English Language Essays - Antony and Cleopatra
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‘Antony must be in order to realise Cleopatra’s idealisation, on emperor Antony (J.L Simmonds).’ Agree or disagree with this statement that Cleopatra’s love for Antony is very much related to the power he holds.
Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is a play concerned with the conflict between passion and reason. Antony, the protagonist is a character torn between his sense of duty as part of the triumvirate and his desire to seek pleasure in the company of his wife, Cleopatra. Cleopatra has a great influence over Antony’s decisions and consequent actions, often forcing him to betray his status as an honorable Roman hero. The power that she holds over Antony’s choices is evident throughout the play, with the very first scene opening on the characters of Demetrius and Philo discussing the detrimental effects of Antony’s dotage on the political situation of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra’s love for Antony is obviously a powerful force, but how closely is the extent of her love related to the power that he holds as a member of the triumvirate?
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Historically, the play begins after the assassination of Julius Caesar that spurred on Marc Antony to kill Cassius and Brutus, an act which heralded him as a hero. Although it is clear that rumors are circulating when the play begins that Cleopatra is pulling Antony away from his responsibilities as a leader, he is still largely held in high esteem by the majority of people in the Roman Empire. Even Octavius, who later goes to battle against Antony, talks highly of him in regard to his heroic feats in the past. However, these heroic feats do seem to be firmly in the past – a part of Antony’s character that has been curbed by the passions and female wiles of Cleopatra. As a result, he is constantly in turmoil over his public and personal duties. His desire to be with Cleopatra frequently forces him to dismiss his more duties as a triumvir, ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall (I.i.35-36). Soon after expressing such a blatant disregard for the future of the Roman Empire, Antony questions his loyalties and vows to face up to his responsibilities, a decision that involves distancing himself from Cleopatra, ‘must from this enchanting queen break off’ (I.ii.117). Antony becomes trapped in this cycle of conflict in which Rome represents his duties as a Roman leader and hero, and Alexandria his desires related to passions and pleasure. His movement between the two areas enhances this symbolism.
Although Cleopatradoes appear to return Antony’s love, she also displays qualities ofmanipulation and demonstrates a theatrical nature throughout the play thatperhaps suggests other reasons for her partnership with Antony. Enobarbus,Antony’s loyal follower, notices these characteristics in Antony’s Egyptianwife and states that, ‘her beauty is soincomparable, her charms so strong that the vilest things / Become themselvesin her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish [sluttish] (II.ii.243-245).This suggests that she has a talent for transforming the ‘vilest things’ intothings of beauty, and for subverting whole systems of morality so that evenpriests alter their views of what is holy or sinful. Cleopatra is one ofShakespeare’s most powerful female characters and it seems only fitting thatshe should desire an equally powerful husband. In many ways, on Cleopatra’spart, her relationship with Antony seems more of a political alliance, withtheir intimacy always having public consequences outside of the private sphere.However, if Cleopatra aims to better herself through Antony then it is unclearwhy she flees the battle of Actium, forcing him to follow her and so concededefeat. On this and other occasions, Cleopatra’s actions and opinions havesuch an effect on his image as a powerful leader that he betrays the side ofhim that was known as a noble hero; unfortunately Antony realizes this a littletoo late, If I lose my honor, / I lose myself. Better I were not yours /Than yours so branchless (III.iv.22-24).If Cleopatra loves Antony only for the power he holds then it seems strangethat she would allow him to decline so far in status through his relationshipwith her.
Cleopatra seems to be largely preoccupied with theatricality and the power of the spectacle, a preoccupation that is also demonstrated by society as a whole at this time. The power of the spectacle has a great importance throughout the play and this is illustrated when Octavius Caesar complains to his sister Octavia about her lack of it; he believes that as the wife of Antony she ‘should have an army for an usher, and / The neighs of horse to tell of her approach / Long ere she did appear’ (III.vi.43-46). However, Octavia arrives to see Antony with no show and spectacle whatsoever, providing us with a female character who is the exact opposite of Cleopatra. In the eyes of Caesar the art of the spectacle is linked to power and therefore, the greater the display, the more substantial is the power that lies behind it, a belief that Cleopatra would evidently agree with. In this play, Shakespeare is very much concerned with displays of love that are in the public eye, an approach that differs from his previous tragedy which focused much more on personal turmoil displayed through soliloquies. As a result, Antony’s reconciliation with Cleopatra takes place off stage and the interactions that we do see between the pair largely take place in the public eye as grand performances. It is these spectacles that Cleopatra revels in, to the extent that her theatrical side even rears its head when Antony is dying. Instead of hanging on her lover’s every word, she merely tries to steal the limelight that should be left for his dying words, ‘No, let me speak, and let me rail so high / That the false hussy Fortune break her wheel, / Provoked by my offence’ (IV.xvi.43-47).
Antonytakes his own life because he cannot bear the thought of being seen as a failedleader and jilted lover. His identity has become far removed from the Antonythat slayed Cassius and Brutus and he is aware that this has happened as adirect result of Cleopatra’s influence. By killing himself he hopes tomaintain his status and the respect he previously received from the people ofthe Roman Empire. In the same way Cleopatra wants to be remembered on her ownterms and chooses to die rather than be paraded through the streets as a whore,by order of Caesar. This illustrates that Cleopatra may have deemed Antony’sstatus an important factor in the love she felt for him, as death only becomesa necessity for her when Dolabella reveals the fate that Caesar has in storefor her, not when she learns of Antony’s death. Any previous courting with theidea of death can easily be attributed to Cleopatra’s theatrical behaviour andlove of spectacle – it is only when she risks being presented in a way that shedoes not wish to be (‘I’ th’ posture of a whore’ V.ii.217), that she finallybecomes proactive and takes her own life. She loses all thought of Antony inher quest to secure a kind of nobility worthy of a Roman hero, ‘I ammarble-constant. Now the fleeting moon / No planet is of mine’ (V.ii235-236).Like Antony, she aims to retain her power and in death she is able to remainher truest and most uncompromised self.
Shakespeareportrays Cleopatra as a powerful historical figure who is more than capable ofasserting herself. Having previously seduced the great leader, Julius Caesar,it is clear that Cleopatra is passionately drawn to equally powerful men, andthe ease with which she is prepared to betray Antony suggests that real loveperhaps holds less significance for her, or at the very least, is secondary toher quest for partnering a powerful figure. Women in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’are portrayed as extremely influential over the male sex. Shakespeare presentsthe audience with two very different influences that men in the play believewoman to have. Firstly, there is the destructive influence displayed byCleopatra which leads to the hopeless downfall of men, and secondly, the more positive,nurturing, primarily passive influence as illustrated by Octavia. Caesar hopesthat by marrying Antony, his sister will be able to smooth over the conflictsin the triumvirate. Both influences that a woman can have seem to be linked tomale power, either aiding political progression or creating chaos in the publicsphere. It seems that while Cleopatra is drawn to Antony’s power, the effectsof her passionate character and feminine qualities will ultimately be thedownfall of a powerful man. Alexandria, the symbol of passion and desireexerts too tight a grip on Antony for him to maintain the power that Cleopatraloves in him and craves for herself.
The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt (Oxford University Press, 1997)
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