Discuss the structure of the play. How do the quick scene changes affect the plot?
In sheer number of scenes, Antony and Cleopatra outstrips all other Shakespearean plays. Act V, scene ii, the longest scene in the play, is a mere 356 lines, a modest length compared to scenes in Shakespeare’s other tragedies. The shortness of the scenes compresses our sense of both space and time. First, geographically speaking, the play shuttles the audience from one end of the Roman Empire to another, from Rome to Athens to Syria to Alexandria. The global span of the scenes mirrors the play’s concern with the construction of an empire. Furthermore, the rapidly shifting scenes quicken the pace of the play and, with it, the audience’s sense of the passage of time. Although Antony and Cleopatra covers a period of ten years, we feel that events follow one another immediately. For example, Ventidius’s war against the Parthians takes no more time than Octavia’s fateful journey from Athens to Rome. This compression of time speeds us toward the play’s outcome, heightening the tragedy’s sense of inevitability.
Contrast Cleopatra with Octavia. How is each representative of her civilization?
Cleopatra and Octavia represent rival civilizations. Cleopatra’s beauty and seductiveness are without question. Even Enobarbus, who resents the queen’s command over Antony, acknowledges the undeniable strength of her powers. In fact, his description of Cleopatra in Act II, scene ii offers the play’s most complete picture of her beauty and charms. In a world devoted to visual spectacles, Cleopatra’s command over her physical appearance lends her a kind of power that the plainer Octavia lacks. A single tear from Cleopatra can turn Antony’s anger into fawning devotion, whereas nothing that Octavia does can bring him back from Alexandria. Octavia’s unheralded arrival in Rome symbolizes her near invisibility to her husband. Described by Cleopatra’s messenger as physically unimpressive, Octavia possesses a temperament that, when compared to the queen’s, is equally unimpressive. When betrayed by Antony, Octavia summons none of the rage or indignation or sorrow that one could easily imagine might come from Cleopatra. In her ability to shift from one extreme emotion to another, the queen embodies the unfettered passions that Caesar and the other disciplined Romans view as a threat to their Western order. Octavia, who in contrast seems rather passionless—after all, Antony’s abandonment brings only the meekest tears—represents an easily contained and easily controlled type of female sexuality that does not threaten men’s reason or rule. Thus, she becomes, as Maecenas notes, the “love and pity” of every Roman heart (III.vi.92).
What is the Roman perception of Egypt? Should we have the same perception?
Among the Romans in the play, there is a definite consensus regarding Egypt. Philo sets the tone for the West’s perception of the East in the opening lines of the play, when he complains that Antony, the paragon of Western military might and discipline, has been led to distraction by “a gipsy’s lust” (I.i.10). Caesar seconds Philo’s opinion when he condemns Antony for abandoning his “kingdom for a mirth” (I.iv.18). According to the Romans, who pride themselves on the strength of their reason as much as the strength of their army, Egypt is a land in which emotions overshadow rationality, passions dominate and derail the intellect, and pleasure takes priority over duty. Even Antony, whose love for Cleopatra makes him much more sympathetic than his comrades to Egyptian culture, considers Egypt a threat to his identity as a Roman: “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (I.ii.105–106).
We should not share this perception of Egypt, however. For the Roman understanding of the East and, by extension, its representative queen is exceptionally narrow. According to Caesar, for instance, Cleopatra is little more than the whore for whom Antony has sacrificed his kingdom and reputation. But just as Cleopatra is a multidimensional character who plays the parts of lovesick devotee, grief-stricken mourner, jealous harpy, and even, at the end, wife and mother as convincingly as she dons the role of seductress, so too the East contains more than simple base temptations. A homeland of sorts for the passions, freedoms, and imagination that often escape the likes of Caesar and Antony, Shakespeare’s East is best understood as a world larger and more complex than reductive Roman thought allows.