Antony and Cleopatra Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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What are the symbolic differences between Rome and Egypt in Shakespeare's Antony And Cleopatra

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Nita Kuykendall eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Nothing could be less Puritanical than the Roman Empire as depicted in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. In this play, Rome has fallen from its Republican public-spiritedness into imperial decadence. Imperial Rome is still capable of martial Stoicism (entailing self-possession and restraint in the face of temptation), as is consistent with its militarism, but the overall state of affairs is far removed from the Republican restraint. Indeed, the Rome of "Antony and Cleopatra" is a city given to dancing in "Egyptian bacchanals" and even eating "Egyptian cookery." The cultural fascination with Egypt is depicted as a source of Roman weakness. Rome is represented as being all too prone to the charms of Egypt, as represented by Cleopatra. Egypt is a cipher for decadence, sensuality, and languid passivity, whereas Rome is a cipher for declining greatness, overbearing pride, and a lapse in the discipline requisite for being the rulers of the world.

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In this play, Rome represents the world of the rational, the logical, the carefully practical, and the puritanical. It is the world of the strong, heroic male warrior. Egypt, on the other hand, symbolizes the land of sensuous pleasure, of the irrational, the enchanting, and the deceptive. As Antony is seduced by this feminine world, whose chief representative is the queen, Cleopatra, he loses power as a warrior. He is symbolically held by Cleopatra in "strong Egyptian fetters" (Act I, scene ii) that he cannot break, even after his marriage to Octavia. He has become a "strumpet's fool," (Act 1, scene 1) losing his Roman discipline and clearheadedness in the process. Cleopatra's power over him represents the disorder and sensuous intoxication of Egypt.

If Antony is enslaved by everything Egypt symbolizes—passion, pomp, luxury, ease, and beauty—Octavius Caesar embodies the rigid duty and austerity that Rome symbolizes. As a dedicated warrior, he would drink, if necessary, "the stale [urine] of horses," (Act I, scene iv), he attacks his enemies only when he cold-bloodedly calculates that he can win, and he manages his supplies with careful frugality, thinking it a "waste" to offer his army a feast (Act IV, scene i). He, like Rome, represents the logical, the hardheaded, and the practical.

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