Antony and Cleopatra Antony and Cleopatra (Vol. 47)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Antony and Cleopatra

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...

(The entire section is 113,717 words.)