Antony and Cleopatra is a stage play written by William Shakespeare in the 17th Century. The plot of Antony and Cleopatra is centred round the struggle between East and West, which is not only between two geographically distinct empires but also between two diametrically opposed views. Shakespeare used all his literary tools to transform this historic story to a comedic tragedy.
Shakespeare, when writing the opening scene, was very aware that he had to capture the audience’s attention and interest. He opens with a Roman point of view “Nay, but this dotage of our general’s overflows the measure,” although the play is set in Alexandria, Egypt. This is the first contrast used to capture the audience’s attention because they will be curious to why a roman soldier would be in Egypt. The audience is then shown throughout the play the opposition between the conquering West, standing for moral and political virtue, and the conquering East representing luxury and decadence.
The structure of Antony and Cleopatra is comprised of opposites. There is a marked contrast between the Roman scenes that are full of information and political strategies and the Egyptian ones that contain elements of self-expression and the pursuit of pleasure. Shakespeare’s play shifts between these two opposites, constantly moving between the Roman empire and Egypt detailing the intertwining clashes and emphasising the full scale of the conflict that will change both the characters’ lives and millions of people under their rule.
Rome is essentially masculine in its perspectives. A male figure, Caesar or Antony, represents and manifests Roman culture and values. Caesar is efficient to the point of ruthlessness and is disciplined and austere. On Pompey’s galley, there is a striking absence of women, because according to Rome, politics is a man’s world whilst women are political pawns and like Octavia, are of “holy, cold and still conversation”. The primary Roman virtue is service to the state through impressive and much-admired attributes like fortitude, constancy and valour. Caesar laments the change in Antony’s priorities and reminds him on their first meeting in the play, that prior to his Egyptianised, self indulgent person, Antony “didst drink the stale of horses” and that he grazed on “The Barks of Trees… eat strange flesh which some did die to look on”. This image is the clearest expression of Roman fortitude.
The East is portrayed as the manifestation of all that is extravagant and ostentatious; a place of desire and decadence infinitely inferior to the Roman empire and it’s supporters. However in his portrait of Cleopatra, Shakespeare stresses the East’s ability to attract and does not underestimate it’s skill and shows it to be more complex than the Romans believe. While gossiping about Cleopatra in Egypt Enobarbus describes her as follows, ‘For her own person, it beggared all description. She did lie in her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, O’erpicturing that Venus where we see the fancy outwork nature’.(II,ii,Ls202)