Joseph Innes 8th January
How does Shakespeare present the sense of opposites or polarities
And what is the importance of these to the play?
William Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra around 1606, during the reign of King James . The play is a history, set in the time of the Roman Empire many centuries before it was written and based on the well-documented history of Octavius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra. These characters and their lives were contained in primarily one document: Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which was translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579. In the creation of the play, Shakespeare kept very close to the plot of North’s history although some characters such as Enobarbus are largely Shakespeare’s creations. In the play, Shakespeare creates two completely different, conflicting worlds from which most if not all of the drama and tension is derived from, causing tension between those living in the two ideals of Rome and Egypt.
From the very beginning one of the themes of the play becomes very evident to the audience, the conflict between Rome and Egypt. The two places represent a symbolic clash of ideals in the play. Rome is seen as a place of honor and duty and taken very seriously, this is shown through the actions and behaviour of Caesar, a man with huge responsibilities, and even when his associates are celebrating and getting drunk, he does not. As a contrast, Egypt is shown as a place of indulgence and pleasure, shown this time through Cleopatra’s court, where it seems the inhabitants do nothing but indulge themselves with games, wine and sex. These differences in ideals are so great that the people in Rome treat Antony’s indulgence in Egypt with Cleopatra as a taboo “this is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes / The Lamps of night in revel”(1.4.4-5). Caesar’s condemnation of Antony’s behavior is an example of how much he is despised for turning his back on Roman duty. This clash is in some ways an example of Elizabethan perceptions on the differences between East and West, an obstacle that is impossible for Antony and Cleopatra to overcome. Shakespeare personifies the two poles of the world as the people living there. Caesar is seen as the embodiment of Rome, with his rigid sense of duty and honour, and Egypt is presented through Cleopatra with her excessive and theatrical extravagance and free flowing passions. Shakespeare supports this when Antony is shown to call Cleopatra Egypt, believing that she is the spirit or embodiment of the place she represents “I am dying, Egypt, dying”. Although at the end of the play Rome seems to conquer Egypt, Shakespeare is presenting something much deeper. Cleopatra’s suicide is an example of the defiance towards the west, a triumph in its own right as the spirit and freedom of the East which will live on eternally as the counterpoint to the West, and its ideals.
Shakespeare also presents the clash between east and west through his presentation of female sexuality. Cleopatra is presented as the exotic, who seduces passing generals and turns them away from their duties. The way that Cleopatra is discussed in Rome is in terms of danger and beauty, such as a siren in Greek myth. Caesar and his men condemn Antony for his irresponsibility but ultimately put the blame on Cleopatra’s enchanting prowess. When not describing her as a whore, they worship the ground she walks as shown in the way Enobarbus describes her, and how the other men listen with awe “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety. Other women cloy”(2.2.225-245). Octavia is presented by Shakespeare to be the Roman opposite of Cleopatra, in beauty and temperament although the Roman men are still obsessed with her sexuality. They believe that she has the power to mend the triumvirs damaged union by marrying Antony, they expect her to “knit their hearts / With an unslipping knot” (2.2.132-133). In this way the women of the play are given the responsibility for the men’s political alliances and the blame for their personal failures. The counterpoint that arises because of this gives Shakespeare an easy formula for drama, Cleopatra and Octavia although never meet, but still despise each other for what they each represent. Cleopatra shows this in the way she interprets a messengers description of Octavia “He cannot like her long Dull of tongue, and dwarfish” (3.3.23-30). They have a mutual distaste for each other, and it is Antony that has to decide to follow peace and stability with Octavia, or the exotic but unsure future with Cleopatra. Antony’s choice will ultimately create tension between the two polarities of Rome and Egypt, destroying the triumvir, along with his and Cleopatra’s life.
Another of the themes of the play is the struggle between reason and emotion, the extremes showed in Rome and Egypt, Rome as the very pillar of reason over emotion, where your responsibilities come far before your private pleasures. Egypt however is a free flowing fountain of emotion, where pleasures are seen to be satisfied. This theme is presented in the first few lines in the play by Philo, which Shakespeare presents as a small introduction and turns out as a criticism of Antony’s actions through the play. Philo refers to Antony’s dotage’, a foolish infatuation that introduces a tension between reason and emotion that runs through the entire play. We are given an opinion of events from Philo, who says that emotion gets the better of Antony and turns him into “the bellows and the fan / To cool a gypsy’s lust” but Shakespeare centres the play around the battle between reason and emotion and not the triumph of either one, mostly presented through Antony. The whole way through the play Antony shows signs of both conflicting ideals. The first we see of Cleopatra and Antony together, we see signs of his emotion getting the better of him, as he seemingly throws away his ties to Rome because of his passion for pleasure and Cleopatra “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall!” This does not last long though and after Antony dismisses the messenger from Rome he quickly denounces himself for his neglect of duties and commits himself to travel back to Rome lest he “lose self in dotage”. This conflicting sense is continually brought back to the foreground of the play, at one point Antony is the war hero that Caesar remembered and is afraid of, and the next minute Antony is compromising his military position by letting Cleopatra decide his course of action. Once Antony has been defeated and abandoned by his followers and believes that the one thing he had left – Cleopatra has died; he feels he has completely lost himself to his dotage’ and therefore commits suicide. This can be seen as his final triumph over emotion through reason, but Antony is just as much a slave to emotion as he is to reason and these continually conflicting senses ultimately culminate in his tragic death.
Another theme that involves the clash between Rome and Egypt, is the idea of honour, mostly shown through the main characters of Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare makes very clear the Roman sense of duty and honour in the play, mostly linked with death. As Antony prepares to enter battle with Caesar, he exclaims that he “will live / Or bathe my dying honour in the blood / Shall make it live again” (4.2.5-7). Making it clear that death will be a sure way of receiving the honour he believes is rightfully his “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished” (4.15.59-60). On the surface there seems to be a lot less honour in being an Egyptian, especially in Cleopatra’s case as she seems to not take her responsibilities seriously and indulges herself in pleasure, but Cleopatra also seeks honour in her death by denying Caesar his trophy. Cleopatra resolves to “bury him, and then what’s brave, what’s noble, / Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion, / And make death proud to take us” (4.15.89-90). This seems to suggest that Cleopatra believes that honour is purely a Roman attribute, but what she is doing through dying, is remaining her own person and refusing to give in to Caesar, which is distinctly against Rome. The role of honour therefore is not a function of Eastern or Western culture, but a determination of the characters themselves; they secure honour by refusing to compromise their identities.
In act 5 Cleopatra and Caesar meet for the first time, and it is possible to identify this as the two polarities of East and West being brought together for the first time during the play. This conclusion of one of the main conflicts maybe one of the reasons why Shakespeare added this last act to the play, as it could have been easily ended at the end of act 4 with Cleopatra’s resignation to commit suicide. Instead Shakespeare continued to write the meeting between the two characters that represent the polarities of east and west. In this meeting Cleopatra is shown to be extremely submissive towards Caesar, “My master and my lord / I must obey” (5.2.124-125). The tension that Shakespeare creates from this makes excellent drama. Both of the characters endeavor to understand the other’s words and behaviour in order to judge their design. Cleopatra attempts to give Caesar a document which entitles him to all of her possessions, but is then found out to include half of what she actually possesses by her servant Selucus. Cleopatra then becomes extremely embarrassed but Caesar then tells her that he isn’t interested in her wealth. Cleopatra though is unconvinced with his words “He words me, girls, he words me” (5.2.192-193). This game that the two play produces great tension, Caesar is pleasant and charming towards Cleopatra, although she knows he is merely trying to avoid her committing suicide, so that she can be his trophy. After this meeting, Cleopatra resolves to follow her plan of death and although Rome may have triumphed at face value, the East is in fact presenting its true spirit, Cleopatra is refusing to become anything but herself. This conclusion to the conflict between East and West is needed to provide a satisfying ending to the play, although neither East or West wins, but is left at a stalemate. The West wins over reason and duty, and yet the East has won through emotion and love, the love between Antony and Cleopatra.
The polarities between Antony and Cleopatra are huge and arguably impossible to overcome as the conflict and differences between Egypt and Rome would inevitably end in tragedy. Shakespeare uses this as the centre of his drama, and without it would lose its powerful and emotive realism that Shakespeare spent his life perfecting. In this way, the conflict between Egypt and Rome is the most important theme, as from it spawns the differences in honour, reason, emotion and ideals, thus forming the framework for much more drama beyond it.