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‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by William Shakespeare is a tragic play which centres around the renowned love affair of the eponymous characters and its political and personal repercussions. In Act One, Shakespeare uses both the distinction of time and place to portray the duality of Antony. The conflict within the protagonist is that between love and duty, fuelled by two separate internal forces: reason and emotion. It is this clash of Roman virtue and Egyptian vice that forms the core of the play. Inner conflict though it may be, as a prominent Roman general and statesman, it is in no way private; Antony’s personal pursuits are laid bare across kingdoms for others to judge, both primary and secondary characters playing a pivotal role in illuminating both sides to his character through their reflections and opinions.
Once the paragon of Roman virtue, Mark Antony was an indispensable soldier to Julius Caesar, proving his military competence in campaigns in Gaul and Germany. The protagonist the audience meets in Act One is not this man. It is no longer Rome and heroism which dominate his thought and character, but the Egyptian lover at his side, the messengers from Octavius posing an occasional reminder of the empire he seems to have left behind.
This new attitude is most strikingly expressed in the following words in the first scene, where he makes clear to Cleopatra that her love is now his primary concern:
“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall!”
Here, Antony’s indifference to the plight of Rome verges on treasonous, with the devastatingly attractive figure of Cleopatra casting a shadow over the needs of an empire and its people. The real sense of abandonment, of desertion in these lines serves to emphasise the depth and strength of Antony’s feeling; at this point in the Act, he is lost in and blinded by emotion, unfit for the responsibility of the statesman. A line is drawn between his past and former self, between the war hero and the lover.
In Act One, Shakespeare uses Roman characters as the primary mouthpiece for this form of distinction, with their reminiscence of the Antony of heroic battles gone-by portraying a different character to the one we initially see with Cleopatra in the Egyptian court.
In the opening scene of the play, the audience is informed of this significant change in Antony’s approach and priorities by Philo, a Roman soldier:
“His captain’s heart
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper”
Here, the audience finds itself in Antony’s present, looking back upon the legacy of a once heroic, acclaimed soldier. In these words, Shakespeare defines the two sides to Antony’s character in a sequential manner, marking a stark contrast between the man he was, and the man he is shown to be in Act 1. The use of past followed by present tense in these lines depicts the Roman perspective: Antony’s chronological decline.
The Romans seem to characterize ‘Antony’ as the man they used to witness, purely in terms of the ‘Roman’ qualities of honour, bravery and responsibility , with Philo remarking that ‘he is not Antony’ when he is Cleopatra’s lover in the Egyptian court.
No clearer is this chronological differentiation than in two speeches by Octavius in Act 1 Scene 4.
In the first speech, Octavius expresses his displeasure at Antony’s distance and neglect of Rome. He complains how Lepidus and himself ‘…do bear/So great weight in his lightness’, chastising Antony’s pursuit of pleasure and lust in the wake of threats to the Second Triumvirate by Pompey. In the latter speech, Octavius contrasts this character with the Antony he once admired; a man who was willing to ‘drink/The stale of horses’ to achieve victory for his empire.
Within Act One, Shakespeare uses the distinction of time to provide the audience with two sketches – of the side that was seen, and of the side which is seen now. Yet, the playwright presents duality rather than permanent, irreversible change. Where he uses chronology as a framework to illustrate the protagonist’s two sides, he does not indicate that Antony’s persona as soldier and statesman has completely given way to a new persona as lover and hedonist; instead, he presents a change in balance, in priority between the two. This ‘previous’ side to Antony is not lost – it is merely dormant: eclipsed by emotion.
This is indicated by the snippets of statesman we witness throughout the Act, when reason attempts to break through the ‘strong Egyptian fetters’ of his intoxicating infatuation. This is particularly apparent in his decision to leave Egypt for Rome at the end of Scene 2, having read of the death of his wife. He recognizes the effect of his fantastic, damaging affair with Cleopatra in the following words:
“Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch.”
These lines indicate that Antony is very much aware of the hold Cleopatra has over him, and the detrimental impact of this upon his role as Roman leader. He recognizes his own ‘idleness’ and this recognition renders him uneasy; he is not yet willing to relinquish all control to the Egyptian Queen and submit to a life of pure hedonism, bereft of all Roman responsibility.
The second prominent technique employed by Shakespeare in Act 1 to distinguish between and portray the two sides of Antony is setting. Antony’s head is rooted in Rome, but his heart lies in Alexandria. These two settings act not only as poles, pulling Antony from East to West and back again, but as portraits of his duality. Egypt not only fulfils his emotive, hedonistic side but represents it, while Rome embodies the rational attributes of Antony the statesman, the soldier.
In line with this distinction, Cleopatra describes how ‘A Roman thought hath struck’ Antony in Act 1 Scene 2, referring to him showing the qualities favoured by Rome and its leaders: reason and responsibility. These are qualities which contrast starkly with the surroundings in which Cleopatra speaks, with her servant having just expressed her desire ‘to be married to three kings in a forenoon and widow them all’.
Shakespeare’s tendency to use prose rather than verse in the Egyptian scenes is also indicative of a certain elasticity between the court’s characters. Conversely, the scene set in Rome maintains a rigid decasyllabic pattern; where dialogue in the East is often light and trivial, that in the West remains purposeful and solemn.
Of course, where populations can be affected by their geographical surroundings, civilisations – such as the great ancient Rome and Egypt – are human constructs, defined and shaped by the people who constitute them. As a result, it is not in the geographical settings themselves that Antony’s traits are actualized, but in the people who inhabit them. Geography is simply a device used to divide two groups of characters.
This is most evident in the characters who, in particular, embody and epitomize their respective civilisations: Cleopatra and Octavius.
It is through Octavius’ disparaging comments regarding Cleopatra and her lifestyle that Shakespeare reveals the importance of Antony’s duality – it is not purely difference, but disregard which creates such a striking antithesis. The outward tension between the two symbolic characters in turn reflects and explains Antony’s inner conflict; there is not just duality, but conflict at the heart of Antony’s character and the play as a whole. The two sides of Antony, as actualized in the characters of Rome and Egypt, inherently conflict and juxtapose each other; the dotage of a man who likes to ‘…wander through the streets and note/The qualities of the people’ can simply not befit a Roman general, for whom stoicism is both a virtue and a necessity.
To conclude, in Act One of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, Shakespeare uses two prominent devices to bring out the duality of the protagonist, Antony: time and place. Shakespeare uses chronology to separate and distinguish between the man devoted to a woman and the man devoted to an empire: Antony’s behaviour and speech in Act One depict his hedonism and pursuit of pleasure, and the historical snapshots provided by Roman characters capture the war hero of years gone-by. These two conflicting set of qualities are also embodied by the characters of Egypt and Rome, two locations whose differences extend far beyond geographical distance. However, where Shakespeare uses the two cultures to present duality in Antony, the audience’s perspective is fourfold. ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, as every play, is comprised of dialogue: we learn things through what people say. As a result, we do not view two dispassionate sketches, but the empires’ views of themselves and of one another. It is left to the audience to piece together their own accurate picture of these two civilisations.
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