Neither hero nor a true villain, Caesar is the embodiment of a new Rome, one where the old notions of honour and loyalty treasured by Antony are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the pursuit of individual power. The moral fibre of Caesar is debatable, but whether a Machiavellian liar or a man genuinely desiring peace, his singularity of purpose and failure to display any ‘Egyptian’ qualities render him devoid of passion and therefore full humanity. He resembles a cold but inevitable force; his victory, and therefore that of the Roman West seems to be predestined. The soothsayer prophesises to Antony; ‘If thou dost play with him at any game, Thou art sure to lose.’
The inevitability of Caesar’s triumph is said to herald ‘the time of universal peace’; and, as the audience know, historically the reign of Octavius as Emperor Augustus was noted for the initiation of the Pax Romana, which brought harmony to the Empire for over a century. However, as Caesar and Rome represent only half of the duality that is essential for humanity to survive, there is the undeniable sense that the subjugation of Egypt and Egyptian values has been accomplished only superficially, and that, through his failure to acknowledge and understand the essential nature of the Egyptian in his psyche and that of the world, his humanity is severely limited. The audience is left with the sensation that, as Cleopatra states emotively near her death;
‘Tis paltry to be Caesar.’ ‘His legs bestrid the ocean’ Cleopatra proclaims when delivering a touching eulogy to Antony. As well as expressing his power and magnitude, this phrase symbolizes the gulf over which Antony stood, and by which he was eventually destroyed. Antony’s persona is an amalgam of Roman and Egyptian values; he recognises his own emotional capacity, saying of his passion for Cleopatra ‘there’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned’ yet also prioritises the old Roman notion of honour;’I have lived in such dishonour that the gods Detest my baseness.’
The contrasting values vie for supremacy in the psyche of Antony, and this often makes his behaviour seem inconsistent. For example, in the very first scene he declares: ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall!’ yet after discovering the death of his estranged wife resolves ‘I must from this enchanting queen break off.’
However, the contradiction the audience witnesses in Antony is less a symptom of an inherently paradoxical psyche, but an indication of a world that does not allow Antony to display the full range of his humanity. Instead, the world attempts to force him to choose between the spheres of Rome and Alexandria. Antony becomes embroiled within the conflict, and is a casualty of the struggle for supremacy. Believing that both Roman honour and Egyptian love have deserted him, he attempts suicide.
One of the only characters in the play who combines Roman and Egyptian values in his psyche, Antony differs from many of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists in that he shows little internal conflict – he does not, for example, question the gods. Antony’s tragedy is that the worlds of both Rome and Egypt impose their limitations of behaviour upon him, and in resisting polarisation to either extreme, he is destroyed. However, in death he is restored to the glory in which others have beheld him throughout the play, and in a ‘new heaven, new earth’ he achieves immortal glory, heroism, and love.
Until the final act, when Cleopatra transcends her own pettiness and becomes a genuine tragic protagonist, the charismatic Egyptian Queen works as the archetypal opposite of Caesar – the quintessence of Eastern culture and values. Cleopatra is governed entirely by her fierce and passionate emotions, and her swift, histrionic mood changes often appear falsified, but Enobarbus refutes this, saying ‘Alack, sir, no; her passions are made of nought but the finest part of pure love.’
An enigma who both mesmerizes and repulses the Romans, Cleopatra seems to the audience paradoxical – her only consistency is her lack of consistency! Her true self is unfathomable, as we see only the outward responses of a woman dominated by passionate inner emotions that we cannot witness. Despite the ‘infinite variety’ that mystifies the Romans, until the final act Cleopatra too is fatally limited, for despite deriding the Roman world, her failure to comprehend its values, and the seeming lack of any ‘Roman’ traits in her psyche, renders her, like her converse Caesar, unable to express her full humanity. Her preoccupation with emotion renders her narcissistic, petty and prone to excessive hyperbole.
However, unlike Caesar, Cleopatra’s love for Antony renders her able, in the final act, to transcend her own limitations and finally become the figure of splendour and wonderment that she yearns to be. Resolving to die ‘in the high Roman fashion’ she channels her considerable energies into her ‘immortal longings,’ skilfully outmanoeuvring the false-hearted Caesar to die passionately and gloriously. The validity of her emotions here can be doubtless, as she says:
‘Husband, I come. Now to that name my courage prove my title! I am fire and air; my other elements I give to baser life.’ In finally understanding the concepts of courage, nobility and honour that her lover possessed, Cleopatra is able to emulate him, and in doing so herself reconcile the concepts of ‘East’ and ‘West’ and reach her full humanity in a glorious, and truly royal, suicide.
Throughout the play, Antony’s ‘plated Mars’ and Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety’ are conveyed through wondrous poetry and dramatic hyperbole from each other and from other characters. These representations of the protagonists are often different to those that the audience witnesses; but in their deaths they are remembered as the idealised lovers they desired to be, a ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’ or almost mythical proportions.
Their exaltation from ‘this dungy earth’ into an immortal love, compels the Romans to admire the passion that they once denigrated, even Caesar laments the lovers: ‘No grave upon the earth shall clip in it A pair so famous. High events as these Strike those that make them.’ In their suicides, Antony and Cleopatra cheat Rome of true victory. Although the cold Roman, imperialistic force is inexorable, the triumphant death of Cleopatra fools Caesar and denies him of the chance to humiliate her and expunge all traces of Egypt from the Roman consciousness.