Language and Imagery
Antony and Cleopatra is distinguished among Shakespeare’s plays for its lush, evocative language. Some critics have even suggested that it should be classified with Shakespeare’s long poems rather than ranked alongside his plays. Scholarly discussion has focused on Enobarbus’s vividly detailed depiction of Cleopatra on her barge and on the lovers’ continual use of hyperbole, or exaggerated language, to describe each other as well as their affection for one another.
Some critics have argued that the hyperbolic language in Antony and Cleopatra makes it a highly problematical play to stage. What actor, for example, is so physically fit that he can portray a character like Antony, whose ‘‘legs bestrid the ocean’’ and whose ‘‘rear’d arm / Crested the world’’? What actress is charismatic enough to play Cleopatra, who is described as more seductive than Venus, the goddess of love? Other critics have observed that Shakespeare was well aware of this conflict between language and reality and that he makes this clear in act 5 when the defeated Cleopatra imagines that plays written in Rome about the former lovers will feature Antony as a drunk and herself as a ‘‘whore’’ played—as was the custom in Renaissance England—by a ‘‘squeaking … boy.’’
Scholars have identified a variety of reasons for the existence of heightened language and vivid imagery in Antony and Cleopatra. Some have demonstrated its usefulness in highlighting the changing moods or fortunes of particular characters. Thus Antony’s men effectively display their disappointment in their leader and his noticeable transformation when they complain that Antony has been reduced from acting like the god of war to behaving like the mere fawning servant of a lustful woman. Similarly, it has been pointed out that while Antony describes his love for Cleopatra in hyperbolic terms, he does not lose sight of his own importance in the world of politics. For instance, even as he asserts that his love for Cleopatra renders everything else in the world unimportant, he demands that the people of the world take note of his love or else face punishment from him. Thus we are introduced to the conflicting feelings—romantic love versus honorable renown—that plague Antony and that ultimately destroy him.
Several critics have suggested that Antony and Cleopatra’s hyperbolic poetry mirrors the paradoxes at work in the play: love versus death, and immortality versus aging, for example. In connection with this, several scholars have noted the frequent use of images that link death, love, and immortality. The preponderance of death imagery intensifies the tragic nature of Antony and Cleopatra’s love. Death imagery also emphasizes the fact that both lovers are aging. Aging and death are things that the extraordinary Antony and Cleopatra have in common with ordinary people, all of whom must come to terms with their mortality; therefore, some critics conclude that the imagery and hyperbole in Antony and Cleopatra are intended to reinforce the fact that all human beings are by their very nature extraordinary.
Katherine Vance MacMullan is one critic who has closely examined the frequent appearance of death imagery in the play. Noting that the image of death as a bridegroom was commonplace to Renaissance audiences, MacMullan asserts that Shakespeare developed the image beyond this familiar cliche´. In Antony and Cleopatra, MacMullan contends, death imagery is meant to symbolize Antony’s overpowering passion for Cleopatra, his diminishing political powers, and ‘‘the weakening of his judgment in the command of practical affairs.’’ MacMullan also demonstrates how Shakespeare connects the image of death with those of sleep, darkness, and light to emphasize the inevitability of the lovers’ tragic fate.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007