Antony and Cleopatra

by: William Shakespeare

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Shape-Changing Clouds

In Act IV, scene xv, Antony likens his shifting sense of self to a cloud that changes shape as it tumbles across the sky. Just as the cloud turns from “a bear or lion, / A towered citadel, a pendent rock,” Antony seems to change from the reputed conqueror into a debased victim (IV.xv.3–4). As he says to Eros, his uncharacteristic defeat, both on the battlefield and in matters of love, makes it difficult for him to “hold this visible shape” (IV.xv.14).

Cleopatra’s Fleeing Ships

The image of Cleopatra’s fleeing ships is presented twice in the play. Antony twice does battle with Caesar at sea, and both times his navy is betrayed by the queen’s retreat. The ships remind us of Cleopatra’s inconstancy and of the inconstancy of human character in the play. One cannot be sure of Cleopatra’s allegiance: it is uncertain whether she flees out of fear or because she realizes it would be politically savvy to align herself with Caesar. Her fleeing ships are an effective symbol of her wavering and changeability.

The Asps

One of the most memorable symbols in the play comes in its final moments, as Cleopatra applies deadly snakes to her skin. The asps are a prop in the queen’s final and most magnificent performance. As she lifts one snake, then another to her breast, they become her children and she a common wet nurse: “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” (V.ii.300–301). The domestic nature of the image contributes to Cleopatra’s final metamorphosis, in death, into Antony’s wife. She assures him, “Husband, I come” (V.ii.278).


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