How did they (hoist up Antony) in Antony and Cleopatra?

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This week I look up above the stage to consider how Shakespeare’s company  could achieve something which is written into Antony and Cleopatra. You may recall the scene, Antony has attempted to kill himself and failed and his dying but not yet dead body is brought to Cleopatra for a final goodbye. Very touching. But there is one problem Cleopatra is in her monument which is elevated above the stage and Antony has to be hoisted up to her for their final exchange of words. Rather less than touching if Antony is dangled helplessly above the stage, is bumped painfully against the balcony or requires complicated rigging to lift him up….

The fact that Shakespeare wrote this device into what is surely meant to be a serious and touching moment suggests that he was confident that it would not go wrong or make the audience giggle too much. We are not 100% sure how this was achieved but here is a ‘best guess’.  Firstly though here is the scene we are talking about – I include a lengthy extract to show you how much business Shakespeare scripts about them raising Antony aloft – he even jokes about the difficulty of the task and Antony’s heaviness at the same time as Antony points out that the stakes are high, he will die if they don’t hurry up.

Enter, below, MARK ANTONY, borne by the Guard


O sun,
Burn the great sphere thou movest in!
darkling stand
The varying shore o’ the world. O Antony,
Antony, Antony! Help, Charmian, help, Iras, help;
Help, friends below; let’s draw him hither.


Not Caesar’s valour hath o’erthrown Antony,
But Antony’s hath triumph’d on itself.


So it should be, that none but Antony
Should conquer Antony; but woe ’tis so!


I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses the poor last
I lay up thy lips.


I dare not, dear,–
Dear my lord, pardon,–I dare not,
Lest I be taken: not the imperious show
Of the full-fortuned Caesar ever shall
Be brooch’d with me; if knife, drugs,
serpents, have
Edge, sting, or operation, I am safe:
Your wife Octavia, with her modest eyes
And still conclusion, shall acquire no honour
Demuring upon me. But come, come, Antony,–
Help me, my women,–we must draw thee up:
Assist, good friends.


O, quick, or I am gone.


Here’s sport indeed! How heavy weighs my lord!
Our strength is all gone into heaviness,
That makes the weight: had I great Juno’s power,
The strong-wing’d Mercury should fetch thee up,
And set thee by Jove’s side. Yet come a little,–
Wishes were ever fools,–O, come, come, come;

They heave MARK ANTONY aloft to CLEOPATRA

And welcome, welcome! die where thou hast lived:
Quicken with kissing: had my lips that power,
Thus would I wear them out.

It is clear that several people are invited to help with the job of lifting Antony and here are the mechanics of what they might have used to achieve this.


Hoist rigging by Ian Dickinson

Several of Shakespeare’s later plays (The Tempest and Pericles) use the hoist to allow characters to enter from above and to appear as Gods above the stage. Here the same system of ropes and winches could be used to help raise Antony. What you see here would all have been above the stage concealed in the roof, but it is easy to imagine that the end of these ropes disappearing down into the stage space could have been attached in some way to Antony and with the help of other actors used to hoist him aloft to Cleopatra. Rather cumbersome perhaps but clever…

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Tim

    Please note that, according to Plutarch, Antony was actually pulled up by a rope to Cleopatra in her mausoleum. He never clearly defined how they actually did it, but in the play, the stage probably had a special rig made for it in the ceiling.

  • Sylvia Morris

    Thanks for this post, reminding us of one of the most difficult bits of stage business that Shakespeare wrote into his plays. It’s still a challenge for theatres to make it work, and as you say it’s important to avoid anything that would make the audience giggle!

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