Antony and Cleopatra is something of an outlier in Shakespeare’s body of work, mainly for the way it hybridizes the genres of history and tragedy and thus makes the work difficult to categorize. If the play is a history, it’s surprisingly excessive in the amount of time it spends fleshing out the tragic love story between the Roman general and the Egyptian queen. By contrast, if the play is a tragedy, it’s unexpectedly meticulous in recreating key historical events and wildly wide-ranging in terms of its geographical span, which encompasses the entire theater of the Mediterranean. All that said, what’s more important than categorizing the play in any absolute way is understanding how the play both reflects and integrates the two genres.

As a history play, Antony and Cleopatra concerns the momentous transitional period between the collapse of the Roman Republic and the advent of the Roman Empire. First and foremost, this period involved the internal reorganization of Roman politics. Following a civil war that culminated in the assassination of Julius Caesar, a new triumvirate of leaders arose to share leadership of the vast territory under Roman control. The new triumvirate consisted of Octavius Caesar, the nephew and adopted son of Julius; Marcus Antonius (i.e., Marc Anthony), an accomplished military general; and the politically weak Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The internal political reorganization represented by this new triumvirate implies a parallel consolidation of Rome’s geopolitical power throughout its wide sphere of influence. With Rome controlling territory on all sides of the Mediterranean, the stage is set for the birth of the Roman Empire. The advent of imperial Rome comes after the events depicted in Antony and Cleopatra, when Octavius becomes the first emperor of Rome, now known as Octavian Augustus.

Shakespeare’s first audiences would have been familiar with this history, and their familiarity would have allowed them to focus less on the momentous battles and instead home in on the tragedy at the play’s center. This tragedy, as the play’s title announces, relates to the legendary love between Antony and Cleopatra. As in Shakespeare’s other great love tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, this play centers on the troubled passion between two lovers—though instead of coming from warring families they come from opposing civilizations. Antony, the Roman general, is a man who has devoted the greater part of his life to upholding the conventionally masculine values of duty and honor. His decorated military career makes him emblematic of the Roman commitment to law and order. By contrast, Cleopatra’s exotic and timeless beauty, along with her feminine passion and flair for drama, make her a veritable incarnation of Egypt. Thus, through the characters of Antony and Cleopatra, the play also stages a contrast between a masculine, stoic Rome and a feminine, emotive Egypt.

While the political conflict unfolds between Rome and Egypt on the play’s “historical” plane, a more intimate contest unfolds between Antony and Cleopatra on the play’s “tragic” plane. Though passionately in love with one another, they are both also equally prone to jealousy. Cleopatra worries about Antony’s new marriage to Octavia and goes to great lengths to retrieve information about his new bride. For his part, Antony has a messenger beaten merely for kissing Cleopatra’s hand. It’s also clear that Antony and Cleopatra don’t speak the same love language. This fact leads to many tumultuous ups and downs in their relationship, and eventually to their deaths. Consider the coy game Cleopatra makes of sending Antony false messages. In act 1, she sends a handmaid to deliver white lies to Antony, meant in equal measure to evade and titillate him. In act 4, she repeats this game in an effort to quell Antony’s rage at her most recent betrayal in battle. She retreats to her monument and sends Antony a message informing him of her suicide. But her game misfires. Instead of calming his rage, she inflames his passion and leads him to wound himself mortally. His subsequent death, in turn, leads to her suicide at the end of act 5.

Shakespeare layers the “historical” and “tragic” planes on top of one another, such that the civilizational and interpersonal conflicts unfold in relation to each other over the course of the play. Act 1 establishes both conflicts and links them to the play’s inciting incident, which occurs when Octavius summons Antony to Rome to discuss the looming threat of Pompey as well as the recent war waged against him by Antony’s brother and recently deceased wife, Fulvia. Octavius is already frustrated with Antony’s extended Egyptian sojourn, and he sees Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra as having emasculated him, stripping him of his storied Roman honor. Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Antony’s departure from Cleopatra causes strain in their relationship.

The rising action of the play occupies all of acts 2 and 3 and much of act 4. These acts depict the growing political tensions within the Roman triumvirate as well as the war that erupts between Antony and Octavius. These acts are unique in Shakespeare, characterized as they are by many rapid-fire short scenes in which the play’s action ricochets from one part of the Mediterranean to another. The contrapuntal structure of these middle acts helps develop the play’s epic scope, which in turn draws out the counterpoint between Rome and Egypt, Octavius and Antony.

Octavius wins a decisive victory over Antony in act 4, marking the climax of the play’s historical narrative. At this point the play shifts pointedly back to the register of tragedy, refocusing on the interpersonal conflict that arose when Cleopatra once again diverted her ships in the heat of battle, dooming Antony’s war effort for a second time. This new conflict leads directly to a two-part tragic climax that plays out in the latter half of act 4, where Antony kills himself, and in act 5, where Cleopatra follows him with her own suicide. In the play’s brief falling action, Octavius, now in position to declare himself the first-ever emperor of imperial Rome, laments the tragic deaths of Antony and Cleopatra and promises to honor their love by burying them together.