In Act 5 of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, Maecenas says that Antony’s ‘taints and honours waged equal with him’. To what extent, and in what ways, does Shakespeare prepare the audience for this view in the first two acts of the play? In Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, different comments and views of Antony are given to explore his ‘taints and honours’. Through people’s remarks and obvious changing attitudes towards Antony, the audience are shown the changeability of his disposition as a consequence of the place his is situated, Rome or Egypt.
The effect his company has on him is crucial to the perception the audience take of him, most significantly, the relationship between himself and Cleopatra, the ‘gypsy queen’ of Egypt. Shakespeare uses Philo to give the audience the view of Antony from a Roman perspective in a conversation with Demetrius, a friend and supporter of Antony, and give light to the concerns that Antony is placing his personal life before that of state issues, which subsequently supports the belief that Antony is neglecting his duties and responsibilities as a Triumvir.
Antony’s position as part of the Triumvirate, ruler of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, coincides with the Aristotelian belief that the tragic hero should be of high rank or nobility, in order to heighten the intensity of the tragedy as they supposedly have further to fall. Antony’s social obligations, due to his elevated position, also provoke sympathy in the audience, as his duties are seen to tear him away from where he most desperately wants to stay, in Egypt with his lover.
Philo speaks reverently of his master and his achievements, claiming that “his goodly eyes, that o’er the files and musters of war have glowed like plated mars” clearly shows the admiration that Antony is subject to by his followers. However, Philo continues and it is obvious that the regard he holds his captain in is diminishing, as he dwells longer in the sensuous land of indulgence and excess, the setting of his and Cleopatra’s great love affair, Egypt.
The once admirable Antony is said to have become the “bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust” and as Philo remarks to Demetrious, “you shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transformed into a strumpet’s fool”. The audience cannot at this stage in the play concur or disagree with this observation, but with further understanding of Antony’s character as the play progresses, one can acknowledge the view of moralistic critics, that disparage Antony, claiming him to be “a flighty, infatuated slave to an excess of love and luxury”.
Philo seems to mock Antony as well as glorify his past actions. Antony is both regarded as “Mars, ” “Jove, ” “the crown o’th’earth, ” “the solder’s pole”, but here he denigrates Antony’s love as merely a “dotage”, as also does Caesar in Scene Four, referring to it as “lascivious wassails. ” Antony’s ignorance to the talk of the people, further emphasise the power of Cleopatra’s hold over him.
So bewitched by his love and overwhelmed with infatuation he “reneges all temper” and is willing to betray the Roman Empire, which he spent his life fighting to obtain, in order to remain in Egypt with Cleopatra, “let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space. ” This declamation of love for Cleopatra, and proclamation of sheer devotion, should be regarded as both commendable and his vice, as it is most definitely a taint to defect Rome for Cleopatra, but concurrently, beautifully romantic.
This conflict between love for Cleopatra and duties as triumvir, presents the audience with the protagonist’s ‘tragic flaw’, not jealousy, pride or ambition as seen in other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but a love of pleasure, success and of each other. Antony’s overwhelming love for Cleopatra and sensuous indulgence, of which Egypt represents, constantly draws him away from his responsibilities, which Rome represents, and creates the tension and ultimately the war and death of the lover’s.
Harley Granville-Barker also argues, that in Antony and Cleopatra “Roman and Egyptian are set against each other; and this operation braces the whole body of the play”. William Hazlitt defines these polarities as “Roman pride versus Egyptian magnificence”, and Lloyd furthers this definition by summarising the conflicting forces as, “War and business versus love and pleasure; and, more comprehensively, the love-pleasure principle, intuition, and spontaneous affection versus duty, practical and worldly reason, and a restrictive morality”.