The language Shakespeare uses in Antony and Cleopatra is concerned overwhelmingly with image and display. As Enobarbus describes the first meeting of the lovers we are drawn in to a world of colour and wealth, ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/ Burned on the water’. Cleopatra herself is described in even more majestic – even divine – terms, ‘o’erpicturing’ the goddess Venus. Antony himself is ‘the crown of the earth’, whose eyes ‘glowed like plated Mars’, while Caesar is ‘a Jove’, whose ascendancy will bring ‘the time of universal peace’ – an allusion, Rene Weis suggests, to the everlasting kingdom of Christ. However, it is debatable as to whether the characters themselves share the intent of the grand words surrounding them, and if they are as committed to image as this quotation suggests.
Antony, in fact, seems to surrender his public image completely for Cleopatra’s sake. The play opens with a comment on the received view, Antony has become a ‘strumpet’s fool’. Indeed, he is willing to sacrifice Rome and his worldly status in virtue of his love for Cleopatra, ‘let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/ Of the ranged empire fall’. Only absolute political necessity can draw him from Egypt, and even then he recognises that ‘i’th’East my pleasure lies’. His marriage to Octavia angers Cleopatra greatly, but it was enacted only to placate Caesar and is soon rendered useless as he returns promptly to Egypt. Furthermore, his heroic image [he was said by Plutarch to have been like Hercules] is damaged by his preferences, Caesar mocks him as ‘womanly’ while even Antony himself cries at Cleopatra’s servant ‘O, thy vile lady! She has robbed me of my sword!’ In a sense, it appears that Antony has been unmanned by his commitment to Cleopatra. Therefore, despite the symbolism and imagery allocated to him by Shakespeare, it would be incorrect to assert that Antony himself is committed only to public image.
In private, it seems that the same can be said. Antony is portrayed – if somewhat unmanned – as generous and likeable, for example by sending Enobarbus’ treasure after him even though he is a ‘master-leaver and a fugitive’. However, could it not be argued that such instances of generosity are simply part of Antony’s overall display? This is unlikely. Our protagonist is loved by audience and characters alike, after Eros kills himself rather than his master, Antony’s failed attempt at suicide and subsequent plea for someone to finish the job is met only with cries of ‘Not I’, ‘Nor I, nor anybody’. Such loyalty on the part of even minor characters gives us no doubt that Antony has proven himself worthy of our admiration – and thus that he is not solely committed to image in any sense at all.
Caesar, however, is a different matter. As Antony’s enemy, we have little or no sympathy with him, perhaps it is then easier for us to believe that he is concerned only with image. His association with the god Jupiter [or Jove] is indicative of his...