The rapid shifts from Rome to Egypt and back also enable judgments and opinions of the other sphere to be unreservedly expressed, which the audience then have to evaluate according to the behaviour that they witness on stage. Nowhere are these contrasts more pertinently visible than in the first scene, which commences with Roman observers, Demetrius and Philo, disparaging the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra;
‘ 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 gypsy’s lust.’
The audience can now witness the relationship from the perspective of the couple. The blatant hyperbole is evident immediately, with Antony and Cleopatra claiming that they must find ‘new heaven, new earth’ for their passion, and ridiculing Rome, as Cleopatra says
‘Do this, or this;
Take in that kingdom, and enfranchise that.
Perform’t, or else we damn thee.’’
Throughout the play, the audience are exposed to both ‘Roman’ and ‘Egyptian’ judgements, in addition to the behaviour they witness on stage. With Shakespeare providing no firm conclusion or simplistic moral platitude, the audience must evaluate and interpret these different opinions to form an understanding of both the characters and the forces that govern them.
Changes in the style of language and the imagery that Shakespeare uses are also essential in the differentiation between Rome and Egypt. The imagery utilised in Egypt, such as the following passage;
‘Or murmuring ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’
For so he calls me. Now I feed myself
With most delicious poison. Think on me,
That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black
And wrinkled deep in time.’
culminates in a very atmospheric, almost supernatural aura. Frequent references to nature, in both its glory and savagery, are made, and the timelessness of Egypt is frequently evoked. Seemingly paradoxical imagery is also used to great effect, such as in the phrase ‘delicious poison.’ Egypt is ragged, sexual and passionate.
This contrasts markedly with the solemnity and precision used to describe Rome. A young society desperate to fulfil its imperialistic dreams, Rome is allied with civilisation. The imagery used here corresponds with success, development, nobility and ‘virtue,’ as seen in the following speech by Caesar:
‘Most noble Antony,
Let not the piece of virtue that is set
Betwixt us as the cement of our love,
To keep it builded, be the ram to batter
The fortress of it.’
Neither hero nor a true villain, Caesar is the embodiment of a new Rome, one where the old notions of honour and loyalty treasured by Antony are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the pursuit of individual power. The moral fibre of Caesar is debatable, but whether a Machiavellian liar or a man genuinely desiring peace, his singularity of purpose and failure to display any ‘Egyptian’ qualities render him devoid of passion and therefore full humanity. He resembles a cold but inevitable force; his victory, and therefore that of the Roman West seems to be predestined. The soothsayer prophesises to Antony;
‘If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose.’
The inevitability of Caesar’s triumph is said to herald ‘the time of universal peace’; and, as the audience know, historically the reign of Octavius as Emperor Augustus was noted for the initiation of the Pax Romana, which brought harmony to the Empire for over a century. However, as Caesar and Rome represent only half of the duality that is essential for humanity to survive, there is the undeniable sense that the subjugation of Egypt and Egyptian values has been accomplished only superficially, and that, through his failure to acknowledge and understand the essential nature of the Egyptian in his psyche and that of the world, his humanity is severely limited. The audience is left with the sensation that, as Cleopatra states emotively near her death;
‘Tis paltry to be Caesar.’
‘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. Antony’s tragedy is that the worlds of both Rome and Egypt impose their limitations of behaviour upon him, and in resisting polarisation to either extreme, he is destroyed. However, in death he is restored to the glory in which others have beheld him throughout the play, and in a ‘new heaven, new earth’ he achieves immortal glory, heroism, and love.
Until the final act, when Cleopatra transcends her own pettiness and becomes a genuine tragic protagonist, the charismatic Egyptian Queen works as the archetypal opposite of Caesar - the quintessence of Eastern culture and values.
Cleopatra is governed entirely by her fierce and passionate emotions, and her swift, histrionic mood changes often appear falsified, but Enobarbus refutes this, saying
‘Alack, sir, no; her passions are made of nought but the finest part of pure love.’
An enigma who both mesmerizes and repulses the Romans, Cleopatra seems to the audience paradoxical – her only consistency is her lack of consistency! Her true self is unfathomable, as we see only the outward responses of a woman dominated by passionate inner emotions that we cannot witness.
Despite the ‘infinite variety’ that mystifies the Romans, until the final act Cleopatra too is fatally limited, for despite deriding the Roman world, her failure to comprehend its values, and the seeming lack of any ‘Roman’ traits in her psyche, renders her, like her converse Caesar, unable to express her full humanity. Her preoccupation with emotion renders her narcissistic, petty and prone to excessive hyperbole.
However, unlike Caesar, Cleopatra’s love for Antony renders her able, in the final act, to transcend her own limitations and finally become the figure of splendour and wonderment that she yearns to be.
Resolving to die ‘in the high Roman fashion’ she channels her considerable energies into her ‘immortal longings,’ skilfully outmanoeuvring the false-hearted Caesar to die passionately and gloriously. The validity of her emotions here can be doubtless, as she says:
‘Husband, I come.
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.’
In finally understanding the concepts of courage, nobility and honour that her lover possessed, Cleopatra is able to emulate him, and in doing so herself reconcile the concepts of ‘East’ and ‘West’ and reach her full humanity in a glorious, and truly royal, suicide.
Throughout the play, Antony’s ‘plated Mars’ and Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety’ are conveyed through wondrous poetry and dramatic hyperbole from each other and from other characters. These representations of the protagonists are often different to those that the audience witnesses; but in their deaths they are remembered as the idealised lovers they desired to be, a ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’ or almost mythical proportions.
Their exaltation from ‘this dungy earth’ into an immortal love, compels the Romans to admire the passion that they once denigrated, even Caesar laments the lovers:
‘No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them.’
In their suicides, Antony and Cleopatra cheat Rome of true victory. Although the cold Roman, imperialistic force is inexorable, the triumphant death of Cleopatra fools Caesar and denies him of the chance to humiliate her and expunge all traces of Egypt from the Roman consciousness.
Throughout ‘Antony and Cleopatra’s’ long theatrical history, many generations have perceived the represented conflict between eastern and western values in the light of their own concerns, often concluding that one sphere is innately more ‘moral’ than its converse. This is heightened by Shakespeare’s ambiguity in his portrayal of the characters of Caesar and Cleopatra, who embody ‘West’ and ‘East’ respectively.
Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw striking parallels between Caesar and the new King James, who had expressed a wish to become a new, English Augustus. Audiences, therefore, could infer that through the author’s portrayal of Caesar as a cold force, lacking empathy and humanity but proffering peace and unity, Shakespeare was alluding to James as representative of a new Western value system that he could not fully endorse. Audiences may have understood the idea that with the heralding of a new era, a key element – which the ‘east’ in the play represents - had been repressed from the British consciousness. Some would have associated this with the death of Queen Elizabeth, a popular, enigmatic ruler who, in retrospect seemed to embody the last of a ‘Golden Age,’ where mystery and splendour existed alongside reason and politics.
Often, priggish Victorian audiences found the play rather challenging to their notion of the innate supremacy of British civilisation and Western values. By the 19th century, Britain had metamorphosed into a dominant world power similar to that controlled by Caesar, and many features, such as a rampant imperialism, a strive for power, and a tendency to frequently moralise, were in common with that of the Rome presented by Shakespeare.
Their Western perspective, and the absence of any moral conclusion by Shakespeare, led many Victorians to adopt the Roman viewpoint - ultimately empathise with Caesar and condemn the protagonists’ love as innately immoral. Many Victorians were repelled by an East that was practically the antithesis of their society - the frank portrayal of sexuality, the fraternisation of royals with commoners, and the overall decadence of the Alexandrian court were condemned, and although audiences were still fascinated by Cleopatra, she was cast as the villain of the piece, who;
‘The triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet’s fool.’
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.
Antony and Cleopatra – William Shakespeare
Antony and Cleopatra: A Shakespearean adjustment -John F Danby
Macmillan Master Guides: Antony and Cleopatra – Martin Wine
Antony and Cleopatra: A Selection of Critical Essays – Edited by John Russell Brown.
Total number of words – 2511
Total word number of quotes – 430
Number of words without quotes – 2081