[In this introduction, Cohen places Antony and Cleopatra within its literary context—with Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar as its prequel and the writing of Plutarch as its source. Cohen also remarks on the dualism and eroticism that pervade the play, and notes that Shakespeare is asking us to consider whether heroic acts can survive in the "post-heroic world" of Octavius Caesar's Rome or in the "private terrain" of Antony and Cleopatra's love. Finally, Cohen briefly examines Shakespeare's characterizations of Octavius, Antony, and Cleopatra.]
Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) picks up where Julius Caesar leaves off. It presupposes familiarity not only with events dramatized in that play but also with earlier Roman conflicts. During the first century B.C., Rome, the overwhelming military power throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, entered into a protracted civil war that culminated in its transition from a republic (rule by a senatorial aristocracy) to an empire (monarchical power). As Julius Caesar opens, Caesar has already defeated his archrival Pompey the Great and governs Rome as dictator. The play recounts the republican assassination of him, led by Brutus and Cassius, and the assassins' subsequent defeat and death at the hands of Mark Antony (Caesar's lieutenant) and Octavius (Caesar's young grand-nephew and adoptive son, who took the name of "Caesar" upon Julius Caesar's death and turned it to...
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Language and Imagery
David Daiches focuses on the rich poetic language of Antony and Cleopatra, arguing that imagery is present in the play not simply as a source of visual pleasure but also as a means of defining the various characters. So, Daiches explains, Antony's men vividly depict their disgust with their general's attraction to Cleopatra when they compare their former opinion of Antony as "plated Mars" to their current image of him as a mere "fan / To cool a gipsy's lust." Similarly, Daiches points out that the evolving language employed by Octavius Caesar to describe the lovers' feelings for each other alters our own view of Antony and Cleopatra. Daiches focuses in particular on the words Caesar uses to describe the dead lovers at the close of Act V: "'Famous,' 'high,' 'glory,' 'solemn ...'" Daiches remarks that "these are the terms which Caesar now applies to a love story which earlier he had dismissed as 'lascivious wassails.'"
Both Janet Adelman and Madeleine Doran note that Shakespeare intensifies the effect of the play's imagery by relying on hyperbole—that is, grandiose or exaggerated language. Thus Antony hyperbolically declares that Rome can dissolve into the Tiber River and that the world is nothing but mere "clay" compared to the great love that he and Cleopatra have for one another. Paul A. Cantor agrees that this particular speech of Antony's displays his deep love for Cleopatra, but argues that in the next few lines, the Roman general makes use...
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Dualism in its various forms—contrast, paradox, irony--plays a significant role in Antony and Cleopatra. Peter Berek describes the play as one "in which mighty opposites meet, struggle, and embrace. Rome encounters Egypt, Reason feels emotion, Spirit wars with Flesh, Duty yields to Leisure." Richard G. Harrier contrasts Cleopatra—whom he sees as representative of Egypt, undisciplined fertility, and inconstancy—with Octavius Caesar—with whom he links Rome, order, and power. Cynthia Kolb Whitney focuses on the contrasts which exist between Rome and Egypt, asserting that the two have completely different value systems and that "behavior which is almost divine to one is repugnant and silly to the other." Janet Adelman observes that many of the paradoxes in the play are the result of the frequent use of hyperbole, or lavishly extravagant language. Adelman argues that while many of the characters use hyperbole for dramatic effect (as when Philo complains that Antony's heart has "become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy's lust") Antony and Cleopatra, by contrast, seem to be absolutely serious in their use of exaggerated language. Adelman asserts that the lovers' references to the gods and to powerful forces of nature to describe their love for one another have the paradoxical effect of sounding comical to an audience. Adelman concludes that the resulting conflict between what the audience feels and what the lovers believe is resolved in this...
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Rome Versus Egypt
Rome and Egypt function effectively as characters in Antony and Cleopatra, and the two are traditionally depicted as opposites. Rome, according to Sheila M. Smith, represents "military glory, honor, and moral duty"; Egypt represents "instinctive passion, ... extravagant love, fertility, and magnanimity." Rome, Cynthia Kolb Whitney suggests, values power and warfare; Egypt admires ease and sexuality. As William D. Wolf observes, Egypt has come to be regarded as "the place of love" and of private life, while Rome is the center of politics and public life. Smith, Whitney, and Wolf all share the view that Cleopatra personifies Egypt and Octavius Caesar embodies Rome; Antony, meanwhile, is caught between both worlds.
By the same token Wolf, along with Michael Platt and Larry S. Champion, argues that Rome and Egypt have several aspects in common. Platt, for instance, asserts that the two powers are on the wane and that Rome is losing its military integrity just as Egypt is losing its lushness. As pagan worlds, Platt concludes, both will soon be eclipsed by a new, Christian world. Wolf likewise describes Rome and Egypt as subject to change: Egypt is affected by Cleopatra's emotional fluctuations and by nature's cycles; Rome is prey to political intrigue, betrayal, and war. Wolf asserts that the change or "mutability" reflected by both worlds is what Antony and Cleopatra hope to escape from through death. Larry S. Champion condemns both Egypt and Rome as...
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J. Leeds Barroll describes Mark Antony as "one of Shakespeare's most complexly imagined tragic heroes," and indeed, scholarly response to Antony has been various. Barrott characterizes him as lacking in conventional ideas of "social responsibility"—Antony does not, for example, feel the duty toward Rome that characters such as Octavius Caesar and Enobarbus feel he should. Nor does he feel ashamed when he neglects Roman politics or when he indulges himself in Egypt. Barroll notes that Antony does, however, feel ashamed when he flees the fighting at Actium; thus Barroll concludes that Antony is not motivated by orthodox theories of politics as Caesar is, but by his own personal notion of chivalry and public honor.
Much of the critical discussion regarding Antony has focused on his conflicting ties to Rome and Egypt. Like Barroll, Paul A. Cantor observes that despite his extravagant claims to the contrary, Antony has not completely rejected the world for the sake of his love for Cleopatra but instead remains concerned about his role as a world leader. Unlike Barroll, Cynthia Kolb Whitney argues that Antony's conflict amounts to a sense of duty toward Rome rather than simply toward himself; specifically, she contends that Antony's "Roman honor is at war with his Egyptian sexuality." William D. Wolf describes Antony as someone who is "caught between [the] irreconcilable poles" of Egypt and Rome, love and military duties, Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar—and...
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There is much critical debate about the true nature of Shakespeare's Cleopatra. Maurice Charney calls her "the most puzzling figure in Antony and Cleopatra" and examines the ways in which other characters view her. Charney notes that Enobarbus refers to Cleopatra as no longer young even as he asserts that she is fascinating to men. Charney quotes Cleopatra's own instructions to her maid Charmian concerning Antony as an example of her "infinite variety": If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick." Ultimately, Charney suggests that Cleopatra is a proud figure desiring both admiration and sympathy.
Richard G. Harrier describes her as the embodiment of Egypt, possessing "vitality and change, the fecund earth, the Nile's slime and ooze, and the inconstant moon-sea spirit." Harrier holds the more traditional view of Cleopatra as a negative force—arguing that her "selfish and capricious domination of Antony" ruins him. L. J. Mills and Austin Wright also regard Cleopatra from a negative perspective. Mills considers her manipulative, self-absorbed, and possibly treacherous. Austin Wright's views reflect the 1950s during which he wrote. He criticizes Cleopatra for her failure to be supportive of Antony during his time of trouble; he also condemns her lack of virtue and modesty and calls her opportunistic, lubricious, and common. At the same time, Wright concludes that Cleopatra is irresistible to men.
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J. Leeds Barroll observes that the character Octavius Caesar has been described as "mysterious" and "remote," and notes that Octavius does not deliver a soliloquy in the play, nor does he speak in self-revealing asides or even utter more than a few lines at a time. He suggests that this taciturnity of Caesar's makes him seem a distant, unapproachable character. Gordon Ross Smith sees Octavius's brief comments as an intentional contrast to and puritanical criticism of the hyperbolic, flamboyant speeches of Antony and Cleopatra; further, Smith interprets such brevity in Octavius Caesar as a sign that he is "self-controlled"—witness his apparent sobriety during the orgy on Pompey's ship. Finally, Smith regards Octavius as cruel and Machiavellian in his arrest of the third and weakest member of the triumvirate, Lepidus. Richard C. Harrier describes Octavius as a "cool manipulator" who looks closely at the outcomes of events before he makes decisions.
By contrast, Barroll focuses more on the fact that, due to a lack of imagination, Octavius is prone to misjudgment. Caesar miscalculates events or people at least three times during the play: once when he is convinced Antony will lose a battle; later when he is unprepared for Antony's suicide; and lastly when he is foiled in his attempt to prevent Cleopatra's suicide. Thus, Barroll suggests, Octavius Caesar--who desires power—has less power over actions and people than he thinks he does. For additional...
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