Antony and Cleopatra


William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra: Metaphors 5 key examples

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Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Clay:

In Act 1, Scene 1, Antony reassures Cleopatra of his love and loyalty after announcing to her that he must leave Egypt and return to Rome. Pledging his oaths of affection, Antony makes use of an apt metaphor to describe their relationship:

Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus; when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do ’t, in which I bind,
On pain of punishment, the world to weet
We stand up peerless.

Antony metaphorically states here that "Kingdoms are clay." Though not a very explicit biblical allusion, this passage nonetheless is reminiscent of several passages in the Bible that refer to clay as an unstable or "miry" substance (i.e. Psalms 40:2, "He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings."). This metaphor reveals a great deal about Antony's views on the Roman Empire, particularly when juxtaposed with his relationship to Cleopatra: kingdoms are insignificant, unstable, and will melt away; Antony, however, depicts his attraction to Cleopatra as steadfast.

Act 1, Scene 5
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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Explanation and Analysis—Cleopatra, Serpent:

In Act 1, Scene 5, Cleopatra continues to lament the absence of her lover. She imagines what Antony might be doing or saying in Rome, wondering whether she's on his mind. She utilizes metaphor to describe herself as she imagines she'd appear in his thoughts:

He’s speaking now,
Or murmuring “Where’s my serpent of old Nile?”
For so he calls me.

Cleopatra compares herself to a Nile serpent. This associates both her and the Nile with temptation; after all, according to Christian thought, Satan took the form of the first serpent to commit the first temptation in the Garden of Eden. Notably, the Nile features heavily in Antony and Cleopatra as a motif, representing indulgence and hedonism through its association with Antony and Cleopatra's debauchery.

One crucial aspect of this scene is perspective: note that Cleopatra's metaphor is not necessarily a reflection of how she views herself—rather, it's a commentary on how she believes Antony views her. She is unlikely to condemn or comment on her own behavior in the manner that Antony might; and the words are certainly reminiscent of other Roman perspectives—provided over the course of the play—on Cleopatra's behavior. Cleopatra thus imagines, fondly and with a dash of good humor, the words she has undoubtedly been used to hearing from her lover and other Romans.

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Act 2, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Antony the Fish:

In Act 2, Scene 5, Cleopatra uses an extended metaphor to describe her general philosophy regarding Antony, her lover: 

And when good will is showed, though ’t come too short,
The actor may plead pardon. I’ll none now.
Give me mine angle; we’ll to th’ river. There,
My music playing far off, I will betray
Tawny-finned fishes. My bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws, and as I draw them up
I’ll think them every one an Antony
And say “Aha! You’re caught.”

Cleopatra reveals that she views Antony as a fish to be caught. He is, to her, a prize to be won—an object. Though she has affection for him, she also reveals her cunning and manipulation in this passage—skills she later takes to the extreme, faking her death to exert influence over Antony's emotional state. Cleopatra's character is ultimately akin to that of a jealous goddess who does not wish to share her lover with anyone, mortal or otherwise. One can draw similarities between Cleopatra's relationship with Antony and the relationship between Roman gods Jupiter (Zeus, in Greek mythology) and Juno (Hera). Jupiter had many affairs with mortal women and consequently fathered many demigod children, much to the distaste of Juno. She, like Cleopatra, was intensely jealous of Jupiter's affection and loyalty.

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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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