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Roman World, Egyptian Earth: Cognitive Difference and Empire in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 43, Number 1, Spring 2009
pp. 1-17 | 10.1353/cdr.0.0041

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Critics over the years have found many ways to read the binary division of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra between the poles of Rome and Egypt.1 Recently, postcolonial theory has informed readings that emphasize the “Otherness” of Egypt: as John Gillies has argued, “the ‘orientalism’ of Cleopatra’s court—with its luxury, decadence, splendour, sensuality, appetite, effeminacy and eunuchs—seems a systematic inversion of the legendary Roman values of temperance, manliness, courage and pietas.”2 However, as these critics usually acknowledge, the contrast between the two blurs upon closer inspection, since, as Gillies again puts it, “It is only from the vantage point of Egypt that Rome actually seems Roman.”3

I want to approach the differences between Rome and Egypt in Shakespeare’s play as, in large part, cognitive differences, based in Shakespeare’s imaginative engagement with changing theories of the relationship between human sense perception and scientific truth. By this I mean that Rome and Egypt seem to be the sites of very different perceptual styles, which are in turn based upon very different beliefs about the nature of the material world. The cognitive orientations of Rome and Egypt have different epistemological underpinnings, and also very different political implications. Romans in the play name their environment the “world” and perceive and understand it primarily in visual terms. Their “world” is composed largely of hard, opaque, human-fashioned materials, and its surface is divided into almost obsessively named—and conquered—cities and nations. Caesar refers to the reaction of the “round world” to Antony’s death (5.1.15), and a temporarily Romanized Antony warns Octavia that “the world and my great office will sometimes / Divide me from your bosom” (2.3.1–2).4 Egyptians, on the other hand, inhabit the “earth,” in which they imagine themselves to be immersed and which they perceive and understand through all of the senses. The “earth” is yielding, encompassing, generative, and resistant to human division and mastery: a defeated Antony asks that Caesar let him “breathe between the heavens and earth, / A private man in Athens” (3.12.14–15), and after Antony’s death, Cleopatra cries, “The crown o’ th’ earth doth melt” (4.15.63).5

As William Cunningham points out in his Cosmographical Glasse (1559), early modern English used “worlde” to denote the object of cosmography, the study of the earth and the heavens. “Th’ earth,” on the other hand, was for Cunningham the object of geography, which studied “Hylles, Mountayns, Seas, fluddes, and such other notable thinges, as are in it conteined.”6 Egyptian understanding of humanity’s relation to the earth is based partly on the Aristotelian system of elements and humors that was, by 1606, nearing the end of its dominance. Romans, on the other hand, seem to have left behind that system and its porous interrelationships between subject and nature, replacing it with a subjectivity separated from and overlooking the natural world and imagining itself as able to control it. These differing systems of thought and perception result in very different versions of nation and empire. The Roman “world” seems to be reaching toward something like what Shankar Raman has termed “colonialist space,” and toward the rational subject who can exploit it.7 Egyptian earthiness suggests both the intractability and inscrutability of nature in the face of the human will to power.

The attractiveness of Egypt and unattractiveness of Rome have troubled many critics, and Shakespeare’s relatively positive representation of Egypt has sometimes been read as nostalgia for an heroic past. It can also be read, I think, as nostalgia for a declining theory of the material world, the pre-seventeenth-century cosmos of elements and humors that rendered subject and world deeply interconnected and saturated with meaning.8 Gillies has argued that this very saturation of meaning, “a rich geographic tradition which is clearly already moralised, already inherently ‘poetic’ in the sense of being alive with human and dramaturgical meaning,” shapes Shakespeare’s representation of marginal, outlandish, barbarous, and exotic non-European cultures, in need of control by the rational and self-controlled West.9 Raman, on the other hand, links protocolonialist representations of India and the East in Shakespeare’s...

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