Roman Power and the Serpent of Old Nile: Reconciling Opposites in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
From the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra interrogates Antony about his Roman wife, to the last, as Cleopatra embraces the asp and calls “Husband, I come,” Shakespeare was fully conscious of structuring his play around antitheses in which the viewer is asked to contrast passionate, fertile Egypt with powerful, manipulative Rome. Antony’s fellow Romans consider him a victim of Cleopatra’s seductive sexuality, but Shakespeare introduces several levels of ambiguity which affect how one may understand their contradictions. At the play’s heart is the love affair between people from quite different worlds, but over that the viewer recognizes Cleopatra’s power to feminize Antony and at the same time, to masculinize herself. At still another level, the military machinations of Roman power are contrasted with Egyptian power, the power of sexual passion in Cleopatra and above that, the power of the very Nile itself to engender life in the land. With the death of both title characters on the eve of Cleopatra’s imprisonment by Caesar, one might assume that Rome has won, but this paper will consider whether in its structure the play offers a synthesis of its opposites, a reconciliation of male and female, Rome and Egypt.
Keywords: Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Anthitheses, Rome and Egypt, Male and Female
Dr. Ann Garbett
Professor of English, Department of English, Averett University