William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: Dramatic Significance of the Political Background

The political background of  English dramatist William Shakespeare's tragedy , Antony and Cleopatra is manifest from the very beginning of the play and its quite natural being  a historical drama. As we all know the story is based on the intertwined lives of Roman general Mark Antony and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 bc. For his account of the characters and times, Shakespeare used Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of Greek biographer Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The very first act of the play shows the internal political situation at Rome consequent upon Antony’s dotage on Queen Cleopatra of Egypt at Alexandria. The play opens in Alexandria, Egypt, where Antony rules the Roman Empire with Octavius Caesar (later the emperor Augustus) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Although Antony and Cleopatra are already lovers, Antony has returned to Rome from Egypt and married Octavius’s sister, Octavia, in order to assuage Octavius’s misgivings about his leadership capabilities. However, Antony is drawn inexorably toward Egypt and Cleopatra, and he soon abandons his wife to return there. Octavius Caesar is enraged and declares war on Antony. In the very first scene of Act. I. we are made aware of the basic tragic situation against the huge backdrop of Roman politics. Demetrius and Philo; two Romans we found in this scene to discuss Antony’s peculiar dotage on Cleopatra much to the detriment of Roman political interests of the triple pillar of the world. Then Antony and Cleopatra enter and Antony refuses to see the messenger from Rome. The political interest is openly denigrated for love’s infatuation, which ultimately will ruin the soldier and statesman that Antony was. This act also shows very clearly the contrast and conflict between the two greats of the Roman Triumvirate – Antony, generous and affectionate and Octavius Caesar, his rival, cold and severe.

While the internal politics of Rome haunts Antony and, therefore, the play, from beginning to end, Antony in the toils of Cleopatra brings two world empires, of Rome and Egypt, into a head-on conflict at many levels of the play so that the political backdrop is extended from the internal to the external world – in fact, it envelops ultimately the whole civilized world known to the play. Shakespeare very brilliantly utilized this basic political situation to rear up the tragic structure of his great play where round the fantastic and the hero of the play “is caught between the duel and mutually destructive sources of his pride, power in Rome and pleasure in Egypt”.

            In order to appreciate fully the impact of politics in the play, it is necessary to refer to Shakespeare’s source which was Plutarch’s, Life of Antony. As per Plutarch, the political-historical situation covered by the play extended over a period of about ten years, from 40 B.C. to 30 B. C. Mark Antony, born 82 B. C. began his soldier-ship about 58 B. C. and accompanied Julius Caesar in various campaigns. He married Fulvia, the widow of notorious Clodius, in 45 B. C. and became a Consul along with Julius Caesar in 44 B. C. on great Caesar’s death, Antony came to terms with the former’s adopted son, Octavius Caesar, despite his other ambitions. The second triumvirate comprising Antony, Octavius and Lepidus was formed in 43 B. C. and it successfully suppressed the rebellion of Brutus and Cassius in the East. While setting things in the East, Antony first met Cleopatra at Tarsus in 41 B. C. and spent the winter with her at Alexandria.

            During Antony’s absence, his Roman interests were looked after by his wife, Fulvia, who very soon clashed with Antony’s brother, Lucius. (About 41 B.C) Subsequently both of them rebelled unsuccessfully against Octavius as a result of which Fulvia with her children had to leave Italy only to die at Sicyon after meeting Antony at Athens on the way feeling perhaps mortally sick of her great husband’s unforgivable faithfulness. (40 B. C. approx).

            It is at this point that Shakespeare’s play opens. In this year the famous treaty of Brundisium was made encompassing a whole political arrangement based on mutual compassing a whole political arrangement based on mutual compromise between the Triumvirates. This treaty was immediately followed by marriage of Antony and Octavia, sister of Octavius Caesar. The treaties provided for Lepidus’ retention of African possessions, Antony’s supremacy in the East and his undertaking of Parthian wars and the rule of the West by Octavius who was to stop the piracy of Pompeius.

            Antonym after making an unsuccessful attempt to subdue Parthia in 36 B. C., spent a year with Cleopatra and then overran Armenia, an ally of Parthia. Contended thus, he returned to Alexandria only to outrage Roman sentiments by his impolitic assignment of Eastern countries to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. This partically undid the earlier efforts (in 38 B. C.) of the Roman statesman. Maecenas, to bridge the widening gulf between Antony and Octavius Caesar and hastened the final show-down between the two greats of the Triumvirate ending in the establishment of Imperial Rule in Rome. The last stage of this armed confrontation occupies the latter half of Shakespeare’s play. The play in fact includes the naval action off Actium (31 B. C.), the subsequent fighting at Alexandria and the death of Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, in 30 B. C.

            Thus we see the play begins with heavy political overtone and ends as a sequel to a long political battle of Roman history, which finally led to the establishment of the great Roman Empire. The internal political situation is characterized by Fulvia’s clashes first with Lucius, Antony’s brother and then jointly with Lucius, against Octavius Caesar, leading to her death in Sicyon, bereft of political power and her husband’s love. The Roman political scene is present throughout in Egypt is continually present in Rome through the artistry of Shakespeare. The most pathetic figure in this political contest is that of Octavia, who witnesses the fight between her brother and her husband, and bemoans “as if the world should cleave, and that slain men/ Should solder up the rift”. The political background also helps to heighten the difference between the Roman and Egyptian styles of living. While the dazzling Egyptian world presents a unified conception of love and zest for life, the shallow Roman world of the play despite its splendour and glory, shows up blatant contradictions in its decadent state. Amidst these ideas, Antony seems to occupy a middle ground creating there a magnificent lover’s world which is more than a match for the Roman empire that serves as its appropriate background with all its politics of vaulting ambition and nefarious interests. Shakespeare never forgets this immense political background and that is why in this play he neither adds nor alters, any incident of major political importance and omits very few. 

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