How does Anthony and Cleopatra present the contrast between the conquering west and the decadent east?

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Antony and Cleopatra

Q: Shakespeare used as his source for this 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 conquering East representing luxury and decadence.

 How does Shakespeare’s play present these oppositions?

       Shakespeare was deeply concerned with the meanings of the classical past. His play Antony and Cleopatra concerns itself with a major theme from Renaissance culture: The importance and continued thriving of Europe’s Graeco-Roman culture. Yet in one sense, Shakespeare rebelled against the traditional portrayal of Rome by the narrator of his source Plutarch and his contempories. Whilst imperial historians and medieval poets like Chaucer shared Plutarch’s view that glorified Rome, both as a virtuous political power and as a morally legitimate empire, Shakespeare refused to see Rome’s motives as wholly honourable. He emphasised the themes of the decline of virtue and the pursuit of honour, which represent satirical work of the highest degree. Therefore this play cannot really be read as a propaganda piece for Western domination.

      On the other hand, Plutarch and his contempories saw the East as the manifestation of all that was extravagant and ostentatious; a place of desire and decadence infinitely inferior to the Roman empire and it’s adherents, morally and even racially. However Plutarch, in his portrait of Cleopatra, stresses the East’s ability to attract and does not underestimate it’s witty skill to enchant. Shakespeare generally agrees but also asserts that Eastern sensibilities are deeper, more complicated, and most of all, more multifaceted than the Romans believe them to be.

      Plutarch was a Greek who lived in the most decadent years of the Roman Empire. He therefore saw Julius Caesar as an exemplary leader whose only fault was a vanity that made him wish to be crowned king. For Plutarch, the security he provided for a growing empire that desperately needed a responsible leader far outweighed this minor flaw. Indirectly, Plutarch may be showing an understanding of the flaws of Rome both as a culture and as a body politic. However he chooses to always focus on the positive aspects in Caesar’s character just like he does with Antony, whose wild, lecherous behaviour is compensated by the past glories of his battle. Shakespeare does the opposite; reinforcing the idea that Antony is past his best and has now become a self-indulgent and egyptianised man.

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       The Elizabethan audience would have also shared Plutarch’s indirect view that a monarchy as efficient as Octavius Caesar’s was the only form of government able to guarantee domestic security and tranquillity. This was an idea that the Tudor establishment of Shakespeare’s day was keen to inject into the masses to prevent Social or Political unrest. Shakespeare’s main objections to a monarchic system like Octavius Caesar’s- it seems-is its ruthless efficiency. Shakespeare is thus extending his criticism to the Roman way of ruling, that is one sense hypocritical (as in Act II scene 6 where Pompey would not, ...

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