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Do you agree that this is essentially how Shakespeare presents the opposition between East and West in 'Antony and Cleopatra?'

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Introduction

Shakespeare used as his source for the play North's translation of Plutarch's 'Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.' Plutarch, along with other Greek and Roman authors, saw an opposition between the conquering West, standing for moral and political virtue, and the conquered East, representing luxury and decadence. Do you agree that this is essentially how Shakespeare presents the opposition between East and West in 'Antony and Cleopatra?' 'Rome' and 'Egypt' have significance far beyond physical locations; they symbolize two oppositional value systems essential within both society and the psyche. The world of 'Antony and Cleopatra' is riddled with polarised opposites, such as civilisation and nature, public and private, and, perhaps most importantly, passion and honour. The inability of the East and West to reconcile their values inevitably causes conflict, forcing Antony, the tragic protagonist, to choose between the spheres. In suicide, he transcends the limitations the world thrusts upon him; joined later by Cleopatra, who finally discovers the significance of Western values, in a triumphant death. The notion of either sphere having moral superiority to the other is moot; Shakespeare passes no concrete judgement, and no simple platitude of 'good and evil' could suffice to explain the complex behaviour of the principal characters. Neither Egypt nor Rome seems to be truly virtuous, despite the moralising of the Roman characters. In Rome the traditional system of honour is rapidly being subjugated beneath Caesar's cold quest for individual supremacy. ...read more.

Middle

'His legs bestrid the ocean' Cleopatra proclaims when delivering a touching eulogy to Antony. As well as expressing his power and magnitude, this phrase symbolizes the gulf over which Antony stood, and by which he was eventually destroyed. Antony's persona is an amalgam of Roman and Egyptian values; he recognises his own emotional capacity, saying of his passion for Cleopatra 'there's beggary in the love that can be reckoned' yet also prioritises the old Roman notion of honour; 'I have lived in such dishonour that the gods Detest my baseness.' The contrasting values vie for supremacy in the psyche of Antony, and this often makes his behaviour seem inconsistent. For example, in the very first scene he declares: 'Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall!' yet after discovering the death of his estranged wife resolves 'I must from this enchanting queen break off.' However, the contradiction the audience witnesses in Antony is less a symptom of an inherently paradoxical psyche, but an indication of a world that does not allow Antony to display the full range of his humanity. Instead, the world attempts to force him to choose between the spheres of Rome and Alexandria. Antony becomes embroiled within the conflict, and is a casualty of the struggle for supremacy. Believing that both Roman honour and Egyptian love have deserted him, he attempts suicide. One of the only characters in the play who combines Roman and Egyptian values in his psyche, Antony differs from many of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists in that he shows little internal conflict - he does not, for example, question the gods. ...read more.

Conclusion

The 20th century saw a diverse range of responses towards the antithesis, many corresponding with the perspectives from which theatrical productions approached the problem. There is still sometimes the tendency to moralise the concepts of Rome and Egypt, arguing one must be 'good' and the other automatically 'bad,' and many productions focus on either the political (Roman) or the emotional (Egyptian) aspects of the play. Since the tragedy of September 11th, the media have largely exaggerated the notion of an inherent conflict between the 'Christian West' and the 'Islamic East,' and this adds a new dimension to the play for current viewers. The antithesis between Rome and Egypt tears them apart, but also inextricably entangles them. As without light, there would be no darkness, where 'East' does not exist, the concept of 'West' is nullified. Both are essential components of complete humanity, and Caesar's apparent victory over Egypt is notable only for its superficiality - the 'East' can never be expunged, and will always be a key element of human consciousness. However, through their deaths, Antony and Cleopatra transcend these converse forces, and in reconciling 'East' and 'West' to reach the ultimate potential of their humanity are propelled into the realms of mythology. The conclusion is one merging tragedy and supreme divinity, where the lovers are seemingly destroyed by the world yet truly conquer it, exalted into immortality and splendour as the magnificent lovers that the tumultuous, paradoxical mortal world could never allow them to be. ...read more.

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