Cynicism Vs. Idealism in Antony

This godlessness might initially be viewed as being cynical. However, when one looks at the social and political climate of Shakespeares time, and the reality that England was just passing through a conversion from Catholicism to the Anglican church, driven by Henry VIIIs desire to divorce and remarry, it might not be accurate to label godlessness in the play as cynical. Perhaps that is the view that Shakespeare is suggesting is idyllic, given the turmoil that organized religion had helped create in his country in recent history. This lack of a clear-cut explanation of the godlessness in the play, and of the playful way in which Cleopatra obliterates any claim Antony might actually have to self-divinity, shows how cynicism and idealism are caught in this cycle.

Nowhere in the play is the cycle of cynicism and idealism more dramatically showcased than in the plays final scenes. Caesar has conquered Egypt and comes in to speak with Cleopatra. That scene is interesting, because, in it, Cleopatra alternately plays the role of haughty ruler and vanquished queen, which seems to keep Caesar on his toes. He tries hard not to insult her, and to treat her with respect, and it appears to be a carefully crafted cynical dance on both of their parts, with the goal of keeping Egypt as free as possible while still giving Rome the benefits of having vanquished her. In fact, Cleopatra does not spend a significant amount of time in that speech mourning for Antony and seems to be very pragmatic about accepting that Egypt has been conquered. One almost thinks that Cleopatra has revealed herself as the ultimate cynical politician in the entire play.

Then, the scene shifts and Caesar leaves the room. It becomes clear that Cleopatra was merely playing a role. She has no intention to continue leading Egypt as a figurehead ruler. Moreover, she is absolutely heartbroken to think that Antony has died. She has obviously already planned to kill herself and the clowns arrival so quickly after Caesars departure makes it clear that she knew she was going to kill herself when she was speaking with Caesar. It is here that one sees Cleopatras idealism; to her, a life without Antony is worthless, so she intends to take her life. However, what is interesting is that this view of suicide is, in and of itself, very idealistic.

A more cynical view of suicide would suggest that it is Cleopatras own pride and her unwillingness to accept a conquered Egypt, which she hinted at in her conversation with Caesar, that lead her to take her own life.

Antony and Cleopatra reveals a constant battle between idealism and cynicism, and one might think that the result would be a play about reality, which one traditionally considers the middle ground between the two extremes. However, the reality in Antony and Cleopatra “is layered with masquerade; forms that are often as lyric as brutal shift and change and baffle expectation. The constant refinement of brute reality into lyric illusion is the work not simply of Antony, Shakespeares hero, but the lifelong work of Shakespeare himself” (Oates). What is reality? In the end, the fact is that reality means that politicians must be cynical while being politicians, but that does not mean that they cannot be idyllic when being lovers. There will always be a strain and a tension between the different roles people must play in various parts of their life, and it is this strain and tension that makes Antony and Cleopatra relevant despite time or setting.

Works Cited

Fuller, David. “Passion and Politics: Antony and Cleopatra in Performance.” Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays. Ed. Sara Muson Deats. New York: Routledge, 2005.


Hirsh, James. “Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra and in Criticism of the Play.” Antony

and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays. Ed. Sara Muson Deats. New York: Routledge, 2005. 175-192.

Kahn, Coppelia. “Antonys Wound.” Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women.

London: Routledge, 1997. 110-143.

Kermode, Frank. “Antony and Cleopatra.” The Riverside Shakespeare.

Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974. 1343-1346.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Tragedy of Imagination: Shakespeares Antony and Cleopatra.”

Celestial Timepiece: A Joyce Carol Oates Home Page. Randy Souther. 1964. Web. 4 Aug. 2010.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.” The Riverside Shakespeare.

Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton.

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