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Love and Politics in Antony And Cleopatra

Love and politics are two themes central to the story of Antony and Cleopatra.’ Antony, the hero of the tragedy, is seen as a man caught between two worlds- the fantasy microcosm of Alexandria, and the titanic responsibilities and honours of the triumvirate, whilst his lover Cleopatra is the ruler of Egypt. Between them, they have political authority over half the known world, so theirs is a relationship embroiled in political significance.

The language that Shakespeare uses to portray these two principle dimensions of the play is therefore integral, in order to evoke the tragedy the author intends. Antony and Cleopatra’s tragedy explores almost a crown on death, a total, unprecedented political collapse. The two extremes, love and death, seem to unite in speech. The culmination of the play sees to die as symbolic of total love. Conversely, to love is also to die. Enobarbus, Charmian, Iras, Cleopatra and Antony all die at the height of their love or loyalty. Clearly, such tragedy of political and romantic importance requires a diverse and complex deployment of language, and it is this technique that I now seek to explore.

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The language of love in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is one of the plays the greatest pleasures. The magnificence of the poetic lexis is what elevates the characters in the imagination, and sustains their larger than life status. It is majestically exaggerated- take the picture of Cleopatra on her barge sailing down the river Cydnus to meet Antony, which ends in a praise of her “infinite variety” she herself envisages Antony as “the demi-Atlas of this earth.” Her dream of Antony after he is dead “his legs bestrid the ocean” is similarly grand. Her response to the death of Antony, “the crown o’th’earth doth melt”, and her own words as she is about to commit suicide “give me my robe, put on my crown, I have Immortal longings in me” sustains the portrayal through the language of the lovers, and their relationship, reaching beyond mortality. Certainly, this use of hyperbole in the language of love is one that is evident from the very start of the play, as Philo says of Antony “ this dotage of our generals o’erflows the measure” and continues when Cleopatra says to her lover “I’ll set a bourn how far to be belov’d,”he replies “Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.” The reader can constantly see imagery in the text of the love being limitless, almost too much, and this can certainly be seen to contribute to the eventual downfall of them both. At this point, it must also be noted that this amorous, image-laden language is archetypal of the world of love in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. For Antony, Alexandria is a place where he can exert his imagination and dreams- where he becomes tempted by the ‘soft life’ and his passion for Cleopatra. This type of language is a necessity in portraying this, the hyperbole and other imagery all-contributing to Antony’s “dreamworld.” Antony realizes this to an extent, as can be seen from his exclamations such as “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, Or lose myself in dotage.”

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The versatility of love in the play can be seen in the myriad of situations in which the lovers are placed, and the facets of their emotions that we see- egotism, envy, anger, jealousy, loyalty, trust, infatuation, passion, sexuality, and, most of all, companionship. In Act III, scene eleven, Antony reproaches Cleopatra, but when she begs his pardon he forgives her, showing loyalty and trust. When he thinks she has been flirting with Caesar’s messenger, he flies into a rage “You were half blasted ere I knew you: ha? Forborne the getting of a lawful race, And by a gem of women, to be abus’d by one that looks on feeders” displaying jealousy of his lover, anger at her, and a level of hurt and insecurity in the reaction. Perhaps the most harmonious scene between the two occurs when she is arming him for battle, in Act IV scene four. Following victory here, he salutes her in the presence of his victorious generals, an act of solemn respect in front of the people he trusts the most. Then, after the final defeat, he blames her for betraying him (this time without foundation) in the strongest possible terms, an accusation which he only retracts after he thinks she has committed suicide. This array of different emotional situations we see Antony and Cleopatra in adds that extra dimension of realism. The language used in their intercourse brings the world of love alive, in that not only are we presented with the idealistic portrayal of romantic exaggeration (Enobarbus’ speech, for instance, or Cleopatra’s dream) but, as the situations listed above show, we see Antony berating his lover with strong, harsh language “all is lost: this foul Egyptian hath betrayed me” and “vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving, And blemish Caesar’s triumph.” Theirs is a real romance, and the strain of the political dimension to their characters brings this into the forefront of the story.

The element of companionship and reminiscence in their language adds to this concept of realism, as we can see examples of playful competitiveness and teasing. A perfect example of this is when Cleopatra is musing of her lover in his absence with Charmian, and recalls a time when they had a fishing contest. “’Twas merry when you wager’d on your angling when your diver Did hang a salt-fish on his hook which he with fervency drew up” to which Cleopatra replies “That time? Oh times! I laugh’d him out of patience, and that night I laugh’d him into patience.” The audience can see the way the two enjoy and cherish every moment they spend together through the language Cleopatra recalls it in. The witty innuendo is also typical of the linguistic style used when the subject is love- poetic often-involving wordplay. The humorous nature of the two cheats to beat each other in their contest highlights the quality of friendly companionship in the plays love. The argument the two have in Act One scene three reinforces this concept of friendly teasing and wordplay. Antony teases Cleopatra, swearing “by my sword” (innuendo) Cleopatra makes fun of him back, sarcastically mentioning his supposed decadence from Hercules “How this Herculean Roman does become The carriage of his chafe” Again, this language is typical of the couples playful arguments, though real issues between them are often underlying. It presents the other side of their relationship away from the hyperbole of their complimentary interchanges.

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If the language that portrays the world of love is picturesque and dreamy, then the political language is hard, bare and presented as a narrative. Where the world of love is seen as the unpractical microcosm of Alexandria, the world of politics represents reality, duty, and pragmatism. The language used introduces the concepts of diplomacy, patriotism, masculinity and authority. Antony is presented to the audience as a character set in a political, military and emotional context. His emotions for Cleopatra do not wholly override his political and military intelligence. We can see Antony, a trapped man, changing from one persona, the infatuated “fan to cool a gypsy’s lust”, to the disciplined epitome of a masculine Roman hero, the man who “didst eat strange flesh, Which some did die to look on” and “didst drink the stale of horses, and the gilded puddle Which beasts would cough at.” Evidence of this can be seen in the opening scenes. Antony is one moment cooing over Cleopatra, heaping metaphor upon metaphor over her in compliment when he makes a brisk and business-like transition into politics. The language used evokes the sense of order and discipline- gone is the poetic imagery and wordplay. Antony’s words becoming formal and straight to the point. The messenger, afraid to tell him the bad news he brings less he receives blame is indecisive, saying “the nature of the news infects the teller” Antony, now in the ‘political world’ answers disparagingly “when it concerns the fool or coward” Reputation and duty are, in my opinion, an integral factor to the language used in the political episodes of the play. Antony is always wary of the importance of his changing reputation, as well as that of his wife, urging his messenger “speak to me home, mince not the general tongue”. Later on, as he wrestles with self-doubt at the realization of his downfall, he proclaims, “I am still Antony”, what I believe to be words of a man trying to recapture .the reputation he has lost. Caesar, in analyzing his opponent’s situation, applies equal importance to reputation and general perception in his language. “From Alexandria, this is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike than Cleopatra.” In questioning Antony’s manliness, Caesar makes possibly the biggest criticism of possible of Antony, showing the aggression and competitiveness of politics in the play.

This dissatisfaction with Antony’s attitude is brought to the fore in Act two scene three, where the two men confront each other. The language used in this scene is perfect evidence of the manner in which Shakespeare creates the world of politics in the play, particularly in such contrasting fashion to the scenes of love. Again, the language used is unembellished- but a new factor is present- that of diplomacy and political caution. The scene opens with Enobarbus and Lepidus talking about the situation. Lepidus is desperate to avoid conflict courteously, and somewhat indirectly, asks that Enobarbus ensure Antony be civil and calm. Enobarbus replies in a fashion typical of the style that is to follow- polite, plain, and clear in presenting his intentions. “I shall entreat him to answer like himself” to which Lepidus counters “’tis not a time for private stomaching” (meaning to express ones personal feelings) this conversation is an excellent portrayal of the way language evokes the world of politics in the story. In sharp contrast to the heated spontaneity and exaggerated passion of Antony and Cleopatra’s arguments, here we have two diplomats doing their best to suppress any evidence of emotion and retain an air of neutrality, with Caesar’s representative urging the other it is not a situation to express oneself. Once Antony and Caesar arrive on stage the language, and hence the mood, remain much the same. Both are polite and formal, addressing the other as “sir” and approaching the issue indirectly- when Antony asks what it matters to Caesar if he was in Egypt, Octavius replies n a typically over-polite and diplomatic way “no more than my residing here at Rome Might be to you in Egypt” The whole process feels unnatural and tense, especially with Lepidus attempting to mediate and reconcile the pair. Again, this atmosphere is obviously a device intended by the author, as a direct result of the language used.

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This is, in my opinion, symbolic of everything Caesar is in the play. He is calculating, manipulative and dispassionate where Antony is willful and generous (as we see in his reaction to Enobarbus’ defection) As a representative of the military and political power of Rome, Caesar is contrasted against Cleopatra, whose language is driven by passion, and (by no coincidence) rejects politics wholly, as can be seen by her total lack of appreciation for her lover’s duties, and her disdain for any military advice in Act five. Thematically, the story centres on Antony’sfall from grace’, and whilst Caesar is left at the end of the play in complete political control, the audience’s hearts lie totally with the dead lovers. Shakespeare has essentially crafted two separate worlds, one of love, whose language is dominated by impulse, passion and individuality, and one of politics that uses words of order, reputation, and diplomacy. Antony is trapped between the two, unable to choose between them. Ultimately, the audience feels he chooses to love, and the qualities that go with that have, in my opinion, been shown in a more sympathetic light throughout the play. Antony’s decision is what makes the tragedy so memorable as a love story, rather than a lesson in political downfall, and what makes Caesar’s victory so hollow.

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Love and Politics in Antony And Cleopatra. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from