Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra tells the tale of the titular characters, the historical figures Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as they navigate their life and rule of Rome and Egypt, respectively. The play is replete with historical and political intrigue, as the various rules and political figures attempt to wrest power from each other; also, it is a tale of war and the consequences thereof. At the center of it, however, seems to be the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, two leaders of distinctly different nations who find a common bond in each other. The character of Cleopatra, in particular, is an extremely strong woman, with compelling characterization and a penchant for histrionics. This results in a tragic yet fascinating love story, where sex, love and power are all inextricably intertwined, and men feel threatened by the sexual power of women.
The theme at the center of the play seems to be the desperate measures that are taken by people in power to get what they want. Antony struggles to decide what he wants throughout the play; often, he feels as though he must choose between his loyalty to Rome and his love for Cleopatra. When he is with her, he dismisses his responsibilities: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (I.i.35–36). However, he is concerned later that he will “lose [him]self in dotage” (I.ii.106). Antony is always torn between duty and love, and this leaves him immensely stressed and disturbed. Eventually, he takes his own life in order to save his honor after too many defeats, making sure he goes out as a “a Roman by a Roman / Valiantly vanquished” (IV.xvi.59–60).
Cleopatra’s beauty and fascinating nature are at the heart of the play; she seems to be one of the most interesting and complex female characters in the Shakespearean canon. Her magnificence is even described by others in the play, demonstrating her divine influence: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies” (II.ii.240-243). Many different people take different perspectives on Cleopatra, but she makes a strong impression nevertheless. Philo and Demetrius take her to be a “gipsy,” a “wrangling queen,” and so forth; many Romans are distrustful of her, but this seems to be because of her incredible presence and alluring sexuality, as well as her prowess as a leader (I.i. 10, 50). She is always incredibly theatrical, Enobarbus describing one of her jaunts through the street as her “hop[ping] forty paces . . . And having lost her breath, she spoke and panted, That she did make defect perfection, And breathless, pour breath forth” (II.ii.235–238).
The man’s awe at Cleopatra’s flagrant and open sexuality is one of her strengths as a character; we see her effect on other people without her being present, her presence expanding all the way to Rome. The Romans feel threatened by this sexuality, as it is incredibly powerful. In the case of Antony, it seems to be incredibly true, to the point where he feels it compromises his ability to be a good Roman leader and warrior. In this play, the clash between love and duty tears him apart, and makes this play one of Shakespeare’s most complex.
The Winter’s Tale
In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes is an absolutely compelling, villainous character, as he is jealous and pernicious, as well as prone to revenge, attempting to poison Polixenes and imprisoning his wife for potentially carrying Polixenes’ child. While it seems that Leontes is meant to be a true villain rather than a nuanced attempt at portraying someone who is childish and flippant, Leontes does feel like a character who is acting out due to his insecurity. However, because of this insane jealousy, Leontes acts out far too much and leads him to perform all manner of unspeakable acts, including poisoning his friend, throwing his wife in prison, and leaving his infant daughter out in the wild. All of these things are evidence of a deeply troubled man in search of forgiveness.
While the flawed figure in most of Shakespeare’s comedies of forgiveness are the victims of societal norms, temporary lusts for power or misunderstandings of gender politics, Leontes is vilified a bit more than those others. Shakespeare’s overall negative portrayal of Leontes as capricious and jealous is meant to finally cement the premise that human nature is inherently evil. Leontes is just acting according to his nature; he is very insecure and paranoid, perpetually believing that something terrible is going to happen to him, or that he will be swindled in some way. Whenever Polixenes holds his wife’s hand platonically, for example, he misinterprets it to be “paddling palms and pinching fingers” (I.ii.11).
The attempts at forgiveness come mostly through the character of Hermione, his wife, who continually tries to reach out to Leontes and make him see the truth: Typically, this is also accomplished through divine intervention and a desire to ‘get good’ with the gods, but this does not seem to be the case with Leontes: The gods, feeling capricious themselves and lashing out as Leonte’s rejection of their offer of forgiveness, to show what happens when an evil character does not see the light when given the chance. This is further evidence of Leontes’ particular selfishness, as he does not quite reach the level of forgiveness that he needs to, thus necessitating these other pushes to rescind his sins.
The Winter’s Tale is incredibly different from other comedies of forgiveness by acknowledging that Leontes is particularly unrepentant. This was Shakespeare’s attempt to subvert somewhat the comedy of forgiveness and portray a slightly more cynical outcome of these kinds of situations. Shakespeare seems to use this play to advance his statement about the human condition, in which we are inherently evil and we are full of malice given the right temperament and circumstances. Leontes seems like a lost cause, as he sees no way to ever feel safe and not threatened: “No barricado for a belly; know’t; It will let in and out the enemy With bag and baggage: many thousand on’s Have the disease, and feel’t not. How now, boy!” (I.ii.18).
At the same time, he hesitates to paint humanity with a broad brush and state categorically that the world should be a worse place than it is. With inherent evil comes inherent goodness, and this constant conflict is what Shakespeare implies drives us toward forgiveness. However, unlike his other plays, that forgiveness does not take as quickly in The Winter’s Tale – this forgiveness only comes at the end, when a miraculous turn of divine intervention brings Hermione back to life, and Leontes is forgiven for his sins.
The Tempest can be seen as a tragic comedy, as well as something that is much more concerned with the craft of art altogether. Prospero, the wizard in the play, seems to be like a playwright himself, creating art and magic. Usurped by his brother Alonso and sent off to die, his island appears to be his canvas, as he exacts petty punishments on Caliban and treats Ferdinand very unpleasantly with enslavement and imprisonment. Prospero as a character is fascinating, he seems to be incredibly embittered by his punishments, and so he takes it out on all those who come to his island. To that end, Prospero’s island becomes a bit of a theatre in itself; his magic refers to his ability to create and control the actions of characters, who comprise the rest of the cast of the play. This metafictional and metatextual element is a fascinating one, and cements Prospero as an analogue to Shakespeare as they both perform their spectacles on their stages.
In this play, the real tragic figure, however, is Alonso, as he has deposed Prospero from his dukedom and tried to kill Miranda and Prospero alike. This crime is the central focus of many of the actions of the other characters of the play, though it is not seen onstage, instead we hear about it from many different perspectives and constantly throughout the work. Ariel is then the character who manages to restore forgiveness to Alonso by making him confront his demons, though Alonso at first is driven toward self-destruction. Antonio’s own evils are also forgiven, if only because evil is incapable of being totally destroyed, and so only forgiveness is left for this kind of character.
The fate of Alonso is closely linked to the play’s themes of justice, and how flimsy it may actually seem. The whole play hinges on a wrong perpetrated by Alonso, which is then exacerbated by Prospero’s thirst for revenge. However, by the end of the play, he forgives Alonso for his crimes for seemingly no reason; this ties back to Prospero’s role as the architect of the world of the play; everyone can get a happy ending because he so chooses it. This furthers the play’s themes of metatextuality and art itself.
Shakespeare, William. The complete Pelican Shakespeare. ed. Orgel, Stephen. Penguin, 2002. Print.