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As is often true of the study of history in general, the people who dominate Shakespeare’s historical plays are those in positions of power and authority. This is simply because such people will be the ones to effect history in the most significant way. In ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ we see several different leadership figures, who show all of the range of burdens, strains and qualities that those in positions of power can have (such as Antony himself, Cleopatra, Caesar, Lepidus and Pompey).
In terms of leadership, Classical Renaissance ideas can be very helpful when trying to approach Antony and Cleopatra for the first time. The traditional idea of heroism and leadership was summed up in the quality known as ‘virtus’, which describes the characteristics of a virile nature, military strength, and old ideas of chivalry and honour. Renaissance artists such as Machiavelli in ‘The Prince’, modified this to emphasise calm ruthlessness and intellectual power.
As we shall see, these two opposing views of what a leader should be (the traditional and renaissance ideals) are reflected in the struggle between Antony and Caesar. Antony, representing the old ‘virus’ values, is defeated and replaced by Caesar, representing the Machiavellian hero. Thus I shall begin with these two characters, whose conflict is vitally central to the play. Antony is represented as an old-fashioned hero, whose moral blemishes are excused because of his heroic nature. Maecenas tells us that his “taints and honours waged equal with him” (Act 5, scene 1).
These taints become apparent in the first act when we discover that Antony in fact has a wife (Fulvia), even though we have just watched the obvious love affair that he is having with Cleopatra. When he returns to Rome (having heard of the death of his wife), he soon marries Caesar’s sister thus betraying Cleopatra. However, we do also see that Antony has an obvious preoccupation with honour, reputation and ancestry. His past military glory is very important to him, and it is for these ideas of honour and ancestry that he eventually will return away from Egypt and back to war.
These are all characteristics of the traditional hero, whose titanic anger would have won him favour in the eyes of the Shakespearean audience, but perhaps not as much, in a modern audience. This is because he is more likely to be seen in modern times as an impulsive reckless leader who leads with his heart and not his head. In Act 3 scene 10, Antony’s declaration that he will fight by sea has the ring of bluster and bravado, and is an emotional response to Caesar’s challenge. His decision alarms even the most humble soldier who pleads: “O noble emperor, do not fight by sea/Trust not to rotten planks”
Sweeping, flamboyant gestures, such as his challenge to single combat and his declarations of the love he feels for Cleopatra (which he sees as liberating and life enhancing – “The nobleness of life is to do thus” Act 1 scene1) provide a stark contrast to the behaviour of Caesar. Another element that is central to Antony as a leader, is the constant conflict between duty and desire. This conflict results in a felling of guilt, a sense that he has neglected his duty to his people. It is only in the final stages that we see these emotions expressed.
In Act 3, after Antony’s defeat in battle, for the first time we see an Antony full of self-disgust, confusion and an overall sense of failure. The responsibility that he feels for his men, and the fact that his actions determine the fate of all of them, obviously makes defeat even worse. In some instances however, Antony’s honest acknowledgement of his faults increases our respect for him, as when he admits that “poisoned hours” (Act 1, scene 2) caused him to forget himself and lose his sense of duty. Another aspect to the burden that all leaders must face is that of being replaced.
The endless cycle of the old being overthrown by the young, is one of the hardest things a leader has to face, partly due to its inevitability. In Act 3 scene 11, Antony addresses an imaginary listener, and takes comfort in recalling the military success he achieved at Philip, whilst the inexperienced Caesar relied on his officers to fight for him and wore his sword as an ornament, “like a dancer”. Though Antony does have negative aspects to his character, he has a warmth, human passion and engaging personality that is totally lacking in Octavius Caesar. He is in general represented in an unflattering light.
He is shown to be an unemotional, strict character who is quick to turn on Antony when he steps out of line. This seems all the more heartless when we realise that Antony was a close and dear friend to Octavius’s father, Julius Caesar. However at the same time he is shown as the successful strategist and ruler. This pehaps is meant to demonstate the idea that a truly great leader cannot be an overly emotionally figure. He represents Roman efficiency and Duty to the state, whose interests must be held before all others, and achieved by whatever means necessary.
This manipulative nature is shown through his reconciliation with Antony. Caesar needs Antony’s military skill in the war against Pompey, and can see that the Roman people, who do not love Caesar (“Caesar gets money where/ he loses hearts” Act2 Scene1), will follow the heroic Antony into battle. The marriage that he orchestrates between his sister and Antony shows that he is a figure who is only able to gain loyalty through his manipulation of others. We must still recognise, however, that Caesar has all the qualities necessary to be a good leader.
Indeed he seems not to feel any of the psychological burdens that come with leadership. He seems to be sufficiently focused on the success of Rome, to think that any burdens he does feel must be tolerated out of a sense of duty, but also to satisfy his ambition. He sees Antony as having become a “strumpet’s fool”, and his pursuit of pleasure being an intolerable burden placed on the triumvirate. As well as the contrast between Antony and Caesar, we also see several stark contrasts between Cleopatra and Caesar.
She represents indulgence, extravagance and pleasure, whilst Caesar (as said before) represents duty and self-control. Cleopatra’s royalty and power is emphasised by her own self-preservation, bolstered by her followers and maidservants. We are constantly reminded of her position, through what is said and the general grandeur that surrounds her. Antony calls her “your royalty” (Act1 scene 3), and Cleopatra reminds the helpless messenger in Act 3: “Remember/If e’er thou look’st on majesty” She is a traditional Queen, believing that she rules by a divine right, and owes nothing to her people.
As a result she is much more likely not to suffer from the guilt and duty to her people that both Antony and Caesar show. Caesar is a democratically elected leader, is meant to represent the people, and thus the sense of having a duty toward them is much stronger. Like Antony, Cleopatra is ruled by passion. She is capable at points in the play of inspiring intense admiration, whilst at others, of showing a common humanity. Indeed this is demonstrated perfectly in Enobarbus’ speech in act 2 scene 2, which describes both sides to her personality.