For those who approach Shakespeare's plays with the intention of seeing each character as a unified figure acting in accordance with a recognizable psychological scheme, Antony and Cleopatra presents a rigorous challenge. The title characters are two of the most unpredictable in dramatic literature. A considerable portion of their language and actions implies that in addition to lacking maturity and understanding, they are careless with their own emotions as well as with those of others. At many moments the behavior of Antony and Cleopatra is comically outlandish, and the mixture of love and laughter makes Antony and Cleopatra by far the brightest of the tragedies.
At first glance, events suggest that these two people are remarkably foolish. Antony is a man of extraordinary gifts with the world in his power, but he throws it away for the inconstant affection of Cleopatra, an enticing but selfish, clinging, and headstrong woman. Yet the language of the play seems intended to convince us that their love is ultimately worth whatever tragic ends it brings. To learn the facts alone, that Antony and later Cleopatra reconcile with each other, is not convincing. To read or hear their specific words is to experience those moments quite differently.
The primary source of the play is "The Life of Marcus Antonius" in the Thomas North translation of Plutarch Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. The events of this play follow those dramatized in Shakespeare Julius Caesar, in which Brutus, Cassius and several conspirators assassinate Caesar in 44 B.C. Historically the forces of the rebels were defeated at Philippi, and in 43 B.C. a triumvirate was formed between three leaders: Caesar's adopted son, Octavius, who took control of Italy and various northern and western territories; Lepidus, who ruled Africa; and Antony, who ruled Egypt and various territories east of the Adriatic. Antony eventually met with Cleopatra over charges that she had aided Brutus and Cassius in the war against the triumvirate, but Antony was so taken with her that he abandoned all responsibilities, both political and familial, and returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria in Egypt, where the action of this play begins in 40 B.C.