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, by his own order kill the triumvirs but would not have objected to Menas doing it without consulting him) and in another, unable to see the East as anything but a land of vast resources and moral decadence.
The dimensions of this opposition between East and West are variable and numerous. Shakespeare approaches this clash in three different ways: The first concerns the manipulation of Shakespeare’s source; Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s “The lives of the noble Grecians and Romans”, first to fit into his own perspective regarding the clash of cultures between East and West and second to meet the expectations of an audience who already had an idea of what each culture represented.
The second aspect is that of detailed characterisation, which Shakespeare utilizes to reflect a sensibility or an idea that corresponds to either East or West. The third way relates to structure and the use of contrasting language about both Rome and Egypt.
Drama is based on contrasts; Alexandria represents the East, desire and fluidity. Rome represents static action and military might. The vertical sense and physical rigidity manifested in the Roman’s military uniform and their firm, solid, upright positions contrast with the sinuous ease of the mobile, colourful and indolently playful Egyptians who fill the stage with the movement of fans and music.
Shakespeare’s dramatic strategy in Antony and Cleopatra is concerned with creating images of Egypt that his Elizabethan audience could identify with: feasting, wealth, pyramids, serpents, insects and above all, the mysterious fertile Nile. Shakespeare thus extracts from his source the sections that he feels would engage the interest of his audience. However, Shakespeare also misses out many detailed ideas of Plutarch’s text that he feels do not fit in with the viewpoint he intends to offer the audience. For example, when Plutarch documented that Octavius Caesar enjoyed sports and fishing as well having a weakness for women, Shakespeare probably found that his presentation of Rome as a rigid, stoic and disciplined culture would be faulty. Thus he conveniently leaves out this detail to enhance Caesar’s image of a censorious, cold and abstemious character, whose primary aim is to serve Rome.
Another extract from Plutarch that Shakespeare decided to do without is the one where Cleopatra is claimed to have demanded that of Antony not to send Enobarbarus’ treasure after him. Shakespeare seems to want us to sympathise with the Queen and her culture and probably knew that this act would cause his Cleopatra to lose any admiration or appreciation she had aroused so far in the play. It might also have affected our interpretation of her oncoming suicide negatively. Including this detail would be allowing Roman virtues to triumph over Egyptian ones, something Shakespeare seemed to have vowed not to do before writing the play.
In Antony and Cleopatra we find ourselves in the presence of grandiose personalities whose behaviour dismays or distresses us. Yet it is this characterisation that provides a vivid representation of the two antithetical cultures. Those who inhabit them characterize Western and Eastern poles. Octavius Caesar embodies the stoic duty of the west and is sometimes seen as the equivalent of James I of Shakespeare’s own time. Both were “father figures” for their people and both were seen as bringers of peace. (One must remember that in Shakespeare’s day there were no costumes or stage props, Rome or Egypt could easily have been England and Octavius Caesar could easily have represented James I)
Rome is essentially masculine in its perspectives. A male figure (Octavius Caesar) represents and manifests Roman culture and values. He is efficient to the point of ruthlessness and is disciplined and austere. On Pompey’s galley, there is a striking absence of women, because according to Rome, politics is a man’s world whilst women are political pawns and like Octavia, are of “holy, cold and still conversation”.
The primary Roman virtue is service to the state through prestigious and acclaimed attributes like fortitude, constancy and valour. Caesar laments the change in Antony’s priorities and reminds him on their first meeting in the play, that prior to his Egyptianised, self indulgent person Antony “didst drink the stale of horses” and that he grazed on “The Barks of Trees… eat strange flesh which some did die to look on”. This image is the clearest expression of Roman fortitude.
On the other hand, Cleopatra, in her grand theatricality is the manifestation of the free flowing passions of the East. Her proud and imperious nature is paralleled by Queen Elizabeth’s own character. Both women also displayed capricious exhibitions that were followed by displays of affection. By the time Antony and Cleopatra was written, there was public dillusion at her successor, James the first’s reign and Elizabethans began to think nostalgically of her so-called “golden age”.
Like Cleopatra, her culture is devoted to pleasure, self-expression and the realms of imagination. It is essentially tactile and feminine. When Antony first appeared with Cleopatra and her colourful entourage, he is the only masculine figure there (to an Elizabethan audience, the presence of eunuchs would make the gathering even more feminised)
There is also a divide between a world governed by reason and another ruled by passion as an extension of the battle between Rome and Egypt. In Egypt, life many revolves around music, fishing, drinking, billiards and making love. Life is felt strongly over there yet an overall sense of idleness is deduced. The Roman scenes are full of information and are rife with political strategies. They are many concerned with business and the issues of the Empire.
Due to it’s textual richness all this play’s aspects, including theme, language and characters have been analysed with different emphasis at different times. Earlier interpretations tended to focus on criticisms of the language, characters and structure. Modern critics focus on issues such as politics and gender roles.
Early romantic criticism commented favourably on Antony and Cleopatra due to the waning of moral attitudes and the loosening of strict classical criteria. Coleridge, for example was impressed with Cleopatra’s energetic, passionate, artistic character. However, in the 19th century, Cleopatra was seen as immoral and contradictory to the ideal of women hood. This was because more conservative moral attitudes were present in the Victorian times.
The structure of Antony and Cleopatra is truly antithetical. There is a marked contrast between the Roman scenes that are full of information and rife with Political strategies and the Egyptian ones that contain elements of self-expression and the pursuit of pleasure. Shakespeare differs with Plutarch in that while the latter’s narrative sequence is mainly confined to his own view, Shakespeare’s play shifts with cinematic speed from all parts of the Roman empire to Egypt detailing the intertwining clashes and emphasising the full scale of this universal conflict that will change both the characters’ lives and millions of people under their rule.
Shakespeare uses language to highlight the differences between Rome and Egypt. Act two scene five accurately reflects life in Egypt; one that is concerned with play “ let’s to Billiards” “put my Tires and Mantles on him, whilst I wore his Sword Philippan”, pranks:
“Did hang a salt Fish on his Hook, which he
With fervency drew up”, and Passion
“Music, moody Food
Of us that trade in Love”
Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to cause the audience to anticipate Cleopatra’s reaction to Antony’s marriage with Octavia. Her theatrically manifests itself in her use of hyperbole and phrases that are rife with strong passionate imagery “Ram thou thy Fruitful Tidings in my Ears, That long time have been Barren” she says to the messenger, then
“I’ll set thee in a Shower of Gold, and hail
Rich Pearls upon thee”
If he tells her Antony is well, concluding with
“ The most infectious Pestilence upon thee”
“…horrible Villain, or I’ll spurn thine Eyes
Like Balls before me; I’ll unhair thy Head.
Thou shalt be whipp’d with Wire, and stew’d in
Smarting in ling’ring Pickle.”
When she discovers the truth of his mission.
To conclude, Shakespeare organises the plot of Antony and Cleopatra around the struggle between East and West, which is not only between two geographically distinct empires but also between two diametrically opposed worldviews, by using all his literary tools to transform this historic story to a “divine comedy”.