Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a play rife with ambiguity. Cleopatra’s character is, in itself, presented as a “glorious riddle, whose dazzling complexity continually mocks and eludes us”#; her unpredictable moods and multilateral persona constantly keep us guessing, and leave us uncertain as to the real motivations behind her words and actions. Many parallels can be drawn between Cleopatra, and Elizabeth I of England, who was renowned for her fiery temperament and for being ’the virgin Queen‘. Cleopatra is by no stretch of the imagination presented as a virgin, but both are seen, at least at times, as being strong, intelligent women, willing to use their assets to manipulate people to their individual advantages.
Shakespeare ensures that we, as audience, are fully aware that Antony’s character has been completely changed since his meeting Cleopatra; indeed, the play’s first scene is centred around the fact that he, who once had a “captain’s heart”, has “been transformed into a strumpet’s fool” by her. We are left with no doubt that Cleopatra is in control of the pair’s relationship. She has “pursed up his heart” (II.ii), and he has sat back watching her, stunned into submission by the “rare”, intoxicating quality that she appears to behold. She is portrayed at several instances as an enchantress, who has made Antony “the noble ruin of her magic” (III.x), her hold over him is so strong. Antony is torn between his responsibilities as a member of the triumvirate, and his passionate love for Cleopatra. When he is around her, he appears completely besotted by her, unable to acknowledge any other responsibilities or duties that he may have (“Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall!” - I.i ); however, he does seem to understand that their relationship is becoming detrimental to him, worrying in I.ii that he will “lose [him]self in dotage”, and resolving to break “these strong Egyptian fetters” that she is trapping him in.
Despite any noble intentions to free himself of Cleopatra that Antony might have, he remains unable to resist returning to her. He seems to be genuine in his desire to “break off” from the “enchanting queen”, and sincere in his agreement to marry Octavia, thus uniting him and Caesar as brothers - something that would definitely be in his best interests politically. In II.ii, when Caesar mentions that Cleopatra would be unhappy with this arrangement, Antony responds: “I am not married” - perhaps implying that he has no intentions to continue his relationship with her, and certainly downplaying its significance. However, Enobarbus knows that his master will be unable to severe ties with Cleopatra (“Never. He will not.”- II.ii). Shakespeare takes the opportunity in this scene to use Enobarbus to describe to us Antony’s first meeting with Cleopatra - heavily based upon Plutarch’s account of the event. Shakespeare’s heavily poetic description (“the poop was beaten gold; purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them… on each side her stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids”) conveys the grandeur and decadence of the occasion - we are ready to believe that, as Enobarbus tells us, “it beggared all description”. However, the meeting also seems extremely contrived on Cleopatra’s part. It is as if , knowing that Antony would be arriving, she has carefully stage managed the occasion to make him fall in love with her. This supports the idea that Cleopatra has consciously decided to manipulate Antony in this way, for the benefit of her and her country.
Attention is also drawn in II.ii to the fact that Antony is not Cleopatra’s first high-powered lover. “She made good Caesar lay his sword to bed” is phallic, reminding the audience of Cleopatra’s affair with Caesar, previous to her meeting Antony. Cleopatra dismisses her time with Caesar as “her salad days” (I.v), implying that she was young and naïve, and “cold in blood”- not possessing the...
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