Research Paper: Major Theme in the Play Antony and Cleopatra

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¶ … Cynicism vs. Idealism in Antony and Cleopatra

Of all of Shakespeare's plays, Antony and Cleopatra is the one that most dramatically reveals the battle between cynicism and idealism. In the play, Shakespeare uses Rome as a symbol for cynicism, which he frequently refers to as politics, and Egypt to refer to the notions of idealism. This conflict between Rome and Egypt makes up the central conflict of the play and drives the characters towards most of their actions. "Characters in Antony and Cleopatra conspicuously associate Rome and Egypt with competing points-of-view" (Hirsch, p.175). This is despite the fact that, obviously, Romans are capable of idealism and Egyptians capable of realism. Though Egypt did not have the same impact on European history that Rome had, to ignore that Egypt had a history of tremendous political power and that its rulers must have been capable of exercising very pragmatic and cynical decisions is to ignore history. It is this very real history that drives the story line in the play. In fact, had Antony and Cleopatra not been rulers of their respective realms, and, therefore, symbols of cynicism and idealism, their love affair would not have been tragic. Antony would not have been censured for falling prey to Cleopatra's charms, he would not have been expected to marry another woman, and he may have triumphed in the eventual battle to rule Rome. However, by falling in love with Cleopatra, Antony's Roman cynicism falls prey to idealism, and he can longer be nothing more than a pragmatic politician. Therefore, it is clear that, "Under the pressure of historical necessity Voluptas must lose, whether represented by Cleopatra or Falstaff; but the defeat is not the easy and obvious matter of a morality play" (Kermode, p. 1345). On the contrary, throughout the play, even though the audience knows the outcome, there is a constant tension between idealism and cynicism, and a constant strain about which one should prevail.

It is important to understand that many of Shakespeare's plays concentrated on political notions, and that, even when disguised as histories, they spoke to the socio-political realities of Shakespeare's time. When viewed in this light, it becomes clear that Shakespeare is not endorsing a view that values cynicism over idealism. Historically, Cleopatra commits suicide and the story of Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy; Shakespeare has to work within those confines. However, he is not endorsing a triumph of cynicism over idealism. On the contrary, he tries to show both the merits and weaknesses of both positions:

In Antony and Cleopatra, representative value lies in most obviously in the competing locations, Rome and Egypt. Any shorthand for what they represent will be partial: politics and love, the material and the spiritual, male and female…Reason and Energy…though the ultimate human need may be a marriage of heaven and hell, any given situation is within, not above the contingencies of existence" (Fuller, p.111).

In fact, Shakespeare takes an interesting tact by not firmly aligning his title characters with either Rome, cynicism, or Egypt, idealism. Obviously, in a broad sense, Antony symbolizes Rome and Cleopatra symbolizes Egypt. However, they do not always act in expected ways. On the contrary:

Alternative ways of valuing the central characters and the attitudes to experience they personify are written into Antony and Cleopatra…Although there is no simple scheme, these alternative ways of valuing tend to be placed: they emerge, that is, from characteristic speakers and positions that are themselves evaluated by the play as a whole" (Fuller, p.111).

Take, for example, Antony. He is Roman, but he has been captivated by idealism. His love for Cleopatra, which is widely mocked by other people in the play, seems to have him acting like a starry-eyed lover. However, it is clear that there is cynicism in his actions. He declaims his love for Cleopatra and readily enters into a political marriage with Octavia. That is a very cynical action, and it seems to align Antony with the image of the politically-driven, cynical Roman. However, when Cleopatra describes why Antony is absent from someplace, she seems to characterize him as mainly Egyptian, blaming his absence on him acting Roman. She tells Charmain, "He was dispos'd to mirth, but on the sudden / A Roman though hath strook him" (Antony, I.ii.82-83). Antony, in his love for Cleopatra, has dealt in the ideal for a long period of time, but still feels this pull of cynicism, he might even characterize it realism, driving his actions.

Despite that, Antony acknowledges that Egypt and its ability to allow him to be idealistic have a tremendous allure for him. He blames Egypt, and Cleopatra, for causing his dishonor, asking Cleopatra, "O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt? See / How I convey my shame out of thine eyes / By looking back what I have left behind / 'Stroy'd in dishonor" (Antony, III.xi.51-54). When Cleopatra protests that she did not realize he would follow her, Antony responds with a statement that makes it clear he would like to be free to choose to live a life with her. He says, "Egypt, thou knew'st too well / My heart was to thy rudder tied by th' strings / And thou shouldst [tow] me after" (Antony, III.xi.57-59).

To some, Antony's inconsistencies seem to be a weakness in the play. After all, Antony could have chosen either cynicism or idealism. He could have abandoned his leadership position in Rome to be with Cleopatra. As a ruler in her own right of a wealthy and influential land, he would not have been losing status to do so. On the other hand, when he found that his allegiance to Rome prevented him from abandoning it entirely and compelled him to enter into a political marriage with Octavia, he could have honestly moved past his feelings for Cleopatra. Either of those responses would have provided a tidy summary for the story and avoided the tragic ending. Of course, neither of those responses would have been historically accurate, and they would have been equally dishonest about the human condition. Some see Antony's wavering as disingenuous,

Yet many have also -- perhaps in reaction to this stylistic and generic hybridity -- read the play in terms of a mutually confirming chain of binary oppositions labeled "Rome" and "Egypt." War and love, public and private, duty and pleasure, reason and sensuality, male and female, then, form the framework within which the play means. And its meaning is that of a love story laced with cultural conflict, a Roman warrior seduced by an Egyptian queen. This schematic binarism, however, only replicates a binarism undeniably at work in the play (Kahn, p.110).

In other words, Antony must cycle though this chain of binary oppositions.

Of course, Antony is not the only character that vacillates in the story line. On the contrary:

Individual characters in the play adopt a wide variety of attitudes toward the competing set of values. This variety of positions actually exceeds the number of important characters in the play because some characters change their minds, in some cases more than once, during the course of the play" (Hirsch, p.181).

Though frequently characterized by other characters in the play as wantonly Egyptian, and, therefore, almost dangerously idealistic, Cleopatra actually reveals a very cynical side. She loves Antony, and her feelings for him are clear. She speaks about him in the glowing language of lovers, making him out to be almost superhuman in his qualities. However, she does this with a wink and a nod, acknowledging, not only to herself, but also to other characters in the play, that Antony is merely a man.

For example, at one point, Cleopatra acknowledges the differences between the real Antony and her idealized version of Antony. In this speech, she describes the Antony of her dreams, whose face "was as the heav'ns" (Antony, V.ii.78), "his legs bestrid the ocean" (Antony, V.ii.83), "His rear'd arm / Crested the world" (Antony, V.ii.84), and "realms and islands were / As plates dropp'd from his pocket" (Antony, V.ii.91-92). "By overtly describing an Antony she 'dreamt' rather than the Antony of her waking experience, Cleopatra shows her awareness of the fictionality of this Antony. This dream- Antony who bestrid the ocean is (so to speak) a tall tale" (Hirsch, p.178). Moreover, this dream-Antony is clearly a tall tale. Antony obviously is not a giant whose voice rattles like thunder or a god who creates realms from his pockets, and Cleopatra is aware of that fact. She engages in this hyperbole in jest, poking fun at herself for the feelings of idyllic love that she has for Antony. In doing so, Cleopatra reveals her cynicism.

Moreover, Cleopatra's comparisons of Antony to a mythological god figure reveal another aspect of the battle between cynicism and idealism in the play. Many of Shakespeare's plays largely ignore the role of any type of god in the universe, even while dealing with issues like fate, predestination, and the supernatural. "Antony and Cleopatra is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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