Antony and Cleopatra: A Purview of Duty and Desire
In his play, Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare presents duty and desire on a metaphorical spectrum through the individual narratives of several characters including Antony, Cleopatra and Pompey. When presenting duty and desire in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare does so in such a way where duty is an expression of honor and desire is an expression of selfishness. In order to present this spectrum, then, Shakespeare uses Cleopatra to exhibit desire, Pompey to exhibit duty and Antony to exhibit the confliction when duty and desire are simultaneously exercised.
Cleopatra is representative of desire in the form of her constant selfish pursuit of power and affirmation. One instance Shakespeare reveals this to the audience is when Cleopatra demands Antony to “tell [her] how much,” he loves her, “if it be love indeed.” Her demanding Antony to prove his love shows the audience Cleopatra’s tendency to act upon her desires, and in this example, for the purpose of affirmation. Another way Shakespeare shows Cleopatra’s desire is her interactions with one of her attendants wherein she demands them to “see where he is, who’s with him, what he does,” and if he, Antony, is particularly happy to report that she is “sudden sick,” or if he is particularly sad to report that she is “dancing.”
By ordering someone to psychologically manipulate Antony and report of his exact status, Shakespeare shows the audience Cleopatra’s desire for power and affirmation, as she wants to affirm that whatever Antony may be feeling or doing it is a direct consequence of something she herself has initiated. Shakespeare also makes a point to show the audience just how little Cleopatra values duty and shows this through Cleopatra’s reaction to Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Cleopatra erupts in dialogue saying, “melt Egypt into Nile,” and beckons the inhabitants of Egypt, her followers, to “turn all to serpents.” This presentation of Cleopatra solidifies her representation of desire as she curses and condemns her own people and land (symbolic of her duty) simply due to the assumed failure of her own personal relationship – the dissatisfaction of her desires.
Antithetical to Cleopatra, Shakespeare presents Pompey as a character completely centralized around duty and thus honor. Early on in the play, Shakespeare reveals Pompey’s beliefs to the audience when Pompey proclaims that “if the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of the justest men.” Pompey’s beliefs are a significant piece of information to the audience because they outline Pompey’s duty – to follow and honor his beliefs at all times. With the revelation of Pompey’s beliefs as a basis, Shakespeare continues to elaborate the ideal of duty through the character of Pompey when Menas approaches him during their celebratory dinner with the triumvirates. Menas asks Pompey to “let [him] cut the cable,” giving him the chance to kill the “three world-sharers,” so that once they cease to exist “all there is thine.” Shakespeare uses Menas in this scene as a temptation to try to persuade Pompey against his moral beliefs, thus testing his honor and furthermore his value of duty. Shakespeare allows Pompey to reveal his temptation to the audience when he replies “this thou shouldst have done and not have spoke on ‘t,” and if Menas had done so he would have “found it afterwards well done.”
The theoretical pleasure that Pompey suggests through analyzing how he would have reacted to Menas if he had done so without asking consolidates the temptation. However, the temptation that Pompey exhibits does not necessarily make him appear as less dutiful, but the stark opposite. Shakespeare uses the temptation as contrast for when Pompey says “but must condemn it now,” thus turning down Menas’ offer. By revealing how Pompey would have found pleasure in taking up Menas’ offer but ultimately declining it, Shakespeare shows the audience Pompey acting according to his beliefs and thus placing his duty before his desire.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare illustrates both extremes of the spectrum of desire and duty through Pompey and Cleopatra; however, he continues the presentation of desire and duty through Antony whom struggles with the confliction of both motivations. Shakespeare reveals Antony’s motivation of desire when Antony is heard saying “let Rome in Tiber melt,” followed by “here is my space,” in reference to Egypt. This piece of dialogue shows how Antony relinquishes his duty to Rome by condemning it while proclaiming that his place is with Cleopatra, thus satisfying his desires as opposed to his duties – enveloping selfishness as opposed to honor. However, Shakespeare also shows the audience a moment where Antony shifts his priorities to his duties whereas his desires are the latter. Antony admits that residing in Egypt with Cleopatra creates “ten thousand harms, more then the ills,” he knows and that he must “break off,” his relationship with Cleopatra and “with haste from hence.” This particular scene, although ultimately shows Antony valuing his duty more than his desires, begins to reveal to the audience the conflict that Antony endures in attempts to satisfy both simultaneously.
To further elucidate this conflict, Shakespeare explores so explicitly through Antony’s dialogue. Antony, before journeying back to Rome, admits to Cleopatra, and thus to the audience, that “the strong necessity of time commands,” him, thus his duty is summoned by Rome, while his “full heart remains in use,” with Cleopatra, thus is desire is summoned by Cleopatra. This quote embodies the entire conflict of juggling both motivations. Shakespeare presents Antony to the audience caught in a web somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of duty and desire and it is this very tug-of-war relationship Antony has with duty and desire (the virtues of honor versus the vices of selfishness) that prevents him from being successful in either aspect of his life: his duty to Rome or his desire to Cleopatra.
Using the narratives of each of the aforementioned characters: Cleopatra, Pompey and Anton, Shakespeare explores the spectrum of duty and desire, showing the audience total immersion of duty, desire, and the conflicts that result from imploring both simultaneously and how each point on the spectrum shapes the characteristics, actions and interactions of each representative character. It is through this elaborate exploration of the spectrum, then, that Shakespeare presents duty and desire throughout the entirety of Antony and Cleopatra.
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