Antony and Cleopatra | William Shakespeare | Symbolism and Images

Symbolism and Images in “Antony and Cleopatra” (with special reference to Melting):
 
Shakespearean imagery and symbolism as the concourse of criticism have been pointing out through ages, is no less significant than the action since it bewrays the theme and the context, the meaning and the message, the potency and the philosophy better than any obtrusive summery or its gross enchantment could have. If the dominating image in “Macbeth” is of an ill-dressed man in a gloomy, blood-besmirched atmosphere, and if that man in “Romeo and Juliet” is of radiant light in the midst of all-encompassing gloom, the pervasive image in “Antony and Cleopatra” is that of solid liquefying, metals melting, emotion discandying, vision dissolving and empires disintegrating in a world positing pragmatic stability. The world of liquefaction is thus implicitly opposed to the world of firmness and fixity, thereby setting a contrast between the world of Rome and the world of Egypt, between the mundane world and the amorous world.

Rome is refined through images of worldly power and warfare, a world to which Antony is expected to dedicate himself. The foremost of Roman virtues is velour known simply as ‘virtus’, and described by Ventidius as ‘the magical world of war’. When Antony is seen as a Roman, he is praised as ‘the triple pillar of the world’ at the very beginning of the play and during the feast on Pompey’s galley, Menas calls the triumvirs ‘the three world shares’. But before his final victory Caesar prophecies that a ‘time of universal peace’ is coming in which ‘the three hooked world shall bear the olive free,. As Erickson notes Rome is presented predominantly as a male society in which the only woman Octavia is regarded as a “cement” promote and consolidate male relations’.
 
But Antony is drawn away from this world of fixities to the Egyptian world of fecundity. In contrast to the Roman image of fixity such as ‘fortress’ and ‘hoop’ the image of water and flow repeated used for Egypt, signify fecundity and superabundance, though this flow can be disastrous too. The Nile is visualized as the source both of fruitfulness and carrion-eating insects, harvest and the deadly serpent, indicating that luxury is both a joy and a potential source of destruction, as indeed it proves to be at the end. Cleopatra is himself the ‘serpent of the old Nile’ and the river reflects her paradoxical nature both life-enhancing and fatally poisonous. If Romeo is land Egypt is water and the two are in elemental conflict. The ‘terra firma’ of Rome suggests Roman strength, while the flowing Nile, as well as the sea, suggests Eastern feminity and softness.
 
 
Antony abandoning his Roman world of power and pelf may succumb. To Egyptian amour, but this has been presented as an elevation rather than a degeneration. Images from myth and legends such as Mars, Venus, Isis and Hercules on the one hand and cosmic images such as sun, moon, stars, heaves, spheres and world elevated to the lovers beyond the realm of mere human beings. Antony and Cleopatra are referred to as gods and goddess. Antony is Mars, the god of war, and when he is in the process of being defeated, Hercules is seen by the guards as moving away; ‘tis the god of Hercules whom Antony loved,/ Now leaves him’. Cleopatra is Venus herself in beauty and charm and swears by Isis.
 
But amours elevation Antony leads to instability and mutability as a Roman trium virant and wielder of political power. The distinctive images of the play are of ‘melting fading, dissolving fading, discandying, desponding and losing of form’.



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