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18/07/2018    

18/07

Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The play was performed first circa 1607 at the Blackfriars Theatre or the Globe Theatre by the King's Men. Its first appearance in print was in the Folio of 1623.

The plot is based on Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives and follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Sicilian revolt to Cleopatra's suicide during the Final War of the Roman Republic. The major antagonist is Octavius Caesar, one of Antony's fellow triumvirs of the Second Triumvirate and the first emperor of the Roman Empire. The tragedy is mainly set in Rome and Egypt and is characterized by swift shifts in geographical location and linguistic register as it alternates between sensual, imaginative Alexandria and a more pragmatic, austere Rome.

Many consider Shakespeare's Cleopatra, whom Enobarbus describes as having "infinite variety", as one of the most complex and fully developed female characters in the playwright's body of work. She is frequently vain and histrionic enough to provoke an audience almost to scorn; at the same time, Shakespeare invests her and Antony with tragic grandeur. These contradictory features have led to famously divided critical responses. It is difficult to classify Antony and Cleopatra as belonging to a single genre. It can be described as a history play (though it does not completely adhere to historical accounts), as a tragedy (though not completely in Aristotelian terms), as a comedy, as a romance, and according to some critics, such as McCarter, a problem play. All that can be said with certainty is that it is a Roman play, and perhaps even a sequel to another of Shakespeare's tragedies, Julius Caesar.

Antony and Cleopatra

Synopsis

Mark Antony - one of the triumvirs of the Roman Republic, along with Octavius and Lepidus - has neglected his soldierly duties after being beguiled by Egypt's Queen, Cleopatra. He ignores Rome's domestic problems, including the fact that his third wife Fulvia rebelled against Octavius and then died.

Octavius calls Antony back to Rome from Alexandria to help him fight against Sextus Pompey, Menecrates, and Menas, three notorious pirates of the Mediterranean. At Alexandria, Cleopatra begs Antony not to go, and though he repeatedly affirms his deep passionate love for her, he eventually leaves.

The triumvirs meet in Rome, where Antony and Octavius put to rest, for now, their disagreements. Octavius' general, Agrippa, suggests that Antony should marry Octavius's sister, Octavia, in order to cement the friendly bond between the two men. Antony accepts. Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus, though, knows that Octavia can never satisfy him after Cleopatra. In a famous passage, he describes Cleopatra's charms: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies."

A soothsayer warns Antony that he is sure to lose if he ever tries to fight Octavius.

In Egypt, Cleopatra learns of Antony's marriage to Octavia and takes furious revenge upon the messenger that brings her the news. She grows content only when her courtiers assure her that Octavia is homely: short, low-browed, round-faced and with bad hair.

Before battle, the triumvirs parley with Sextus Pompey, and offer him a truce. He can retain Sicily and Sardinia, but he must help them "rid the sea of pirates" and send them tributes. After some hesitation Sextus agrees. They engage in a drunken celebration on Sextus' galley, though the austere Octavius leaves early and sober from the party. Menas suggests to Sextus that he kill the three triumvirs and make himself ruler of the Roman Republic, but he refuses, finding it dishonourable. After Antony departs Rome for Athens, Octavius and Lepidus break their truce with Sextus and war against him. This is unapproved by Antony, and he is furious.

Antony returns to Alexandria and crowns Cleopatra and himself as rulers of Egypt and the eastern third of the Roman Republic (which was Antony's share as one of the triumvirs). He accuses Octavius of not giving him his fair share of Sextus' lands, and is angry that Lepidus, whom Octavius has imprisoned, is out of the triumvirate. Octavius agrees to the former demand, but otherwise is very displeased with what Antony has done.

Antony prepares to battle Octavius. Enobarbus urges Antony to fight on land, where he has the advantage, instead of by sea, where the navy of Octavius is lighter, more mobile and better manned. Antony refuses, since Octavius has dared him to fight at sea. Cleopatra pledges her fleet to aid Antony. However, during the Battle of Actium off the western coast of Greece, Cleopatra flees with her sixty ships, and Antony follows her, leaving his forces to ruin. Ashamed of what he has done for the love of Cleopatra, Antony reproaches her for making him a coward, but also sets this true and deep love above all else, saying "Give me a kiss; even this repays me."

Octavius sends a messenger to ask Cleopatra to give up Antony and come over to his side. She hesitates, and flirts with the messenger, when Antony walks in and angrily denounces her behavior. He sends the messenger to be whipped. Eventually, he forgives Cleopatra and pledges to fight another battle for her, this time on land.

On the eve of the battle, Antony's soldiers hear strange portents, which they interpret as the god Hercules abandoning his protection of Antony. Furthermore, Enobarbus, Antony's long-serving lieutenant, deserts him and goes over to Octavius' side. Rather than confiscating Enobarbus' goods, which Enobarbus did not take with him when he fled, Antony orders them to be sent to Enobarbus. Enobarbus is so overwhelmed by Antony's generosity, and so ashamed of his own disloyalty, that he dies from a broken heart.

Antony loses the battle as his troops desert en masse and he denounces Cleopatra: "This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me." He resolves to kill her for the treachery. Cleopatra decides that the only way to win back Antony's love is to send him word that she killed herself, dying with his name on her lips. She locks herself in her monument, and awaits Antony's return.

Her plan backfires: rather than rushing back in remorse to see the "dead" Cleopatra, Antony decides that his own life is no longer worth living. He begs one of his aides, Eros, to run him through with a sword, but Eros cannot bear to do it and kills himself. Antony admires Eros' courage and attempts to do the same, but only succeeds in wounding himself. In great pain, he learns that Cleopatra is indeed alive. He is hoisted up to her in her monument and dies in her arms.

Octavius goes to Cleopatra trying to persuade her to surrender. She angrily refuses since she can imagine nothing worse than being led in chains through the streets of Rome, proclaimed a villain for the ages. She imagines that "the quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us, and present / Our Alexandrian revels: Antony / Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore." This speech is full of dramatic irony, because in Shakespeare's time Cleopatra really was played by a "squeaking boy" and Shakespeare's play does depict Antony's drunken revels.

Cleopatra is betrayed and taken into custody by the Romans. She gives Octavius what she claims is a complete account of her wealth but is betrayed by her treasurer, who claims she is holding treasure back. Octavius reassures her that he is not interested in her wealth, but Dolabella warns her that he intends to parade her at his triumph.

Cleopatra kills herself using the venomous bite of an asp, imagining how she will meet Antony again in the afterlife. Her serving maids Iras and Charmian also die, Iras from heartbreak and Charmian from another asp. Octavius discovers the dead bodies and experiences conflicting emotions. Antony's and Cleopatra's deaths leave him free to become the first Roman Emperor, but he also feels some sympathy for them. He orders a public military funeral.

Sources

The principal source for the story is an English translation of Plutarch's "Life of Mark Antony," from the Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together. This translation, by Sir Thomas North, was first published in 1579. Many phrases in Shakespeare's play are taken directly from North, including Enobarbus' famous description of Cleopatra and her barge:

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This may be compared with North's text:

"Therefore when she was sent unto by diverse letters, both from Antonius himselfe, and also from his friends, she made so light of it and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained so set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the oares of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of musicke of flutes, howboyes cithernes, vials and such other instruments as they played upon the barge. And now for the person of her selfe: she was layed under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddesse Venus, commonly drawn in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretie fair boys apparelled as painters do set foorth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her."

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However, Shakespeare also adds scenes, including many portraying Cleopatra's domestic life, and the role of Enobarbus is greatly developed. Historical facts are also changed: in Plutarch, Antony's final defeat was many weeks after the Battle of Actium, and Octavia lived with Antony for several years and bore him two children: Antonia Major, paternal grandmother of the Emperor Nero and maternal grandmother of the Empress Valeria Messalina, and Antonia Minor, the sister-in-law of the Emperor Tiberius, mother of the Emperor Claudius, and paternal grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger.

Date and text

Many scholars believe it was written in 1606-07, although some researchers have argued for an earlier dating, around 1603-04. Antony and Cleopatra was entered in the Stationers' Register (an early form of copyright for printed works) in May 1608, but it does not seem to have been actually printed until the publication of the First Folio in 1623. The Folio is therefore the only authoritative text we have today. Some scholars speculate that it derives from Shakespeare's own draft, or "foul papers", since it contains minor errors in speech labels and stage directions that are thought to be characteristic of the author in the process of composition.

Modern editions divide the play into a conventional five-act structure, but as in most of his earlier plays, Shakespeare did not create these act divisions. His play is articulated in forty separate "scenes", more than he used for any other play. Even the word "scenes" may be inappropriate as a description, as the scene changes are often very fluid, almost montage-like. The large number of scenes is necessary because the action frequently switches between Alexandria, Italy, Messina in Sicily, Syria, Athens, and other parts of Egypt and the Roman Republic. The play contains thirty-four speaking characters, fairly typical for a Shakespeare play on such an epic scale.

Classical allusions and analogues: Dido and Aeneas from Virgil's Aeneid

Many critics have noted the strong influence of Virgil's first-century Roman epic poem, the Aeneid, on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Such influence should be expected, given the prevalence of allusions to Virgil in the Renaissance culture in which Shakespeare was educated. Moreover, as is well-known, the historical Antony and Cleopatra were the prototypes and antitypes for Virgil's Dido and Aeneas: Dido, ruler of the north African city of Carthage, tempts Aeneas, the legendary exemplar of Roman pietas, to forego his task of founding Rome after the fall of Troy. The fictional Aeneas dutifully resists Dido's temptation and abandons her to forge on to Italy, placing political destiny before romantic love, in stark contrast to Antony, who puts passionate love of his own Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, before duty to Rome. Given the well-established traditional connections between the fictional Dido and Aeneas and the historical Antony and Cleopatra, it is no surprise that Shakespeare includes numerous allusions to Virgil's epic in his historical tragedy. As Janet Adelman observes, "almost all the central elements in Antony and Cleopatra are to be found in the Aeneid: the opposing values of Rome and a foreign passion; the political necessity of a passionless Roman marriage; the concept of an afterlife in which the passionate lovers meet." However, as Heather James argues, Shakespeare's allusions to Virgil's Dido and Aeneas are far from slavish imitations. James emphasizes the various ways in which Shakespeare's play subverts the ideology of the Virgilian tradition; one such instance of this subversion is Cleopatra's dream of Antony in Act 5 ("I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony" [5.2.75]). James argues that in her extended description of this dream, Cleopatra "reconstructs the heroic masculinity of an Antony whose identity has been fragmented and scattered by Roman opinion." This politically charged dream vision is just one example of the way that Shakespeare's story destabilises and potentially critiques the Roman ideology inherited from Virgil's epic and embodied in the mythic Roman ancestor Aeneas.

Critical history: changing views of Cleopatra

Cleopatra, being the complex figure that she is, has faced a variety of interpretations of character throughout history. Perhaps the most famous dichotomy is that of the manipulative seductress versus the skilled leader. Examining the critical history of the character of Cleopatra reveals that intellectuals of the 19th century and the early 20th century viewed her as merely an object of sexuality that could be understood and diminished rather than an imposing force with great poise and capacity for leadership.

This phenomenon is illustrated by the famous poet T.S. Eliot's take on Cleopatra. He saw her as "no wielder of power," but rather that her "devouring sexuality...diminishes her power". His language and writings use images of darkness, desire, beauty, sensuality, and carnality to portray not a strong, powerful woman, but a temptress. Throughout his writing on Antony and Cleopatra, Eliot refers to Cleopatra as material rather than person. He frequently calls her "thing". T.S. Eliot conveys the view of early critical history on the character of Cleopatra.

Other scholars also discuss early critics' views of Cleopatra in relation to a serpent signifying "original sin". The symbol of the serpent "functions, at the symbolic level, as a means of her submission, the phallic appropriation of the queen's body (and the land it embodies) by Octavius and the empire". The serpent, because it represents temptation, sin, and feminine weakness, is used by 19th and early 20th century critics to undermine Cleopatra's political authority and to emphasise the image of Cleopatra as manipulative seductress.

The postmodern view of Cleopatra is complex. Doris Adler suggests that, in a postmodern philosophical sense, we cannot begin to grasp the character of Cleopatra because, "In a sense it is a distortion to consider Cleopatra at any moment apart from the entire cultural milieu that creates and consumes Antony and Cleopatra on stage. However the isolation and microscopic examination of a single aspect apart from its host environment is an effort to improve the understanding of the broader context. In similar fashion, the isolation and examination of the stage image of Cleopatra becomes an attempt to improve the understanding of the theatrical power of her infinite variety and the cultural treatment of that power." So, as a microcosm, Cleopatra can be understood within a postmodern context, as long as one understands that the purpose for the examination of this microcosm is to further one's own interpretation of the work as a whole. Author L.T. Fitz believes that it is not possible to derive a clear, postmodern view of Cleopatra due to the sexism that all critics bring with them when they review her intricate character. He states specifically, "Almost all critical approaches to this play have been coloured by the sexist assumptions the critics have brought with them to their reading." One seemingly anti-sexist viewpoint comes from Donald C. Freeman's articulations of the meaning and significance of the deaths of both Antony and Cleopatra at the end of the play. Freeman states, "We understand Antony as a grand failure because the container of his Romanness "dislimns": it can no longer outline and define him even to himself. Conversely, we understand Cleopatra at her death as the transcendent queen of "immortal longings" because the container of her mortality can no longer restrain her: unlike Antony, she never melts, but sublimates from her very earthly flesh to ethereal fire and air."

Some postmodern critics also believe that the view of Cleopatra is constantly shifting and can be interpreted in many new and sometimes exciting ways. Francesca T. Royster suggests that contemporary interpretations of Cleopatra consider her African-American traits: "Cleopatra has 'soul'--she provides the proof that there is a locatable black aesthetic transcendent of time and place."

These constant shifts in the perception of Cleopatra are well represented in a review of Estelle Parsons' adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra at the Interart Theatre in New York City. Arthur Holmberg surmises, "What had at first seemed like a desperate attempt to be chic in a trendy New York manner was, in fact, an ingenious way to characterise the differences between Antony's Rome and Cleopatra's Egypt. Most productions rely on rather predictable contrasts in costuming to imply the rigid discipline of the former and the languid self-indulgence of the latter. By exploiting ethnic differences in speech, gesture, and movement, Parsons rendered the clash between two opposing cultures not only contemporary but also poignant. In this setting, the white Egyptians represented a graceful and ancient aristocracy--well groomed, elegantly poised, and doomed. The Romans, upstarts from the West, lacked finesse and polish. But by sheer brute strength they would hold dominion over principalities and kingdoms." This assessment of the changing way in which Cleopatra is represented in modern adaptations of Shakespeare's play is yet another example of how the modern and postmodern view of Cleopatra is constantly evolving.

Cleopatra is a difficult character to pin down because there are multiple aspects of her personality that we occasionally get a glimpse of. However, the most dominant parts of her character seem to oscillate between a powerful ruler, a seductress, and a heroine of sorts. Power is one of Cleopatra's most dominant character traits and she uses it as a means of control. This thirst for control manifested itself through Cleopatra's initial seduction of Antony in which she was dressed as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and made quite a calculated entrance in order to capture his attention. This sexualised act extends itself into Cleopatra's role as a seductress because it was her courage and unapologetic manner that leaves people remembering her as a "grasping, licentious harlot". However, despite her "insatiable sexual passion" she was still using these relationships as part of a grander political scheme, once again revealing how dominant Cleopatra's desire was for power. Due to Cleopatra's close relationship with power, she seems to take on the role of a heroine because there is something in her passion and intelligence that intrigues others. She was an autonomous and confident ruler, sending a powerful message about the independence and strength of women. Cleopatra had quite a wide influence, and still continues to inspire, making her a heroine to many.

Structure: Egypt and Rome

The relationship between Egypt and Rome in Antony and Cleopatra is central to understanding the plot, as the dichotomy allows the reader to gain more insight into the characters, their relationships, and the ongoing events that occur throughout the play. Shakespeare emphasises the differences between the two nations with his use of language and literary devices, which also highlight the different characterizations of the two countries by their own inhabitants and visitors. Literary critics have also spent many years developing arguments concerning the "masculinity" of Rome and the Romans and the "femininity" of Egypt and the Egyptians. In traditional criticism of Antony and Cleopatra, "Rome has been characterised as a male world, presided over by the austere Caesar, and Egypt as a female domain, embodied by a Cleopatra who is seen to be as abundant, leaky, and changeable as the Nile". In such a reading, male and female, Rome and Egypt, reason and emotion, and austerity and leisure are treated as mutually exclusive binaries that all interrelate with one another. The straightforwardness of the binary between male Rome and female Egypt has been challenged in later 20th-century criticism of the play: "In the wake of feminist, poststructuralist, and cultural-materialist critiques of gender essentialism, most modern Shakespeare scholars are inclined to be far more skeptical about claims that Shakespeare possessed a unique insight into a timeless 'femininity'." As a result, critics have been much more likely in recent years to describe Cleopatra as a character that confuses or deconstructs gender than as a character that embodies the feminine.

Literary devices used to convey the differences between Rome and Egypt

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare uses several literary techniques to convey a deeper meaning about the differences between Rome and Egypt. One example of this is his schema of the container as suggested by critic Donald Freeman in his article, "The rack dislimns." In his article, Freeman suggests that the container is representative of the body and the overall theme of the play that "knowing is seeing." In literary terms a schema refers to a plan throughout the work, which means that Shakespeare had a set path for unveiling the meaning of the "container" to the audience within the play. An example of the body in reference to the container can be seen in the following passage:

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The lack of tolerance exerted by the hard-edged Roman military code allots to a general's dalliance is metaphorised as a container, a measuring cup that cannot hold the liquid of Antony's grand passion. Later we also see Antony's heart-container swells again because it "o'erflows the measure." For Antony, the container of the Rome-world is confining and a "measure," while the container of the Egypt-world is liberating, an ample domain where he can explore. The contrast between the two is expressed in two of the play's famous speeches:

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For Rome to "melt is for it to lose its defining shape, the boundary that contains its civic and military codes. This schema is important in understanding Antony's grand failure because the Roman container can no longer outline or define him--even to himself. Conversely we come to understand Cleopatra in that the container of her mortality can no longer restrain her. Unlike Antony whose container melts, she gains a sublimity being released into the air.

In her article "Roman World, Egyptian Earth", critic Mary Thomas Crane introduces another symbol throughout the play: The four elements. In general, characters associated with Egypt perceive their world composed of the Aristotelian elements, which are earth, wind, fire and water. For Aristotle these physical elements were the centre of the universe and appropriately Cleopatra heralds her coming death when she proclaims, "I am fire and air; my other elements/I give to baser life," (5.2.289-90). Romans, on the other hand, seem to have left behind that system, replacing it with a subjectivity separated from and overlooking the natural world and imagining itself as able to control it. These differing systems of thought and perception result in very different versions of nation and empire. Shakespeare's relatively positive representation of Egypt has sometimes been read as nostalgia for an heroic past. Because the Aristotelian elements were a declining theory in Shakespeare's time, it can also be read as nostalgia for a waning theory of the material world, the pre-seventeenth-century cosmos of elements and humours that rendered subject and world deeply interconnected and saturated with meaning. Thus this reflects the difference between the Egyptians who are interconnected with the elemental earth and the Romans in their dominating the hard-surfaced, impervious world.

Critics also suggest that the political attitudes of the main characters are an allegory for the political atmosphere of Shakespeare's time. According to Paul Lawrence Rose in his article "The Politics of Antony and Cleopatra", the views expressed in the play of "national solidarity, social order and strong rule" were familiar after the absolute monarchies of Henry VII and Henry VIII and the political disaster involving Mary Queen of Scots. Essentially the political themes throughout the play are reflective of the different models of rule during Shakespeare's time. The political attitudes of Antony, Caesar, and Cleopatra are all basic archetypes for the conflicting sixteenth-century views of kingship. Caesar is representative of the ideal king, who brings about the Pax Romana similar to the political peace established under the Tudors. His cold demeanour is representative of what the sixteenth century thought to be a side-effect of political genius Conversely, Antony's focus is on valour and chivalry, and Antony views the political power of victory as a by-product of both. Cleopatra's power has been described as "naked, hereditary, and despotic," and it is argued that she is reminiscent of Mary Tudor's reign--implying it is not coincidence that she brings about the "doom of Egypt." This is in part due to an emotional comparison in their rule. Cleopatra, who was emotionally invested in Antony, brought about the downfall of Egypt in her commitment to love, whereas Mary Tudor's emotional attachment to Catholicism fates her rule. The political implications within the play reflect on Shakespeare's England in its message that Impact is not a match for Reason.

The characterization of Rome and Egypt

Critics have often used the opposition between Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra to set forth defining characteristics of the various characters. While some characters are distinctly Egyptian, others are distinctly Roman, some are torn between the two, and still others attempt to remain neutral. Critic James Hirsh has stated that, "as a result, the play dramatises not two but four main figurative locales: Rome as it is perceived from a Roman point of view; Rome as it is perceived from an Egyptian point of view; Egypt as it is perceived form a Roman point of view; and Egypt as it is perceived from an Egyptian point of view."

Rome from the Roman perspective: According to Hirsh, Rome largely defines itself by its opposition to Egypt. Where Rome is viewed as structured, moral, mature, and essentially masculine, Egypt is the polar opposite; chaotic, immoral, immature, and feminine. In fact, even the distinction between masculine and feminine is a purely Roman idea which the Egyptians largely ignore. The Romans view the "world" as nothing more than something for them to conquer and control. They believe they are "impervious to environmental influence" and that they are not to be influenced and controlled by the world but vice versa.

Rome from the Egyptian perspective: The Egyptians view the Romans as boring, oppressive, strict and lacking in passion and creativity, preferring strict rules and regulations.

Egypt from the Egyptian perspective: The Egyptian World view reflects what Mary Floyd-Wilson has called geo-humoralism, or the belief that climate and other environmental factors shapes racial character. The Egyptians view themselves as deeply entwined with the natural "earth". Egypt is not a location for them to rule over, but an inextricable part of them. Cleopatra envisions herself as the embodiment of Egypt because she has been nurtured and moulded by the environment fed by "the dung, / the beggar's nurse and Caesar's" (5.2.7-8). They view life as more fluid and less structured allowing for creativity and passionate pursuits.

Egypt from the Roman perspective: The Romans view the Egyptians essentially as improper. Their passion for life is continuously viewed as irresponsible, indulgent, over-sexualised and disorderly. The Romans view Egypt as a distraction that can send even the best men off course. This is demonstrated in the following passage describing Antony.

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Ultimately the dichotomy between Rome and Egypt is used to distinguish two sets of conflicting values between two different locales. Yet, it goes beyond this division to show the conflicting sets of values not only between two cultures but within cultures, even within individuals. As John Gillies has argued "the 'orientalism' of Cleopatra's court--with its luxury, decadence, splendour, sensuality, appetite, effeminacy and eunuchs--seems a systematic inversion of the legendary Roman values of temperance, manliness, courage". While some characters fall completely into the category of Roman or Egyptian (Octavius as Roman, Cleopatra Egyptian) others, such as Antony, cannot chose between the two conflicting locales and cultures. Instead he oscillates between the two. In the beginning of the play Cleopatra calls attention to this saying

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This shows Antony's willingness to embrace the pleasures of Egyptian life, yet his tendency to still be drawn back into Roman thoughts and ideas.

Orientalism plays a very specific, and yet, nuanced role in the story of Antony and Cleopatra. A more specific term comes to mind, from Richmond Barbour, that of proto-orientalism, that is orientalism before the age of imperialism. This puts Antony and Cleopatra in an interesting period of time, one that existed before the West knew much about what would eventually be called the Orient, but still a time where it was known that there were lands beyond Europe. This allowed Shakespeare to use widespread assumptions about the "exotic" east with little academic recourse. It could be said that Antony and Cleopatra and their relationship represent the first meeting of the two cultures in a literary sense, and that this relationship would lay the foundation for the idea of Western superiority vs. Eastern inferiority. The case could also be made that at least in a literary sense, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra was some people's first exposure to an inter-racial relationship, and in a major way. This plays into the idea that Cleopatra has been made out to be an "other", with terms used to describe her like "gypsy". And it is this otherization that is at the heart of the piece itself, the idea that Antony, a man of Western origin and upbringing has coupled himself with the Eastern women, the stereotypical "other".

The changing views of critics regarding gender characterization of Egypt and Rome

Feminist criticism of Antony and Cleopatra has provided a more in-depth reading of the play, has challenged previous norms for criticism, and has opened a larger discussion of the characterization of Egypt and Rome. However, as Gayle Greene so aptly recognises, it must be addressed that "feminist criticism [of Shakespeare] is nearly as concerned with the biases of Shakespeare's interpretors [sic] - critics, directors, editors - as with Shakespeare himself."

Feminist scholars, in respect to Antony and Cleopatra, often examine Shakespeare's use of language when describing Rome and Egypt. Through his language, such scholars argue, he tends to characterise Rome as "masculine" and Egypt as "feminine." According to Gayle Greene, "the 'feminine' world of love and personal relationships is secondary to the 'masculine' world of war and politics, [and] has kept us from realizing that Cleopatra is the play's protagonist, and so skewed our perceptions of character, theme, and structure." The highlighting of these starkly contrasting qualities of the two backdrops of Antony and Cleopatra, in both Shakespeare's language and the words of critics, brings attention to the characterization of the title characters, since their respective countries are meant to represent and emphasise their attributes.

The feminine categorization of Egypt, and subsequently Cleopatra, was negatively portrayed throughout early criticism. The story of Antony and Cleopatra was often summarised as either "the fall of a great general, betrayed in his dotage by a treacherous strumpet, or else it can be viewed as a celebration of transcendental love." In both reduced summaries, Egypt and Cleopatra are presented as either the destruction of Antony's masculinity and greatness or as agents in a love story. Once the Women's Liberation Movement grew between the 1960s and 1980s, however, critics began to take a closer look at both Shakespeare's characterization of Egypt and Cleopatra and the work and opinions of other critics on the same matter.

Jonathan Gil Harris claims that the Egypt vs. Rome dichotomy many critics often adopt does not only represent a "gender polarity" but also a "gender hierarchy". Critical approaches to Antony and Cleopatra from the beginning of the 20th century mostly adopt a reading that places Rome as higher in the hierarchy than Egypt. Early critics like Georg Brandes presented Egypt as a lesser nation because of its lack of rigidity and structure and presented Cleopatra, negatively, as "the woman of women, quintessentiated Eve." Egypt and Cleopatra are both represented by Brandes as uncontrollable because of their connection with the Nile River and Cleopatra's "infinite variety" (2.2.236).

In more recent years, critics have taken a closer look at previous readings of Antony and Cleopatra and have found several aspects overlooked. Egypt was previously characterised as the nation of the feminine attributes of lust and desire while Rome was more controlled. However, Harris points out that Caesar and Antony both possess an uncontrollable desire for Egypt and Cleopatra: Caesar's is political while Antony's is personal. Harris further implies that Romans have an uncontrollable lust and desire for "what they do not or cannot have." For example, Antony only desires his wife Fulvia after she is dead:

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In this way, Harris is suggesting that Rome is no higher on any "gender hierarchy" than Egypt.

L. T. Fitz outwardly claims that early criticism of Antony and Cleopatra is "colored by the sexist assumptions the critics have brought with them to their reading." Fitz argues that previous criticisms place a heavy emphasis on Cleopatra's "wicked and manipulative" ways, which are further emphasised by her association with Egypt and her contrast to the "chaste and submissive" Roman Octavia. Finally, Fitz emphasises the tendency of early critics to assert that Antony is the sole protagonist of the play. This claim is apparent in Brandes argument: "when [Antony] perishes, a prey to the voluptuousness of the East, it seems as though Roman greatness and the Roman Republic expires with him." Yet Fitz points out that Antony dies in Act IV while Cleopatra (and therefore Egypt) is present throughout Act V until she commits suicide at the end and "would seem to fulfill at least the formal requirements of the tragic hero."

These criticisms are only a few examples of how the critical views of Egypt's "femininity" and Rome's "masculinity" have changed over time and how the development of feminist theory has helped in widening the discussion.

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