Antony and Cleopatra is a fable about the destructive duality of Antony's character. Shakespeare uses gender bending as a device to portray Antony's transformation from Roman to Egyptian. This transformation causes constant conflict between Antony the Roman defined by empire and duty and Antony the Egyptian defined by folly and lust. This duality finally proves to be fatal. Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. It is a tragedy about Antony one of the triumvirates who rule the world who falls in love with, and has an affair with Cleopatra the seductive queen of Egypt.
Throughout the whole of the play Antony is caught in a tug-of-war between Antony the lover and Antony the leader. The two different worlds we are introduced to in this play are Rome and Egypt, each with different gender norms and values. Antony represents Rome, a place of law and order, duty and war, and he also represents Roman values such as honor, duty, valor bravery and self discipline. Antony forms part of the Triumvirate and it is expected of him to epitomize masculinity. His Roman nature requires him to disregard all that is sensual and emotional.
In Rome, women are insignificant; Octavia is used as a mere business agreement to make amends between Octavius Ceaser and Antony. On the contrary Cleopatra embodies all that is Egypt, a place of decadence and abundance; she is sensual, sexual and exotic. As Rene’ Weis states in the introduction to the Penguin Antony and Cleopatra (2005: xxiv),”Egypt emasculates, and it does so quite literally in the case of Mardian the eunuch, a castrated attendant of Cleopatra;” From the start of the play there is a direct contrast between the gendered roles of Antony and Cleopatra.
Philo says to Demetrius, Antony has a “captains heart” and is a “pillar of the world” (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 6; 12) while Cleopatra is described as a “lustful gypsy” and “wrangling queen” (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 10; 48). However strong these perceptions may seem they are questioned the moment Cleopatra is mistaken for Antony: ENOBARBUS Hush! Here comes Antony. CHARMIAN Not he. The Queen. Enter CLEOPATRA (1. 2. 76-7) Cleopatra and Antony’s gender roles start to merge shortly after this confusion (S. Wisdom: 2006). It is clear that Antony’s heart lies in Egypt although his duty is in Rome.
When he hears of Fulvia’s death he says “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, or lose myself in dotage” (1. 2. 14-15). He admits that he belongs in Rome, but before he leaves for Rome he contradicts himself and he tells Cleopatra that “my full heart Remains in use with you” (1. 3. 43-4). When Antony returns to Rome he makes amends with Octavius by marrying Octavia, but soon after the marriage he declares that he will return to Egypt. ANTONY I will to Egypt; And though I make this marriage for my peace, I’ the east my pleasure lies. (2. 3. 37-9)
This passage clearly demonstrates the fact that Antony cannot resist this pleasure in Egypt although he is aware of his duty to Rome. While in transition from Roman to Egyptian he still sees himself as Roman, but he betrays his own Roman values by proclaiming that he belongs in Egypt, “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space”. (1. 1. 33-4). Onlookers however are aware of this transformation, Philo says, “Nay the dotage of our general’s O’erflows the measure. ; And is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust. Take but good note, and you shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool” (1. 11-2, 8-9, 11-13). Philo and Demetrius are observing this change that has come over Antony, his life is being transformed and weakened by this new love, now he is experiencing deep emotions which the Romans consider as a female trait. “Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony He comes too short of that great property which still should go with Antony. ”(1. 1. 57-9). Ceaser also notes and disapproves of this change and behaviour Antony is exhibiting.
The man who was once the epitome of Roman values is now wasting his time is Egypt: CEASER From Alexandria This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy More womanly than he; (1. 3. 3-7) Ceaser does not recognise Antony as a Roman anymore, because when in Egypt, Antony does not live up to Roman standards, the behaviour he exhibits in Egypt is defined by its femininity. Ceaser here infers that Cleopatra has taken on Antony’s role: (he) “is not more manlike Than Cleopatra”; (she is not) “More womanly than he”.
Cleopatra now displays the masculine identity that Antony once embodied. By becoming her lover and adopting Egyptian traits like lust and passion, Antony feminizes his masculinity and this compromises traditional gender roles. The strongest example of gender bending is the scene where Cleopatra talks about the night when she dressed Antony in her “mantles” and she wore his sword. CLEOPATRA I laughed him into patience’ and the next morn, Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed; Then put my attires and mantles on him, whilst I wore his sword Phillipian. (2. 5. 19-23) It is significant that Cleopatra is in control here.
She dresses Him. Not only does she dress him she wears his sword, a sign of Roman virtue and pride but also a sign of his masculine sexuality. Cleopatra is a strong force pulling him away from Rome, emasculating him by dressing him in her Egyptian robe. By donning herself with his sword Cleopatra once again maculates herself and proves that she has a hold over him. When Octavius discovers that Antony left Octavia and returned to Egypt he declares war against Antony. Knowing that Antony is stronger on land Octavius challenges him by sea and out of pride Antony accepts the hallenge, but then he makes a decision even more foolish, he allows Cleopatra to join the battle of Actium. Cleopatra now gets the masculine authority she has been seeking. Enobarbus knows how foolish this decision is, but Cleopatra insists on staying. ENOBARBUS Your presence needs must puzzle Antony, Take from his heart, take from his brain, from’s time, Which should not be spare’d. (3. 7. 10-13) CLEOPATRA I will not stay behind (3. 7. 19) Enobarbus knows that Cleopatra’s presence at the battle will cloud Antony’s judgement. As soon as the two sides of the battle are closely matched, Cleopatra flees and Antony follows.
This costs him the battle. Antony has once again neglected his duty and dishonoured himself by surrendering to Cleopatra’s force. He is shamed and feels that his reputation has been destroyed: ” O, wither thou has led me Egypt? See, how I convey my shame out of thine eyes, by looking back what I have left behind; Story’d in dishonour” (3. 11. 51-4). Antony admits that he lost himself in his lust for Cleopatra by saying:” You did know how much you were my conqueror, and that my sword, made weak by my affection, would obey it on all cause” (3. 1. 65-8). Again there is a reference to his sword a symbol of his lost Roman identity. After this disastrous battle Antony realises that a transformation has occurred. Traditional gender roles are reversed and Cleopatra is enforced with masculine power. Antony refuses to accept defeat and challenges Ceaser to one last battle. During this battle Cleopatra betrays Antony when her fleets defect to Ceasar. He is furious and says to Mardian:” O vile Lady! She has robb’d me of my sword”. (4. 14. 20-1) Antony has now lost himself beyond repair.
In one last attempt to redeem himself Antony tries to commit suicide when Mardian tells him that Cleopatra killed herself. “His attempt at suicide is a Roman method of an honourable death, but fails to succeed. His last attempt to be a Roman has failed him. ”(S. Wisdom:2006). The sword a phallic symbol, used consistently to portray his masculinity and lust, is the cause of his death. “His ‘sword’ driven by lust and love for Cleopatra, has led to the demise of his Roman character and, in turn, his life. ” (S. Wisdom: 2006).
He dies a Roman death but for an Egyptian cause, even in his death gender roles are intertwined. Masculine and feminine roles are also combined in Cleopatra’s death: CLEOPATRA My resolution is place’d, and I have nothing Of woman in me: now from head to foot I am marble-constant: now the fleeting moon No planet is of mine (5. 2. 36-9) Cleopatra rejects her female qualities “of water and welcomes those of air and fire. In doing so she embraces Antony’s masculinity and the world of Rome”. (S. Wisdom: 2006) ”I am fire, and air; my other elements I give to baser life. ” (5. . 288-289). Her Egyptian sensuality however is still shown in the following lines: “If thou and nature can so gently part, the stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts, and is desire’d. ”(5. 2. 93-5) Throughout the play there is a constant conflict between who Antony is expected to be in Rome and how his masculinity is compromised by his Egyptian experience. In Rome he is expected to regard duty and honour above all but he has an adulterous love affair with Cleopatra and this undermines the Roman values he tries so hard to uphold, but his efforts are in vain.
Antony tries hard to be the Roman, but his ties with Egypt are too strong and it keeps pulling him back, back to Cleopatra and back to everything the Romans disapprove of. Antony’s love for Cleopatra is the force that drives Antony and causes his emasculation throughout the play and transforms him into an Egyptian. In death Antony and Cleopatra’s roles are fused, but when Antony is alive however it is impossible for him to live both an Egyptian and Roman life. Antony could not have the best of both worlds.
When Antony realises who he has become it is too late and he has made the decision of no return he chose Egypt above Rome, lust above duty. When Antony made his choice his demise was inevitable.
M. R. Riley, 1954. Antony and Cleopatra. London.
Harper and Row R. Weis, 2005. Antony and Cleopatra: introduction. London.