The play begins in Egypt, where Antony is living and loving in decadent repose with his mistress Cleopatra. Into the lover's idyll comes the news that Antony's wife has died and that danger is presenting itself in the form of the ambitious Pompey. Antony, feeling that he has neglected his duty, returns home to Rome and marries Octavius Caesar's sister, Octavia, in order to create a truce between the two great leaders and to defeat Pompey. However, this fragile truce soon breaks apart when Caesar, desirous of complete mastery, defeats Pompey and turns on the third member of the triumvirate, Lepidus.
Unfortunately, Antony cannot pay complete heed to this rising problems because of his infatuation with Cleopatra. When it comes time to meet Caesar in battle, Antony decides to fight him at sea (despite the warnings of his best generals) and depends on Cleopatra’s Egyptian fleet, which fails when Cleopatra's ship leaves the battle and Antony determines to follow her.
Antony, distraught at the news, determines to kill himself too, but botches the job (he falls on his own sword and, though wounded fatally, is able to be brought to his lover). Cleopatra holds Antony in her arms as he dies. She is then taken prisoner by Caesar but, unable to live under his yoke, she kills herself, stung by a snake’s fateful poison.
Cleopatra is the dramatic heart of the play, a larger than life character that the other characters see as an object of love, hate or treachery. In turns she plays the waif, the seductress, the mighty queen and the low traitor. On a number of occasions, Antony damns himself for being ensnared by her love, and neglecting his duty. However, time and time again, he returns to her, forgives her and once more is seduced by her love.
Even at the moment when he wishes to kill her (and is brought news that she is already dead), his heart turns to contrition and he determines that he cannot live without her. Thus is the power of the central character that Shakespeare has created. Using the age-old tussle between duty and love, Shakespeare shows the destruction of a great hero, Marcus Antony, and the end of a civilization.
In Antony and Cleopatra, however, love is a destructive force--duty is forgotten, great men fall and Empire's crumble. The brilliance of Shakespeare's writing, then, is that he can still figure love as a powerful force even amongst all this destruction. He is still able to balance the two poles of his argument; love is still seen as admirable in the midst of the tragedy it has created.
Brilliantly figured, with some of Shakespeare's most elevated and powerful poetry, Antony and Cleopatra is a marvel created by a master at work. Mature and thoughtful, Antony and Cleopatra is a play that shows the depth and breadth of the Bard's thought.