Shakespeare Uses As His Source For The Play Plutarch's Lives Of The Noble Grecians And Romans. Plutarch, Along With Other Greek And Roman Authors, Saw An Opposition Between The Conquering West Standing For Moral And Political Virtue And The Conquered East Representing Luxury And Decadence. How Does Shakespeare's Play Present These Positions?
Throughout William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, there is the dichotomy of the hard-working political life of Rome and the luxury and pleasures of Egypt. The effect of the difference between the two places on the main characters, and on the plot, is a key theme throughout the play.
It is common in Shakespeare's plays for characters to talk about themselves in the third person, which gives them an elevated and important status. This is used to show the difference between the relaxed and indulgent Egypt, and the more formal ways of Rome. Octavius Caesar refers to himself in the third person often in the play,
"It is not Caesar's natural vice to hate our great competitor"
This gives Octavius an air of importance, as he takes a tone of superiority over Antony because he is enjoying the luxuries of Cleopatra's palace.
Dance, music and song are commonly used in Shakespearean comedy, for example in plays like a Comedy of Errors or As You Like It. They often act as an uniting force, bringing together different groups or individuals. In Antony and Cleopatra,a tragedy, they are presented differently. They are used to indicate Egypt as a place of frivolity. Cleopatra remarks "give me some music, moody food of us that trade in love." Music is never played in Rome, and there are certainly no comical characters (such as the eunuch Mardian) and little banter. The presence of music and dance, with an entertainer such as the Eunuch, shows Egypt to be a place of fun and frivolity in direct contrast to the serious political business of Rome.
Shakespeare also displays the contrast between the two places by his use of jocularity, particularly puns and sexual innuendo. These are prevalent in the Egyptian scenes, particularly in the exchanges between Cleopatra and her courtiers.
Charmian: "My arm is sore. Best play with Mardian.
Cleopatra: As well a women with a Eunuch played as with a woman "
This short exchange presents Egypt as a place of sexual innuendo and entertainment. Such conversations never take place in Rome, and this shows the more impertinent nature of Egypt. There is also a contrast in the treatment of tragic events between Egypt and Rome. In Rome, they are taken very seriously (for example the military aggression of Pompei), but in Egypt they are often given a comic undertone, for example when Cleopatra is speaking to Antony about the death of his wife, Fulvia. At a point of sadness and tragedy, Cleopatra remarks "Can Fulvia really die?". The word die has a secondary meaning in Elizabethan English, to reach sexual climax. Shakespeare illustrates the more irreverent nature of Egyptian life by treating such a tragic issue with bawdy humour.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison of the two countries is the conversation between Enobarbus, Maecenas and Agrippa in Act two Scene two. Enobarbus has just returned from Egypt, and tells Agrippa about all the luxuries and splendour he experienced during his time there. Enobarbus gives a fantastic account of Cleopatra and the great feasts and richery of the palace:
Maecenas: " Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast and but twelve persons there. Is this true ? Enobarbus: This was as a fly by an eagle. We had much more monstrous matters of feast "
Shakespeare paints a mental landscape for the audience of Egypt as a place of splendour and excess. Maecenas goes on to describe Cleopatra as a "most triumphant lady" and a "rare Egyptian". The previous scene shows the political wrangling of Antony and Octavius in Rome, as they try to sought out the political marriage of Octavia to...