The imagery employed in the play is a key to unlocking the central dichotomy between Roman reason and Egyptian passion. According to Renaissance symbol systems of astrology, which would have been prominent in Shakespeare's time, the elements had specific associations. Fire represented energy, dynamism, lust and life force. Air was balanced, humane and intelligent. Water represented profound feeling, intuition, and divination. Earth stood for rationality, decorum, order, realism. In the light of this schema, the imagery in Antony and Cleopatra becomes relevant to the thematic concerns of the play.

Cleopatra unites fire and water, as Enobarbus' speech in "The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Burned on the water" (2.2) illustrates. Her attendants' cheeks "glow"; a "seeming mermaid" steers - the whole passage is full of warmth or the creatures of the sea. Similarly the intent of Enobarbus in this passage is to describe the way Cleopatra ensnared Antony, and made him give up his reason and his wit to emotion. Thus, in the speech, air succumbs to the fire and the water, "the winds" being made "lovesick" by her sails, and, in line 225, the air has "gone to gaze on Cleopatra, too,/ And made a gap in nature.".

Agrippa's response to the speech is typically Roman: "He ploughed her, and she cropped". It resists all the poetry of the description of Egypt, and describes sex and pregnancy in agricultural terms. Indeed, all the way through the play, the Romans speak in earthy language, or in architectural metaphors: the Roman empire is "the wide arch/ Of the ranged empire". Similarly, Caesar's speech (1.4) regarding Antony's military prowess, when he was all Roman, is landlocked in the alps, where there is no water even to drink "Thou didst drink/ The stale of horses and the gilded puddle... ". When Cleopatra says "Sink Rome!" and Antony "Let Rome in Tiber melt", the pair are metaphorically destroying Roman rationality under a deluge of their values of emotion. Cleopatra, figurehead of Egypt, is as much the Nile as Caesar is the steady turf of his empire. Camille Paglia describes how Caesar's victory is effected in elemental terms as Cleopatra describes the earth without Antony as "dungy", and when accepting death, takes on a stony attribute foreign to her nature:

"I marble constant. Now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine."

For further reading see:

Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae - contains inspiring material on the play.

Charney, Maurice, Shakespeare's Roman Plays: the function imagery in the drama - particularly good on the play's water references.

Clemen, Wolfgang, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery - offers a simple chapter on Antony and Cleopatra in this respect.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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