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Power and Being in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra

A short essay on the duality in the main characters'attitude and behaviour.

In the actual title of his play {Antony and Cleopatra},[1] Shakespeare has set up the notion of duality that will develop through several aspects in this romantic tragedy.
Antony and Cleopatra is not only the stormy love affair between a man and a woman, it also depicts a double vision of the world, two outlooks on life, a twofold way of being.
The study of power and being in {Antony and Cleopatra }does not necessarily imply gender differences, the primary interpretation of both concepts is seemingly linked to male and female frames of mind and to the antonyms active and passive. However a closer examination of both words will reveal an underlying significance; on a grammatical point of view, "power" is a noun with a clear semantic meaning and "being" is a verbal noun whose grammatical nature and in particular the -ING ending reveals a more versatile and active nature than the word "power".
Therefore both words "power" and "being" convey different aspects such as strength, movement, mental thirst, appetite for life of a single polymorphic concept that our language has not yet created even though it is thoroughly fulfilled by the mind and behaviour of the main characters Antony and Cleopatra.
The notions of "Power" and "Being" take a triangular shape in the whole play with three particularly significant elements, politics, love and language.

The first feature illustrated in the play is the [b]political power[/b] of Rome. The three pillars of the world represent an image of power - a triumvirate- that has, by definition, to be shared but will, in fact, never be evenly distributed . Lepidus, Caesar and Antony constantly strive against each other for a share of power, not necessarily a fair share as Lepidus will learn rapidly at his expense in the last two acts of the play. The link between the triumvirs - at least between Caesar and Antony- is Octavia, an assumed strong bond if one believes that blood is thicker than water. Antony breaks this bond without giving further explanation to Caesar, his act is merely done for the sake of his own well-being, his life in Egypt.
Therefore Octavia, a symbol of vulnerability in her own being -she is a quiet widow- is also a sign of frailty between the two tenants of power.
The play covering a period of several years, the rhythm is rather vigorous and it gives to the audience an impression of perpetual shift in power.

Maturity is a corollary of power. The main reproach addressed to Caesar, the "barely bearded" man, is about his age. Antony's main reason for resenting -even fleetingly- Caesar, is his youthful power of decision. When Caesar refuses a hand to hand fight with Antony, the latter feels offended by this childish antic from his "competitor". In fact, Antony probably resents more this youthful attitude as he can no longer be and live as he used to. Again his thirst for power rules his life. Nonetheless, Antony's progressive loss of political power gives way to a gradual gain of amorous power.

As a direct link to political power, [b]amorous power[/b] plays another important part in {Antony and Cleopatra}. It is perfectly illustrated in the many innuendoes about Antony and Cleopatra's love affair, but also in Cleopatra's reminiscence of her own past with her two previous famous lovers, particularly in the allusions to her relationship with Julius Caesar. Cleopatra is a leader in love relationships, she seems to have the upper hand from the beginning of her affair with Antony. Her power and her being are strongly linked in the "Cydnus barge" episode, developed in a flamboyant speech by Enobarbus, enraptured by the Egyptian queen's power (Act II, scene 2). In that episode, Cleopatra forces Antony into her sphere, he becomes part of her being through her powerful will and doubtless through her seduction skills.
Antony's passion for Cleopatra leads him to follow her sails after their sea-battle against Pompey. However, her reasons to withdraw will remain a mystery. As a matter of fact, she will not even be questioned about them, she will only be criticized for her sudden impulse. Her unexpected decision shows that Cleopatra is not spurred by reason but, presumably, by her Egyptian nature, it could also be another mighty sign of her power in the course of things, some political design to destroy Rome through her own Roman lover's misjudgements.
One can see in that particular fact a sign of some feminine nature using indirect means to reach absolute power. As opposed to her male opponents, Cleopatra does not give away any sign of thirst for power. However she uses her feminine nature to try and deceive Caesar as an ultimate attempt after surrending. Her power seems to be effective when Caesar does not even blink as she is caught lying about her personal fortune. Cleopatra will choose death rather than a confined life in Rome where she might become a puppet. She will die with her power of decision still intact, she will not step back even when the clown bringing the "Nile worm" in a basket of figs erroneously promises that the bite of the beast is "immortal". Immortality is what she aims for therefore she will find the power to reach it.

Cleopatra's amorous power appears somehow diminishing throughout the play due to the numerous references about her previous love life, when she was still in her "salad days". She enjoys reminiscing those days and most of the time she loves listening to Iras and Charmian reminding her of the time when Julius Caesar "plough'd her and she cropp'd". It seems that her power comes from her previous mighty lover, as inherited through love.
Her power defines her way of being. Egypt is the realm of exuberance where everything is larger than life. Enobarbus and his Roman friends recall huge meals and feasts and the "Egyptian dish" does not only refer to food!
As opposed to this epicurean way of life, Rome remains the kingdom of measure where Cleopatra is considered as a "gypsy", a "whore" a "strumpet's fool"; and the "fool", according to the Romans, is Antony who has broadly adapted to the Egyptian way of life. As Joyce Carol Oates points out, "Antony is his heart, as Caesar is his reason".[2]

One of the characteristics of the play lies in its sensuous, powerful language in which numerous metaphors and hyperboles illustrate another aspect of power, [b]verbal power[/b].
The play is written as a chronicle, so several characters are used from the same device, they appear to stop the course of action and either give their personal opinion on facts and people or disclose new information, fragments of life.
In {Antony and Cleopatra}, the messengers have this particular power to stop the flow of verbal discourse, they give an opportunity to the protagonists to ponder about other people's life, especially about the two main characters of the play. This matter is fully illustrated in the two messages Caesar receives about Antony, they deliver news about his free behaviour and foolish life in Egypt while Caesar enjoys a life full of resentment in Rome. Antony and Cleopatra's life then becomes even more active than reality because the messengers narrate their way of being and their language glorifies action.

Even more eloquent than the messengers' speeches and comments, soliloquies are used as another rhetoric device to enhance verbal power. In this world of words, Enobarbus goes from eloquent reports of life in Egypt and particularly of his master's behaviour to self-persuasion when he recovers his Roman reason. He echoes Antony's thoughts and reports his deeds, particularly in the scene when he recalls the lovers' first meeting, but this attitude gets to a limit when his Roman reason overtakes his Egyptian style of life. Enobarbus feeds his own life with Antony's and when he moves away from Antony's power, he loses his appetite for life and consequently dies.
Together Antony and Cleopatra share this particular likeness in the use of verbal power and similarly this ability will have lethal consequences: both Iras and Charmian on one part and Eros and Enobarbus on the other part will be led to their death owing to subtle persuasion, through the powerful ascendancy of their masters' verbal power. However Antony's and Cleoptra's own soliloquies are rarely directed to one another though their dialogues convey a certain amount of innuendoes, indeed their powerful language divulges numerous metaphors and hyperboles that tease their fantasy and their sensuous recollections.

Power cannot be shared. Domination is both a human defect and a source of strength.
Antony has no more power on Cleopatra than Cleopatra has on Antony, even in the discretion of their chamber, their alliance does not give them more control on one another and despite their amorous partnership they remain two separate powerful entities.
Power often implies correlative weakness, however there is no sign of weakness from the part of the characters. Even though they do indulge in pleasure and what may look like trivial occupations to the eyes of reasonable men, they keep control of their life to the very end. As a matter of fact, it gives them sufficient strength to move forward, their being feeds their power and their power will lead them to intentional death .
Political power, verbal power and amorous power are interwoven, they thrive on one another and if one element of the triad is weakened, the whole structure collapses.
The tale of Antony and Cleopatra is a love story encompassed in a net of intrigues and jealousies that is closing in on them, death is their only dignified way out, it consecrates their power and finally keeps it intact.

[!1] William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, New Cambridge, ?d. David Bevington, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[!2] Joyce Carol Oates, The Tragedy of Imagination: Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra", Bucknell Review, Spring 1964.

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