Antony and Cleopatra Themes
by William Shakespeare

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Themes

Upon learning of the death of his cohort and foe, Augustus Caesar says of Antony's demise:

The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack: the round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets,
And citizens to their dens. The death of Antony
Is not a single doom; in the name lay
A moiety of the world.
(V.i.14-18)

A politician by trade and heart, Caesar's words resound with Mark Antony's own funeral orations over the deaths of Julius Caesar and Brutus in the earlier Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar. But while Caesar is not to be taken at his word and is given to borrowed rhetorical exaggeration in service of his own advancement, here his words ring true. Above all, the dominant sense of the play is not so much a product of thematic content as it is of the sheer scope of the events taking place. Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar are all giants, historical heroes whose lives ripple throughout the world for centuries. They are world rulers of unsurpassed historical importance, "planetary" characters with the power, will and talent to shake heaven and earth.

As Caesar's use of the word "moiety" connotes ("moiety" means "half"), the world of Antony and Cleopatra is divided into two, contrasting but complementary spheres. There is the Roman world from which Antony hales and in which Caesar ultimately triumphs. This is a world of rational politics, of reason, and of personal (especially military) honor, all of these being attributes of a western and "masculine" society. Cleopatra's world in Egypt is dominated by passion, by sensory pleasure, and by an "eastern/feminine" weakness associated with deception.

While each of these sides—Roman and Egyptian—has its virtues and its failings, Fortune is on the side of the former. In Act II, scene ii, the soothsayer predicts that Caesar will rise higher than Antony, and we know from history that this proved true. On a dramatic level (without the benefit of historical chronicles), we are told that Rome will defeat Antony and Cleopatra because Fortune demands it. On the cusp of his final battle with Antony and his Egyptian queen, Caesar proclaims that "the time of universal peace is near" (IV.vi.4). Shortly thereafter, Antony sees the writing on the wall and allows that "Fortune and Antony part here" (IV.xii.18). From Shakespeare's standpoint, Rome must triumph so that the historical destiny can be fulfilled, including the coming of Christianity to the West under the reign of Caesar. Cleopatra also acknowledges that Fortune is against her cause; in the final scene of Act IV, the vanquished Egyptian Queen vents her anguish with the statement, "let me rail so high / That the false huswife Fortune break her wheel" (IV.xv.42-43). In the end, even so mighty a couple as Antony and Cleopatra cannot oppose historical Fortune. Still, Cleopatra derives some solace from the fact that it is destiny, not Caesar, that conquers, saying in the last scene of the play: "'Tis paltry to be Caesar; / Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave, / A minister of her will" (V.ii.2-4).

Loyalty, personal honor and individual identity comprise another thematic cluster in the play. "If I lose mine honour, / I lose myself" (III.iv.22-23), Antony says to his Roman wife Octavia, and it is within Antony that this connection between integrity and selfhood is played out to the fullest. After abandoning Octavia and his first defeat at the hands of her brother, Antony summons his inner resources to assert "I am Antony yet" (III.xiii.92). But in Act IV, scene xiv, after all is lost, Antony recognizes: "Here I am Antony; / Yet cannot hold this visible shape" (ll.13-14). Antony retains his noble stature for us, but in his own mind, his identity as Antony is annihilated by his defeat by Caesar and, more pointedly, by Cleopatra's treachery.

In addition to such obvious symbolic associations as that of Antony with Mars and Cleopatra with Venus, the text of Antony and Cleopatra is rich with recurrent images. One salient thread...

(The entire section is 2,117 words.)