English 366B, Section S02: Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies   >   Antony and Cleopatra: From Plutarch's "Life of Antony" To the previous page To the next page

From Plutarch's "Life of Antony"

Julius Caesar. Photograph Peter Smith.

Translated by Sir Thomas North (1579)

Mestrius Plutarchus of Cheronea (c.46-c.126 A.D.) was a wealthy Greek essayist and biographer. His Parallel Lives consists of 50 biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen and soldiers, written principally as moral lessons. Sir Thomas North's translation (printed in 1579 and 1595) is based upon the French version by Jacques Amyot (1559). Shakespeare used Plutarch for several of his plays: Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens as well as Antony and Cleopatra.

You should read these excerpts after you have read the play for the first time, and ask yourself both how much Shakespeare borrowed from Plutarch, and how much he changed.

[Cleopatra the Reason for Antony's Fall]

. . . that which most procured [Antonius'] rising and advancement was his liberality, who gave all to the soldiers and kept nothing for himself; and when he was grown to great credit, then was his authority and power also very great, the which notwithstanding himself did overthrow by a thousand other faults he had.

. . . Antonius being thus inclined, the last and extremest mischief of all other (to wit, the love of Cleopatra) lighted on him, who did waken and stir up many vices yet hidden in him, and were never seen to any; and if any spark of goodness or hope of rising were left him, Cleopatra quenched it straight and made it worse than before.

[Why Antony Fought with Caesar by Sea]

Now Antonius was made so subject to a woman's will that though he was a great deal the stronger by land, yet for Cleopatra's sake he would needs have this battle tried by sea, though he saw before his eyes, that, for lack of watermen, his captains did press by force all sorts of men out of Greece that they could take up in the field, as travelers, muleteers, reapers, harvest men, and young boys, and yet could they not sufficiently furnish his galleys so that the most part of them were empty, and could scant row, because they lacked watermen enow. But on the contrary side Caesar's ships were not built for pomp, high and great, only for a sight and bravery, but they were light of yarage [light and maneuverable], armed and furnished with watermen as many as they needed, and had them all in readiness in the havens of Tarentum and Brundusium. So Octavius Caesar sent unto Antonius to will him to delay no more time, but to come on with his army into Italy, and that for his own part he would give him safe harbor, to land without any trouble, and that he would withdraw his army from the sea as far as one horse could run until he had put his army ashore and had lodged his men.

[A Challenge and a Successful Deception]

Antonius on the other side bravely sent him word again and challenged the combat of him man to man, though he were the elder, and that if he refused him so, he would then fight a battle with him in the fields of Pharsalia, as Julius Caesar and Pompey had done before. Now whilst Antonius rode at anchor, lying idly in the harbor at the head of Actium, in the place where the city of Nicopolis standeth at this present, Caesar had quickly passed the sea Ionium and taken a place called Toryne, before Antonius understood that he had taken ship. Then began his men to be afraid, because his army by land was left behind. But Cleopatra making light of it, "And what danger, I pray you," said she, "if Caesar keep at Toryne?" The next morning by break of day, his enemies coming with full force of oars in battle against him, Antonius was afraid that if they came to join they would take and carry away his ships, that had no men of war in them. So he armed all his watermen and set them in order of battle upon the forecastle of their ships, and then lift up all his ranks of oars towards the elements, as well of the one side as the other, with the prows against the enemies, at the entry and mouth of the gulf which beginneth at the point of Actium, and so kept them in order of battle, as if they had been armed and furnished with watermen and soldiers. Thus Octavius Caesar, being finely deceived by this stratagem, retired presently.

[The Last Success]

So Caesar came, and pitched his camp hard by the city, in the place where they run and manage their horses. Antonius made a sally upon him and fought very valiantly, so that he drave Caesar's horsemen back, fighting with his men even into their camp. Then he came again to the palace, greatly boasting of this victory, and sweetly kissed Cleopatra, armed as he was when he came from the fight, recommending one of his men of arms unto her, that had valiantly fought in this skirmish. Cleopatra, to reward his manliness, gave him an armor and headpiece of clean gold; howbeit the man-at-arms, when he received this rich gift, stole away by night and went to Caesar. Antonius sent again to challenge Caesar to fight with him hand to hand. Caesar answered him that he had many other ways to die than so. Then Antonius, seeing there was no way more honourable for him to die than fighting valiantly, he determined to set up his rest, both by sea and land. So, being at supper (as it is reported), he commanded his officers and household servants that waited on him at his board that they should fill his cups full and make as much of him as they could: "For," said he, "you know not whether you shall do so much for me tomorrow or not, or whether you shall serve another master, and it may be you shall see me no more, but a dead body." This notwithstanding, perceiving that his friends and men fell a-weeping to hear him say so, to salve that he had spoken, he added this more unto it, that he would not lead them to battle, where he thought not rather safely to return with victory than valiantly to die with honor.

[The Strange Music]

Furthermore, the selfsame night within little of midnight, when all the city was quiet, full of fear and sorrow, thinking what would be the issue and end of this war, it is said that suddenly they heard a marvelous sweet harmony of sundry sorts of instruments of music, with the cry of a multitude of people, as they had been dancing and had sung as they use in Bacchus' feasts, with movings and turnings after the manner of the satyrs; and it seemed that this dance went through the city unto the gate that opened to the enemies, and that all the troop that made this noise they heard went out of the city at that gate. Now, such as in reason sought the depth of the interpretation of this wonder, thought that it was the god unto whom Antonius bare singular devotion to counterfeit and resemble him that did forsake them.

[The Last Battle Lost]

The next morning by break of day, he went to set those few footmen he had in order upon the hills adjoining unto the city; and there he stood to behold his galleys which departed from the haven and rowed against the galleys of his enemies, and so stood still, looking what exploits his soldiers in them would do. But when by force of rowing they were come near unto them, they first saluted Caesar's men, and then Caesar's men resaluted them also, and of two armies made but one, and then did all together row toward the city. When Antonius saw that his men did forsake him and yielded unto Caesar, and that his footmen were broken and overthrown, he then fled into the city, crying out that Cleopatra had betrayed him unto them, with whom he had made war for her sake.

Then she, being afraid of his fury, fled into the tomb which she had caused to be made, and there locked the doors unto her and shut all the springs of the locks with great bolts, and in the meantime sent unto Antonius to tell him that she was dead. Antonius, believing it, said unto himself: "What dost thou look for further, Antonius, sith spiteful fortune hath taken from thee the only joy thou hadst, for whom thou yet reservedst thy life?" When he had said these words, he went into a chamber and unarmed himself, and being naked said thus: "O Cleopatra, it grieveth me not that I have lost thy company, for I will not be long from thee; but I am sorry that, having been so great a captain and emperor, I am indeed condemned to be judged of less courage and noble mind than a woman."

[Antony's Suicide]

Now he had a man of his called Eros, whom he loved and trusted much, and whom he had long before caused to swear unto him that he should kill him when he did command him; and then he willed him to keep his promise. His man drawing his sword lift it up as though he had meant to have stricken his master, but turning his head at one side he thrust his sword into himself and fell down dead at his master's foot. Then said Antonius, "O noble Eros, I thank thee for this, and it is valiantly done of thee, to show me what I should do to myself, which thou couldst not do for me." Therewithal he took his sword and thrust it into his belly and so fell down upon a little bed. The wound he had killed him not presently, for the blood stinted a little when he was laid; and when he came somewhat to himself again, he prayed them that were about him to dispatch him. But they all fled out of the chamber and left him crying out and tormenting himself, until at last there came a secretary unto him called Diomedes, who was commanded to bring him into the tomb or monument where Cleopatra was.

[Antony Is Taken to Cleopatra's Monument]

When he heard that she was alive, he very earnestly prayed his men to carry his body thither, and so he was carried in his men's arms into the entry of the monument. Notwithstanding, Cleopatra would not open the gates, but came to the high windows and cast out certain chains and ropes, in the which Antonius was trussed; and Cleopatra her own self, with two women only, which she had suffered to come with her into these monuments, triced [hauled] Antonius up. They that were present to behold it said they saw so pitiful a sight. For they plucked up poor Antonius all bloody as he was, and drawing on with pangs of death, who holding up his hand to Cleopatra raised up himself as well as he could.

It was a hard thing for these women to do, to lift him up; but Cleopatra stooping down with her head, putting to all her strength to her uttermost power, did lift him up with much ado and never let go her hold, with the help of the women beneath that bade her be of good courage and were as sorry to see her labor so as she herself. So when she had gotten him in after that sort and laid him on a bed, she rent her garments upon him, clapping her breast and scratching her face and stomach.

[Caesar and Cleopatra]

Shortly after, Caesar came himself in person to see her and to comfort her. Cleopatra being laid upon a little low bed in poor estate, when she saw Caesar come into her chamber she suddenly rose up, naked in her smock, and fell down at his feet marvelously disfigured, both for that she had plucked her hair from her head, as also for that she had martyred all her face with her nails, and besides, her voice was small and trembling, her eyes sunk into her head with continual blubbering, and moreover they might see the most part of her stomach torn in sunder. To be short, her body was not much better than her mind; yet her good grace and comeliness and the force of her beauty was not altogether defaced. But notwithstanding this ugly and pitiful state of hers, yet she showed herself within by her outward looks and countenance.

When Caesar had made her lie down again and sate by her bed's side, Cleopatra began to clear and excuse herself for that she had done, laying all to the fear she had of Antonius; Caesar, in contrary manner, reproved her in every point. Then she suddenly altered her speech and prayed him to pardon her, as though she were afraid to die and desirous to live.

[The Seleucus Episode]

At length, she gave him a brief [summary] and memorial of all the ready money and treasure she had. But by chance there stood Seleucus by, one of her treasurers, who to seem a good servant came straight to Caesar to disprove Cleopatra that she had not set in all, but kept many things back of purpose. Cleopatra was in such a rage with him that she flew upon him and took him by the hair of the head and boxed him well-favouredly. Caesar fell a-laughing and parted the fray. "Alas," said she, "O Caesar, is not this a great shame and reproach, that thou having vouchsafed to take the pains to come unto me, and hast done me this honor, poor wretch and caitiff creature, brought into this pitiful and miserable estate, and that mine own servants should come now to accuse me, though it may be that I have reserved some jewels and trifles meet for women, but not for me (poor soul) to set out myself withal, but meaning to give some pretty present and gifts unto Octavia and Livia, that they making means and intercession for me to thee, thou mightest yet extend thy favour and mercy upon me?"

Caesar was glad to hear her say so, persuading himself thereby that she had yet a desire to save her life. So he made her answer that he did not only give her that to dispose of at her pleasure which she had kept back, but further promised to use her more honorably and bountifully than she would think fit; and so he took his leave of her, supposing he had deceived her, but indeed he was deceived himself.




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This page last updated on 4 March 2007. © Michael Best, 2002.