The opening scenes of Antony and Cleopatra establish the basic conflict of the play. Soldierly duty is squarely placed opposite the satisfactions—both physical and emotional—of sexual involvement. The Roman soldiers see Antony as 'a strumpet's fool' (1.1.13), but Antony envisions finding a 'new heaven, new earth' (1.1.17) in the experience of love. Antony refuses to acknowledge the call of duty represented by messages from Rome, and stresses the conflict of the play when he declares, 'Now for the love of Love, and her soft hours, / Let's not confound the time with conference harsh' (1.1.44-45). But when he learns, in 1.2, of a successful revolt against the Roman power he is supposed to be defending, Antony realises that his honor demands that he 'must from this enchanting queen break off (1.2.125). He returns to Rome but he can only leave Cleopatra with difficulty. He compromises his sense of duty by telling her he is her 'soldier, servant, making peace or war, / As thou affects' (1.3.70-71), before he wrenches himself away. In 1.4 a purely Roman view of the situation is presented as Caesar and Lepidus regret Antony's neglect of his duty, even as he is returning to Rome.
Thus Shakespeare efficiently establishes the dramatic action of Acts 1-4 of the play: Antony wavers between his Roman heritage of military rigor and his attraction to the 'soft hours' of indolence and lust. Thus, the emotional centre of the work fluctuates between the too-demanding rigors of Roman power and the too-seductive delights of Egyptian luxury, finally escaping to an immortal world created in the imaginations of the lovers—a paradise 'Where souls do couch on flowers' (4.14.51). In Act 5, after Antony's death, Cleopatra, in a striking transformation that constitutes one of Shakespeare's greatest climaxes, raises the lovers' relationship to the level of transcendent love. But the focus returns to Rome's 'great solemnity' (5.2.364), in the play's final words. Even as love triumphs, the final victory of Rome is affirmed in Caesar's closing speech as he translates the tale into a mundane memorial. Shakespeare does not permit the basic conflict, which extends throughout the play, to be overridden by a clearly stated declaration of values.
The fine balance achieved between the values of Rome and Egypt has led to differing interpretations of Shakespeare's play. Antony and Cleopatra has been seen on one hand as a romance on the transcendence over the mundane, and on the other as a lesson against neglect of duty; as an exaltation of love and as a rejection of lust. Antony has been seen as a sordid politician who is transfigured by the love of Cleopatra, a courtesan who is similarly transformed. He has also been seen as a fool who sacrifices his nobility to sensual gratification—in more modern terms, a weak individual who indulges in pleasure to escape reality. The play seems to offer no definite conclusion as to the priority of duty or sensuality. This ambiguity has sometimes led to the classification of Antony and Cleopatra among the Problem Plays, works with disturbingly unresolved attitudes towards issues of love and sex in public contexts.
However, Shakespeare does provide a resolution; it is simply twofold. Social discipline and order—as seen in the order of Caesar's Rome—is presented as a necessary element for society's health and spiritual development. On the other hand, the lovers' fate—paralleled by that of Enobarbus—brings about an awareness of a different level of fulfillment; for the individual, love is more important than political or material success. When love is opposed by the forces of conventional society, as here, its pursuit can result in an intense realization of self, which is what happens to Cleopatra in Act 5. Thus, the transfiguration of Cleopatra is not invalidated by Caesar's final triumph because the two climaxes exist in different worlds and point to equally potent. but separate resolutions.
After Antony's death in Act 4 the conflict is seen in the opposition of Cleopatra and Caesar—Egypt and Rome, love and duty—and Caesar's victory is stressed in the play's final lines. The virtue of his triumph is made quite plain: Caesar declares as his victory approaches, 'The time of universal peace is near' (4.6.5), a statement that unmistakably refers—though the character is unaware of it—to the imminent coming of Christ. As Shakespeare's original audiences were completely aware, Caesar will found the Roman Empire, which was seen in the 17th century as not only a highlight of history, but as a secular manifestation of the will of God, provided as preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
Although Caesar's victory is thus clearly intended as a genuine resolution and a statement that the tragedy has not been a waste of human potential, his triumph cannot be total. The world of conflicting values that undid the lovers—the world in which Caesar operates—is clearly transcended in Cleopatra's final moments. The lovers, with their jealous quarrels and seeming betrayals, their separations and deceptions, are distinctly of the 'dungy earth' that Antony contrasts to 'the nobleness of life' (1.1.35, 36), but they have the capacity to transcend themselves. Cleopatra's extraordinary vitality leads them beyond death to the 'new heaven, new earth' (1.1.17) that Antony has envisioned. So there are two triumphs: that of Rome, which requires personal sacrifice in the name of the greater good of the world, and that of the lovers, in which individual happiness—particularly as expressed in sexual love—takes precedence over the demands of society.
Cleopatra's ultimate transfiguration cannot be dominated by Caesar's soldiers, and thus the final triumph is that of the individual's aspiration towards transcendence. Cleopatra's vision of reunion with Antony in death is sheer poetry; as such, it can have no effect on the practical, prosaic world of empire building. Her seeming defeat is actually a triumphant assertion of the continuing value of what might have been and what should be. She can, indeed, 'show the cinders of [her] spirits/Through the ashes of [her] chance' (5.2.172-173). The superiority of the individual imagination over the power of government is stressed, even as the necessities of society maintain their dominance in the real world.
The contrasting elements—power and politics versus pleasure and passion—are mingled and opposed throughout the drama. The political and military developments—first Pompey's rebellion against the Triumvirate and then Caesar's push for sole power—point up the fact that whatever the lovers do has repercussions in the great world, and, conversely, events in the political realm determine their fate. One of the ways in which Shakespeare maintains an even balance between these different worlds is by suppressing the more spectacular aspects of the military situation. The play's two battles occur almost entirely offstage—necessarily so in the case of Actium, a naval battle, but also in Act 4's ground combat—with only glimpses of marching soldiers provided. In fact, the play's only violence is the two suicides. Thus, the love affair is not overwhelmed by the spectacle of clashing powers dividing the known world.
Cleopatra and Antony are not in any sense public figures victimized by the loss of private happiness; their love depends on the political situation that finally destroys them. They value their positions as world figures, and their affection is grounded in this appreciation. Antony promises Cleopatra that he will provide 'Her opulent throne with kingdoms' (1.5.46), and she envisions him as 'an Emperor Antony' (5.2.76). In fact, on his return to Egypt, his gift to her is a political act; as Caesar—who regards the act as a cause of war—observes, Antony 'gave [her] the stablishment of Egypt, made her / Of Lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, / Absolute queen' (3.6.9-11). Antony knows that Cleopatra loves power and he delights in giving it to her. But love influences politics as much as politics influences love, and Antony places his power in jeopardy by using it in this way.
The merciless entanglements of power and politics are thus contrasted with the possibility of private withdrawal into sensual pleasure. The aggressive manipulation of society as represented by the armies and ethics of martial Rome has always served an evident social purpose. The nurturing of the individual is an equally pervasive need; it is illustrated extravagantly in the luxuriant court of the Egyptian queen. Antony is absolutely human in his need for both aspects of life; he stands between two principles and he cannot fully reject either. In this lies his grandeur as a tragic hero.
Just as the political world of Rome is both potentially good and a source of tragedy, so love has two aspects, being a manifestation of the life force but also a stimulus towards self-destruction. In the latter mode love demands the renunciation of life, but in the former it glories in life. In this respect, though Antony and Cleopatra is unquestionably a Tragedy, it displays some of the features of a Comedy. The structure of the play resembles that of traditional comedy, with Rome and Egypt being similar to the court and the forest of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, or to Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice. Moreover, comedy traditionally ended in a marriage, typically arranged through the wiles of the leading female character, and Antony and Cleopatra closes on a significant reference when Cleopatra, about to die, cries out •Husband, I come' (5.2.286). Not for nothing are the asps provided by the Clown, a traditional comic rustic.
Further, the comedy of the Clown is only one instance of a feature displayed elsewhere in the play: Antony and Cleopatra is often quite funny. In 1.1 Cleopatra's baiting of Antony is humorous, as is her anecdote of dressing her drunken lover in her clothes, in2.5.19-23. Indeed, in one aspect Antony and Cleopatra embody another ancient comic tradition, that of the infatuated old man enthralled by a scheming young woman. In 1.2 we see an example of the hilarity of Egyptian court pastimes, and in 1.5 the queen jests about the sexlessness of her eunuch, Mardian. Cleopatra's mistreatment of the hapless Messenger (2.5.61-74, 106) may not strike modern audiences as particularly amusing, but such treatment of servants was another traditional comic routine, at least as old as Roman Drama (compare its use by Shakespeare in The Comedy a/Errors). The bluff old soldier Enobarbus is at times a quite comical figure, especially when he mocks Lepidus in 2.7 and 3.2. In the former scene Lepidus also assumes a conventional comic role, that of the foolish drunk—a character type in Shakespeare's time that is still seen today. After 3.2 as the political plot comes to fruition and Antony goes down to defeat, the comedy disappears; its re-emergence in 5.2 in the person of the Clown is all the more effective.
The comic aspects of the play point to Antony and Cleopatra's place in the evolution of Shakespeare's work, for the tragic vision of King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth is here modified by elements from the earlier romantic comedies. The comedies always displayed a potential for tragedy—in the possible success of evil—that was forestalled by the forces of love. In Antony and Cleopatra this situation is reversed; tragedy is in the forefront, and the romantic comedy of love amid the Egyptian court remains in a distinctly secondary position. However, the spirit of comedy does recur at the close in support of the final transfiguration of Cleopatra. This treatment foreshadows the magical transcendence that is at the heart of the later Romances. The mingling of love and politics, lust and strategy, triumph and defeat characterizes Antony and Cleopatra. In its fusion of the mundane and the exalted—the 'dungy earth' (1.1.35) versus "fire, and air' (5.2.288)—Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most complex and rewarding of Shakespeare's plays.
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