Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 47)
Antony and Cleopatra
For further information on the critical and stage history of Antony and Cleopatra, see .
Antony and Cleopatra is often analyzed in dialectical terms, with critics positing Egypt in opposition to Rome. Within this framework, Egypt is equated with love and desire, art and imagination, and comedy, while Rome is the locus of politics and power, reason and restraint, and tragedy. These analyses further cite Cleopatra as Egypt's chief representative, and likewise Antony as Rome's, or, in another version, Caesar embodies Rome while Antony stands with a foot in each realm. What such examinations reveal, according to many critics, is that by the end of the play there is no discernible victor in the war between these worlds, and no consensus has been reached as to which philosophy, mindset, or lifestyle Shakespeare advocated. The dialectical approach remains a popular avenue for a number of critics who use it in order to study topics such as the play's treatment of theatricality, issues regarding characterization, the nature and role of love and desire in the play, as well as the play's comic elements.
In studying the way the play explores theatricality and role-playing, critics demonstrate that Egypt is the land of acting, theatrics, and playing. Sidney R. Homan (1970) and Jyotsna Singh (1989) have both commented on the way in which Antony and Cleopatra reflects the ambivalent attitude toward the theater prevalent in Shakespeare's England. Homan has detailed the way the theater is denigrated throughout the play, from the way Cleopatra draws an association between sex and art, and the way the imagination is viewed as fickle, to the Roman detachment of "passion" from "speech." Yet Homan also has argued that theatrical arts are shown, through Cleopatra, to have the power to transform reality. Similarly, Singh has observed how theatricality is celebrated through the figure of Cleopatra and condemned through the Roman resistance to it. Singh has tied this ambiguous portrayal directly to the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century polemical attacks on the theater and women both as duplicitous in nature. Like Singh, Robert Ornstein (1966) has located the play's praise of art and acting in Cleopatra. Ornstein has outlined the tension in the play between the imagery and plot and characterization. The play's imagery and plot, Ornstein has stated, both seem to emphasize the way Cleopatra, through her art and sensuality, manipulates Antony into forgetting his Roman duties. Yet, as Ornstein has observed, Cleopatra's own actions appear to valorize love, imagination, and art as the tools that reveal honesty of emotion and reality. Anthony S. Brennan (1978) has noted as well that to Cleopatra, role-playing is not an act of deception but a means of heightening one's self-knowledge.
Critics discussing the characterization in the play often examine Cleopatra as the embodiment of everything Egyptian, and Antony as a representative of Rome, but one who struggles with the conflict between Roman honor and duty and his attachment to Egypt and Cleopatra. Philip J. Traci (1970) has stated that many critics overemphasize the importance of characterization in Antony and Cleopatra. Commenting that too often the protagonists and minor characters alike are examined out of context, Traci has maintained that it is the interaction between Antony and Cleopatra that should be of primary interest. In an analysis of Antony's character, W. B. Worthen (1986) has studied the relationship between the actor, the role of Antony, and Antony's character. Worthen has emphasized that the way Antony is perceived by the audience is affected by a tension between the way Antony is described by other characters in the play, and the way Antony's own actions reveal his character.
In analyses of the play's treatment of love and desire, Egypt holds claim to these emotions and their power, in contrast to Rome's concern with imperial politics and war. Some critics, such as Linda Charnes (1992), have urged that the play's main concern is not love. Charnes has stated that there is little evidence to suggest that the play was popular in Shakespeare's day, or that it was viewed as anything but a thoroughly political play. Charnes has maintained that the attention of nineteenth-century Romantics, followed by a pattern of "critical revisionism" has resulted in the play's being read as a "legendary love story." Explaining further, the critic has argued that the play does make use of rhetorical strategies designed to valorize the love shared by Antony and Cleopatra, but that this discourse is undercut by the play's more urgent emphasis on politics. Evelyn Gajowski (1992) has taken another approach to the focus of love in Antony and Cleopatra. Gajowski has observed that Cleopatra is often seen either as a manipulative courtesan who lures Antony from his Roman values and political and military duties, or as a superhuman figure, the "archetype" of eternal femininity who offers Antony what Rome can never hope to. These readings, the critic has maintained, fail in that they dehumanize Cleopatra. Gajowski has contended that Cleopatra should be seen as a woman whose love for Antony "ennobles" him in the same manner that Juliet's love elevates Romeo.
When critics review the comic elements in Antony and Cleopatra, they often note that Egypt is the realm of comedy, while tragedy reigns in Rome. Barbara C. Vincent (1982) is one such critic. Vincent has traced a movement from the dominance of tragedy to a dominance of comedy at the play's end, noting that despite this shift, Antony and Cleopatra's tragic vision has not been invalidated. Similarly, Martha Tuck Rozett (1985) has discussed the comic aspects at the end of Antony and Cleopatra and has compared them to similar features in Romeo and Juliet. Rozett has shown how both plays demonstrate elements of comic resolution, but has stressed that Shakespeare was more successful in portraying these elements in Antony and Cleopatra than he was in Romeo and Juliet. Rozett has observed that although the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra represent "an extraordinary fusion of comedy and tragedy" in that they occur as the inevitable end to the lovers' "folly and self-indulgence," the deaths also symbolize Antony's and Cleopatra's triumph over Caesar and the release from the pressure of obstacles to their love inherent in the world they inhabited.
Harold Fisch (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra: The Limits of Mythology," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 23, 1970, pp. 59-61.
[In the following essay, Fisch argues that the mythic and ritualistic elements in Antony and Cleopatra are more than just components of the dramatic structure of the play, but rather that these elements comprise the play's very subject. Some of the ideas set out in this essay are further elaborated in Harold Fisch, The Biblical Presence in Shakespeare, Milton and Blake: a Comparative Study (Oxford University Press 1999), pp. 35-65.]
When critics speak of myth and ritual in Shakespeare they have in mind chiefly the symbolic structure of the plays. Thus The Winter's Tale which begins in winter ('a sad tale's best for winter', I, i, 25) and ends in high summer ('not yet on summer's death nor on the birth of trembling winter', IV, iv, 80) perfectly corresponds to the fertility rhythm. The accent on fertility in the sheep-shearing in Act IV gives to the structural form its emotional and spiritual content, whilst the symbolic revival of Hermione at the end rounds off the pattern of death and resurrection so basic to 'the myth of the eternal return'. Such an archetypal structure is older than Christianity (in spite of the Christian colouring)...
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Drama As Deception
Robert Ornstein (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Ethic of the Imagination: Love and Art in Antony and Cleopatra," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Antony and Cleopatra: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Mark Rose, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977, pp. 82-98.
[In the essay that follows, originally written in 1966, Ornstein states that while Antony and Cleopatra is not an allegory of art, it nonetheless uses Cleopatra and Egypt to defend art as the means by which reality and truth are revealed.]
The last scene of Antony and Cleopatra would be less difficult if it were more obviously solemn and serious. There is no lack of grandeur in the dying Cleopatra, but the comic note struck in her conversation with the Clown persists and mingles with the ceremonial mystery of her death. She is amused as well as ecstatic; when she thinks of Octavius, her visionary glances turn into a comic wink. She jests with Iras and Charmian, and she plays a children's game with the asps at her breast. It is difficult, of course, to complain about a scene that comes so very near the sublime. But now and then we may wish that Cleopatra had a more sober view of her own catastrophe, which she treats as a marriage feast (not where she eats, but where she is eaten), a tender domestic scene, an apotheosis, and a practical joke on the universal landlord.
Those who see...
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Philip J. Traci (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "The Dancer and the Dance: A Study of Characterization in the Play," in The Love Play of Antony and Cleopatra: A Critical Study of Shakespeare's Play, Mouton, 1970, pp. 23-61.
[In the following essay, Traci argues against many critics' overemphasis on characterization in Antony and Cleopatra and contends that it is the interaction between Antony and Cleopatra that forms the basis of the plot and which should be the main focus of study.]
Attention to Antony and Cleopatra as characters has usually passed for attention to Antony and Cleopatra as play. Whether or not the two have been considered gypsy and doting general, Venus and Mars, or Passion and Man, they have been viewed as if somehow the essence of their characters contained the essence of the play. Shakespeare's understanding of human nature has often been lauded,1 but the resulting view of the tragedies as character studies of great men has seldom been challenged.
The chief objection to such a view of the plays is that it separates the character from the play of which he is but a part. Thus, in addition to such irrelevancies as "what confidence Shakespeare must have had in the boy actor for whom he wrote so subtle and rich a role" as Cleopatra's,2 we have those studies which link Cleopatra with Shakespeare's alleged personal...
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Barbara C. Vincent (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and the Rise of Comedy," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 53-86.
[In the essay that follows, Vincent analyzes Antony and Cleopatra as a play first dominated by tragedy and later by comedy, maintaining that the movement of the play from tragedy to comedy parallels the movement within the play from Rome to Egypt.]
. . . yet the Alexandrians were commonly glad of this
jolity, and liked it well saying verie gallantly,
and wisely: that Antonius shewed them a comicall
face, to wit, a merie countenaunce: and the Romanes
a tragi call face, to say, a grimme looke.
—The Life of Marcus Antonius
That The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra contains many elements of comedy is increasingly noticed in criticism.1 Cleopatra has been called "the queen of comedy,"2 and the play has been regarded as a transition between the tragedies and the romances.3 Yet the study of the opposing dramatic genres and their interrelations can be pursued more specifically than one might at first imagine. Borrowing the play's geographical imagery, we can say that Shakespeare provides a map of his literary universe, with its worlds of...
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Love And Desire
Evelyn Gajowski (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra: Female Subjectivity and Orientalism," in The Art of Loving: Female Subjectivity and Male Discursive Traditions in Shakespeare's Tragedies, University of Delaware Press, 1992, pp. 86-119.
[In the following essay, Gajowski argues that from a critical standpoint, Cleopatra is alternatively viewed as the Romans see her—the whore responsible for Antony's fall from Roman honor and duty—or as the "archetype of the eternal feminine principle" who presents Antony with a life that surpasses anything Rome can offer. Gajowski rejects both of these views and presents a reading of Cleopatra as a woman who "ennobles" Antony through her love.]
She's beautiful and she's laughing.
—Hélène Cíxous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"
Whereas military action is relegated to the background in Othello, it is interwoven into the love story in Antony and Cleopatra. The intricate alternation of scenes of war and scenes of love, in fact, makes the obtrusion of the feud upon the love story in Romeo and Juliet (3.1) appear somewhat mechanical by contrast. Indeed, the loose structure of the play, especially the quick, frequent shift of scene throughout acts 3 and 4, has drawn criticism. Nor does Antony and...
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Berek, Peter. "Doing and Undoing: The Value of Action in Antony and Cleopatra." Shakespeare Quarterly 32, No. 3 (Autumn 1981): 295-304.
Argues that Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius Caesar, as well as minor characters in the play, have something in common despite their obvious differences—they all agree "that there are grim limits to the joys one can take in earthly achievements."
Bushman, Mary Ann. "Representing Cleopatra." In In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama, edited by Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, pp. 36-49. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1991.
Examines the rhetorical modes available to Cleopatra in the play, and contends that Cleopatra is one of the few characters in Shakespeare's plays to overcome the representation of the female as inferior and "[d]eprived of a voice."
Dusinberre, Juliet. "Squeaking Cleopatras: Gender and Performance in Antony and Cleopatra" In Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance, edited by James C. Bulman, pp. 46-67. London: Routledge, 1996.
Explores the relationship between the competing masculine and feminine constructions within the play, as well as the play's reception—among the audience and actors—as a text written for an exclusively male cast....
(The entire section is 606 words.)