Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 58)
Antony and Cleopatra
For further information on the critical and stage history of Antony and Cleopatra, see SC, Volumes 6, 17, 27, and 47.
Most likely written between 1606 and 1607, Antony and Cleopatra relates the struggles of love, passion, and power endured by the two titular characters and is considered by many to be among Shakespeare's finest achievements. Interpretation of the tragedy is often cast in terms of the polar oppositions dramatized in the play, perhaps most notably the conflict between Rome and Egypt, and war and love. What critics and audiences often find so engaging about Antony and Cleopatra is that these polarities remain in opposition throughout, without any one winning primacy by the play's end. Modern critics explore the way these polarities inform political, linguistic, and structural analyses of the play. Another critical approach focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's relation to traditional Renaissance emblems and iconography. The characterization of Antony and Cleopatra continues to be a source of scholarly discussion and debate as well.
While the play's unresolved oppositions contribute to its interest and appeal, such ambiguity makes Antony and Cleopatra difficult to interpret. Maynard Mack (1993) surveys these polarities, identifying some of the conflicts as: Rome versus Egypt; war versus love; nature versus art; austerity versus indulgence; loyalty versus self-interest; and sincerity versus affectation. Paul Yachnin (1991) focuses on Antony and Cleopatra's Rome/Egypt opposition, comparing the play's shift from Egyptian past to Roman future to the transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule that was taking place at the time the play was composed. Taking another approach, Michael Payne (1973) studies the way in which the play's theme of opposition informs the structure of the play. This theme is introduced in Act I by way of the comparison between the Roman desire to set boundaries and the Egyptian cultivation of freedom and ecstasy. Payne goes on to explore the way this opposition is examined in sexual terms and further developed through the remaining acts of the play. In summary, Payne states that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic. Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney (1993) finds a dramaturgical analogue to the play's theme of polarity in the relationship between diegesis (narration lacking explanation or judgment) and mimesis (direct imitation or representation). The critic concludes that Egyptian mimesis is victorious over Roman diegesis by the play's end.
Other critics are interested in the influence that Renaissance emblem tradition and iconography had on the play. Christopher Wortham (1995) studies this emblem tradition and its relation to Shakespeare's use of classical mythology, as well as biblical imagery, in order to suggest how Shakespeare's audiences may have responded to Antony and Cleopatra. For example, Antony is repeatedly associated with Mars, the god of war. Mars, Wortham explains, received a negative portrayal from emblem writers, whose values included peaceability, a trait in line with the thinking of the monarch, King James. Similarly, Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1994) employs the iconographic approach in analyzing Shakespeare's language and stage imagery in order to offer a Renaissance reading of the play.
The characters of Antony and especially Cleopatra are the focus of many critical analyses of the play. J. Leeds Barroll (1984) argues that Shakespeare's portrayal of Antony is based on Shakespeare's examination of desire, a feature of the play that cannot be reduced to dualistic terms. Cynthia Lewis (1997) maintains that the Christian traditions surrounding Saint Antony of Egypt fueled Shakespeare's presentation of Antony. Understanding this analogue, stresses Lewis, helps to clarify the play's central issues and illuminates the perceptions of other characters in the play. Lewis concludes that like his namesake, Antony appears to trade earthly “glory” for the purity of love, and for his “pardon.” A Christian parallel has also been found to correspond with Cleopatra. Laura Severt King (1992) identifies the prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages as similar to Cleopatra's character, in that like the prostitute-saint, Cleopatra personifies the linking of sexual incontinence and supernatural power. Richard A. Levin (1997) is primarily concerned with discovering when Cleopatra resolves to commit suicide. Levin examines three unresolved problems of the text that highlight the struggle between Caesar and Cleopatra, which help to inform his understanding of Cleopatra's decision to kill herself. Mary Floyd-Wilson (1999) offers a different approach to analyzing Cleopatra. Floyd-Wilson begins by examining the direct correspondence between geography and gender (in which Egypt is associated with femininity and Rome with masculinity). The critic then introduces another layer to this type of examination by studying the way Renaissance climate theory—the notion that climate determines one's complexion, coloration, and temperament—informs the understanding of Cleopatra's character. Emphasizing that the play is largely concerned with regional differences as well as the shifting nature of gender roles, Floyd-Wilson illustrates that Cleopatra's “racial” status, determined by her climate, challenges the traditional, northern ideas about gender: as a woman, she should possess a “soft and impressionable” complexion, yet as an Egyptian, Cleopatra is mysterious and resists interpretation.
Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: “Mark Antony and the Tournament of Life,” in Shakespearean Tragedy: Genre, Tradition, and Change in Antony and Cleopatra, Folger Books, 1984, pp. 83-129.
[In the following essay, Barroll examines the way in which desire and its “strangeness” inform the characterization of Antony.]
Mark Antony is one of Shakespeare's most complexly imagined tragic heroes. For this we thank, of course, Shakespeare's human empathy and genius. But the compelling quality of Antony's humanity owes as much to strategy as to genius. And if, in the end, these are perhaps the same thing, then the strategy by which genius brings Antony to life, makes him a tragic “character,” is Shakespeare's emphasis on desire. For this in us is a complicated and deeply implicated phenomenon whose entangled state is much more specifically human than is grief, anger, or fear. These responses animals share with us. But our humanity is delineated by the kaleidescopic focusings and terrible steadiness of our wishing.
That the strangeness of desire is Shakespeare's basic framework for “talking about” the character of Mark Antony is apparent at the outset. We are immediately confronted with a life being torn between “Egypt” and “Rome.” But Rome and Egypt, in turn, are mere geographical or political expressions that, in the end, oversimplify everything. Indeed, if we allow the...
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SOURCE: “Blessed When They Were Riggish: Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Christianity's Penitent Prostitutes,” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 429-49.
[In the following essay, King suggests that Shakespeare portrays competing images of the “penitent prostitute” in the characterization of Cleopatra, who resembles prostitute-saints of the Middle Ages. Like these women, Cleopatra is associated with both sexual incontinence and supernatural power.]
All eroticism has a sacramental character.
—Georges Bataille, Erotism1
Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.
Among the extraordinary claims Enobarbus makes for Cleopatra in the second act of Antony and Cleopatra is that “the holy priests / Bless her, when she is riggish” (2.2.239-40).2 Concluding one of Shakespeare's most paradoxical passages, this final paradox alienates Cleopatra utterly from ecclesiastically sanctioned sexual values of early seventeenth-century England, at the same time linking her to the sacred eroticism of ancient Near Eastern cultures.3 But this seeming sexual exoticism participates in an indigenous devotional and theatrical tradition as well—one effaced, but not eradicated, by Continental and English reformers. As do the prostitute-saints...
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SOURCE: “That I Might Hear Thee Call Great Caesar ‘Ass Unpolicied,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 244-64.
[In the following essay, Levin studies three conundrums appearing in the negotiations of Cleopatra and Caesar, and examines how these episodes illuminate the battle of wits between the two characters. This examination helps to inform Levin’s understanding of Cleopatra's decision to commit suicide.]
Near the end of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen apostrophizes the deadly asp which she takes to her bosom: “O, couldst thou speak, / That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass / Unpolicied!” (5.2.300-02).1 Were Cleopatra only claiming that her suicide affirms a love for Antony nobler than any value in Caesar's world of cold political calculation, we would endorse her assertion. But her claim is disingenuous to the extent that until this moment she spoke of suicide yet sought favorable terms of surrender. That Cleopatra suppresses her efforts to survive most critics would agree, while arguing among themselves about when she fully commits herself to death. Another claim implied in her boast, one she herself probably believes and which is endorsed by almost all critics, is that she makes her decision to die possessing correct information about Caesar's secret plans for her in captivity.2 To establish...
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SOURCE: “‘The World's Great Snare’: Antony, Cleopatra, and Game,” in Particular Saints: Shakespeare's Four Antonios, Their Contexts, and Their Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1997, pp. 116-53.
[In the following essay, Lewis identifies a Christian analogue to Antony's character and argues that understanding this parallel puts into perspective the various attitudes professed in the play regarding Antony's self-sacrificial love.]
From the moment that Antony believes Cleopatra to have given him cause to kill himself—her suspected treachery in 4.12—Antony is repeatedly subjected to the ridicule normally reserved for the most foolish of Shakespeare's fools. For example, in 4.14 he is provoked to commit suicide by the mere show of Cleopatra's death, a manipulation so transparent through familiarity that Enobarbus punctures it long before this moment (1.3.133-44). Next, calling upon his trusted servant Eros to fulfill his duty, Antony is disgraced when Eros, “[t]hrice-nobler” than his master, kills himself instead (81-84, 95, 94). Then Antony, having failed to dispatch himself with a degree of his servant's elegance, pitifully calls out to his guards to finish the deed: “Let him that loves me strike me dead” (108). Three guards refuse to comply, hinting that they, like Eros, love him too much to end his pain (108-10), whereupon Decretas cruelly increases that pain by removing the sword...
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SOURCE: “Transmigrations: Crossing Regional and Gender Boundaries in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage, edited by Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell, University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 73-96.
[In the following essay, Floyd-Wilson observes the correspondence between geography and gender that is often examined in the play (for example, the association of Egypt with femininity and Rome with masculinity), and explores the way in which Renaissance climate theory adds another dimension to these relationships. Specifically, the critic demonstrates how Cleopatra's association with gypsies suggests that she possesses an “indecipherable” quality that may migrate over time and space.]
Much of the critical commentary on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra sees a parallel between the perceived “masculinity” and “femininity” of its title characters and the dialectical opposition of Rome and Egypt.1 While an earlier generation of criticism has suggested that Cleopatra and Antony embody universal gender roles, adumbrating a world-stage polarity of a feminine East versus a masculine West, feminist and postcolonial critics have argued that the play presents the instability of gender binaries and the West's construction of itself and the “Orient.”2 Regardless of the theoretical perspective, it is widely accepted that there...
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SOURCE: “Erotic Irony and Polarity in Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, 1973, pp. 265-79.
[In the following essay, Payne traces Shakespeare's use of opposition throughout Antony and Cleopatra and demonstrates the way in which these oppositions structure the play. Payne stresses that the play's structure, like its thematic polarities, is both tragic and comic.]
One of the most impressive qualities of Shakespeare's art is his facility for creating dramatic situations, characters, and entire plays encompassing ideas, attitudes, and character traits which we ordinarily think of as mutually exclusive or contradictory. In the minds of his characters we discover reason and madness, faith and despair, innocence and experience; the societies he depicts are torn by love and lust, responsibility and irresponsibility, trust and mistrust, honesty and deceit, freedom and bondage. In his depiction of nature, which provides a physical and mythical context for social conflict, we find cyclical revolutions through life and death, youth and age, spring-summer and autumn-winter, calm and tempest, Eden and the fallen world; the cosmos itself, as he depicts it, is at one time balanced in order and harmony but can at any moment tip toward chaos and discord. And finally in the total structures of his dramas simplicity and complexity, comedy and tragedy interchange with one another in a...
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SOURCE: “‘Courtiers of Beauteous Freedom’: Antony and Cleopatra in Its Time,” in Renaissance and Reformation, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 1-20.
[In the following essay, Yachnin explores the parallels between Antony and Cleopatra's contrasting of Egyptian past with Roman future and the shift from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean style of rule.]
In terms of the political culture of the early Stuart period, Antony and Cleopatra's account of the shift from the magnificent but senescent Egyptian past to the pragmatic but successful Roman future can be seen as a critical register of the symbolic constructions and political ramifications of the shift from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean style of rule. In this paper, I want to suggest that the meanings of the play in 1606-1607 were on the whole more political and certainly more topical than they are now. To locate Antony and Cleopatra in the linguistic, symbolic, and literary fields which comprised the context for the play's first audiences will require a survey of a broad range of texts—some literary, some political, some constructed as triumphal arches in the streets of London. In such terms, Antony and Cleopatra emerges as both contribution to and critique of the emerging Jacobean political culture. I want to argue, then, that the Jacobean Antony and Cleopatra possessed a level of political meaning which the...
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SOURCE: “Antony and Cleopatra: The Narrative Construction of the Other,” in ‘Th' Interpretation of the Time’: The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare's Roman Plays, University of Victoria, 1993, pp. 59-90.
[In the following essay, Kujawinska-Courtney analyzes the play's use of diegesis and mimesis and argues that the opposition between the two may be viewed as analogous to the play's theme of polarity. The critic concludes that by the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Egyptian mimesis wins out over Roman diegesis.]
In Julius Caesar the theatre audience tries to make sense of two equally powerful narrative evaluations of the past: one Caesarian, the other Republican; in Antony and Cleopatra the spectators are subjected to a single dominant narrative mode, the Roman imperial ideology. Soldiers and politicians are spokesmen for the Roman world, and they galvanize at least temporarily the offstage and onstage audiences' perceptions of the enacted present. The diegetic mode of discourse animates this play as it does few others in the Shakespeare canon. The putative submission of the represented present to the narrative past constitutes the main structural pattern of the play,1 since the diegetic evaluation of both Antony and Cleopatra weighs heavily on the lovers' mimetic present. It would impose on them the rigid Roman values of morality.
The dynamic of...
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SOURCE: “The Stillness and the Dance,” in Everybody's Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, pp. 197-230.
[In the following essay, Mack surveys the many polarities explored in Antony and Cleopatra and suggests that Shakespeare, in order to question logical expectations, deliberately refused to allow ascendancy to any one perspective.]
The last of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, in my view, is Antony and Cleopatra: the delight of audiences, the despair of critics. Its delight for audiences springs, in part at least, from its being inexhaustible to contemplation, as Coleridge implies when he speaks of its “giant strength,” the “happy valiancy” of its style, and calls it of all Shakespeare's plays “the most wonderful.”1 No doubt its delight for today's audiences owes something also to its being the most accessible of the major Shakespearean tragedies to twentieth-century sensibilities, especially those not much experienced in drama apart from that of the realistic stage. There are no witches in Antony and Cleopatra to require a mild suspension of disbelief, no ghosts, no antic madmen, no personages who are paragons of good or evil, nor even any passions (such, for example, as Coriolanus's contempt for the Roman commoners) which require of today's spectator an act of imaginative...
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Criticism: Renaissance Emblems And Iconography
SOURCE: “‘To the Very Heart of Loss’: Renaissance Iconography in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. XXII, 1994, pp. 220-76.
[In the following essay, Simonds uses the study of Renaissance iconography as a tool to explore Antony and Cleopatra's characterization. Simonds emphasizes the ambivalence with which Antony and Cleopatra are drawn, in that they are portrayed as both extremely human and semi-divine.]
Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra dramatizes a mortally dangerous “relationship” between two very glamorous international celebrities at a crucial period in the history of western civilization. As personalities, the two lovers both attract and repel not only each other but scholars as well. Thus literary critics have called Antony everything from a romantic “Herculean hero”1 and a noble lover2 to a gluttonous epicurean living only for the pleasures of the flesh.3 In her turn, Cleopatra, admired by most feminist critics,4 has been compared by male scholars to the cunning enchantress Circe, who transforms men into animals; to the Whore of Babylon (from the Book of Revelation) who offers a cup of pleasure to all the kings of the world5; and to the transcendent pagan goddesses Venus and Isis.6 Martin Spevack, in The New Variorum edition of the play,7...
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SOURCE: “Temperance and the End of Time: Emblematic Antony and Cleopatra,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1995, p. 1-37.
[In the following essay, Wortham investigates the Renaissance emblem tradition that informs Antony and Cleopatra, and attempts to discern how the emblematic imagery operating in the text would have been received by Jacobean audiences.]
Antony and Cleopatra both delights and bewilders with its extraordinary diversity. Classical mythology, biblical apocalypse and thematic insistence on the virtue of temperance meet in enlightening combinations and puzzling disjunctions. Critical analysis, precisely because it is analysis, tends to isolate one or two aspects of the play and to discuss them to the exclusion of others. Perhaps it is time to ask whether one should attempt a synthesis that makes some attempt to see the dominant motifs in the play in relation to each other: is there any way that we can begin to see this play whole? And, if we can, can we test our impressions against likely overall responses among members of Shakespeare's first audience? For if this play meant anything in particular when it was first performed, its mysteries will only be yielded up to those who are prepared to inquire what those particularities were. In short, what I am proposing here is the study of Antony and Cleopatra as a cultural artefact that can be reliably...
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Archer, John Michael. “Antiquity and Degeneration in Antony and Cleopatra.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance, edited by Joyce Green MacDonald, pp. 145-64. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1997.
Examines Antony and Cleopatra and its treatment of race and sexuality in order to identify Renaissance racial and sexual constructions. The text is examined in light of historical, geographical, and travel writings that became available within the century following the publication of the play.
Cantor, Paul A. “The Politics of Empire.” In Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire, pp. 127-54. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.
Studies the relationship between the themes of love and politics in the play, observing that Antony and Cleopatra discover an imperial form of love that corresponds to the imperial type of politics prevalent in the play.
Cook, Carol. “The Fatal Cleopatra.” In Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, pp. 241-67. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Studies the role Cleopatra plays as a figure threatening the Roman goal of unification and dominion. In particular, Cook demonstrates the way in which the language of the play underscores Cleopatra's subversive...
(The entire section is 460 words.)