The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra Contrasting Regions
By William Shakespeare
ANTONY But stirred by Cleopatra. Now, for the love of Love and her soft hours, Let's not confound the time with conference harsh. There's not a minute of our lives should stretch Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight? (1.1.50-54)
Antony’s reputation at one time rested on his noble work as a soldier, with all the Roman austerity and severity that came with it. His life in Egypt (or his love) has transformed him into a man that wants pleasure all the time, which is indulgent, but also completely contrary to the Roman way.
CAESAR You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know, It is not Caesar's natural vice to hate Our great competitor. From Alexandria This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes The lamps of night in revel, is not more manlike Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy More womanly than he; (1.4.1-7)
Caesar criticizes Antony’s decadent actions in Egypt, but the hint is that these are things natural to Egypt (and thus unbefitting a Roman). This decadence is also characterized by its femininity, which is linked to an Eastern way of life, and a polar opposite to the Roman austere ideal, which is linked to masculinity.
ALEXAS "Good friend," quoth he "Say the firm Roman to great Egypt sends This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot, To mend the petty present, I will piece Her opulent throne with kingdoms. All the East, Say thou, shall call her mistress." (1.5.49-55)
Antony, in a very chivalrous fashion, sends his love to Cleopatra. He presents her a decadent bauble of a pearl (befitting the East), but it’s important that as he sets on his journey out of Egypt, he identifies himself as a "firm Roman." He goes as a soldier, and thus is leaving behind the decadence that characterized his life in Egypt, trading it for Roman austerity. He hasn’t forgotten her (and the East) in spite of this transformation; hence the gift.
ENOBARBUS I will tell you. The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes. For her own person, It beggar'd all description: she did lie In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold, of tissued—
O'erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy out-work nature. On each side her Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid did. (2.2.226-242)
Egypt is the seat of decadence, but there’s more tied into this Orientalism than material excess. Enobarbus’s description betrays the fact that the winds and waters, even the creatures of heavenly thoughts (like cherubs and mermaids) attend to the Queen. He touches on the heart of Orientalism’s duality. It might seem contrary to man’s living that he be so decked with material goods (instead of human assets, like love, honor, etc.), but actually the Orientalist view is that nature is lush and when people revel in that lushness, they worship nature, not man. Unlike the Roman view, celebrating the good and rich world around you doesn’t detract from your goodness, but is a necessary part of it.
POMPEY This is not yet an Alexandrian feast. ANTONY It ripens towards it. Strike the vessels, ho! Here's to Caesar. CAESAR I could well forbear't. It's monstrous labor when I wash my brain And it grows fouler. ANTONY Be a child o' th' time. CAESAR Possess it, I'll make answer. But I had rather fast from all, four days, Than drink so much in one. ENOBARBUS [To ANTONY] Ha, my brave emperor! Shall we dance now the Egyptian bacchanals And celebrate our drink? POMPEY Let's ha't, good soldier. ANTONY Come, let's all take hands, Till that the conquering wine hath steep'd our sense In soft and delicate Lethe. (2.7.111-128)
Antony encourages the group gathered after the truce with Pompey to have an Egyptian time. This doesn’t just mean decadence, but actual happiness. He meets friends who were former foes, and an Egyptian celebration of their truce doesn’t debase their new amity, but only increases it through their mutual happiness. When Antony suggests that Caesar stop complaining about how "he really shouldn’t drink anymore," he tells Caesar to "be a child of the time," meaning he should seize the day and enjoy their good fortune. Their differences are highlighted here—Antony earnestly celebrates like an Egyptian, while Caesar keeps his Roman wits about him, and might even now be planning his treachery against Pompey, Antony, and Lepidus. Antony, by contrast, takes the magnanimous position that they should forget about it over a drink, and be honest friends.
CAESAR Contemning Rome, he has done all this and more In Alexandria. Here's the manner of't: I' th' marketplace, on a tribunal silver'd, Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold Were publicly enthroned; at the feet sat Caesarion, whom they call my father's son, And all the unlawful issue that their lust Since then hath made between them. Unto her He gave the stablishment of Egypt; made her Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, Absolute queen. MAECENAS This in the public eye? CAESAR I' th' common showplace, where they exercise. His sons he there proclaimed the kings of kings. Great Media, Parthia, and Armenia, He gave to Alexander; to Ptolemy he assigned Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. She In th' habiliments of the goddess Isis That day appeared; and oft before gave audience, As 'tis reported, so. (3.6.1-20)
Caesar rankles at the power Antony is taking, but it seems what really gets to him is the fact that all of this is done with such decadence. Cleopatra is dressed as Isis, the thrones are of gold, and worst of all, the lovers proclaimed their power in the public marketplace, where common people might exercise. To use and claim power in such an irreverent way is anathema to Caesar; Antony has officially separated himself from the austerity, temperance, and respect that traditionally define Roman values concerning the display and acquisition of power.
CLEOPATRA Our lamp is spent; it's out! Good sirs, take heart. We'll bury him; and then, what's brave, what's noble, Let's do 't after the high Roman fashion And make death proud to take us. (4.15.98-102)
Cleopatra thinks of the nobility of a Roman burial (which is a big deal, because she’s really serious about being Egyptian), but she also alludes to the fact that she’ll kill herself. Interestingly, she describes her suicide as a Roman death, characterized by honor, nobility, and sacrifice. It’s important that this is contrary to the relaxed Egyptian view: there’s a kernel of evidence here that Antony’s Roman-ness might have affected Cleopatra, where all other evidence seems to indicate that Antony was only being changed by Egypt. This is especially cool if you think about it as the basis for an argument that Antony is a true representative of Rome. It makes sense that Egypt should impact Antony, because he lives there, but if Antony is able to spread Roman values, even when he’s out of Rome and surrounded by Egyptians, then his Roman values are strong indeed.
CLEOPATRA Shall they hoist me up, And show me to the shouting varletry Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt Be gentle grave unto me! Rather on Nilus' mud Lay me stark naked, and let the waterflies Blow me into abhorring! Rather make My country's high pyramides my gibbet, And hang me up in chains! (5.2.65-72)
Cleopatra is loyal to Egypt until the end. It isn’t just her temperament, but her heart that’s Egyptian. She would rather die an ignoble death in Egypt than suffer through a victory parade for Rome that would signify Egypt’s submission to that empire.