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...

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The Character of Cleopatra

After Antony's death at the end of Act IV, Cleopatra says to her handmaiden Charmian that "Our lamp is spent" and concludes "Come we have no friend/But resolution and the briefest end" (IV, xv, ll.90-91). This strongly implies that the Egyptian queen is determined to take her own life and that its is the death of her paramour, Antony, that compels her toward suicide. Plainly the bond between Cleopatra and Antony is powerful, and her tragic love for the fallen Antony seems strong enough to drive her to self-destruction. But Cleopatra's love for Antony does not fully explain her ultimate demise. After all, just two scenes earlier the Egyptian monarch is told that Antony is enraged by her betrayal and plans to take her life, and she responds to the threat by sending word to her lover that she has already killed herself. Cleopatra is not a love-stricken maiden akin to Shakespeare's Juliet. She is, in fact, a mature, practical-minded woman whose "salad days" when she was "green in judgement" have long since passed (I, v., l.72). Most significant of all, although she seems to be intent upon taking her own life immediately after Antony's death, there is another full act in the play. In the midst of Act V, Cleopatra consoles herself by asserting that it is "paltry to be Caesar," since he is not Fortune and is therefore under Fortune's sway, prefacing this observation by saying, "My desolation does begin to make/A better life" (V, ii. l1.1-2). Thus, having indicated that she will kill herself for the sake of her lost love, Cleopatra nevertheless demurs and begins to bargain with Caesar and her own circumstances.

As an alternative explanation for her suicide, in the final scene of the play (Act V, scene ii.), the trustworthy Roman Procleus tells Cleopatra that the victorious Caesar intends to treat her kindly. Contrary to this report, however, the Queen is seized by Roman soldiers and she is told by the sympathetic Roman Dolabella that Augustus actually plans to parade her in the streets of Rome as a trophy of war. Caesar himself appears on the scene and states that he will allow Cleopatra to retain her dignity and a portion of her wealth to boot. But Cleopatra is herself a master of deception and sees through Caesar's benign façade. After he leaves, Cleopatra addresses her servant Iras:...

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Shakespeare's Use of Solar and Lunar Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra

In the final scene of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen relates the contents of dream to Dolabella in which her deceased paramour appeared to her as the Emperor of the world. She describes her fallen consort's visage: "His face was as the heav'ns, and therein stuck/A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted/The little O, th' earth" (V, ii, 11.79-81). Cleopatra's depiction of Antony embodying the sun and the moon is but one of the many instances in which Shakespeare uses solar and lunar imagery to underscore the play's principal thematic concerns. Throughout the text, Cleopatra is figuratively identified with the "fickle" moon, most frequently through associations with the goddess of the moon, Isis. In complementary fashion, Antony is often identified with the "constant" sun. These tandem image clusters reinforce our sense of the cosmic stature attributed to both Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare. They also correlate with the play's theme of time, particularly the tension between the inevitable passage of the sun and moon in their daily marches and the tragic desire of both Antony and Cleopatra to somehow control or disregard time. Moreover, the conjunction of solar and lunar images is emblematic of human nature as Shakespeare shows it to us in Antony and Cleopatra: both of the lovers display a combination of the fickle and the constant. In the end, it is fitting that the deaths of both Antony and Cleopatra are framed by references to twilight, for both exhibit a combination of solar and lunar traits.

Throughout the text Cleopatra is symbolically identified with the fickle moon through the medium of Isis. This association is first broached by Cleopatra's maid, Charmian in Act I, scene ii (11.64-70), but the strongest expression comes in Act III, scene vi. At that juncture, Caesar rages against Antony's division of territory to his heirs and notes that on the day when Antony proclaimed these kings, Cleopatra was garbed in the habiliments of the goddess Isis (1.17). Cleopatra herself acknowledges the connection. She ultimately refers to it when she decides to shed her fickle ways and embrace death rather than be "beclouded" by Rome's vulgar rabble: "My resolution's placed, and I have nothing/Of woman in me: now head to foot/I am marble constant: now the fleeting moon/No planet is of mine" (V, ii.238-241).

In parallel manner, Antony is closely identified with the sun. The first association of the Roman general with the solar orb occurs as he prepares to leave Cleopatra in Act I, scene iii and swears, "by the fire/That quickens the Nilus slime, I go from hence" (11.69-70). When Antony learns that he has been betrayed by that "triple-turned whore" Cleopatra, he too tries to discards his connection to his ruling planet, exclaiming, "O, sun, thy uprise I shall see no more/Fortune and Antony part here" (IV, xii, 18-19).

Moreover, there is strong textual evidence that Antony and Cleopatra see each other respectively as the sun and the moon. In Act I, when Cleopatra ingests a narcotic and longs to be with Antony, she tells Charmian, "Now I feed myself/With most delicious poison. That am with Phoebus" (I, v, 11.26-28), Phoebus, of course, being the sun. When Cleopatra espies the mortally wounded Antony, her thoughts again turn to solar images, as she commands, "O sun/Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in: darkling stand" (IV, xv, 11.9-10). For his part, when Antony is angered at Caesar's reply to his terms, he behaves in the same...

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Antony and Cleopatra: Analysis of the Final Act and Scene

The language of the final act and scene of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra richly reflects the metaphors and images of the preceding acts. As a final statement by Cleopatra of her devotion to Antony, the scene is rich in references to the dead lover’s majesty; comparisons with Caesar serve to heighten the glory of Antony’s greatness in life and death.

The setting is the Monument, and the scene opens on Cleopatra, whose grief over Antony’s death is beginning to turn into resolution of the course she must now take. In her first words she speaks of her “desolation”, the first of many times in the scene when each word spoken holds at least two meanings. Cleopatra’s desolation is at the death of her...

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