Antony and Cleopatra


William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra: Allusions 6 key examples

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Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Goddess Isis:

In Act 1, Scene 2, Charmian alludes to Egyptian mythology during her conversation with the Soothsayer:

CHARMIAN: Our worser thoughts heavens mend. Alexas—
come, his fortune, his fortune! O, let him marry a
woman that cannot go, sweet Isis, I beseech thee, and
let her die, too, and give him a worse, and let worse
follow worse, till the worst of all follow him laughing
to his grave, fiftyfold a cuckold. Good Isis, hear me
this prayer, though thou deny me a matter of more
weight, good Isis, I beseech thee!

In this passage, Charmian appeals to the goddess Isis in a joking manner, asking her to curse Alexas with a wife who cannot derive pleasure from him and will make him into a cuckold. "Cuckold" was a term used to apply to men whose wives openly cheated on them, often because the men were sexually inadequate in some way. The Egyptian goddess Isis, wife of Osiris, was often worshiped as a maternal figure and invoked to help with everyday concerns; and though Charmian's concern is not a serious one, she does not hesitate to bring it before her goddess. It is worth noting that the story of Cleopatra and Antony parallels that of Isis and Osiris.

Act 1, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Antony and Hercules:

Act 1, Scene 3 of Antony and Cleopatra contains an allusion that is crucial to understanding Antony's character and behavior throughout the play:

ANTONY: Now by my sword—

CLEOPATRA: And target. Still he mends.
But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Charmian,
How this Herculean Roman does become
The carriage of his chafe.

This passage alludes to Hercules, the demigod son of the Roman god Jupiter. Cleopatra compares Hercules to Antony, in the course of her frustration at being abandoned by her lover. Hercules, a great hero of Roman and Greek mythology, shares some similarities with Antony: in a famous example, Hercules is depicted at a crossroads, having to choose between pleasure and virtue. The path leading to the former is straight and uncomplicated, while the path leading to the latter is crooked and winding.

Much like Hercules, Antony seemingly must choose between indulgence and restraint. Where Hercules chooses virtue, however, Antony seems undecided: he vacillates between choosing one or the other, but in the end does not attain either. In fact, Hercules—later described as Antony's god—finally abandons Antony. Ultimately, it's Antony's inability to choose a position that leads him towards his own death, as well as Cleopatra's.

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Act 1, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Venus and Mars:

In Act 1, Scene 5, Cleopatra asks Mardian, a eunuch, if he has sexual proclivities or "affections." Mardian responds to her query with an allusion to Roman mythology:

CLEOPATRA: I take no pleasure
In aught an eunuch has. ’Tis well for thee
That, being unseminared, thy freer thoughts
May not fly forth of Egypt. Hast thou affections?

MARDIAN: Yes, gracious madam.


MARDIAN: Not in deed, madam, for I can do nothing
But what indeed is honest to be done.
Yet have I fierce affections, and think
What Venus did with Mars.

Mardian references Venus and Mars, the goddess of love and the god of war, respectively, who were said to be in a romantic or sexual relationship. Indeed, in a simplistic, binary way, Venus and Mars were thought to be direct complements to one another: Venus deals in love and beauty, Mars in war, masculinity, and violence—according to traditional gender norms, Venus is very much a woman, and Mars is very much a man. These two godly beings represent a normative construction of gendered and sexualized relations, setting the societal ideal. Though Mardian cannot act on his feelings, he makes this allusion to assure Cleopatra that he still has those feelings nonetheless, and that the feelings he has are not perverse, but aligned with the normative.

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Explanation and Analysis—Antony as Atlas:

In Act 1, Scene 5, Cleopatra alludes to Greek and Roman mythology, comparing one specific figure to her lover, Antony:

The demi-Atlas of this Earth, the arm
And burgonet of men.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Atlas was the god tasked with literally holding the weight of the world upon his shoulders for eternity. Atlas was condemned by Zeus to suffer this undesirable and painful burden, one he had to shoulder alone. Notably, Hercules took a brief turn shouldering the weight of the world during the Twelve Labors he was tasked to perform.

Cleopatra uses metaphor to compare Antony and Atlas, demonstrating her understanding of his burden as a man torn between two separate worlds, feeling forced to choose one or the other. This burden is unrelenting, and refusing to chose can only (and does) end in tragedy. This comparison also showcases the extent to which Cleopatra deifies her lover: Antony's actions, behaviors, and character are directly equated with those of several gods from a wide variety of myths, including Ares, Hercules, and Osiris. All are associated with strength and masculinity; Atlas, though, is further associated with tragedy. Equating Atlas and Antony marks Antony as a tragic character, destined to meet a burdensome end.

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Act 2, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Cleopatra's Emotions:

Over the course of Act 2, Scene 5, Cleopatra oscillates between extremes of emotion, alternately lashing out against and reassuring the messenger who brings her news of Antony's whereabouts. Cleopatra attacks the messenger verbally, utilizing simile and allusion to warn him of the dangers of bringing her bad news:

Well, go to, I will.
But there’s no goodness in thy face—if Antony
Be free and healthful, so tart a favor
To trumpet such good tidings! If not well,
Thou shouldst come like a Fury crowned with snakes,
Not like a formal man.

Cleopatra compares the messenger, using simile and allusion, to a Fury—a monster from Greek mythology known to wear a crown of snakes. Snakes are often utilized in western literature as symbols of duplicity; thus, if the messenger comes bearing bad news, as a Fury, Cleopatra makes it clear that she will view this as an act of betrayal. In the face of bad news, the messenger's presence becomes a threat to Cleopatra, and she vows to treat him as such. This passage reveals not only the extent of Cleopatra's oscillation between emotional extremes; it also demonstrates how little she considers the humanity of her subordinates. The messenger is not a person to Cleopatra, but an object to be tossed around and discarded when found unpleasant. She views him as an apathetic god might view her human subjects.

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Explanation and Analysis—Trick Pictures:

Upon hearing the news of Antony's engagement to Octavia, Cleopatra becomes distraught, lashing out at those around her—in particular, the unfortunate messenger who brings her this distressing news. At the end of Act 2, Scene 5, Cleopatra utilizes a combination of metaphor and allusion to insult this messenger:

Let him forever go—let him not, Charmian.
Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,
The other way’s a Mars.

In the above passage, Cleopatra likens the messenger she so despises to a trick picture—an object that would have been common during Shakespeare's time. These trick pictures were painted such that, when viewed from different angles, the observer would see different images. In establishing this metaphor, Cleopatra conveys her feeling that the messenger is duplicitous: when viewed from one angle, he is a Gorgon—a monster from Greek mythology—and, when viewed from another angle, he is the god Mars. Cleopatra alludes to these two particular mythological figures for a reason: Gorgons are dangerous creatures to look at, with snakes for hair and a gaze that turns people to stone. Mars, on the other hand, is the Roman god of war—a handsome figure, whom Cleopatra often compares to Antony. To gaze upon Mars is therefore a pleasurable experience, while the gaze of a Gorgon is deadly. The messenger, likewise, bears news that might prompt one of two extremes in Cleopatra: abject misery or intense pleasure.

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