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In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare uses grand evocative imagery for a variety of reasons such as juxtaposing Rome against Egypt, and to add different dimensions to the main characters. Moreover, there are a few overriding themes throughout the play such as the exhibition of imperial affluence, notions of honour, and that of love. There is a constant assertion of the high stakes involved in the story, for it isn’t a simple tale of romance about ordinary men and women, but rather a story of two empires and the interrelations between its rulers, bearing far-reaching consequences from the personal to the political. As a result, the potent triumvir image is brought up from time to time, and ample cosmic allusions and analogies are evident in the play. However, at the same time, Shakespeare also seems to be hinting at how such larger-than-life royals too, were in the end, mere mortals suffering from their own sets of desires, insecurities and transgressions. This could be further interpreted as commentary upon the unfairness of a political system, wherein a few individuals decide the fate of entire populations based on their whims and fancies.
Scenes abound in Antony and Cleopatra that produce fantastical images of extreme extravagance and debauchery. While, it somewhat reinforces the previously discussed view of assertion of power, it also gives an insight into the mutual perceptions of the two civilizations, besides highlighting the natural fascination for the ‘other’. Thus, as powerful symbols, while Rome seems to stand for Occidental rationalism, Egypt signifies the mystique and supposed hedonistic barbarism of the Orient. On a separate note, further imperial analogies can be drawn here to the British colonization of India, as could be testified by Utilitarian and Orientalist writings of the time, such as those of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham.
Another major theme is that of liquefaction, as elaborated upon by AA Ansari in his essay, An Image of Liquefaction. As he indicates, the entire play consists of a gradual process of disintegration or ‘melting’ in the background, as the protagonists’ fortunes seem to fade over time. In the first scene itself, Shakespeare seems to be hinting at the same through Antony’s words, “Let Rome in Tiber melt” over its immediate context.
Through the course of the play, Shakespeare uses many classical references. The allegorical representation of Antony and Cleopatra as Mars and Venus is particularly insightful. These powerful symbols, in the form of the divine lovers of Roman mythology, provide a hyperbolic influence and add a certain preconceived grandeur unto the protagonists. By the analogy drawn to Mars, Antony is understood to be a great warrior gifted with machismo, as testified by his soldiers and even Caesar. Similarly, Cleopatra is seen to be the embodiment of magnificence, charm and indulgence in relation to the Goddess of love, beauty and fertility; instances to corroborate the same are riddled throughout the play.
In addition, the Nile is often brought up as a likeness to Cleopatra, since it is a common symbol for Egypt, and as seen in the play, rulers are often symbolically addressed as their empires to emphasize their supremacy. Another recurrent motif of the play is the serpent. There are quite a few references to snakes in diverse contexts, which could all in all, be consciously foreshadowing Cleopatra’s death. Also, there are abundant sexual overtones in the play, especially with regard to Cleopatra. Apart from being the subject of many a fantasy, she often brings up evocative and naughty images in her own rhetoric, for instance, when she gibes at Mardian’s virility.
This speech of Enobarbus is an epic eulogy to the splendour of Cleopatra, which apart from contextually reflecting upon the Roman fascination for Egypt, also shines forth due to the sheer glory and romance of the image evoked. It has been observed that Enobarbus, for most part, is the rational and objective voice of the play, which is of course, often the voice of the writer himself. Therefore, such an uninhibited and glorified account, when it comes from Enobarbus, is proved all the more effective in the reassertion of Cleopatra’s beauty and charm, for after all, in this particular scene, she is even claimed to have surpassed the image of Venus, besides captivating men and nature alike.
Highlighting the characteristic royal opulence by using vivid extravagant similes, metaphors and references, Enobarbus magnificently recreates the scene of Cleopatra’s first tryst with Antony at Cygnus, after which the entire drama ensues. Cleopatra’s charm is portrayed as sort of an all-encompassing entity, rubbing off on everyone and everything associated with her. The following lines particularly bear testament to the genius of William Shakespeare:
“Purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver, which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made the water which they beat to follow faster, as amorous of their strokes”
“Whistling to the air; which but for vacancy, had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too, and made a gap in nature”
It is both vain and unnecessary to extol the sheer aesthetic quality of the imagery in these lines. Rather, Mr. Ansari brings up an interesting point here – that even the elements of nature seem to have succumbed to Cleopatra’s pervasive charm. The four elements – earth, fire, water and air, were deemed of great philosophical importance at the time since they were believed to be the basic constituents of the world. Thus, through his skilled rhetoric, Shakespeare purports the idea of Cleopatra’s hold over these elements to further magnify her mystique.
“His legs bestrid the ocean…As plates dropp’d from his pocket”
Similar to the previous passage, this too is a rich eulogy; this time, voiced by Cleopatra regarding Antony – stressing upon his strength, valour, position and magnanimity. However, this is not a somewhat objective commentary as that of Enobarbus, but rather a woman’s fond ruminations about her dead lover. Consequently, Shakespeare paints a fabulous picture regarding Antony’s herculean stature through glorious allusions such as that to the statue of Colossus at Rhodes (a wonder of the ancient world). Antony’s honourable and generous character is further lauded by a comparison to bountiful autumn, and in the lines – “In his livery walk’d crowns and crownets: realms and islands were as plates dropp’d from his pocket”, Shakespeare evokes a towering image of excess and power to further validate his legend.
It must be noted that Antony too was aware of his own standing as shown in 4.14.57-59: “I, that with my sword quartr’d the world, and o’er green Neptune’s back with ships made cities” – this too is a fantastic image drawn, while coming from the horse’s mouth.
As a final affirmation, it is observed that even his rival, Caesar, praises Antony wittingly or unwittingly at various occasions. Caesar’s monologue at 1.4.60-71 seems to epitomize this dilemma and reveal his begrudging admiration for Antony. However, at the same time, the pervading ambivalence of the play forces more than one possible interpretation. On the one hand, it could be taken as genuine nostalgic respect for the man Antony once used to be, before falling for Cleopatra’s charms; but keeping in mind Caesar’s astute political intent, this could also be seen as an attempt to further contrast Antony against his past self, for the purpose of convincing Lepidus. Moreover, the kind of imagery Caesar evokes in his praise, is repulsively hyperbolic, and thus, it could even be a mere denigration of Antony, as suggested by RS Sharma in the essay, ‘Antony and Cleopatra: Character as Actant and Site:’
“Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving…With her prepared nails” (4.12.32-38).
Antony vents these vitriolic lines in the throes of defeat and passion, when he is convinced that Cleopatra had plotted against him. He creates a graphic scene of impending doom and ignominious prospects through the speculation of Caesar’s triumphal intentions. He finally tops the insult with the remarkable line, “And let patient Octavia plough thy visage up with her prepared nails”. As might be expected, Cleopatra is terrified of Antony’s tirade and flees from the scene. Therefore, at one level, this horrifically imminent vision could even be considered a catalyst to the plot, since it does play a certain part in inducing Cleopatra to kill herself. She herself echoes these fears to Iras by recreating the scene with elements of further mockery and degradation at 5.2.207-219.
The idea of such an ignoble future is obviously unsavoury to an empress, who would much rather die and be with her fallen Antony, in addition to being marked in history for thwarting Caesar’s plan. Both the lovers seemed to have firm belief in an afterlife where they shall be together, as can be seen in the fanciful lines at 4.14.50-54, and towards the conclusion of the play. This heartening optimism could be seen at par with the general faith of the times, especially in Egypt. As critics have stated, this also seems to give the story a somewhat bittersweet and hopeful ending, despite the tragic death of the lovers. The fact remains that whether Antony and Cleopatra were or were not reunited in some other world, they surely have been eternalized in this one.
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