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Antony and Cleopatra - How does Shakespeare create this sense of distance and power in the play?

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Introduction

"Antony and Cleopatra work so powerfully through distance. Vast geographical distances had opened up for the English imagination a sense of power over space to audiences of both 1607 and now." How does Shakespeare create this sense of distance and power in the play? Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is a clash of cultural values in the union of a fine Roman general and a sultry Egyptian queen. Whilst it purports to being a tragic love story, the play traverses the ancient world in an important survey of a twelve-year history that determines the fate of two empires - a history that seals the demise of Roman republicanism, and decisively shifts the balance of Mediterranean power from East to West. Written ten years before Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra portrays actual events and persons from Roman history, but also embodies the love story of the two title characters. For the historical background, plot and intimate details of the affair between Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare drew upon the work of the ancient Roman historian Plutarch. However, Shakespeare transformed the play into his own personal masterpiece by portraying the power over distance that the relationship of the two protagonists exerts, and this sense of power over vast geographical space is a fundamental aspect of the play. Critic Harley Granville-Barker comments, 'Roman and Egyptian are set against each other, and this opposition braces the whole body of the play.' ...read more.

Middle

However, the nautical connotations could also be taken to reiterate the vast distances throughout the play, 'makes the sea serve them, which they ear and wound with keels of every kind. Many hot inroads they make in Italy; the borders maritime.' Rome and Egypt, the two conflicting cultures represented by Caesar and Cleopatra, are separated by sea, and this is the location of Antony's final failures. The changes in place are associated in the verbal texture of the play with the vacillating tide. A simile is also present likening the gentlewomen of Cleopatra to Nereides, sea nymphs, daughters of the sea god Nereus. The Jacobean era was a time of voyage discovery and many long distances were travelled by sea. In his use of nautical imagery, Shakespeare has clearly attempted to illustrate to audiences of 1607 the vast geographical scale of the play. Although Antony and Cleopatra details the conflict between Rome and Egypt, providing audiences with an idea of Elizabethan perceptions of the difference between Western and Eastern cultures, there is no definitive conclusion as to which side ultimately triumphs. Critic Robin Sowerby presents the argument that, 'their deaths might be said to celebrate a transcendent love affair that makes Caesar's success at the end seem something rather paltry.' This is an interesting point to consider, for although Egypt falls and becomes a Roman province, Shakespeare clearly does not align the play's sympathies with the West. ...read more.

Conclusion

This also emphasises the simile likening Cleopatra to Venus, which is repeated several times throughout the play. Even in the first scene, Antony's exalted language when he talks of 'new heaven, new earth' and speaks of, 'the nobleness of life' suggests something more than a sordid affair of lust. Regardless of whether a conclusion is drawn as to whether Antony and Cleopatra's relationship is based upon love or lust, the two protagonists still ultimately triumph over the vast geographical distances and the conflict between their two cultures by acknowledging that death is their escape and their only chance of remaining a couple. Whilst Antony and Cleopatra focuses upon an incendiary love affair, it is also a play based upon a double vision of the world. The problematic relationship between the two protagonists introduces a conflict between two opposing cultures, the Roman and the Egyptian. As critic Joyce Carole Oates suggests, ' it is simply between two views of the world, the Roman and the Egyptian, the old Machiavellianism of those who deal in lieutenantry ant the unfixed, pulsating, undignified voluptuousness of those to whom passion has become a world.' Despite the differences between the worlds of the protagonists, they discover a mutual and transcendental union that amply compensates for the sacrifices of land ownership they must make, yet their love marks a different form of power that challenges even the political strength of Rome. Rebecca Jordan 12.5 Wycombe High School 52433 2004 English Literature ...read more.

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