Shakespeare was deeply concerned with the meanings of the classical past. His play Antony and Cleopatra concerns itself with a major theme from Renaissance culture: The importance and continued thriving of Europe’s Graeco-Roman culture. Yet in one sense, Shakespeare rebelled against the traditional portrayal of Rome by the narrator of his source Plutarch and his contempories. Whilst imperial historians and medieval poets like Chaucer shared Plutarch’s view that glorified Rome, both as a virtuous political power and as a morally legitimate empire, Shakespeare refused to see Rome’s motives as wholly honourable.
He emphasised the themes of the decline of virtue and the pursuit of honour, which represent satirical work of the highest degree. Therefore this play cannot really be read as a propaganda piece for Western domination. On the other hand, Plutarch and his contempories saw the East as the manifestation of all that was extravagant and ostentatious; a place of desire and decadence infinitely inferior to the Roman empire and it’s adherents, morally and even racially. However Plutarch, in his portrait of Cleopatra, stresses the East’s ability to attract and does not underestimate it’s witty skill to enchant.
Shakespeare generally agrees but also asserts that Eastern sensibilities are deeper, more complicated, and most of all, more multifaceted than the Romans believe them to be. Plutarch was a Greek who lived in the most decadent years of the Roman Empire. He therefore saw Julius Caesar as an exemplary leader whose only fault was a vanity that made him wish to be crowned king. For Plutarch, the security he provided for a growing empire that desperately needed a responsible leader far outweighed this minor flaw. Indirectly, Plutarch may be showing an understanding of the flaws of Rome both as a culture and as a body politic.
However he chooses to always focus on the positive aspects in Caesar’s character just like he does with Antony, whose wild, lecherous behaviour is compensated by the past glories of his battle. Shakespeare does the opposite; reinforcing the idea that Antony is past his best and has now become a self-indulgent and egyptianised man. The Elizabethan audience would have also shared Plutarch’s indirect view that a monarchy as efficient as Octavius Caesar’s was the only form of government able to guarantee domestic security and tranquillity.
This was an idea that the Tudor establishment of Shakespeare’s day was keen to inject into the masses to prevent Social or Political unrest. Shakespeare’s main objections to a monarchic system like Octavius Caesar’s- it seems-is its ruthless efficiency. Shakespeare is thus extending his criticism to the Roman way of ruling, that is one sense hypocritical (as in Act II scene 6 where Pompey would not, by his own order kill the triumvirs but would not have objected to Menas doing it without consulting him) and in another, unable to see the East as anything but a land of vast resources and moral decadence.
The dimensions of this opposition between East and West are variable and numerous. Shakespeare approaches this clash in three different ways: The first concerns the manipulation of Shakespeare’s source; Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s “The lives of the noble Grecians and Romans”, first to fit into his own perspective regarding the clash of cultures between East and West and second to meet the expectations of an audience who already had an idea of what each culture represented.
The second aspect is that of detailed characterisation, which Shakespeare utilizes to reflect a sensibility or an idea that corresponds to either East or West. The third way relates to structure and the use of contrasting language about both Rome and Egypt. Drama is based on contrasts; Alexandria represents the East, desire and fluidity. Rome represents static action and military might.
The vertical sense and physical rigidity manifested in the Roman’s military uniform and their firm, solid, upright positions contrast with the sinuous ease of the mobile, colourful and indolently playful Egyptians who fill the stage with the movement of fans and music. Shakespeare’s dramatic strategy in Antony and Cleopatra is concerned with creating images of Egypt that his Elizabethan audience could identify with: feasting, wealth, pyramids, serpents, insects and above all, the mysterious fertile Nile. Shakespeare thus extracts from his source the sections that he feels would engage the interest of his audience.
However, Shakespeare also misses out many detailed ideas of Plutarch’s text that he feels do not fit in with the viewpoint he intends to offer the audience. For example, when Plutarch documented that Octavius Caesar enjoyed sports and fishing as well having a weakness for women, Shakespeare probably found that his presentation of Rome as a rigid, stoic and disciplined culture would be faulty. Thus he conveniently leaves out this detail to enhance Caesar’s image of a censorious, cold and abstemious character, whose primary aim is to serve Rome.