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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In Act I, scene i (lines 14 – 17), Antony and Cleopatra argue over whether their love for one another can be measured and articulated:
CLEOPATRA: [to Antony] If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
ANTONY: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.
This exchange sets the tone for the way that love will be discussed and understood throughout the play. Cleopatra expresses the expectation that love should be declared or demonstrated grandly. She wants to hear and see exactly how much Antony loves her. Love, in Antony and Cleopatra, is not comprised of private intimacies, as it is in Romeo and Juliet. Instead, love belongs to the public arena. In the lines quoted above, Cleopatra claims that she will set the boundaries of her lover’s affections, and Antony responds that, to do so, she will need to discover uncharted territories. By likening their love to the discovery and claim of “new heaven, new earth,” the couple links private emotions to affairs of state. Love, in other words, becomes an extension of politics, with the annexation of another’s heart analogous to the conquering of a foreign land.
In Antony and Cleopatra, public displays of affection are generally understood to be expressions of political power and allegiance. Caesar, for example, laments that Octavia arrives in Rome without the fanfare of a proper entourage because it betrays her weakness: without an accompanying army of horses, guardsmen, and trumpeters, she cannot possibly be recognized as Caesar’s sister or Antony’s wife. The connection between public display and power is one that the characters—especially Caesar and Cleopatra—understand well. After Antony’s death, their battle of wills revolves around Caesar’s desire to exhibit the Egyptian queen on the streets of Rome as a sign of his triumph. Cleopatra refuses such an end, choosing instead to take her own life. Even this act is meant as a public performance, however: decked in her grandest royal robes and playing the part of the tragic lover, Cleopatra intends her last act to be as much a defiance of Caesar’s power as a gesture of romantic devotion. For death, she claims, is “the way / To fool their preparation and to conquer / Their most absurd intents” (V.ii.220–222).
Throughout the play, the male characters rail against the power of female sexuality. Caesar and his men condemn Antony for the weakness that makes him bow to the Egyptian queen, but they clearly lay the blame for his downfall on Cleopatra. On the rare occasion that the Romans do not refer to her as a whore, they describe her as an enchantress whose beauty casts a dangerous spell over men. As Enobarbus notes, Cleopatra possesses the power to warp the minds and judgment of all men, even “holy priests” who “[b]less her” when she acts like a whore (II.ii.244–245).
Read about a similar use of misogyny as a motif in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The unapologetic openness of Cleopatra’s sexuality stands to threaten the Romans. But they are equally obsessed with the powers of Octavia’s sexuality. Caesar’s sister, who, in beauty and temperament stands as Cleopatra’s opposite, is nevertheless considered to possess power enough to mend the triumvir’s damaged relationship: Caesar and Antony expect that she will serve to “knit [their] hearts / With an unslipping knot” (II.ii.132–133). In this way, women are saddled with both the responsibility for men’s political alliances and the blame for their personal failures.
Read more about the fear of female sexuality as a theme in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Antony and Cleopatra!