If we ignore all the characters for a hot second, we see that Antony and Cleopatra is, at its core, a play about an interaction between Rome and Alexandria, Egypt. So, uh, who cares? We do. This is Shakespeare, after all. Everything is intentional.
The fact that the settings mirror each other is a convenient device to interpret the meaning of the characters’ actions. Values, morals, and meanings change with each setting in the play, helping us understand the struggles that Antony has to go through and the way Cleopatra acts and makes judgments. The contrasting regions keep us from getting too bored with one setting and provide a lens of interpretation that is neither good nor bad, but depends on regional values and differences.
Questions About Contrasting Regions
- In Shakespeare’s pastoral plays, some place is defined as the "other" to set off the traditions of the characters who are transported there. Does Alexandria serve as the "other" to Rome? Is it merely a pastoral, and thus secondary, backdrop for Roman characters to act as they usually wouldn’t? Are we taught a lesson by this? Or is Alexandria held up as an equal to Rome?
- Is Antony’s love for Cleopatra just fetishism? Is he just enamored of her different way of life, of its decadence, or does he really love her for who she is?
- Is it possible to separate Cleopatra’s actions and characteristics from her placement in Egypt? Does she embody Egyptian ideals in contrast to Roman ones? Which character, if any, stands for Roman ideals, and how does that character interact with Cleopatra?
- Does Antony bridge the divide between the two worlds of Rome and Alexandria? In the end, has he brought them together, or proven that they cannot coexist?
- Is Antony Roman, or Alexandrian? Does he need to be of one place or the other to truly have an identity?
Chew on This
Antony’s downfall at the end of the play is a direct result of his loss of place. He doesn’t stand for the regimented reality of Rome anymore, but he can’t totally give himself up to the "life is good" mentality of Egypt. In Antony and Cleopatra, a man without a place has no place in the world.
Shakespeare presents Roman ideals as superior to Egyptian ideals in Antony and Cleopatra. Unlike most pastorals, Egypt isn’t just presented as a convenient place to take a holiday from Rome, but it stands as the evil contrast to the good of Rome. This is proven by the fact that Antony and Cleopatra, both inextricably tied to Egypt, fall at the end of the play, whereas Rome and Roman characters triumph.