Study Guide

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Nile

Egypt is represented by the natural world, and is contrasted to of the unnatural Roman world. Antony describes the wonders of the Nile that bring drought and lush harvests. Cleopatra meets Antony in all her grandeur as she floats down the Nile. Cleopatra reflects the richness of greens and blues in the natural world in her silver and gold jewelry. The Nile also has fury when its waters rise and swell, and Cleopatra evokes that same natural fury when she says she would rather be consumed by the flies and maggots of the river rather than be paraded through Rome. The natural world is as tempestuous as the two lovers: what it gives, it can also take away.

Animals of the Nile also figure heavily into this tale of two lovers. Antony invokes the wonder of the animal world when he tells Lepidus about the crocodiles of the river (which were thought to create themselves out of the mud of the Nile). Of course, it is a snake, not unlike the river snakes Antony describes, that is the source of Cleopatra’s death. The Nile represents the richness and poverty life has to offer and reflects the hot and cold passion of the lovers that, like the great river, carve out their own path.

Phallic and Yonic imagery, or everything you ever wanted to interpret sexually without seeming perverted

Swords feature prominently in the play as stand-ins for manhood, and they’re often linked to the sexual self. When Antony refers to Caesar being a wimp, he talks about how his sword was sheathed at Philippi (when they defeated Brutus and Cassius). He challenges Caesar to meet him sword to sword, and Caesar backs down. This may be affirming Antony’s greater manhood. There’s more swordplay when Cleopatra mentions that once, she and Antony wore each other’s outfits in bed. She, taking on his strength, wore the sword he wore at Philippi. Swords are shaped rather suggestively, but they also represent the murderous conquering that was considered the male sphere.

Cleopatra is the basis of a lot of female imagery that concerns the lush and natural. Enobarbus talks about how Antony "ploughed" and Cleopatra "cropped," meaning she brought forth the life of his seed, in the way of the natural world. Further, when she chooses to die, she goes to the monument, which some have interpreted as a stand-in for a vagina. It’s a good reference though, as it’s a place that nothing leaves alive – imagine it as the opposite of the fertile womb. As a tomb, it doesn’t give birth to anything; it just houses the dead and dying. When Cleopatra dies, she suckles the asp like a baby at her breast (which a lot of artists depict on the canvas), but it’s a wonderful representation of the perversion of the natural world. Just as the lushness of Egypt dies, the natural world is turned on its head. The Queen nurses death at her breast like she would a baby. Her empire is dying, and so dies her maternal power as its matriarch.

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