In what ways does Shakespeare juxtapose the settings of Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra?

Throughout Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare compares and contrasts Western civilization, represented by the reason, discipline, and order of Octavius Caesar's Rome, and Eastern civilization, represented by the pleasure, indulgence, and passion of Cleopatra's Egypt. The tragedy of the play is that Antony and Cleopatra are unable to reconcile these two civilizations, which results in their deaths.

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In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare presents a contrast between Western civilization, represented by Rome and symbolized by Octavius Caesar, and Eastern civilization, represented by Egypt and symbolized by Cleopatra.

Most Elizabethans had little more than a passing familiarity with Rome, Roman history, or Roman culture, and very few had any acquaintance with or understanding of Eastern cultures, particularly Egyptian culture at the time of Antony and Cleopatra in 41–30 BCE.

Shakespeare's audience believed what he told them about Rome and about Egypt, even if what he told them was historically inaccurate or pure fiction. Shakespeare is much more concerned with dramatic effect than with historical accuracy. His history plays provide ample evidence of that. Where history lack drama, Shakespeare provides it. Where history lacks an event to dramatize, Shakespeare makes one up.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare depicts the Western civilization of Rome in terms of duty, responsibility, reason, respectability, discipline, and order. He depicts Cleopatra's Egypt in terms of leisure, pleasure, sensual indulgence, and passion, and as separate from and indifferent to world affairs.

In the first scene of the play, Antony is shown to disdain the problems of the world—Rome in particular—and to embrace the Eastern pleasure culture.

A messenger arrives from Rome, and Antony has no interest in listening to his messages. Antony acts as if the messenger is intruding on his life, and lets the messenger know how he feels about having to deal with problems in Rome.

ANTONY. Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall. (1.1.38–39)

Later in the scene, Antony shows the extent to which he embraces the Egyptian love of pleasure.

ANTONY. But stirred by Cleopatra.
Now for the love of Love and her soft hours,
Let’s not confound the time with conference harsh.
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now. (1.1.50–54)

This theme of the clash of cultures recurs throughout the play. Antony is caught between these two extremes, torn between his duty to Rome and his passion for Cleopatra. Antony is as culturally out of place in Cleopatra's world as Cleopatra is out of place in Antony's world. Nevertheless, Cleopatra tries to accommodate Antony's duty to Rome and the Roman culture, and Antony tries to reconcile his duty to Rome with his love for Cleopatra and her culture.

Ultimately, though, both Antony and Cleopatra lose everything, including their lives, because no matter how much they love each other, they simply aren't able to live in each other's world.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on July 31, 2020
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