Anthony and Cleopatra

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“Anthony and Cleopatra”

Shakespeare Uses As His Source For The Play Plutarch’s Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans. Plutarch, Along With Other Greek And Roman Authors, Saw An Opposition Between The Conquering West Standing For Moral And Political Virtue And The Conquered East Representing Luxury And Decadence. How Does Shakespeare’s Play Present These Positions?

Throughout William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, there is the dichotomy of the hard-working political life of Rome and the luxury and pleasures of Egypt. The effect of the difference between the two places on the main characters, and on the plot, is a key theme throughout the play.

It is common in Shakespeare’s plays for characters to talk about themselves in the third person, which gives them an elevated and important status. This is used to show the difference between the relaxed and indulgent Egypt, and the more formal ways of Rome. Octavius Caesar refers to himself in the third person often in the play,

“It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate our great competitor”

This gives Octavius an air of importance, as he takes a tone of superiority over Antony because he is enjoying the luxuries of Cleopatra’s palace.

Dance, music and song are commonly used in Shakespearean comedy, for example in plays like a Comedy of Errors or As You Like It. They often act as an uniting force, bringing together different groups or individuals. In Antony and Cleopatra,a tragedy, they are presented differently. They are used to indicate Egypt as a place of frivolity. Cleopatra remarks “give me some music, moody food of us that trade in love.” Music is never played in Rome, and there are certainly no comical characters (such as the eunuch Mardian) and little banter. The presence of music and dance, with an entertainer such as the Eunuch, shows Egypt to be a place of fun and frivolity in direct contrast to the serious political business of Rome.

Shakespeare also displays the contrast between the two places by his use of jocularity, particularly puns and sexual innuendo. These are prevelant in the Egyptian scenes, particularly in the exchanges between Cleopatra and her courtiers.

Charmian: “My arm is sore. Best play with Mardian.
Cleopatra: As well a women with a Eunuch played as with a woman…”

This short exchange presents Egypt as a place of sexual innuendo and entertainment. Such conversations never take place in Rome, and this shows the more impertinent nature of Egypt. There is also a contrast in the treatment of tragic events between Egypt and Rome. In Rome, they are taken very seriously (for example the military aggression of Pompei), but in Egypt they are often given a comic undertone, for example when Cleopatra is speaking to Antony about the death of his wife, Fulvia. At a point of sadness and tragedy, Cleopatra remarks “Can Fulvia really die?”. The word die has a secondary meaning in Elizabethan English, to reach sexual climax. Shakespeare illustrates the more irreverent nature of Egyptian life by treating such a tragic issue with bawdy humour.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison of the two countries is the conversation between Enobarbus, Maecenas and Agrippa in Act two Scene two. Enobarbus has just returned from Egypt, and tells Agrippa about all the luxuries and splendour he experienced during his time there. Enobarbus gives a fantastic account of Cleopatra and the great feasts and richery of the palace:

Maecenas: “ Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast and but twelve persons there. Is this true ?
Enobarbus: This was as a fly by an eagle. We had much more monstrous matters of feast…”

Shakespeare paints a mental landscape for the audience of Egypt as a place of splendour and excess. Maecenas goes on to describe Cleopatra as a “most triumphant lady” and a “rare Egyptian”. The previous scene shows the political wrangling of Antony and Octavius in Rome, as they try to sought out the political marriage of Octavia to Antony. Therefore Shakespeare creates an image of Rome as a place of serious discussion and relationships based on politics. He shows Egypt to be a place of frivolity with relationships based on passionate love.

Throughout the play Shakespeare uses language and mood to show the difference between the pleasures of Egypt and the politics of Rome. When Antony is speaking to Cleopatra, he addresses her as “sweet queen” and “my love” and tends to speak less formally and correctly than when in Rome. When speaking to Cleopatra in act three he says:

“ Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates all that is won and lost. Give me a kiss. Even this repays me.-We sent our schoolmaster; Is ‘a come back ?-Love, I am full of lead. Some wine, within there, and our viands! Fortune knows We scorn her most when most she offers blows.”

The broken up sentences and informal language eludes to the relaxed nature of Egypt, personified by Cleopatra. The use of “love” and “give me a kiss” again suggests the sexual frivolity of Egyptian life. When speaking in Rome the language used by Antony is markedly different, for example when speaking to Caesar in Act two scene two Antony says:

“So much uncurable, her garboils, Caesar, made out of her impatience-which not wanted shrewdness of policy too-I grieving grant Did you too much disquiet. For that you must But say I could not help it.”

In this passage Antony addresses his interlocutor by his title, Caesar. This has an air of respect and formality contrary to the familiarity and affection of his words to Cleopatra. The language used is has a greater sententiousness about it than the language he used in his conversation with Cleopatra, and it flows more easily with less breaking up of the lines. The use of words like “shrewdness” epitomises the punctilious, political world of Rome compared to the easygoing world of Egypt.

One of the greatest contrasts between Egypt and Rome is the central character of each country. The differences between Octavius and Antony, and Cleopatra and Octavia epitomise the contrast between the two nations. Antony is a man whos best days are past him, whereas Caesar is a young vigorous man about to achieve in life. It is Caesar that is concerned with issues of state, constantly calling Antony back to Rome for political business, and it is Caesar who pushes through the marriage of Octavia and Antony. By contrast Antony would rather sample the pleasures of Egypt than deal with state affairs, and does not have the love for Rome that Octavius has, for example. “let Rome in Tiber melt…”. In the battle of Actium Antony makes the foolhardy move of fighting by sea when the Egyptians are stronger by land, whereas Octavius wins the battle with excellent military strategy. Octavius is often referred to as “scarce bearded Caesar”; though this denotes his age his lack of facial hair could also allude to a clean cut and formal image. Antony’s long black beard is much more in keeping with his romantic, tragic hero persona. Octavius would seem to fit the bill as a “triple pillar of the world” whereas Antony seems more to be a “strumpet’s fool”

Antony’s romantic and frivolous personality is in keeping with the irreverent nature of Egypt whereas Octavius’ straight-laced personality epitomises the formality of Rome. Similarly Cleopatra and Octavia are contrasting characters who’s personality is in keeping with their country’s nature. Cleopatra is likened to Venus and the goddess Isis. She is called a “rare Egyptian” and a “Royal Wench”, and she attacks a messenger to the point of drawing a knife. She involves herself in bawdy sexual innuendo, has violent mood swings and has made a habit of becoming emotionally involved with various men. By contrast Octavia is a polite and softly spoken women who is used by her brother as a political tool. She is formal in her appearance and her actions, with none of the glamour and extroverted nature of Cleopatra. Octavia is symbolic of the formality and importance of politics of Rome. By having a woman as the head of state, Egypt is given a sense of informality and femininity. Also Cleopatra is a solitary ruler, a more primitive system than the democratic triumvirate of Rome. Cleopatra symbolises the bawdy and excessively luxurious nature of Egypt, and this is shown by her marked contrast to Octavia.

Shakespeare would have expected his audience to have some background knowledge of the play, most probably through his own Julius Caesar. In this play Antony is regarded as the finest of men; he is a brave warrior, who is honourable to his friend, to his Caesar and to his country. He puts wrongs right and is gracious in victory. In Antony and Cleopatra his character is portrayed as changing, and it seems the more time he spends in Egypt, the more he becomes “the Triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpets fool”. Antony loses the battle of Actium due to a strategic error, fighting by sea instead of land. This shows him to be losing his ability as a great military general, owing to the influence of Cleopatra. When he was in Rome he was a successful military tactician, but the distractions of Egypt has caused him to lose his touch, and has weakened his powers.

Antony’s situation in the play is similar to those who eat the Lotus fruit in Homer’s Odyssey. He has bitten the fruit of pleasure in Egypt, and forgotten all about his homeland of Rome. Like those who ate the lotus fruit, it has been the cause of his downfall, as he neglects his work in Rome for pleasure in Egypt. Shakespeare is showing us that though love, passion and abandonment have their attractions, but they also have a tragic consequences.

At the end of the play as Antony and Cleopatra both commit suicide. While Cleopatra’s death is symbolically romantic, Antony cuts a pathetic figure in death. There is a great sense of waste at the end of the tragedy, as a great man has come to nothing because he abandoned his sense and reason for the luxuries of Egypt.

Throughout Antony and Cleopatra there is a sharp contrast between the bawdy humour and entertainment of the east and the stern morality and politics of the West. This is best seen in Antony’s downfall; his death is caused by a romantic but illogical attempt at conquering Rome, and the battle of Actium shows the decadent Egypt destroyed and the sensible Rome victorious. In Rome Antony was at his best as a man a soldier and a statesmen, whereas as Antony says “in the East my pleasure lies”, as does his downfall.


Antony & Cleopatra,                               William Shakespeare
Edited by Emrys Jones
New Penguin Shakespeare Edition

York Notes Advanced, Antony And Cleopatra          Robin Sowerby

Mastering English Literature                         Richard Gill                              Ruebel

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"Anthony and Cleopatra." 29 Nov 2015

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