The Aeneid by Virgil and Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra

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There exist particularly two notable reasons why Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra are occasionally compared and contrasted. This paper will focus on these two reasons relying on the plot as supportive evidence.  The Aeneid is a literary piece written by Roman, Virgil who basically wrote it in honor of Augustus Caesar who was the Roman Emperor in his days. In Shakespeare's play, he also uses Augusto Caesar as his character as well.  Another reason as to why the two are compared is that both the Aeneid and Antony and Cleopatra highlights the themes of patriotism and love. In both works, a heroic man is placed in a position where he has to choose between his country or the mistress who both hail from a foreign land. Virgil uses Aeneas and Dido while Shakespeare uses Antony and Cleopatra as the characters to push the themes above. To fully support my arguments, I will give a brief outline of the books so that I can properly demonstrate the existing connections between the books as well as understand the thematic connections.

             To begin with, the Aeneid is a story revolving around a war hero, Aeneas who is on sea from Troy to Italy. Upon the sea, their voyage is however forced off course by a storm making them stop at Carthage. While in Carthage, Aeneas willingly allows himself to fall in love with the queen Dido. Dido is said to have fled a war-stricken land after her husband’s brother murdered her husband. The queen, Dido, falls in love with Aeneas after the former narrates to her the story of his adventures in the Trojan war. The queen feels sympathetic towards him and rewards him with her affection. They together stay in Carthage for a period of time until the gods approach Aeneas with a reminder of his destined duties. Aeneas is forced to leave Carthage setting sail for Italy where he eventually builds Rome. Dido is however left behind. This moves her to take her life by the sword of his lover since she was frustrated by Aeneas departure.

            In Comparison between The Aeneid with Antony and Cleopatra, the focus is normally firstly directed to the uses of character Octavian (later renamed to Augustus). Octavian was a leader in charge of the Roman empire during the time of Aeneid creation. In relation to the existing historical factors, the Roman Empire experienced an instability in the government. The instability resulted in the murder of Crassus while Caesar instigated a civil war in their enemies' territories, Pompey. This civil war led to the fall of Pompey but later Caesar was assassinated by two senators Brutus and Cassius. The situation was not getting any better as another civil war erupted between Brutus and Cassius against an Octavian led team. In the team, he and Antony were the survivors but later fight against each other in an attempt to consolidate power to themselves. Antony is defeated together with Cleopatra becoming the sole ruler.

            Through all these happenings, Virgil was alive to witness every part of the war. This definitely proves that it as hard for him as he tried to document his writing. Virgil honor Augustus for bringing stability and order in the world. A world which was free from war. The Aeneid also mentions a shield which was symbolic of the triumph over Gaul and most importantly the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in Actium. "Upon this shield, the Fire-god, with knowledge of things to come, being versed in the prophets, had wrought events from Italian history and Roman triumphs. Centrally were displayed two fleets of bronze, engaged in the battle of Actium. On one side Augustus Caesar, is leading the Italians into battle, the Senate and People with him, On the other side, with barbaric wealth and motley equipment, / Is Antony, fresh from triumphs in the East, Egypt, the powers of the Orient and uttermost Bactra Sail with him; also - a shameful thing - his Egyptian wife. And, over against her [Cleopatra], the Nile throws wide the folds of its watery garment, inviting the conquered to sail for refuge into that blue, protective bosom. Caesar has entered the walls of Rome in triumphal procession, three times a victor. (Virgil 198-200).

            The Romans later believed that the victory at Actium was a symbolic defeat as it marks an end to an era of wars and civil wars and a beginning towards Peace and order. In his work, Toohey asserts that Aeneas is an exemplar of forces and power, which has a moving factor to victory, a victory which further affirmed nationhood, civilization, and peace. (Toohey 135). This part particularly serves to recognize Augustus tenure as indicated in The Aeneid where the gods directly show Aeneas that h will become a ruler whose name will be on roman tongues as a great ruler for years. In addition, the two relate because they share a thematic perspective of patriotism where the two protagonists have to make a choice between serving the country or their respective mistresses. While Aeneas decides to choose duty, Antony goes for the love of his life Cleopatra. The two men face consequences as a result of their totally different choices. Aeneas is destined to become great as he is spoken to by the gods who set him on a path of greatness. In the Aeneid, Virgil writes that mercury spoke with Aeneas directly.

What do you aim at or hope for, idling and fiddling here in Libya? / If your indifferent to your own high destiny / And for your own renown you will make an effort at all, / Think of you're your young son, Ascanius, growing in manhood, / The inheritance which you owe him - an Italian kingdom, the soil of Rome…(Virgil 89).

 He lives Dido in Carthage and later establishes Rome.  He says the following while leaving Dido.

Dido, I'll never pretend you have not been good to me, deserving of everything / you can claim. I shall not regret my memories as long as I breathe…/ I did not offer you marriage at any time or consent to be bound by a marriage contract…./ Now Apollo and the Lycian Oracle have told me that Italy is our bourne. There lies my heart, my homeland. / can you grudge us Trojans our vision of settling down in Italy? / Just now the courier of heaven, sent by Jupiter…conveyed to me his orders: I saw the god, as clear as day, with my own eyes, / entering the city, and these ears drank is the words he uttered... No more reproaches, then-they only torture us both. / God's will, not mine, says "Italy"(Virgil 91-92).

            On the other hand, Antony completely falls in love with Cleopatra and is willing to do anything to have his queen by her side. This implies that Aeneas had a powerful determination to fulfill what his gods (mercury) had set him upon. He possessed an incredible respect. This directs me to question what would have been the case if Aeneas had opted not to heed to what the gods wanted and stayed in Carthage. Would Rome have been established?

            Antony is not guided by the gods. He solely relies on his own mind and emotions to make decisions. Shakespeare writes that at some moment Antony remembers of his duties and resolves that he needs to let go of his queen momentarily and do some duties. However, he does not do that as he chooses Cleopatra. He is overwhelmed by the pleasure of the flesh. Contrary to Antony, Aeneas is not carried away by lust brought about by the human flesh but chooses to indulge in them temporarily and when called upon by the gods he quickly sets voyage for Italy leaving Dido behind. From the two books, it is clear that love is balance with existing laws and fates destined by the gods. 

            Love acts as a derailing factor to most of the assigned responsibilities of the said characters. In Carthage, Dido stops the construction of the Carthage so as to have time with Aeneas. Dido confirms with Aeneas that her people dislike her for her selfish decision of choosing Aeneas over the Carthage. Aeneas as well spends a notably long period of time which he would have otherwise used to construct and establish an empire back in Italy. Antony, on the other hand, falls to the overwhelming forces of love setting aside the existing Roman laws to have his desires satisfied. He indicates that "Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall"(SparkNotes). The mistresses as well leave their duties to have their desires met. Cleopatra is from Egypt while Dido from Carthage where they both hold office as leaders of their subject. Even with this awareness, they decide to leave their responsibilities. As Antony lies on his deathbed after stabbing himself for leaving his troops to pursue his desires, he still wants the love of his life to be close to him. He says "I am dying, Egypt, dying. Only I here importune death awhile, until of many thousand kisses the poor last I hay upon thy lips (Bevington 792).

            In conclusion, both pieces have a connection right from the historical context where Augustus Caesar was the leader and to whom The Aeneid wants to legitimize as well as the thematic concerns where the two men have to choose between their mistresses or service to the country.

Work Cited.

SparkNotes. 2006. 1 Nov 2006 retrieved from

Toohey, Peter. Reading epic: an introduction to the ancient narratives. Routledge, 2003.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. C. Day-Lewis. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1953.

November 24, 2023


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