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Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a tale of conflict, love and responsibilities. In a world where Egyptian values contrast sharply with those of Rome, personal passions and tensions are set against a backdrop of political and military issues, creating irony and tension. Antony’s decadent exploits in the east and his infatuation with Cleopatra, combined with his neglect of duty as a triumvir create drama as they highlight the delicate balance of power which exists within his world. The underlying pressure of war forces forward matters, as the virility and moral standards of the tragic hero come under scrutiny.
Firstly, even before Antony and Cleopatra are introduced to the audience, the opening lines from Philo create an expectant atmosphere as he describes the deterioration of Antony from a strong and powerful leader into ‘a strumpets fool. ‘ By affixing these derogatory labels to the protagonists, he also simultaneously generates preconceptions of their characters within the viewers’ minds. However, the images which he conjures conflict with the ones that we hold in our mind of Antony and Cleopatra being figures of authority and sophistication. The fact that the tragic hero is described as having become, “…
the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust” contrasts sharply with his historic representation as a fearless soldier of almost supernatural strength. In addition, drama is created through the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra. From the outset, Cleopatra’s manipulative, provocative manner toward her lover is apparent from her flirtatious taunting, such as at lines 33 and 34 of Act 1 Scene 1 at which she teases Antony that “thy cheek pays shame/When shrill-tongued Fulvia scolds” rousing within the hero mixed emotions of anger and passion towards Cleopatra.
This devotion for Cleopatra also creates a schism between himself and Caesar, as his obsession with the Egyptian queen leads him to neglect his military obligations. Further personal tensions are aroused between the two lovers as a result of Cleopatra’s unpredictable behaviour, which is evident from her numerous outbursts in Act 1 Scene 3 during which she accuses Antony, among other things, of lying and betrayal. Further conflict develops in the opening two acts through the clashing of Roman ideals and Egyptian values.
Consequently, Antony’s attempt to merge these two incompatible lifestyles leads to hostility and drama in the play, primarily between Caesar and the tragic hero. This is illustrated in Act 1 scene 4, where Caesar describes Antony in an extremely negative light, claiming he is, “A man who is the abstract of all faults that men follow. ” Antony’s inability to fulfil the Roman ideals of masculinity and his submission to the pleasures and decadence of Egyptian life strike a note of discord with Caesar, who, it is evident, is concerned chiefly with military issues.