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structure of the play. How do the quick scene changes affect the
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.
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Antony and Cleopatra!