How does Shakespeare explore the relationship between man and woman in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’? Examine how both a Jacobean audience and a contemporary audience would respond to these relationships The interesting thing about the play ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is that it touches on issues that are as relevant now as they were in Jacobean times. The issues of forbidden love, of honour and privilege, of the right to give everything up for the one you love. Modern films pull in thousands of pounds at the box office dealing with these subjects, many of which are pathetically inferior to Shakespeare’s play.
They fail to inject his passion, his intensity or his wit and yet Shakespeare is much overlooked today. Keeping this in mind, I intend to examine how the relationship between the two sexes is explored by Shakespeare and how he makes the play vigorous and enthralling by manipulating this relationship. Also I hope to discover how relevant ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is to the modern audience and how, if it is somewhat shocking and ground-breaking in today’s society, must it have been received in Jacobean times.
The basic relationship between man and woman in the play is, of course, the affair of Antony and Cleopatra. This is rightly so, for none of the other dalliances between the sexes are as varied and complex as theirs. In one relationship we see the content of a thousand alliances, so many twists and turns and emotional rollercoasters. Shakespeare uses their relationship as the crux of the play- he is saying that when everything else is stripped away you have the love of these two people. I think here he is making a comment about love and society.
Love makes thing happen, it can make, or in Antony’s case, break a person. The ripples of it’s passion and intens ty touch all those around it and no- one is safe from it’s side effects. Certainly we see right from the start that their love is affecting others, as Demetrius and Philo inform us how they feel about the relationship. “(The triple pillar of the world) transform’d Into a strumpet’s fool” Philo is angry at how love is affecting Antony. Once a great and powerful leader, he is now easily persuaded by Cleopatra into a life of luxury and pleasure.
His friends feel he is wasted on this gipsy, this slut. They make opinionated remarks about Cleopatra- calling her a ‘strumpet’ and describing her as a ‘tawny front’ They cannot grasp how one woman has so much power that she can completely transform a grown man. The impression I got when I read the play was that it was making a very clear statement about men and women and the roles they play. In Jacobean society women were very much the underdogs- they needed to be pretty or at least useful so that they might find a husband. Once they were married they were acceptable, they were safe from gossip and tittle-tattle.
They were not different people, they did not go to church any more than they had done when they were single and they did not dress any differently than before. They were just married, they had a man and because of this they were okay. Shakespeare, living in this time of sexual inequality, turns this theory on it’s head. He made this character who is strong, passionate, who makes things happen. A character who is willing to battle for what they want and gets it. And this character is a woman. “Egypt, thou knew’st too well, My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’ strings, And thou should’st stow me after. ”
Cleopatra runs and Antony runs after her, he has no choice, his heart is bound to her. I feel the play reveals how powerful women are, but in an understated way. Repressed by Jacobean society, they were forced to play an inferior role to men, but Shakespeare is suggesting that women can be courageous and confident, that perhaps underneath their timidity, every woman has the might to do it her way. Cleopatra does it her way and plays out the role of the masculine figure in the relationship. She has Antony eating out of her hand, she tempts him away from his wife and makes a fool out of him.
And he doesn’t care. “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the rang’d Empire fall: here is my space,” Antony is so in love with Cleopatra that he would, and does, give up everything for her love. The interesting thing about their relationship is trying to discover what the true feeling of both parties are. We have Antony, swearing love to Cleopatra declaring there is nothing in the world he wants more. And yet he marries another woman, he says desperately that he ‘must from this enchanting Queen break off’. Then Cleopatra, who the audience is persuaded to see as a temptress, a seductress who is only interested in using Antony. She plays games with him-
‘If you find him sad, Say I am dancing’- and she appears to be acting behind his back for her own interests. “Hast thou no care of me, shall I abide In this dull world, which in thy absence is No better than a sty? ” However at the end, as he lies dying in her arms, we can see how passionately she loved him, how much she was hurt by his marrying Octavia. Octavia is a key player in this game, although at first we don’t identify her as such. “She creep: her motion, ad her station are as one, She shows a body, rather than a life, A statue, than a breather”.