How does Shakespeare create this sense of distance and power in the play? Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a clash of cultural values in the union of a fine Roman general and a sultry Egyptian queen. Whilst it purports to being a tragic love story, the play traverses the ancient world in an important survey of a twelve-year history that determines the fate of two empires – a history that seals the demise of Roman republicanism, and decisively shifts the balance of Mediterranean power from East to West.
Written ten years before Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra portrays actual events and persons from Roman history, but also embodies the love story of the two title characters. For the historical background, plot and intimate details of the affair between Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare drew upon the work of the ancient Roman historian Plutarch. However, Shakespeare transformed the play into his own personal masterpiece by portraying the power over distance that the relationship of the two protagonists exerts, and this sense of power over vast geographical space is a fundamental aspect of the play.
Critic Harley Granville-Barker comments, ‘Roman and Egyptian are set against each other, and this opposition braces the whole body of the play. ‘ In a sense, this statement is incontestably accurate. Rome against Egypt is the central binary opposition in Antony and Cleopatra, and the clash of the two opposing cultures acts as an obstacle that the relationship of the two protagonists must overcome in order to survive. Rome is depicted as a calculating empire based upon the importance of civic duty, whilst Egypt is portrayed as a magnificent land of luxury and flamboyancy.
In a sense, a parallel can be drawn between the two opposing empires in Antony and Cleopatra, and the Elizabethan and Jacobean epochs. The Elizabethan era can be compared to Egypt. It was a frivolous time of jollity, whereas the reign of James I was essentially much more focused upon militaristic virtues. In the play, Western and Eastern poles are characterized by those who inhabit them: Caesar embodies the stoic duty of the West, whilst Cleopatra represents the epicurean, hedonistic Eastern culture.
The play is marked by a distinct antithetical structure, and Shakespeare emphasises this primarily though the use of fast-paced scene changes spanning immense geographical distances. The relentless movement in the play creates dramatic tension and reinforces the global scope of what is occurring on stage. Rome and Egypt are juxtaposed and this dramatic structure reflects the major thematic concerns of the play. Walter Raleigh comments, ‘ The power of delighting is derived principally from the frequent changes of the scene.
‘ In the Jacobean era this would have been even more exaggerated as there would have been little scenery on the stage, so the contrasting scenes of the two great empires would have alternated rapidly. To a member of the 1607 audience, the panoply of exotic locations and the wide world they represent would have been incredibly impressive, particularly as England was just evolving from the Elizabethan epoch, a time where the country had been in a comparatively isolated position as a result of the English Reformation.
A sense of distance and power is further elicited in the play by the use of nautical imagery. Antony fights sea battles in the play, and these could be interpreted as a metaphor representing the sinking of Antony’s life and his position as a triumvir of Rome. However, the nautical connotations could also be taken to reiterate the vast distances throughout the play, ‘makes the sea serve them, which they ear and wound with keels of every kind. Many hot inroads they make in Italy; the borders maritime.
‘ Rome and Egypt, the two conflicting cultures represented by Caesar and Cleopatra, are separated by sea, and this is the location of Antony’s final failures. The changes in place are associated in the verbal texture of the play with the vacillating tide. A simile is also present likening the gentlewomen of Cleopatra to Nereides, sea nymphs, daughters of the sea god Nereus. The Jacobean era was a time of voyage discovery and many long distances were travelled by sea.
In his use of nautical imagery, Shakespeare has clearly attempted to illustrate to audiences of 1607 the vast geographical scale of the play. Although Antony and Cleopatra details the conflict between Rome and Egypt, providing audiences with an idea of Elizabethan perceptions of the difference between Western and Eastern cultures, there is no definitive conclusion as to which side ultimately triumphs. Critic Robin Sowerby presents the argument that, ‘their deaths might be said to celebrate a transcendent love affair that makes Caesar’s success at the end seem something rather paltry.
‘ This is an interesting point to consider, for although Egypt falls and becomes a Roman province, Shakespeare clearly does not align the play’s sympathies with the West. Caesar and his Roman empire are depicted as calculating and cold, whilst Egypt and her frivolous Queen are portrayed as magnificent. Antony’s comment, ‘say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends this treasure of an oyster,’ is a good example of the contrasting worlds of Rome and Egypt. Despite the two protagonists losing geographical ownership, they both make sacrifices to sustain their relationship.
Antony rejects his life of Roman civic duty, whilst Cleopatra displays the indomitable strength of her will by committing suicide in order to escape becoming an ‘Egyptian puppet’ for the entertainment of the Roman masses. Antony and Cleopatra both die believing in their love, and as a result of this their relationship is ultimately presented as possessing immense power. The couple, in dying for the sake of their relationship, triumph over the distance that hinders their survival as lovers.