The play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, first performed in 1606, deals at its core with the interaction between the opposing nations of Rome and Egypt, which allows the setting to set the tone for the play and players. The entire play may be seen as an interaction not between individuals but personifications of cultures and locations, with characters speaking as representative prototypes of their region, particularly since the play is a tragedy of important political figures who represent their nations not only in that they typify it but also that they act and speak on its behalf in their capacity as rulers. This interaction of cultures is thus, arguably, more intrinsically important to the themes and ideas of the play than its characters even, with the characters merely exemplifying the land. The above quoted line proves interesting to keep in mind when examining this cultural and locational relationship.
Where Egypt is characterised by the decadence of both its landscape and people, along with its naturalness, Rome is presented in contrast as a cool and level-headed place, where political concerns and bureaucracy organise the action, and where reason rules the people as well as the republic. Cleopatra speaks of Antony having had “a Roman thought.” (Act I scene ii), bringing this idea out. Rome and Egypt are seen to be representative of the protagonists’ respective political power, but in their love for one another are seen to no longer care about political power and, by extension, their country. They become callous to their people’s needs and to their own responsibility over the course of the play, with phrases such as “Let Rome into Tiber melt” (Antony, Act I scene i) and “Melt Egypt into Nile!” (Cleopatra, Act II scene v).
The image of melting is taken further when Antony proclaims “Authority melts from me.” (Act III scene xiii), reflecting the changing image of Antony, who is no longer seen as an epitomised ‘Roman’ figure. Cleopatra’s remaining the sensual, emotive Egyptian while Antony no longer conforms to his Roman identity could be indicative of his having become Alexandrian. Where Egypt is characterised by the decadence of both its landscape and people, along with its naturalness, Rome is presented in contrast as a cool and level-headed place, where political concerns organise the action and reason rules the republic. Cleopatra’s comment on Antony’s “Roman thought” depicts here the connotations that come with Rome. Antony’s fall at the end further is due to his loss of place, which makes him lose his self and his identity. He remains no longer the Roman embodiment of masculinity, which may in part be due to the influence of Cleopatra.
Antony becomes like part of East, and is seen to be of Egypt. He professes this himself too, upon his marriage to Octavius Caesar’s sister Octavia, “i’th’east my pleasure lies.” (Act II scene iii) He does not, however, entirely comply with Egypt ideals either. Similarly, Cleopatra can be described as being ‘consistently inconsistent’ much like the settings, which are dispersed and erratic, with the play taking place in various locations across the Roman Empire. Cleopatra’s keeping Antony guessing by remaining unfixed, in order to hold onto not only his affections but also her own political power and sovereignty in Egypt, as with her previous lover, Julius Caesar, is in part a power ploy. Their interaction (as embodiments of Rome and Egypt) can thus be considered as an interaction between Rome and Egypt themselves. The characters are therefore ruled on two levels: that of natural passions (coming from Egyptian life) and reason and order (of Roman austerity).
Also seen in the play is the depiction of Egypt as a pastoral, happier place. Unlike most pastorals however, it is not merely presented as a convenient place to escape momentarily from Rome. Rather, it is taken seriously, unlike in comedies such as the forest of Arden in As You Like It (first performed in 1603). Further, Rome is looked upon as the masculine binary opposite to Egypt. As critic Coppelia Kahn says, the
“description of the Roman virtues as ‘soldierly, severe, self-controlled, disciplined’ […] makes Roman virtue almost synonymous with masculinity.”
Kahn further discusses the etymology of ‘virtus,’ which is gender-specific. When, in Coriolanus, first performed 1609, Cominius declares, “It is held/ That valour is the chiefest virtue and/ Most dignifies the haver” (Coriolanus, Act II, scene ii. Lines 83–85), Shakespeare plays on the derivation of virtue from virtus, in its turn derived from vir- Latin for man. Thus Roman virtue is a marker of sexual difference crucial to construction of the male subject- the Roman hero. Even though Shakespeare’s Romans were women as well as men (Lucrece, Lavinia, Portia, Calphurnia, Octavia, Volumnia are all women) Romanness is thought of as male and is “closely linked to an ideology of masculinity.” Samuel Johnson, in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765), says,
“His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men.”
This works in opposition to the idea of wounds, the Latin word for which is ‘vulnus,’ the root of ‘vulnerability.’ Wounds thus mark a kind of vulnerability associated with women. This is negated by Shakespeare however, as wounds are central to the Roman masculine body. In Julius Caesar, first performed 1599, Caesar’s punctured body is the feminized object through which the conspirators try to restore their manly virtue as citizens of the republic. When Antony reaches “the very heart of loss” at Actium, his voluntary wound signifies not his defeat at Caesar’s hands, but rather his conquest over Caesar. This presents a problematic, self-cancelling figuration of masculinity in the Roman works, which allows the reader or audience to see the opposition between Rome and Egypt in a Manichean view, displaying everything in contrasting, extreme terms of black or white, divided between Rome and Egypt and therefore masculinity and femininity.
That the settings mirror each other so is a device that allows interpretation of the characters’ actions. Values, morals, and meanings change with each setting, helping us understand Antony’s struggles or Cleopatra’s judgments. The contrasting regions keep the reader or audience engaged as Cleopatra’s temperament does Antony. The audience in a similar way is kept from boredom with one setting. The regions also provide a lens of interpretation that depends on regional values and differences; that is, a culture gap. Egypt is seen here as a cultural other to Rome, and vice-versa. The love for Cleopatra is thus seen by some as merely fetishism, due to Antony’s being enamoured by her lifestyle and exotic decadence. Further, although Rome too is an other to Egypt, it is seen to be in a superior position since it holds both the political as well as the narrative upper hand.
Coppelia Kahn comments on this as well, saying that the founding of Britain was connected in English chronicle histories to that of Rome through Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas, founder of Rome. In relation to Renaissance England, “Rome was as much a cultural parent” as Egypt a cultural other. She further says that “Romanness is anglicised.” Particularly in Antony and Cleopatra, there is no strangeness attached to Rome and it is thus not seen as a cultural other. There is a sense of familiarity due to the use of memorable characters, such as from Julius Caesar. The English identification with Romanness was taught in schools, with Erasmus’s treatise De Ratione Studii (1518) guiding the curriculum of grammar schools, specifying a certain sequence of Latin authors imitated word for word. By comparing their diction and syntax with that of Terence or Cicero, students were drilled to imitate their Latin models.
Rome’s superiority can also be seen reflected in the play with the fall at the end of Antony and Cleopatra, both inextricably tied to Egypt, whereas Rome and Roman characters triumph. This thought of one culture as superior to another leads to imperialism, as in Othello (performed 1604) where cultural difference makes the eponymous protagonist not relatable, and thus distrustful. In Antony and Cleopatra, this manifests as an imperial fantasy, in that the cultural other can only be tamed or controlled when it is fantasised about. The voyeuristic view Enobarbus presents is part of this fantasy that constructs the other in a certain way, a notion central to racism.
The other is also presented necessarily as simultaneously distant and close. It is distant in terms of being viewed as an ‘other,’ something savage or uncivilised, and in need of taming. Cleopatra is viewed as being sexually out of control, using sexuality beyond the bounds prescribed by Roman (masculine) authority. This is similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath from his The Canterbury Tales (posthumously published in 1475), who was considered licentious and lustful merely because she did not comply with the expected norms. Further, the ‘imperial fantasy’ must be close as well since if one regards the other in only a distant way, it leads to an emasculation of the self and therefore must attempt to achieve possession of the foreign ‘object.’ The oriental is thus exoticised, and looked upon as hyper-sexual, much like Othello was, as an African man. Oriental men may also be seen as less than masculine due to the supposed effeminacy of their culture, while their lust (seen as sanctioned by their culture and religion) made them exceed the norms of civilised masculinity. A connotation of bestiality comes up with both the excess and lack.
As Ania Loomba explains in her essay ‘Shakespeare and Cultural Difference,’ from Terry Hawkes’s Alternative Shakespeares (1996), like Othello, Cleopatra is framed by a discourse of non-European devilry and libidinousness. She is an “enchanting queen” (Act I, scene ii) and in her person ‘witchcraft’ can “join with beauty, lust with both” (Act II, scene i). Though not Turkish, her representation is indebted to writings about Turks, who occupied Egypt at the time. Cleopatra can also be placed in a theatrical tradition of representing Eastern royalty, and within a set of plays preoccupied with the fragility of a European identity as well as with Christians ‘turning Turk.’ She is excess itself, charming and confounding her audience, exceeding their expectations and imaginations, she is “cunning past men’s thought.” Speech is an important part of this excess as Cleopatra not only speaks more than any other woman in Shakespeare, but also controls the speech of others. Even Antony is sometimes unable to break into her speech and get a word in. This rhetorical splendour reveals Othello’s and Cleopatra’s vulnerability to the antagonists; voices from Rome repeatedly seek to disrupt Cleopatra’s court and to reconstruct her, and Othello’s wordiness clashes with a competing vocabulary of difference in which his ‘thick lips’ become a marker of his distance from European civility, and through which he is reduced to one incapable of speech, “an old black ram.”
The sensuality of Eastern women repeatedly becomes the basis for predicting the downfall of empires. Loomba writes of Greville’s biography of Sir Philip Sidney, evoking “the Grand Signior asleep in his Seraglio; as having turned the ambition of that growing monarchy into idle lust; corrupted his martiall discipline.” These lines are echoed by the commentaries of various Romans on Antony’s downfall, with “he fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of the night in revel” (Act I, scene iv); he is the “ne’er-lust-wearied Antony” who cannot be plucked from “the lap of Egypt’s widow” (Act II, scene i). Further, Loomba suggests that
“in Shakespearean plays, and in Shakespeare’s day, intense liaisons with all women, not just non-European women, lead to the effeminization of men.”
Cleopatra’s hyper-sexualisation presents her almost as a man, who emasculates Antony. She even forces him to cross-dress, and does the same, putting her
“tires and mantles on him, whilst [she] wore his sword Philippan.”
(Act II scene v). This is made further interesting by the fact that the actor playing Cleopatra was a young boy (since women were forbidden from acting on the Elizabethan stage). Cleopatra’s wearing his sword is a reference that denotes her masculinisation is more ways than one, since the sword is considered to be a phallic symbol. Others comment on Antony’s feminisation at the hands of Cleopatra as well, as Enobarbus confuses Cleopatra for him. (Enobarbus: Quiet! Here comes Antony. / Chairman: Not he. The Queen.” Act I, scene ii.) The idea of cross-dressing comes up in the Greek myth of Hercules as well, and this is significant as Antony idolises this figure. Further, this was an incident where Hercules faced defeat (a rare occasion) and his subjugation was to a cultural other (as Antony’s was). He was enslaved by Amazonian queen Omphale, who took away his lion’s skin, dressing him in women’s clothes instead, and forced him to weave.
Similarly, Antony, under the influence of a woman so aggressive with her sexuality that she bears the power of a man, is feminised. Cleopatra is simultaneously masculinised (due to her extreme femininity) and presents herself as such, being a political figure as she is. A similar idea was brought out by Philip Sidney in his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (published 1591), where the narrator’s interaction with the queen as a court poet attempting to woo her for patronage is almost homosocial (as all his interactions in the court are) despite the ruler being a woman. The queen represents herself as masculine, as Cleopatra does, in order to be aptly revered as a female ruler in a patriarchal society. Though Cleopatra’s Egypt is feminine (and thus not patriarchal) she, too, feels the need to display a masculine image in order to exert power, due to her interactions with the homosocial Rome.
Critics have remarked that Cleopatra carries no trace of the Greek lineage of her historical or Plutarchan counterpart (though Plutarch supplied Shakespeare with the narratives for three out of five of his Roman plays: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus). She is “with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black” (Act I, scene v); she embodies Egyptian sorcery and magic; she is described in terms of Egyptian snakes and crocodiles; she is Egypt itself. The sexual tension between her and Antony is mapped onto the political, gendered tension between Orient and Occident, Egypt and imperial Rome. The reversal of gender roles is an expression thus of the threat she poses to Rome. Her cunning evokes the unmanageability of the East.
As Coppelia Kahn puts it, for modern readers,
“Rome is definitively ancient; historically and culturally distant from the modern moment, retrievable only with effort and special instruments.” Moreover, it is a possible historical orientation point for European civilisation. For the Renaissance as a whole, however, “Roman history was a discourse that one could not afford to ignore.”
Rome and Egypt are thus more than merely a setting for Antony and Cleopatra as a pair of famous lovers such as Aeneas and Dido from Virgil’s Aeneid (which is interestingly heavily based on the real-life Marc Antony and Cleopatra). A binary opposition exists through the Manichean ideology operating in the play and, further, the cultural distance has myriad effects on the reading of the play, as discussed in this essay. The play does, however, leave a question with this respect unanswered, for the audience to decipher: has Antony and Cleopatra’s love bridged the divide of regions in the play, or has their relationship proved that they cannot coexist?