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Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,076421,797 (3.73)107
  1. 10
    Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy (laura_88)
  2. 00
    Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Shakespeare's treatments of passionate, irrational and self-destructive love between teenagers (R&J) and mature people (A&C) make for a truly fascinating comparison. The vastly greater political and metaphysical implications, as well as the extreme concentration of the language, in the later play show how far Shakespeare developed for just over a decade.… (more)

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Non sono molto avvezza ai libri di Shakespeare (devo ancora recuperarne molti) ma quei pochi che ho letto sono stati sicuramente più avvincenti ed interessanti di questo che mi ha un po' annoiato.
Antonio e Cleopatra vivono un amore clandestino in Egitto e quando lui è costretto a tornare a Roma per la morte della moglie Fulvia non si fa remore a sposare la sorella di Ottaviano. Questo amore non sembra reale ma solo dettato dalla passione del momento e dalle scelte strategiche e politiche che collegano l'asse Roma-Alessandria.
Quello che non mi è proprio piaciuto è il poco spazio dato alla psicologia dei personaggi e all'approfondimento delle scelte personali. Credo non sia una tra le migliori opere di Shakespeare ma ho letto troppo poco per valutare obiettivamente. ( )
  Feseven78 | Apr 17, 2019 |
This edition of Antony and Cleopatra is definitely not recommended. First, the introductory essays are poorly written and provide little of value for general readers. Second, the e-book version has a terrible way of handling footnotes. Instead of marking the play's text to show where there are footnotes, the reader needs to randomly touch the play's text to see whether or not there is a footnote linked to it. Of course, if there is not footnote, touching the text results in turning the page. This annoying aspect is a reason to avoid this as an e-book. ( )
  M_Clark | Feb 12, 2019 |
Huh. I'd have put money on my having read this before, though quite a while back, but I sure don't remember finding Cleopatra so loathsome before. I've read enough histories that cover the whole Julius Caesar/Mark Antony/Cleopatra/Octavius/death by asps thing that maybe I hadn't read Shakespeare's version before. At any rate, history suggests that Cleopatra was canny, intelligent, and deliberate, but Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a silly, fickle, whining brat. Character after character tells us that she is bewitching, glorious, and desirable, but every time we meet her she is whimpering and simpering, telling silly lies to manipulate Antony, swanning around in a way that would embarrass a sensible teenager, much less a matronly queen. And Antony isn't much better. Far from taking his position in the triumvirate seriously, he tosses his responsibilities to Rome and his family there aside to frisk, puppy-like, around his Egyptian mistress. Yuck. Neither one comes off as grown-up, much less as noble figures whose tragic fates we should find regrettable. And yet...

Despite the characters' manifold flaws, the play is deeply compelling. Somehow both Antony and Cleopatra, for all their foolish choices and pettinesses, transcend all and appear, in the end, to be outsize, even archetypal figures. Their bad decisions, which so many other people must pay for, somehow end with a sort of grandeur and mythic feel that, logically, the details don't support. They are so convinced of the earth shattering significance of their lives that they convince us it is so. Having turned these historical figures into melodramatic children Shakespeare uses his art to transform them further into great tragic lovers.

Part of my extreme distaste for Cleopatra may be thanks to the very excellent Arkangel recording of the play that I listened to along with my reading of the Arden Shakespeare edition. Estelle Kohler, who plays Cleopatra, doesn't hold back anything in her emotional performance. All the weeping, whining, wheedling, and cattiness is going full throttle. The asp could have showed up in, say, Act 2, and Antony could have settled down with Octavia, who seemed a nice, sensible sort of woman, and things would have been much simpler. But that wouldn't have made much of a story, would it? Marjorie Garber's wonderful essay, in her “Shakespeare After All,” helped me appreciate the play, though she couldn't make the main characters any less annoying. Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote meandmybooks | Nov 7, 2017 |
Tragic, but excellent (of course it is, it's Shakespeare). Note the comparisons between Rome and Egypt. It's really interesting. ( )
  J9Plourde | Jun 13, 2017 |
William Shakespeare

Antony and Cleopatra

Penguin Popular Classics, Paperback [1994].

12mo. 160 pp. Edited by G. B. Harrison. Introduction to the play and two essays about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre [7-19]. The Works of Shakespeare [6]. Notes [143-57]. Glossary [158-60].

Written, c. 1606.
First published, 1623 [F1].
Edited by G. B. Harrison, 1938.
Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.


The Works of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
The Elizabethan Theatre
Antony and Cleopatra (Introduction)

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra
Act I, Scenes 1-5
Act II, Scenes 1-7
Act III, Scenes 1-13
Act IV, Scenes 1-15
Act V, Scenes 1-2



Antony and Cleopatra is one of those rare works, like Byron’s Sardanapalus (1821) and Verdi’s Aida (1871), that manage to be tragic and at the same time uplifting. All three, significantly, end with the joint death of (un)fortunate lovers. Now tragedy may purge your emotions in the classical sense, give you a new strength of mind to cope with life, or even enrich your personality with deeper understanding of human nature. Indeed, a great tragedy should do all three each time you experience it on the page or the stage.

But tragedy is hardly supposed to be uplifting. For this implies that the tragic characters, far from being fatally flawed, are more perfect than usual. Their experience is uniquely intense and well worth whatever suffering it might bring them. They are not mildly insane but supremely sane. They are not cautionary tales to avoid but inspiring examples to emulate.

G. B. Harrison, in one stimulating but exasperating book[1], praised Antony and Cleopatra as “the most magnificent of Shakespeare’s plays.” He raved that the “verse is gorgeous, the characterisation subtle, and the construction elaborate” and that Shakespeare used the pregnant imagery of his late style with even greater virtuosity than he had in Macbeth and King Lear. But in the end he concluded that the play is not a “deep tragedy” because the story of “a man who throws his wealth into the lap of a harlot and then kills himself” is essentially non-tragic. He was right for the wrong reasons.

Antony and Cleopatra are not tragic characters because they give the impression, whether Shakespeare intended it or not, that the world is well lost for a love like theirs. Dryden, a somewhat rigid moralist like Dr Johnson a century later, was more right than he knew when he titled his version of the same story All for Love; or, the World well Lost (1678). He also added one “Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile”, but in fact he didn’t approach the style at all, much less the substance.[2]

It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Romeo and Juliet, probably written about a dozen years earlier. A dozen years! Yet it would be hard to imagine more different treatments of similar themes. The similarities are entirely superficial and confined to unsatisfactory plot details. For instance, in both cases he commits suicide under the false impression that she’s dead. In both cases, also, her fake death is not her own idea. Shakespeare could have thought of something less unconvincing, but I don’t think he cared much about that. He had another fish to fry. The differences between the plays are far more telling.

The star-crossed lovers are indeed a little unlucky, their love is brief and almost purely sexual, and it is expanded only insofar their families, or at most the Duke and the city of Verona, are concerned. The downfall of Antony and Cleopatra proceeds entirely from their characters, without any input from Fate. Their love is anything but brief; and no, it is not purely sexual, either. It may have been in the beginning, but by the time the play begins, near the end, it has long been transformed into something mental and much more lasting. As for the scope, no less than the whole known world is at stake here. And, of course, Antony and Cleopatra are well advanced in years, quite unlike the Verona couple who are still in their “salad days”.

Romeo and Juliet is a fine tragedy, often misunderstood by short-sighted readers who cannot see beyond “teenage melodrama”. It’s an astonishing tour de force of characterisation and story-telling for a writer in his early thirties. But Antony and Cleopatra is an infinitely greater play. It defies shallow labels like tragedy and comedy. It blends tragic, comic and even farcical elements with breathtaking audacity.

The title characters steal the show, of course. They are almost exact opposites. Perhaps that’s why they are attracted so much to each other.

If Byron’s Conrad is a man of thousand crimes and one virtue, Shakespeare’s Antony is a man of thousand virtues and one vice. Or at least he would have been if one could convince oneself, which I can’t, that his love for Cleopatra is a vice. It is natural that dumb soldiers like Demetrius and Philo, who make for one of Shakespeare’s most arresting openings, should fail to understand the “dotage” of their general. It is also natural that Pompey, another soldier and one only slightly less dumb, should refer to Antony as “amorous surfeiter”.

It is regrettable, of course, that Anthony’s considerable soldierly virtues, freely admitted by everybody including Caesar himself, should be destroyed by “his Egyptian dish” (Enobarbus) and that he should become a “noble ruin of her magic” (Scarus). But I, for one, think there is much left of Antony’s greatness until the end, for instance when he urges his people to leave him alone with his shame (III.11.), when he keeps their loyalty (IV.2.) and thanks them for their bravery (IV.8.), and, above all, when he orders the traitorous Enobarbus to be sent his treasures (IV.5.). “This is the divine spark in Antony which cheats such as Octavius of their victory”, as G.B.H. nicely put it in his notes. Perhaps the finest description of Antony in the play comes, curiously enough, from that dull peacemaker Lepidus (I.4.):

I must not think
There are, evils enow to darken all his goodness:
His faults in him, seem as the spots of Heaven,
More fiery by night’s blackness; hereditary,
Rather than purchas’d; what he cannot change,
Than what he chooses.

Cleopatra is a woman of thousand vices and one virtue. But the latter outlives the former. She is possibly the most extraordinary female character in Shakespeare. Never did the Bard create a more complex, contradictory and convincing creature of the “gentle” sex. For much of the play she is smart and manipulative, “cunning past man’s thought” indeed, but also vain, spoiled, capricious and just plain stupid. It’s impossible to like her. In the end, having demonstrated her “immortal longings” and departed for another meeting with her Antony, it’s impossible not to love her. Those readers and spectators who think, like G. B. Harrison, that she is nothing more than a whore who seriously thinks of seducing Thidias and Caesar have missed the point completely. If love may be said to have degraded Antony from an astute politician and brave soldier to “doting mallard”, yet without destroying his nobility, in Cleopatra’s case it must be said that love transforms her from shallow to sublime, or rather from human to divine.

It is a strange thing, the love between these two. There is little lust and even less rosy romance in it. It seems like an endless series of long quarrels and short truces. But it feels intense, real and worth losing the world for. Caesar may have the world, and he may rule it for decades. But Tony and Cleo had all the fun.

There is more, much more, in this play than Antony and Cleopatra. Granted that they dominate it, speaking together some 1,300 lines, they are not the whole of it. The play, after all, is some 3,000 lines long. At least two other marvellously drawn characters and incredibly sophisticated structure and language provide further sources of endless fascination.

Enobarbus is the only tragic character in this play. He is a man of the world, immensely intelligent, witty and wise. He is loyal to Antony longer than most others, but in the end, though he can stomach defeat, he cannot cope with his general’s near-madness. He requires an actor of impressive scope and accomplishment. The “kill all our women” speech (I.2.), when acted well, is hilarious, but his late soliloquies (III.13., IV.6.) and death (IV.9.) are soaked with remorse and – when acted well, without overacting – deeply moving.

Enobarbus is by far the most accurate and perceptive judge of character on the stage. But even he is not perfect. The scene with Thidias (III.13.) is his first mistake, though this largely depends on the way Cleopatra is played. His second and fatal mistake, ironically enough, is misjudging both Antony’s character and his own. He leaves his general, “nobler than my revolt is infamous”, but hasn’t bargained for Antony’s magnanimity. This is the one thing he cannot bear. As a true tragic character, like King Lear, Enobarbus dies of broken heart.

As G. B. H. observes, it is “superb artistry” to give the generally blunt and cynical Enobarbus the most gorgeous descriptions of Cleopatra. The famous “barge of gold” speech and the even more famous “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (II.2.) come from his mouth. Allowing for some ironic overstatement on his part, I believe Enobarbus does mean what he says. It is a great tribute to Cleopatra’s personality that she can make such an impression on a man so hard to impress otherwise. Very early in the play (I.2.) comes, perhaps, the most penetrating comment on the Queen. It puts a different complexion on the whole thing later. When Antony exclaims that Cleopatra is “cunning past man’s thought”, Enobarbus replies immediately in sprightly, but sincere, prose:

Alack Sir no, her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure Love. We cannot call her winds and waters, sighs and tears: they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. This cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a shower of rain as well as Jove.

It says as much as anything about Shakespeare’s genius that he created the character of Enobarbus virtually from scratch. It’s no mean achievement to reduce Plutarch’s prolixity to a very well-constructed play and transform his bland and turgid prose into emotive and dramatic verse. Even when he borrowed most heavily, as in the “barge of gold” speech, Shakespeare ended up with something thoroughly original and much more powerful. But the creation of Enobarbus is an achievement of altogether higher order.

Caesar is usually played ice cold, rightly so for this is what his whole part suggests. Attempts to invest him with some warmth have generally failed. His aim is power, not love. Whether he lost his humanity in the process or was born this way remains unclear, but it’s hardly relevant. It is notable that his greatest show of emotion that seems more or less genuine, that is apart from his effusively phony affection for his sister, comes when he is informed of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra in the last two scenes. He was quite impervious to the Queen’s charms while she was alive, but now “she looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace.” He is certainly affected, indeed devastated, by Antony’s death:

Oh Antony,
I have follow’d thee to this, but we do lance
Diseases in our bodies. I must perforce
Have shown to thee such a declining day,
Or look on thine; we could not stall together
In the whole world. But yet let me lament,
With tears as sovereign as the blood of hearts,
That thou my brother, my competitor
In top of all design; my mate in empire,
Friend and companion in the front of war,
The arm of mine own body, and the heart
Where mine his thoughts did kindle; that our stars
Unreconciliable, should divide our equalness to this.

These words are often quoted, but the reactions of Caesar’s subordinates immediately before that are usually neglected. They made us pay special attention to what follows. “Caesar is touch’d”, observes Agrippa, having called Antony “a rarer spirit [than which] never / Did steer humanity”. Maecenas, most revealing of all, remarks: “When such a spacious mirror’s set before him. / He needs must see himself.” What a curious remark! But let’s see what it might mean. Perhaps Octavius is indeed a mirror image of Antony. Now, such an image is, first, reversed compared to the original and, second, non-existent without it. If Octavius is the supreme man of reason in search of the ultimate power, Antony is the perfect example of the man of passion in search of pleasure. However different qualitatively mirror images may be, they are identical quantitatively. Octavius is right to lament Antony’s death: never again will he fight such a rival, and his whole reign will be one long anti-climax.

This is not an easy play to read. The structure and the language are far more challenging than, say, a walk in the park like Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet and Othello are walks in rather dark and densely overgrown parks, but it’s not hard to find your way in them once you know the basic alleys. With the possible exception of King Lear, none other play of Shakespeare’s have I found more difficult to get into, but also more rewarding once I have succeeded, than Antony and Cleopatra.

The text is usually split into 5 acts and 42 scenes, but we should remember that the version in the First Folio, the only one we have, has no divisions whatsoever. In Shakespeare’s Tragedies, G. B. H. has many fascinating things to say how the play might have been produced in Elizabethan times, using different parts of the stage to stress the contrast between Antony and Caesar or Cleopatra and Octavia. The third and fourth acts are positively cinematic in their swift change of 28 entries/exits altogether. It would be absurd to bother with scenery or even costumes under these conditions, but on the Elizabethan stage there was very little of either. Language did the job of both. Instead of blaming Shakespeare for not observing the unities of space and time, as Dryden and Dr Johnson loved to do, we must give the Bard some credit for his remarkable attempt to include the whole world, as it was known in the 1st century BC, in his play.

The language is difficult because, as G. B. H. notes in his introduction to this edition, the play was written at a time when “Shakespeare’s style was most intense, and his poetic imagery peculiarly pregnant and concentrated”. Antony’s “the wide arch / Of the rang’d Empire” is just one example of this peculiar concentration that must be grasped emotionally rather than intellectually. Significantly, the play contains little prose, always dramatically expressive (e.g. Enobarbus’ intrusions in II.2.), and almost no rhymed verse. The blank verse is often free, irregular and difficult to speak convincingly. Many professional actors and actresses have failed, so don’t be ashamed if your reading aloud is not a great success. But in your head it should sound perfect.

Whole volumes can be written, and probably have been, on the intricate linguistic organisation of this play. To take but one example, in the first scene Antony famously roars “Let Rome in Tiber melt” and speaks of “our dungy earth alike / Feeds beast as man”. Both images are later echoed by Cleopatra, though in very different contexts. When she assaults the poor messenger (II.5.), she is not impressed with his presumed innocence of the bad news he brings: “Some innocents ‘scape not the thunderbolt: / Melt Egypt into Nile: and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents”. In the very beginning of the tremendous final scene (V.2.), the longest in the play, Cleopatra harks back to Antony’s words with another version of the “morbid broodings on the odd transmutation of matter [that were] common in poetry of the early seventeenth century”, as G. B. H. reminds us in the notes.

My desolation does begin to make
A better life: ‘tis paltry to be Caesar:
Not being Fortune, he’s but Fortune’s knave.
A minister of her will: and it is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents, and bolts up change;
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar’s nurse, and Caesar’s.

The point of all this is the following. Film versions and stage productions are doubtless necessary for the full appreciation of this play. But so is reading it carefully multiple times. People who insist that Shakespeare’s plays were written only to be acted and not to be read are in the majority that misses the point. Shakespeare’s plays were obviously written for both.

It’s a shame that Antony and Cleopatra is far from being among Shakespeare’s best-known plays. On this site alone, there are 15 plays with more copies and 14 with more reviews. Granted that it’s a difficult work which requires careful (re-)reading and outstanding production to be appreciated, this cannot be the whole truth. Somerset Maugham once jokingly proposed that English prudishness may be the major reason for the neglect:

The English, whatever they were in the Elizabethan era, are not an amorous race. Love with them is more sentimental than passionate. They are of course sufficiently sexual for the purpose of reproducing their species, but they cannot control the instinctive feeling that the sexual act is disgusting. They are more inclined to look upon love as affection or benevolence than as passion. […] That love should absorb a man has seemed to them unworthy. In France a man who has ruined himself for women is generally regarded with sympathy and admiration; there is a feeling that it was worth while, and the man who has done it feels even a certain pride in the fact; in England he will be thought and will think himself a damned fool. That is why Antony and Cleopatra has always been the least popular of Shakespeare’s greater plays. Audiences have felt that it was contemptible to throw away an empire for a woman’s sake. Indeed if it were not founded on an accepted legend they would be unanimous in asserting that such a thing was incredible.[3]

This tongue-in-cheek hypothesis may well be closer to the truth than most people would care to admit. Love is either paid extravagant lip service or denied any importance whatsoever. It is never taken seriously. It is never, that is to say, accorded some importance in the affairs of the world without goofy adulation as one of the ultimate virtues. (It would be interesting, in view of the quote above, to see if the play has been more successful in France, Southern Europe and Latin America.)

The last word belongs to Harold Goddard, one of the few Shakespearean scholars who regard the play as unqualified masterpiece. The Meaning of Shakespeare (1951), his classic study of the complete canon, contains a number of questionable assumptions and must be recommended with great caution. But the chapter on Antony and Cleopatra is a flawless exception. It begins with as fine a review of the play as it is possible to write in a single paragraph:

If one were asked to select the play of Shakespeare’s that best represents all aspects of his genius and preserves the most harmonious balance between them, Antony and Cleopatra would be the inevitable choice. Here history, comedy, and tragedy are chemically combined; here the scope of the drama is world-wide; here sprawling and recalcitrant material is integrated with a constructive art that only many rereadings permit one to appreciate; here all the important characters of a huge cast are distinctly individualized, the central figures ranking among Shakespeare’s masterpieces; here the humor is so inherent that we do not think of it and could not conceivably speak of it as comic relief; here poetry of the highest order remains continually in keeping with the immense variety of scene and subject; here, finally, a conclusion that borrows touches from the death scenes of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear blends them into what is in some respects the most complex, sustained, and magnificent piece of musical orchestration to be found anywhere in Shakespeare.

[1] Shakespeare’s Tragedies (1951), Chapter 10.
[2] Dryden’s play, though much more limited and sometimes impossibly sentimental, is nevertheless a very interesting curiosity. Read it here.
[3] The Summing Up (1938), Chapter 38. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | May 25, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shakespeare, Williamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Andrew, Stephen A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bate, JonathanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bevington, DavidEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brissaud, PierreIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Canby, Henry Seidelsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dennis, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Everett, BarbaraEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harrison, George B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hudson, Henry N.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kittredge, George LymanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lamar, Virginia A.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Neill, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ridley, M. R.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sagarra, Josep M. deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Shaw, ByamIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weis, RenéIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weis, ReneEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wright, Louis B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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First words
Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment.
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.
Small to greater matters must give way.
Since Cleopatra died,
I have liv'd in such dishonour that the gods
Detest my baseness.
I have
Immortal longings in me.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This work is for the complete Antony and Cleopatra only. Do not combine this work with abridgements, adaptations or simplifications (such as "Shakespeare Made Easy"), Cliffs Notes or similar study guides, or anything else that does not contain the full text. Do not include any video recordings. Additionally, do not combine this with other plays.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743482859, Mass Market Paperback)

Each edition includes:

· Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play

· Full explanatory notes conveniently placed on pages facing the text of the play

· Scene-by-scene plot summaries

· A key to famous lines and phrases

· An introduction to reading Shakespeare's language

· An essay by a leading Shakespeare scholar providing a modern perspective on the play

· Illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare Library's vast holdings of rare books

Essay by Cynthia Marshall

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is home to the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, and a magnet for Shakespeare scholars from around the globe.

In addition to exhibitions open to the public throughout the year, the Folger offers a full calendar of performances and programs.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:22 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

Blending history and high drama, Antony and Cleopatra remains one of Shakespeare's finest achievements.

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