Rome versus Egypt
The play focuses on the personal relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, and in doing so it juxtaposes two value systems, Rome and Egypt. Rome, the West, as embodied in Octavius Caesar, is a guardian of moral restraint, personal responsibility, social order, reason, and military discipline. Further, Rome places a high value on honor and duty toward one’s country. By contrast, Egypt, the east, Cleopatra’s realm, is seen as a magnet for decadence, desire, lust, and indolence. Egypt, according to this view, places a high value on physical enjoyment and luxuriant fertility. Egypt is the place to have fun; Rome is the place to work. Egypt equals private life, the sphere of the personal and the individual; Rome equals public life, affairs of state, and politics. Rome is reason; Egypt is emotion. Other pairs of opposites can be applied to this basic duality. The rational world (Rome) and the irrational (Egypt is the realm where dreams and fortunetelling have their place). Masculine self-assertion is opposed by feminine sweetness. Antony, the great Roman warrior who conceives an overwhelming passion for Cleopatra, is torn between these two worlds. He must try to reconcile these two aspects of his own being. As the play opens, he is clearly divided against himself; he has failed to integrate the sensual nature with the martial aspect. When a messenger brings him news from Rome in act 1, he seems to reject it completely, opting instead for passionate personal experience:
Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide
Of the rang’d empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man; the nobleness of life
Is to do thus …
He then embraces Cleopatra. In this speech, Antony declares his desire that Rome, the solid, fixed world of clearly defined obligations and boundaries, should melt into the waters of the river Tiber, which represents the fluidity and boundlessness of the emotional life fully and passionately lived. All he wants at this moment is to be alone with Cleopatra. In the next scene, however, Cleopatra reports that Antony was enjoying himself ‘‘but on the sudden/A Roman thought hath struck him.’’ He becomes the Roman general again, realizing that he must break ‘‘these strong Egyptian fetters’’ or lose himself ‘‘in dotage.’’ Antony is aware that this is a struggle within himself between opposing values, and throughout the play, he vacillates between one or the other, unable to harmonize the two.
This conflict between opposites also suggests the traditional astrological opposition between warlike Mars—in the first speech in the play, Antony in battle is compared toMars—and loving Venus. In Roman myth, Mars and Venus, Mars’s paramour, come together and produce a daughter, Harmony.Many Renaissance paintings depict this harmony between Mars and Venus by showing Venus playing with Mars’s armor. Interestingly, in act 2, scene 5, Cleopatra recalls an incident in which she did exactly this. She tells her maid Charmian that one night following drunken revelry, she put Antony to bed and placed her clothes on him, while she wore his sword Philippan, the very sword that Antony wielded in the battle against Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. The difference in the symbolism is that the incident recalled in the play suggests an inappropriate reversal of roles rather than a harmonious interchange between the two. As such, it is typical of the play as a whole. When Antony forgets his Roman role, disaster strikes; similarly, when Cleopatra tries to take on a Roman role—playing a leading part in the battle of Actium, for example—the result is equally disastrous. It appears that the two opposing values are never reconciled. Just as Octavius can never be anything other than the embodiment of all the Roman qualities (including the duplicity of the politician), Cleopatra can never be anything other than the volatile, sensual, bewitching queen, and poor Antony is destroyed because he is inextricably caught between the two.
On the other hand, many critics have argued that analyzing the play in terms of an opposition between the values associated with Rome and Egypt is too simple. They suggest that the elements at work in the play cannot be so neatly grouped into rigid pairs because, just as the political alliances in the play shift, so do the groupings in the play’s structure. For example, Antony’s dilemma has been described as involving a choice between love and war; between, that is, his life with Cleopatra in Egypt and his profession as a soldier in Rome. In contrast, critics have argued that Antony’s dilemma is solved when love and death are paired through his and Cleopatra’s suicides. Commentators have observed that, when Octavius commands the burial of the lovers in the same grave in act 5, he acknowledges that death has immortalized the love of ‘‘a pair so famous’’ as Antony and Cleopatra.
Recent criticism has suggested that Rome and Egypt are alike to the degree that they are both in decline, and that the love of Antony and Cleopatra does not reflect the opposition between the two countries or the conflict endured by Antony, but the temporary triumph of imperialism. The love shared by Antony and Cleopatra, some critics argue, is as imperious and undemocratic as the new government in Rome. The lovers themselves describe their feelings in imperial terms; Antony, for instance, claims that his affection is capable of conquering whole worlds and of blotting out geographical formations.
Scholars have also remarked that the decline of Rome and Egypt is the result of changes in both nations: Republican Rome is now Imperial Rome; Egypt is ruled by an unpredictable and aging queen. Rome is prey to shifting alliances and political betrayal by Octavius, who bickers with one triumvir (Antony) and jails another (Lepidus); Egypt is subject to the flooding of the Nile and the unpredictable fortunes of Antony and Cleopatra’s love. Both Egypt and Rome, one critic has observed, are pagan nations, which will soon give way to Christianity. Some commentators suggest that ultimately, it is less constructive to view Rome and Egypt as separate entities than as shifting and intermingling locations of waxing and waning power that affect, and are affected by, the two lovers.
Morality and Transcendence
One way of reading the play is to see it as the downfall of a great-man through his self-indulgence, his failure to resist temptation and pleasure, and his consequent neglect of his duty. This is certainly how the Roman world viewed the historical Antony, who was contrasted with the ‘‘good’’ Roman, Aeneas, who resisted the temptation to stay with his lover Dido in Carthage and went on to found Rome. (The story of Aeneas is told in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid.) Seen in this light, Antony and Cleopatra becomes something of a morality play, in which the two lovers pay a deadly price for their moral transgressions. Antony is weak; Cleopatra selfish; and their deaths are both inevitable and appropriate.
There is plenty of material in the play that would support such a reading. The first thirteen lines, spoken by Antony’s disillusioned man Philo, gives the audience, before they have even seen Antony, a devastating picture of the decline of the great general, who has now reached his ‘‘dotage’’ (line 1):
Take but good note, and you shall see in
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool.
To this can be added the appearance of Antony in the next scene, when he struggles to break away from Cleopatra. He is clearly a man in great psychic turmoil, torn between two opposing and apparently irreconcilable worlds. Furthermore, Octavius’s harsh words about his fellow triumvar, in act 1, scene 4, add to the picture of a man in a steep decline through lack of self-discipline. According to Octavius, Antony drinks and spends his nights in revelry, and has allowed himself to become feminized by his Egyptian lover: He ‘‘is not more manlike / Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy / More womanly than he.’’ Caesar concludes that Antony is ‘‘a man who is the abstract of all faults / That all men follow’’ (lines 8–9). But in spite of this apparent degeneration of a great hero, audiences and readers often find themselves unwilling to condemn the lovers, even though Antony and Cleopatra’s recklessness, their irresponsibility, and their cruelty towards each other is plain for everyone to see. Judgments are suspended because Antony and Cleopatra’s love seems to transcend all narrow moral boundaries. They have a vision of each other that makes them seem transfigured. Their love cannot be contained within a mundane sphere but leaps towards a visionary and poetic transcendence. Cleopatra sees Antony as a godlike being, and just before his death, Antony envisions that he and Cleopatra will be together again in Hades, ‘‘Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand, / And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.’’ At the end of the play, Cleopatra, full of ‘‘immortal longings,’’ dons her robe and crown and goes to meet Antony in some spiritual realm of experience that is beyond the ability of the prosaic Roman world to understand.
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