Shakespeare and the Clash of Civilizations: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ Reconsidered


by Keith Hopkins (November 2014)   

Is there such a thing as the clash of civilizations? If there is, what is its likely outcome – civilizational collapse or renewal? Is conflict inevitable? Shakespeare’s great play, Antony and Cleopatra, confirms our suspicions. There is indeed such a clash, and played out for the highest stakes – nothing less than hegemony, visible or invisible, of the entire world. The struggle, in its crudest terms, is between east and west. In Antony and Cleopatra, it is between the culture of Egypt, North Africa, the Middle East, on the one hand, and Rome on the other. The play is set in a number of locations, Egypt, Athens, Syria, and Rome as if to underscore the crisis of political and cultural geography. Following the death of Caesar, civil war breaks out between erstwhile allies, Octavius, heir to Caesar, and Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man. This internal power struggle which is the meat and potatoes of the play is framed by a much bigger external picture. Mark Antony enlists the power of the east, in the person of his lover, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, in his quarrel with Octavius. Huge forces counterbalance one another. But looks, as always with Shakespeare, flatter only to deceive. Militarily, the east proves no match for Rome whatever its strength on paper. But that is, largely, beside the point. The east possesses a potent weapon in the battle for the mind. What might be termed the power of death and transfiguration. When Cleopatra commits suicide after her defeat we see enacted a drama we are all too aware of in our world since 9/11. Theatrical and apocalyptic gestures of nihilism attack the value system and beliefs of the west. Octavius is as impotent in this regard as the west remains, two thousand years later. Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s greatest meditation on being and non-being, transcendence and reality. A civilization of life and one of death.

Looks deceive. Antony’s finest hour, the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, is long past. He is now just the burnt out husk of a great man becoming more unstable, juvenile even, as the play progresses. He entertains ambition, but this is just a ‘toy’. Lost in a fantasy world, what he really enjoys is serious partying. In recent productions of the play, Antony has been portrayed as a Timothy Leary lookalike, drug-addled, and confused. Antony has gone native. He has gone over to the other side. He has turned his back on and abandoned western values. Discipline, prudence, discretion, temperance. Everything that he once followed. He has embraced eastern mysticism and become a sybarite, a ‘useless eater’ who lives only for the next fix of pleasure and self-indulgence:

Let’s not confound the time with conference harsh.
There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now. What sport tonight?

In a theme which is developed later in the play in language of great sumptuousness, Shakespeare suggests that Antony, his whole identity, is simply dissolving before our eyes, melting away into thin air:

Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay.

The beautiful word Shakespeare uses to describe Antony and his world view is ‘discandying’ – light, vapid, evanescent. He tells Octavius:

Be a child o’ th’ time.

Octavius, the master of real politik, replies simply:

Possess it.

Octavius, cool and perceptive, always has the measure of Antony who, in the play, can never seem to get far enough away from this youthful, indomitable figure. This repulsion mirrors the earlier conflict between Pompey and Caesar when Pompey escapes to the farthest reaches of the Empire to avoid confrontation with one of the greatest political and military figure of the ancient world. For Octavius, the will of the leader is supreme. What others want can be safely sidelined. They are only confused anyway. Or dead if they dare to question. In this reviewer’s opinion the lines of Octavius are the most perceptive and brilliant ever written on the nature of political power:

It hath been taught us from the primal state
That he which is was wished, until he were;
And the ebbed man, ne’er loved till ne’er worth love,
Comes deared by being lacked. This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.

If we learn by experience (a doubtful notion) we might distrust our instinct to trust political leaders. Trusting, after all, taking people at face value, seems the only way to carry on any sort of tolerable existence. To be constantly tormented by thoughts that others might not be all, or anything, they seem to be is the fast track to paranoia. Politics generates paranoia and fear. That is, fear of the alternative that we might be thrown back on our own resources, incompetent to judge those that rule over us. Here is the ‘common body’ investing the dear leader (a criminal psychopath) with the people’s sorrows, hopes and fears, failing to understand that adulation merely forges the chains of their own slavery. Octavius becomes the godfather of Europe.  

Egypt was an important economic and strategic province of Rome, its rulers, the Ptolemies, descended from one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra is a strange admixture of Greek thought with Near East fertility cults. Everything about her is artful, seductive. She has ‘infinite variety’. Unlike Roman women, who seem a pale reflection of Roman men, she refuses to be marginalized. Rather like Elizabeth I, she seems to instinctively understand that symbols are far more powerful than words in the political arena, particularly when your own power base may not be up to scratch. She aims at the transformation of herself into a living work of art (again, like Elizabeth who appropriated religious iconography to declare herself ‘the Virgin Queen’). The sumptuous language used to describe the first meeting of Cleopatra and Antony reflects the sensuous, languid, even effeminate (and enervating) nature of eastern potentates:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them: the oars
Were silver, (and) .. made the water … amorous of their strokes.

Cleopatra bewitches men, particularly high ranking Roman ones, through her charms, and achieves her designs through manipulation, first of Caesar then Anthony. She is ‘cunning, past man’s thought’. She meets her nemesis in Octavius whom she finds impossible to seduce or de-fang. He not merely represents Rome. In this great play of transformations, Shakespeare makes it clear Octavius is in the process of becoming the Roman state itself.

Is conflict inevitable between western civilization and the culture of the eastern world? Put another way, can two differing mind-sets be reconciled, if so, on what terms or in whose favour? Can the pragmatic be reconciled with the exotic? I would suggest there are two strands that Shakespeare identifies here. One is the direct clash of civilizations, a collision between two wholly different ways of looking at the world and our everyday actions – what the ancient Greeks called ‘praxis’ and the things we do. The other is what can only be described as the liberal mindset which aims to merge both (or surrender to the east), represented by Mark Antony, and which Shakespeare characterizes as a form of mental disorder. He enlists eastern military forces in a (stupid) direct confrontation with Rome and suffers catastrophic defeat at the battle of Actium. Rome had, of course, recently passed through the trauma of civil war but what was deeply shocking to the Roman mind was that here was a man who had been a co-leader of the state actually enlisting foreign kings from the east, alien forces, to attack Rome itself. The fault line between these two worlds widened with the appearance of Christianity, the great phenomenon of the next three centuries. Interestingly, Christianity was initially regarded by the Romans as an eastern mystery cult. It was only when it became the official religion of the Empire that Constantine felt obliged to legitimize the separate identities of east and west with the foundation of Constantinople (Byzantium). The dichotomy that runs through Antony in the play between practical west and mystical east begins to take on the aspect of historical inevitability.

Eastern societies were based on despotism. This is an old view that goes back via Gibbon to Bacon (a Jacobean contemporary of the Bard, of course). The despot is not concerned with achieving anything. He (and in the east it is always a he, so Cleopatra is a first) has no end in view. With no end or objective, nothing that he seeks, then all that matters is the will of one individual. Orientalism is a philosophy of self-indulgence. Other people only exist to do the pleasure of the sovereign. The state is simply an apotheosis of one person – the despot, who has absolute power. You have to be very attentive to what the despot wants. Your head may well depend on it. So there has to be minute attention to the nuances of the one person who sits at the apex of a pyramid of power. The law has no part in it. Or rather the ruler is the law. His word, his very look, is the law. Nothing could be further from the Latin conception of society. It’s true that with the transition from Republic to Empire, the Emperor became all-powerful. But this absolutism was limited, in theory at least, by the greatest jewel of Latin civilization, its most enduring legacy – Roman law. With this went what Hegel called “the abstract freedom of the individual” which was to be so important in the formation of the modern world. Eastern societies are servile states, in every sense of the word. Antony is servile, not only to Cleopatra, but to everything that is worst in himself. This doesn’t bring peace, or self-respect. Only self-loathing and a death wish.

But what can be said about the values, if any, that we see in the eastern world portrayed in Antony and Cleopatra? These might be summarized in two, (ominous) words or perhaps one. Fantasy and death. Or, simply, nihilism. Shakespeare is nothing if not eternally contemporary. Antony is enslaved by, in thrall to, the flesh-pots of Egypt in an almost biblical sense. Shortly before his suicide, he falls into a dream-like reverie. Utterly lost in a lost world, he banishes all forms of rationality. All that now matters to him is make-believe, feeling, impressions, fleeting moments. His identity is liquefying into everything around him. It is the final dissolution:

Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish,
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon‘t that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air.

Antony’s paramour, Cleopatra, achieves a kind of apotheosis in her suicide. She manages to turn the whole tragic act into high art and a transcendental ‘victory’ over the brutal Roman state. Antony’s self-immolation is, in contrast, hurried, bungled, agonizing.

But it is the nihilism of the east and its way of life (way of death might be more appropriate) that remains with the reader long after the play has ended. The east seems to stand like a great zero ‘signifying nothing’. What purpose was served by the lives of Antony and Cleopatra? What was, is, their message? Octavius triumphant, on the face of it at the end, and enclosed by the forces of the future, can only ponder and puzzle.

What was the meaning of 9/11? Or to put it in the bleak terms of Sartre and the Existentialists; what is its meaning for us?

We ponder and puzzle still.




Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of ‘The History Plays’.

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