Antony and Cleopatra

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Themes and Colors
Love, Pleasure, and Decadence Theme Icon
Honor, Loyalty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Strategy, Manipulation, and Power Theme Icon
Messages, Warnings, and Omens Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
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Gender Roles Theme Icon

Throughout the play, Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship transgresses the bounds of traditional gender roles. Cleopatra is powerful and manipulative, and Antony seems to become weaker and less decisive as he spends more time under her sway. His men worry that he is under the control of Cleopatra and his soldier Canidius tells a fellow soldier that because of this they are “women’s men.” In Act 2, Scene 5, Cleopatra mentions a time that she got Antony drunk and they wore each other’s clothes for amusement. This exchange of clothes symbolizes the exchange of traditionally male and female roles that occurs in their relationship. This reversal comes to a disastrous head at the important battle of Actium, where Cleopatra insists on fighting in the battle, like a man, and Antony ends up fleeing in an unmanly way.

The transgression of gender roles in Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship is made even clearer by the behavior of other characters, in particular Octavius and his sister Octavia. Octavius is restrained (he doesn’t drink too much on Pompey’s boat, for example), strong, and brave; he is an exemplar of traditional masculinity and, as such, a foil for Antony. Likewise, Octavia can be seen as a kind of foil for Cleopatra, with her demure obedience to the men in her life. These figures of traditional gender roles are ultimately victorious. As Octavius defeats Antony and Cleopatra, one may see the conclusion of the play as dramatizing the reestablishment of both political stability and traditional gender roles. However, Cleopatra and Antony have noble deaths, eliciting sympathy and respect even from Octavius himself. While the dangerously powerful Cleopatra is defeated, the play perhaps represents her death less as a necessary return of power into male hands and more as a lamentable consequence of her having power in a world not ready for women to wield it.

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Gender Roles Quotes in Antony and Cleopatra

Below you will find the important quotes in Antony and Cleopatra related to the theme of Gender Roles.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

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 glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.

Related Characters: Philo (speaker), Mark Antony, Cleopatra
Page Number: 1.1.1-10
Explanation and Analysis:

Two soldiers gossip about Mark Antony's overpowering love for Cleopatra, noting how he has turned away from war and honor, and now seeks only to satisfy his queen. They also demean Cleopatra in distinctly racist and sexist terms, calling her a "tawny" "gipsy" and referring to her "lust," while bemoaning the fact that Antony used to be godlike, yet now has become a slave to passion and a foreign woman.

From the first moments of the play, it becomes clear how the general Roman public views the union of Antony and Cleopatra; they think it a disgrace, disdaining Antony for having turned his back on Rome, and despising Cleopatra for having seduced him. 

From these words, it is immediately clear just how much power Cleopatra has over Mark Antony. Although he is known as a great warrior and powerful general, he has now abandoned his "office" in favor of cavorting with Cleopatra. The soldiers' former reverence for Antony makes their current contempt for him all the more striking and dramatic. 


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Act 1, Scene 4 Quotes

This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

Related Characters: Octavius Caesar (speaker), Mark Antony, Cleopatra
Page Number: 1.4.4-11
Explanation and Analysis:

Back in Rome, Octavius Caesar is furious about Antony's neglect of his duties as a leader. He mocks the older man, noting his "revel[s]" and stating that he acts the woman while Cleopatra plays the part of a man. In short, he believes that Antony has forsaken his partners in Rome, and has given himself over completely to passion and "fault[s]."

Of all Caesar's charges, the implication that Cleopatra has unmanned Antony is by far the most interesting and serious. The world of Rome (and of Elizabethan England, when the play was written and performed) was one of strict gender roles, where men led and women followed. In Antony and Cleopatra's case, however, the positions seem to have reversed, with Cleopatra taking the dominant role in the relationship. 

For many of the characters in the play, this fact alone displays the unhealthiness and immorality of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. Rather than seeing Cleopatra as simply a stronger personality, they believe her to be an emasculating witch; and rather than attempt to understand Antony's love for his queen, they condemn him as a foolish weakling. 

Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

To hold you in perpetual amity,
To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts
With an unslipping knot, take Antony
Octavia to his wife; whose beauty claims
No worse a husband than the best of men;
Whose virtue and whose general graces speak
That which none else can utter. By this marriage,
All little jealousies, which now seem great,
And all great fears, which now import their dangers,
Would then be nothing: truths would be tales,
Where now half tales be truths: her love to both
Would, each to other and all loves to both,
Draw after her.

Related Characters: Agrippa (speaker), Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, Octavia
Page Number: 2.2.150-162
Explanation and Analysis:

As Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar passive aggressively trade barbs and jibes, Caesar's ally, Agrippa, suggests a solution: Antony should marry Caesar's sister, Octavia. He reminds Antony that Octavia is beautiful and virtuous, and urges both men to go ahead with the union, since it will bind the two of them together, and put to bed rumors of unrest and disunity. 

First and foremost, this suggestion shows how Roman women are considered objects in society rather than people. Octavia has no say in the matter; she is Octavius's to offer, and Antony's to accept. The Romans also place little importance on romantic love. Antony should not marry Octavia because she is lovable, but because it will be good for the Empire. Her virtue and beauty are added benefits, rather than reasons for affection.

In this dispassionate and manipulative world, it is easy to see why men like Octavius are so scared of and confused by Cleopatra. Although beautiful, she is certainly not traditionally "virtuous" and meek like Octavia. Ruled by her passions, her thirst for power, and her love of her country, she refuses to be objectified, instead making herself a player in the political sphere by whatever means necessary. 

Upon her landing, Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper: she replied,
It should be better he became her guest;
Which she entreated: our courteous Antony,
Whom ne'er the word of 'No' woman heard speak,
Being barber'd ten times o'er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.

Related Characters: Enobarbus (speaker), Mark Antony, Cleopatra
Page Number: 2.2.258-265
Explanation and Analysis:

Enobarbus goes on, remembering how Antony "[i]nvited [Cleopatra] to supper" as his guest, only for the queen to reply that he should be her guest instead. Although this may seem like a minor quibble, in Enobarbus's retelling, it is the critical moment in which Cleopatra gains power over Antony. The reason? He has never before heard a woman say "No" to his requests. 

This exchange sheds even more light on why Antony has fallen so deeply in love with Cleopatra. A dominant, powerful, and handsome man, he is used to everyone--especially women--giving him exactly what he wants. In Cleopatra, however, he has found someone who will actually refuse him; a nearly unthinkable concept for the Roman general. In reversing gender roles--making Antony the submissive partner in the relationship and herself the dominant force--Cleopatra essentially wins his heart. Their love is therefore subversive not only in terms of politics, but also in terms of gender and societal expectations. 

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.

Related Characters: Enobarbus (speaker), Cleopatra
Page Number: 2.2.276-280
Explanation and Analysis:

Enobarbus finishes his story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony with a stunning assessment of the queen: he asserts that she will never "wither," no matter how old, and that no man will ever grow weary of her, due to her "infinite variety." She has a paradoxical power, he concludes. Unlike "other women," who make men become sick of them, she makes men hunger for her even more as she simultaneously "satisfies" their desires.

From this passage, it is clear that Cleopatra has also entranced the skeptical Enobarbus, however unwilling he may be to admit it. His words also get to the heart of Cleopatra's power. By appearing unpredictable and passionate, she has ensured that men will always be fascinated by her. Further, by bestowing passion and pain in equal measure, she has created a system in which men like Antony constantly seek to possess her, even in the midst of a relationship with her, and while acknowledging that the impossibility of ever "possessing" her is a large part of her allure. 

Act 3, Scene 4 Quotes

A more unhappy lady,
If this division chance, ne'er stood between,
Praying for both parts:
The good gods me presently,
When I shall pray, 'O bless my lord and husband!'
Undo that prayer, by crying out as loud,
'O, bless my brother!' Husband win, win brother,
Prays, and destroys the prayer; no midway
'Twixt these extremes at all.

Related Characters: Octavia (speaker), Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar
Page Number: 3.4.13-21
Explanation and Analysis:

Learning that Octavius has raised an army and spoken ill of him in public, Antony grows furious, vowing to oppose his brand-new brother-in-law. Octavia begs him to modulate his anger, but her pleas are unsuccessful. After her husband leaves, she laments her fate, realizing that she will have to pray for both her husband and her brother, even though they are fighting against each other.

Octavia is a largely tragic and pathetic character in this drama. Pious, faithful, and kind, she is used as a pawn both by the brother who claims to love her, and the husband who longs to be rid of her. At this moment in time, both men have put her in an impossible situation. Their alliance is all but forgotten but she, a symbol of their former unity, is still caught in the middle. 

Act 3, Scene 10 Quotes

She once being loof'd,
The noble ruin of her magic, Antony,
Claps on his sea-wing, and, like a doting mallard,
Leaving the fight in height, flies after her:
I never saw an action of such shame;
Experience, manhood, honour, ne'er before
Did violate so itself.

Related Characters: Scarus (speaker), Mark Antony, Cleopatra
Page Number: 3.10.22-28
Explanation and Analysis:

Antony and Cleopatra have gone to war against Octavius, culminating in the sea battle of Actium; yet at a crucial moment, Cleopatra has fled with her fleet, and Antony has followed her, leading to a huge defeat. One of Antony's soldiers comments on the chain of events, calling Antony a "mallard" (a duck) and asserting, "I never saw an action of such shame." He believes that Antony has destroyed his own "[e]xperience, manhood, [and] honour."

This assessment makes clear the potentially ruinous effects of Antony and Cleopatra's relationship. Although Antony is a seasoned soldier, he has thrown away the battle in order to follow his lover. It makes sense that a Roman soldier like Scarus would view this decision as the height of dishonor and unmanliness. Even the audience members understand just how poor a judgment this was on Antony's part, and how unwisely Cleopatra has used her power over him. 

Act 3, Scene 12 Quotes

From Antony win Cleopatra: promise,
And in our name, what she requires; add more,
From thine invention, offers: women are not
In their best fortunes strong; but want will perjure
The ne’er touch’d vestal: try thy cunning, Thidias;
Make thine own edict for thy pains, which we
Will answer as a law.

Related Characters: Octavius Caesar (speaker), Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Ambassador
Page Number: 3.12.33-39
Explanation and Analysis:

In a strategically advantageous position, Octavius Caesar now schemes to drive a wedge between Cleopatra and Mark Antony. He sends one of his men, Thidias, to "win" Cleopatra from Antony, ordering Thidias to "promise" Cleopatra whatever she wants. Octavius goes on to display his contempt for women, asserting that even the most virtuous woman will betray and lie if she is truly desperate (or is offered something especially appealing). 

Octavius's orders make clear his cunning and shifty nature. Antony, by contrast, is a sincere and deeply loyal man. Octavius, though, attempts to exploit others' weaknesses, and believes the worst about human nature.

His statement about women also brings up a crucial plot point: Octavius's constant underestimation of Cleopatra. As we will see as the play continues, Octavius's sexism and arrogance consistently make him think that he has the upper hand over the intelligent and crafty queen. The gravity of his mistake will become fully apparent by the end of the play, even when he is technically "victorious" over her. 

Act 3, Scene 13 Quotes

I will be treble-sinew'd, hearted, breathed,
And fight maliciously: for when mine hours
Were nice and lucky, men did ransom lives
Of me for jests; but now I'll set my teeth,
And send to darkness all that stop me. Come,
Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell.

Related Characters: Mark Antony (speaker)
Page Number: 3.13.217-224
Explanation and Analysis:

Heartened by Cleopatra's vow of love, Antony asserts that he will be braver than ever before. He recalls how he used to show mercy to his enemies, but now promises that he will kill them all. He tells Cleopatra that they will have "one other gaudy night," and summons all of his soldiers to drink with him.

Although this speech might seem foolish and misguided, it also suggests that on some level, Antony knows how doomed he is. He wants another "gaudy night" because he knows it will be his last. His urging to "mock the midnight bell" most obviously means that he will stay up late; yet it can also be interpreted that Antony wishes to "mock" his oncoming death. 

This passage illuminates the contradictory and tragic nature of Antony. Although he is brave, sincere, and ruled by emotion rather than logic, Antony is certainly not stupid. He may pretend to think that he can win against Octavius, but in truth, he knows all too well the reality of his situation. 

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

Sole sir o' the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

Related Characters: Cleopatra (speaker), Octavius Caesar
Page Number: 5.2.149-153
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally face-to-face with Octavius, Cleopatra kneels before him. In contrast with her formerly passionate speech, she is now subdued and humble. Instead, she hails Octavius as the conqueror of the world, and "confess[es]" that she is a frail woman who has made foolish mistakes.

As audience members and readers, we are aware of the falsity of Cleopatra's speech here. Determined to kill herself, she is brilliantly playing into Octavius's misguided perceptions of her. He is convinced that she is a weak and submissive woman, and so that is what she pretends to be. Just as she once manipulated Antony, she is now manipulating Octavius in a very different way, pretending to be something that she is not in order to achieve her ultimate aim.