Explore the ways Shakespeare presents the concept of authority in Antony and Cleopatra
Explore the ways Shakespeare presents the concept of authority in Antony and Cleopatra
The play’s main characters are two of the most powerful people in the world, Antony being a member of the triumvirate, a coalition controlling the majority of the globe, and Cleopatra the Queen of Egypt, a feisty lady with a strong will who in the past has been linked with many other world leaders, a point which is often referred to throughout the play; “Cleopatra: Did I, Charmian, / Ever love Caesar so?”. Due to their status, the authority they hold and the power they have over people is clearly going to be a main theme as it affects many of their actions, decisions and feelings as the play progresses, to great consequence.
There are a number of strong characters all trying to gain the upper hand at every opportunity. This is shown even in petty matters such as who gives in and sits down first in the falsely courteous power exchange between Antony and Caesar on Antony’s visit to Rome in Act 2, Scene 2.
Caesar: Welcome to Rome.
Antony: Thank you.
Antony: Sit, sir.
Caesar: Nay then. [Caesar sits, then Antony]
This is comic moment from Shakespeare, but it does also outline the ongoing power struggle within the triumvirate. The scene can be looked at from two angles: it could be argued that, as it is Antony who wins this small exchange, the event aims to highlight the strength he possesses at the height of his career in order to provide a contrast for his lack of authority at the closing stages of the play; on the other hand it could also perhaps be seen as an early sign of his decline, as he is so desperate to gain authority he has reduced himself to pettiness, contrasting with the behaviour of Caesar who acts the bigger man without the need to win this small battle as he believes he can win the real thing, an inner confidence not present within Antony. The contrast between the characters’ behaviour is shown again more clearly in Act 3, Scene 13 where in a desperate struggle to maintain some authority Antony has Caesar’s messenger, Thidias, whipped for no good reason other than to prove he does still have some control. “Antony: I am / Antony yet. Take hence the jack and whip him!” This is an interesting juxtaposition to the previous scene where Caesar has received Antony’s ambassador most courteously, even ensuring he returns safely back to his master, “Caesar: Bring him through the bands.” The difference in approach is most probably because Antony realises whilst his life and leadership is on a steady decline, the younger “boy Caesar” is gaining experience, power and control with each day that passes. Shakespeare has shown Antony’s frustration at this through his actions and poor decision making, both on a personal and professional level.
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The power relationship between the lovers is also a main focus of the play and is a very interesting one displayed by Shakespeare in many ways. Enobarbus’s description of the pair’s first meeting at the river Cydnus, Act 2, Scene 2 is not only a beautiful story with wonderful language and imagery, it also gives an interesting insight into the direction the relationship will take. Antony invites the Queen to dine with him, but instead of complying she decides the night will be on her terms and changes the arrangements so “he became her guest”. This is a shocking response as Antony, “Whom ne’er the word of ‘No’ woman heard speak,” is not used to being rejected. It makes him immediately interested in and intrigued by her. It also gives her the power in the relationship; right from the start she is the one calling the shots. Another interesting technique used by Shakespeare is the idea of gender reversal; Antony’s manhood being transferred to Cleopatra. This is shown in many instances throughout the play the first of which comes in Act 1 Scene 2 where Enobarbus mistakes the footsteps of Cleopatra for those of Antony: “Enobarbus: Hush, here comes Antony.
Charmian: Not he, the Queen.”
This can either be seen as a genuine mistake in which case the audience can only assume the walk of Cleopatra is actually very similar to that of Antony; alternatively, it could be read that Enobarbus is being a bit cheeky and inferring the gender reversal he believes is taking place between the two of them. Either way it is an interesting comment which, although can not be reflected on at the time by the audience as Cleopatra starts talking, it does introduce the idea which re-emerges on many occasions later on in the play. A physical representation of this comes in Act 2, Scene 5 where a description of a night in which the couple got very drunk and exchanged clothes is given “Cleopatra: Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippian.”
This displays the exchange which has occurred very clearly and depending on the director it could even be shown visually to the audience. The sword mentioned is just one of many phallic symbols used by Shakespeare and it is used on many occasions often representing Antony’s fading masculinity, “Antony: My sword, made weak by my affection”.
One recurring quality in the play is how perceptive the other characters are to the events going on around them; nothing seems to go unnoticed. The gender reversal I have been referring to is also picked up on by the Romans and is described here in Act 1, Scene 4 by Caesar; “(Antony) is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the Queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he;”
This is clearly seen as a weakness and is one way Antony is losing his authority as a world power; he is losing the respect of his contemporaries, an example of the route the relationship takes, finally becoming more destructive than creative and leading to the couple’s eventual downfall. The gender issues are not the only ones to be noticed by the other characters. Antony’s constant struggle for power does not go unnoticed by the soldiers, especially Ventidius who, in Act 3, Scene 1 describes how he restrained from being too impressive in battle so as not to threaten Antony’s authority:
“Better to leave undone than, by our deed,
Acquire too high a fame when him we serve’s away.”
This shows the lower ranks are very aware of Antony’s need to feel he is the one in control, the authority figure, and by this recognition they highlight exactly what it is he lacks; they falsify his superior fighting ability by lowering their own standards. Does this falsification show how he has fallen from grace or does it in some ways show how he does still have some hold over his men as they feel the need to impress him, even if it is through their own mediocrity? In this instance, as well as many others throughout the play, Shakespeare has left a certain level of ambiguity in meaning, allowing the audience to imagine the endless ways his words could be interpreted, a technique which makes the audience think and really focus on the language.
This is not the only example of the relationship between Antony, Cleopatra and their servants being used to reveal things about the status of the couple and their level of authority at specific moments throughout the play. The relationships between the leaders and their inferiors are actually a very interesting reference point right through the play. How the two groups interact tells the audience a lot without being patronising; it allows the audience to make their own inferences about the status of the characters. It is clear that the tone of the meetings between the two groups is always set by the leaders. There are many jokey scenes in which the difference in levels of authority almost doesn’t seem to matter and they all seem to get on like friends. This can however turn sour when the joke is at the expense of one of the servants as in Act 1, Scene 5, where Mardian, the eunuch is feeling the sharp end of Cleopatra’s cruel tongue: “I take no pleasure/ In aught a eunuch has” a comment aimed to highlight the sexual inadequacy of the man. One of the most interesting master/servant relationships is the one between Antony and his soldier, Enobarbus. At times they seem to get on like old friends and Antony is generally more than pleased to take his advice, but he will also pull rank if he doesn’t like what he’s hearing as is shown in Act 2, Scene 2: “Antony: Thou art a soldier only. Speak no more.” Here Shakespeare has Antony using imperatives to enforce his authority, Enobarbus takes the point on board but is still sarcastic in his reply: “That truth should be silent, I had almost forgot.” This a bit cheeky for just any soldier but he seems to get away with it, showing he is higher up the hierarchy than most soldiers, having slightly more of Antony’s respect.
The closing stages of the play are very confusing as far as Antony’s authority goes. In some ways he seems pathetic, unable to even commit suicide successfully a job managed easily by a lowly soldier, Eros, just before him. He attempts to carry out the noble Roman action but fails and when three guards enter he informs them of his failing, “I have done my work ill, friends” and asks them to “make an end/ Of what I have begun” but they refuse. This distresses Antony at the time but works well dramatically as it allows him the time to visit Cleopatra at the monument for their final meeting before he dies. In other ways though it is his death, and people’s reactions to it, that reminds everyone of the amazing life he did lead and the great and powerful man he once was, a fact which could easily be forgotten given his present state. Caesar’s reaction is particularly effective: “The breaking of so great a thing should make/ A greater crack”. This is a powerful comment showing just how much respect he has for Antony, despite all their disagreements and it seems that Antony was someone who Caesar really looked up to, considering the success Caesar has already achieved and the further achievements he goes on to make. The respect for Antony is quite complimentary and suggests the authority Antony did have and possibly gives an insight into how he will be remembered. This resonates back to the earlier conversation between Lepidus and Caesar in Act 1, Scene 4, where they reminisce about Antony’s days as a mercenary for Rome when he went through so many trails and yet “Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek/ So much as lanked not.” They really respect his resourcefulness in the field and this is clearly portrayed to the audience whose respect for Antony then also grows.
Antony and Cleopatra is an interesting play in that its characters are world figures and their actions not only affect themselves and people close to them, but also the majority of the globe; issues are settled not with individual duals but battles involving large fleets and armies. The audience is reminded of this global scale by comments made throughout the play and the constant flow of messengers gives the idea that something is always going on outside the scene you are currently watching. The audience hears the orders and commands given by Antony and Cleopatra and the fact that they have so much influence over the world certainly puts them in a position of authority in the audiences’ eyes. It offers an interesting contrast to the intimate scenes we witness from the character’s private lives, an angle seen not by all other characters but just by the audience who are given that unique privilege. It is thus through a combination of language, scene juxtaposition and character relationships that Shakespeare is able to convey to the audience the concept of authority in the play.
The Arden Shakespeare “Antony and Cleopatra”
BBC “Antony and Cleopatra” audio tape
BBC production of “Antony and Cleopatra” DVD
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
The essay has many strengths. It is generally well-expressed and offers insights which are well-grounded in textual detail. The writer is also willing to reflect on different ways in which scenes could be interpreted. A weakness of the essay is its heavy focus on Antony. Caesar, Lepidus, Pompey and Cleopatra are also relevant to the concept of authority in the play.
Here's what a star student thought of this essay
Quality of writing
The student's spelling, grammar and punctuation are largely correct, which is good because it means that the examiner can focus on the student's analytical skills rather than have to spend time working out what they mean. The paragraphing is excellent: by starting a new paragraph when they introduce a new concept, such as "This is not the only example of...", the student is showing they can organise their ideas and understand that there are different themes in a text. However, the student could improve their quality of writing by not using informal language, such as "feisty lady" or "Enobarbus is being a bit cheeky". This kind of language is inappropriate for an A Level essay, which is supposed to sound academic, but it is also missing an opportunity for analysis - instead of saying "a bit cheeky", the student could have analysed Enobarbus' characterisation and linked it to the question by saying something like "Enobarbus displays a slight disrespect for authority figures".
Level of analysis
The student uses good analytical skills, and by saying things like "This...works well dramatically" the student is not only evaluating the text, they are linking it to the audience and commenting on how it works as a play, which is good as it shows they are aware of the form of the text and that it would primarily be watched, not read. The student reaches a conclusion in the final paragraph, but it is not as clear as it could be. The final sentence answers the question directly, which is good as it shows that the student is on task and focused on what they have been asked. The judgment in this sentence is excellent because it brings together the different techniques the student has considered. However, it would be better to start the paragraph with "In conclusion..." because it would leave the examiner in no doubt that the student understands the need to summarise their ideas and relate it back to the question. The student also supports their analysis with a high level of evidence from the text - for example, they appropriately quote "I take no pleasure/ In aught a eunuch has" when analysing Cleopatra's cruelty. This is good because some students make comments about a text without understanding it, and hope they can get away with it - this student, however, can back up what they are saying with evidence from the text.
Response to question
The student responds well to the demands of the question by considering more than one point of view. For example, by using language such as "The scene can be looked at from two angles: it could be argued that...", they are showing that they can think widely about the character and are not just giving a one-sided viewpoint. (When analysing, it's always good to use words such as "could", "possibly" and "maybe" because it shows that you realise there are several interpretations of a character or a text). I was always told there are marks available for thinking about the question as well as the answer, something this student does: instead of just interpreting "authority" as Anthony's political power, they also look at more subtle ways authority is displayed, such as Cleopatra's possible authority in the relationship ("The power relationship between the lovers is also a main focus"). The student could build on this by making sure they consider other characters in positions of authority, such as Caesar, to show balance and the ability to range around the text.