Essentially Antony and Cleopatra is a story of power politics; its theme is not love but empire. Empire is clearly an important theme in Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Love is also a key theme within the play, and, perhaps, an even more central theme than empire. Yet, interestingly, the distinction between the two themes is not as absolute as it may at first appear. The Romans are absorbed in Empire. Scenes involving Rome and Romans are generally shorter and of a much quicker pace. This reflects the Roman’s preoccupation with business and action and their disinterest in much else.
These scenes are frequent to emphasise the influence that empire has upon the play. In addition, the word ‘world’ is mentioned approximately 45 times. The triumvirate, ‘[s]enators alone of this great world’, control the world. The frequency of the word’s use emphasises the greatness of the Roman Empire and its importance to the play. Furthermore, important plot developments stem from issues central to the Roman Empire: the competition for power, and the constant vying for control. Love, too, is a central theme.
Its importance is borne out through the title of the play, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Moreover, the ending of the play focuses on the pair and their downfall. The audience sees Cleopatra’s sensuous and gallant suicide, her means to ‘meet Mark Antony’, as an emotional climax of the play. Cleopatra is ‘buried by her Antony’ upon the orders of Caesar, a seemingly callous character. The extraordinary nature of the couple’s love for each other is reinforced for the audience by the recognition of their love by Caesar. However, what is at issue is what is ‘essentially’ the theme of the play.
Often, this is best judged by examining the plot and determining who, or what, triumphs. However, Shakespeare based a large amount of his play ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ on North’s version of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antony’ and thus, largely, the play is constrained by history. Therefore, rather than looking exclusively at events within the play, one must examine how Shakespeare encourages the audience to respond to events and characters. For the audience, the two emotional climaxes of the play are the deaths of Enobarbus and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra’s death partly arises from her love for Antony. Among Cleopatra’s last words are those of ‘O Antony! ‘ Before applying the asp, Cleopatra claims that she ‘thinks [she] hear[s] /Antony call[ing]. ‘ The audience feel that through the couple’s strength of love, Cleopatra will ‘come’ to her ‘husband’ and they will be re-united upon her imminent death. The audience also witness Antony and Cleopatra’s love for each other bringing out the best in them both, and inspiring their noble endings. Initially, empire is elevated above love.
In the opening lines Antony’s feelings towards Cleopatra are described as ‘dotage’ which ‘o’erflows the measure’. Cleopatra’s feelings for Antony are described as a ‘gipsy’s lust’. The imagery of heat used in association with Cleopatra and Egypt is utilised throughout the play. Empire, on the contrary is portrayed as a noble and highly important part of Roman life. The sense of duty and temperateness are central to empire. Further into the play, the audience gain a greater insight into the unattractiveness and pettiness of empire. When Silius, a nai??
ve questioner, asks why when Venitidius’ sword is still warm with Parthian blood, he will not advance further, Ventidius states he has ‘done enough’. Ventidius is loath to achieve any further success as, paradoxically, in achieving more, he will jeopardise his position. The Romans see themselves as a noble race that places its commitments to Rome above anything else. This is, however, clearly untrue. Ventidius places his own career ahead of the Roman Empire. Mark Antony and Caesar also neglect the interests of Rome; they do not want another soldier eclipsing their glory.
Ventidius is conscious of the fact that ‘when him we serve’s away’, a soldier must not achieve too much, because the triumvirs will be unable to take the credit for it themselves. Thus, despite the Roman world priding themselves on nobility, their Empire is a slight facade. This tawdriness is again emphasised by the Romans’ false allegiance to one another. Lepidus flatters his ‘noble friends’ and ‘noble partners’ so often; there is a strong suggestion that his words are not genuine.
Enobarbus and Agrippa confirm our doubts about Lepidus’ genuineness when they ridicule him describing ‘how he loves Caesar! ‘ and ‘adores Mark Antony! ‘ The other triumvirs, Antony and Caesar, also partake in this false allegiance. This is exposed when Agrippa suggests that Antony marries Caesar’s sister Octavia which will hold the two triumvirs in ‘perpetual amity’. Both triumvirs are willing to commit to temporary allegiance. Enobarbus suggests that if the two triumvirs simply ‘borrow one another’s love for the instant… [they] may… return it again’.
Antony’s unusual reprimand of Enobarbus, immediately telling him that he is ‘a soldier only’ shows his irritation at having his own lack of genuineness uncovered. Lepidus is not the only character who gives false allegiance to others; Caesar breaks bonds with both Antony and Lepidus. When Lepidus asks Caesar to ‘let [him] be partaker’ of any events involving the Roman Empire, Caesar says that he ‘[knows] it for [his] bond. ‘ However, later in the play, Caesar imprisons Lepidus and has him killed. Caesar manufactures charges against Lepidus, whom he tells Agrippa and Maecenas has ‘grown too cruel’, to justify his actions.
However, primarily, the audience sees Caesar as an attractive character that embodies the values of empire and even as an attractive character. At the beginning of the play, Caesar is the antithesis of Antony. Antony is devoted to his own pleasure whereas Caesar is devoted to duty and empire. Antony is an emotional character, both with Cleopatra and in battle. Caesar, on the contrary, is very rational. This contrast is shown through Antony’s agreement to fight at sea, despite the dangers, and Caesar’s refusal to fight soldier to soldier with Antony because of Antony’s greater skill in this area.
Caesar shows restrain and temperance while Antony shows lack of self-restraint. As the play progresses the audience gain more insight into how cold, calculating and ruthless Caesar has become, or always was. Caesar, following battle with Antony, tells Maecenas to ‘feast the army’ as they have ‘store to do’t /And they have earned the waste. ‘ He will only feast his army in triumph and even then, only on the surplus food. Caesar’s begrudging and intolerant character is shown to be worse when he moves against both Antony and Lepidus.