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

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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. Loyalty now belongs only to the winner, and individuals such as Lepidus and Pompey are sacrificed in the imperialistic drive of Octavius. A certain misogyny is Rome, with women denounced as ‘whores,’ and the harsh treatment that Cleopatra would have faced as a captive indicates the presence of violence in the Roman psyche.

Nor is Egypt an ideal of purity. A society ‘wrinkled deep in time’, its preoccupation with emotion leads it to recklessness (such as when Cleopatra flees the Battle of Actium). Theatrical and dramatic, the lifestyle at court is extremely decadent, often approaching vulgarity. Cleopatra is cosseted by her courtiers, and encouraged towards vanity, narcissism, pettiness and self-indulgence,

The notion of a duality is more important than the probity of either force; by being opposites, ‘East’ and ‘West’ become inextricable. Without ‘East’ there would be no concept of ‘West,’ and vice versa, and this pattern is applicable to all the converses that the antithetical spheres represent.

Both are equally important in the development of full humanity  - the values that ‘West’ and ‘East’ represent should be in harmony within both society and the human psyche. In ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ they seem to be inherently conflicted, and the subsequent polarisation causes the demise of the lovers, which allows them to, paradoxically, conquer the hearts of a world that has tried to conquer and restrict them.

The structure of the play serves to highlight the antithesis, with frequent changes between the machinations of Rome and the hyperbole of Cleopatra’s court emphasizing both the opposition of the value systems and the effect that exposure to both has upon Antony.

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 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.’


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