Dramatic tragedy classically explores the downfall and death of a protagonist from a high status. Shakespeare constructs the conditions for tragedy within Antony and Cleopatra through the protagonists’ conflicts.
For example, Antony is pulled in different directions by two competing loyalties: his political duties and his love for Cleopatra. In Act One, Antony, “The triple pillar of the world”, has “become the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust.” Philo’s metaphor presents Antony as “the bellows” and “the fan”. On the one hand, Antony appears to be “cooling” Cleopatra’s lust, breaking free from her. On the other hand, this can be seen as a paradoxical image: where we expect Antony’s metaphorical “bellows” to cool Cleopatra’s lust, we know that “bellows”, in fact, make a fire more ferocious. On a deeper level, Philo’s tragic image suggests Cleopatra’s lust is like a fire, needing to be “cool[ed]”; Shakespeare subtly foreshadows that it is this ‘fire’ that will engulf the couple, triggering their tragic downfall. Frank Kermode has argued that Shakespeare’s use of “little language”, in this case, “become” and its derivatives, acts “to give undercurrents of sense to the dramatic narratives” . It’s in the detail and in the metaphorical texture of the language that we see Shakespeare unfolding the conditions of this tragedy. Moreover, what’s particularly tragic about Philo’s opening speech is that although he is Antony’s servant, he complains about the man Antony has become. If anything Philo should be loyal and humble to Antony, but it is his rejection of Antony that prepares the audience for his tragic dissolution at the end of the play.
Antony and Cleopatra’s competing loyalties are irreconcilable. In Act One “noble” Antony, proclaims, “Let Rome in Tiber melt.” Shakespeare’s use of the verb “melt” suggests Antony yearns for Rome to be more like Egypt which is fluid and free-flowing. Rome, on the other hand is rigid; this is highlighted physically by Shakespeare who sets just one scene in Act One in Rome, while allowing Egypt to flow openly over five scenes. Likewise, in Act One Scene 3, Cleopatra talks openly over five lines or more, whereas Antony is given one line between these, “Most sweet queen-”, before he is interrupted again; the structure of speech between a Roman and an Egyptian mirrors their countries’ characteristics. These conflicts inside Antony lead to his inevitable downfall. He is a Roman: rigid; but he also loves Cleopatra, a fluid Egyptian. The two are incompatible and it is through this struggle to make the two compatible, “Let Rome … melt”, that Shakespeare foreshadows the tragic conclusion to Antony and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare suggests Antony is somehow faintly aware of his own upcoming downfall. Antony, in Act 1 Scene 2 declares, “Much is breeding, / Which, like the courser’s hair, hath yet but life / And not a serpent’s poison.” He claims there are many troubles “breeding”, but nothing significant yet; like the...