from 1838. One of the asps is seen midway between his hands, among the figs in his basket.
Cleopatra is dressed in her royal robes, bids her attendants farewell, then applies an asp to her breast and arm, dying quickly of its venom. Her attendants do likewise, and when Caesar arrives he agrees to bury Cleopatra with Antony.
Reginald Arthur’s Death of Cleopatra from 1892 shows the Queen still clutching an asp to her breast, as one of her attendants buries her face in grief.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.