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 Norths history although some characters such as Enobarbus are largely Shakespeares 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 Cleopatras 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 Antonys 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). Caesars condemnation of Antonys 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. Cleopatras 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 Cleopatras 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(2.2.225245). 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 (2.2.132133). In this way the women of the play are given the responsibility for the mens 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