“A better title for this play would be ‘Cleopatra and Antony’ because Cleopatra is a dominant character throughout. Indeed, it might simply be called ‘Cleopatra'”. How far do you agree? How would a Jacobean audience react to her strength of character? Shakespeare structured ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ to mirror a historic love affair between two great characters of the past. This love affair develops into the most explosive and destructive love story, both Antony and Cleopatra finding themselves trapped between passion and logic, they both prove their limitless love by the ultimate sacrifices they make, Antony’s downfall at the hands of Caesar and Cleopatra losing her beloved Egypt, both dying a ‘noble’ death as the last tragedy of them all.Cleopatra’s dominancy can be proved by how even when not in a scene she holds this incredible power over what is happening, for example, in Act Two, Scene Two Cleopatra’s determination to fight beside Antony causes Antony to clash with Caesar and Enobarbus, Enobarbus proclaiming “Would we had all such wives, that the men might go to wars with the women!” emphasising how much control she had but is she central to the play?In recent times, the very people who have studied Cleopatra and her reign in Egypt believe that the real character was never in love with Antony but only interested in the politics, exploiting Antony to prosper herself but exposure of the truth is not the aim of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare manipulates facts, using the medium of drama to portray a love story entangled with the politics and issues at that time; Shakespeare’s main aim is to entertain. Shakespeare has written a love story in which the audience can get enthralled and leaves them drawing their own conclusions on the characters and their incentive and intentions.The play is structured into two halves, the first is of Antony’s desire to escape from the grip of ‘Egypt’ and therefore Cleopatra.
Portrayal of their relationship draws a very negative picture of Cleopatra from the outset. The audience is informed of Antony’s inappropriate behaviour, the head of a large army and great ruler being controlled by a woman. This makes everyone close to Antony doubt his future, “this dotage of our general’s / O’erflows the measure.” This is one of many subtle hints to the imminent doom and Cleopatra’s power. The second half picks up pace, no longer following, as closely, the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra but desolation of their love, the loss of both empires to Caesar.
Throughout the play the audience gains so much insight into the real Antony through his reactions to Cleopatra more than we learn of Cleopatra. Cleopatra is a character who is seen differently by everyone although she is almost an ‘open book’. Cleopatra is crucial in showing a depth to Antony only brought out when Antony’s heart refuses all self-restraint. His desire for Cleopatra is excessive, producing a transformation from a “pillar of the world” – a firm bearer of the Roman senate, likened to “Mars”, god of war, clad in armour, into “a strumpet’s fool.” This is seen to be all due to Cleopatra, making her influence felt as the play progresses.Her character is often used to display Antony in different lights, using her powers as a woman; she playfully emasculates Antony on several occasions. She recalls of the time, when she “drunk him to his bed; Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst I wore his sword Philippan.” Shakespeare presents an emasculated Antony in several ways – as a eunuch, a pleasure-seeking boy, and cross-dressed as a woman, to a Jacobean audience for a woman to have such power over a man was unheard of, public humiliation was disgraceful.
Immediately after Philo has described Antony as “the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust”, Antony and Cleopatra arrive with “eunuchs fanning her”.The repetition of the image is to allow association of Antony to Cleopatra’s eunuchs to Antony’s “dotage” and imprisoned by “Egyptian fetters”. Again, Cleopatra has worked her magic on Antony, “the noble ruin of her magic”. This is deliberate on Shakespeare’s part giving purpose to her character early on in the play, depicting her control over Antony and the consequences this has.Enobarbus plays a key role in raising Cleopatra’s status in emphasising the effect she has on Antony. In these passages, Enobarbus, acting as a narrator linking the audience to the characters, turns Antony’s and Cleopatra’s meeting into a fairy tale and leads the audience into believing the two are inseparable.
“When she first met Mark Antony, she pursed up his heart, upon the river of Cydnus.”His speeches in Act II are absolutely vital to the play in that this is how Shakespeare wants the audience to view Antony and Cleopatra, as Cleopatra being the capturing enchantress. Also, in these passages, Cleopatra is described as irresistible and beautiful beyond belief “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety….” – another view that is necessary for us to believe that a man with so much to lose would be willing to risk his identity and power in order to win her love.