Antony and Cleopatra
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Explain how Shakespeare uses language in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ to depict the two main protagonists.
The epic love affair of Antony and Cleopatra is a great and powerful love shared by two people at the height of their fame and glory. Plutarch’s ‘Life of Antonius’ is the principal source, and Shakespeare has blended this factual evidence together with fiction and drama to create a play that is strikingly different from many of his other works, especially in terms of theme, structure and the impressive and most descriptive language used.
Plutarch wrote in the first century AD, probably not more than a hundred years after the death of Antony, but soon enough to hear personal experiences from his great grandfather about the battle of Actium, and from even his grandfather about Antony’s generous entertaining in Alexandria. He was a Greek philosopher, and so his sympathies ran more towards his fellow countrymen than the Roman subjects of his detailed studies. Shakespeare, distilling North’s version at the time when his creative skills were at their height, was able to use both the language and the stories exactly to suit his intentions. In many cases he remains remarkably faithful to the original, for example in the famous speech by Enobarbus praising Cleopatra (II.2.193), but he sometimes left out unfavourable comments and expanded the material, adding his own events in order to create his plays and to evoke the special atmosphere for his verse translation from the prose of the biographer.
Plutarch’s account of Antony and Cleopatra is so vivid because of his use of sources that were personal to the characters, such as Cleopatra’s doctor’s notes, but also his own memories of Egypt, which was the first country he visited on his travels.
Shakespeare has smoothly condensed Plutarch’s account of eleven years of Antony’s history into a swiftly moving plot, filled with intense sensibility, revealing the dee...
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