Conflict of Rome versus Egypt; West versus East
As its title plainly suggests, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra revolves around the extraordinary relationship between two unique individuals, one a Roman general and the other an Egyptian queen. Along with Augustus Caesar, these figures dominate the tragedy's narrative progression. But while Antony and Cleopatra focuses upon an incendiary love affair, Shakespeare makes it apparent that there is a much larger tension involved here, a clash between two worlds. Encompassing much of the known world at the time, what is at stake in Antony and Cleopatra is not confined to the fortunes of two (or three) characters. From the very start, we are encouraged to look upon Antony, Cleopatra, and (Augustus) Caesar as global, indeed planetary forces. Thus, in Philo's complaints about his commander in Act I, scene i. of the play, Antony is consistently identified with the god and the planet of war, Mars, while Cleopatra is associated with the god and planet of love, Venus (see, for example, Madrian's speech at I, v. l.17ff.). Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar are not merely powerful rulers within the ancient world; they are world-sharers whose actions determine how power will be distributed long after their lives have passed. As Caesar's extensive roster of kings and principalities who align themselves with Antony and Cleopatra underscores (III, vi., ll.68-75), what transpires here is not merely a struggle between powerful individuals, but rather a collision between two civilizations: Rome in the West and Egypt in the East. The question naturally arises: Whose "side" is Shakespeare on?
The simple answer to this question is evident from the very start: Shakespeare sides with Rome. Opening outside of Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, two of Antony's officers leave no doubt that, from their Roman perspective, their general's dalliance with Cleopatra has caused him to neglect his rightful duties. This normative viewpoint is immediately reinforced by the behavior of Cleopatra, who actively taunts Antony's residual concern for his marital obligations toward Fulvia and, more important, his political obligations toward the Roman Senate. There is a gender inversion at work her: Cleopatra, the female or female principle governs Mark Antony, the erstwhile embodiment of male virtue. Shakespeare highlights the irony in Act I, scene ii, when Enobarbus hears the sounds of the powerful figure approaching with an entourage and assumes that it is Antony but is corrected on this count by Charmian's words "Not he, the Queen" (I, ii., l.78). Cleopatra (and Egypt) have usurped what properly belongs to Antony (and Rome). After Cleopatra's chides her lover for his "Roman thoughts," Antony withdraws from contact with his homeland, and it is clear that the Eastern seductress has used her physical beauty and her mental wiles to separate him from his natural loyalties to his homeland. Worse, in Act II, scene iii, having reiterated his solemn bond with Rome and cemented it through his marriage to Octavia, Antony immediately proves false to both as he prepares to return to the East where Cleopatra and his "pleasure" lie. Augustus Caesar is justifiably outraged when he learns that Mark Antony has not only broken his pledge by taking up his affair with the Egyptian Queen, but gone so far as to crown her and himself joint rulers of the Roman Empire in the East. This certainly demonstrates that under Cleopatra's oriental sway, Antony is no longer an honorable man.
Cleopatra and her Egyptian mores of sensuous pleasure, emotional manipulation, and political deception are posed against the Roman qualities of self-sacrificing stoicism, calculated rationality, and brute force. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's sympathies are not entirely with the Romans and their cause. In the play's final act, we are led to believe that the Romans are themselves duplicitous, that while Caesar and his emissaries reassure Cleopatra that she will be treated with dignity they plan to parade her through the...
(The entire section is 5,230 words.)