Atomic force microscopy (AFM) is a force sensing nanoscopic tool that can be used to undertake a multiscale approach to understand the mechanisms that underlie cell shape change, ranging from the cellular to molecular scale. In this review paper, we discuss the use of AFM to characterize the dramatic shape changes of mitotic cells. AFM-based mechanical assays can be applied to measure the considerable rounding force and hydrostatic pressure generated by mitotic cells. A complementary AFM technique, single-molecule force spectroscopy, is able to quantify the interactions and mechanisms that functionally regulate individual proteins. Future developments of these nanomechanical methods, together with advances in light microscopy imaging and cell biological and genetic tools, should provide further insight into the biochemical, cellular and mechanical processes that govern mitosis and other cell shape change phenomena.