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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors
used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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).
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.
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).
Ace your assignments with our guide to Antony and Cleopatra!