Antony and Cleopatra

Essay by aishamalik12 September 2004

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In this essay I will explore the transformations of two signs that structure Antony and Cleopatra: performance and writing. As each circulates in the diverse dramatic contexts of the play, they articulate its thematic elements into a series of varying relations which operate at different levels of abstraction; from interactions between principles of flow and constraint, through the construction of characters' honour, virtue, or reputation, to what might be the perceived meaning of the physical gestures, actions, and visual appearances and arrangements when presented on-stage. By tracing some of those circulations, I hope to elucidate some of the effects that they produce in terms of a relation between subjects and their dramatised world, and the operation of the play's dramatised world in the theatrical event.

In the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra, the first sentence describes Antony's identity as being in a state of flux: "this dotage of our general's / O'erflows the measure" (1.1.1-2).

An image system is constructed throughout the text along chains of association extending from this sentence; they assign different subject positions for the characters to speak from or to be viewed from. "Measure," firstly, appears to refer to a limit that describes the proper standard of Roman identity. It is the spectacle of Antony deviating from this standard that alarms its Roman audience (Demetrius and Philo). Deviation from Roman measure is figured as flow. The description goes on to elaborate this principle of overflowing in physical terms; Antony's heart refuses all self-restraint. His desire is excessive, producing a transformation of his identity from a "pillar of the world"--a firm bearer of the Roman state, likened to Mars, the god of war, clad in armour--"Into a strumpet's fool" (12-3). Even before he appears on-stage, therefore, Antony is in some sense constituted by the...