Antony and Cleopatra


William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra: Similes 8 key examples

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Definition of Simile
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like" or "as," but can also... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like... read full definition
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Antony, the God of War:

In Act 1, Scene 1, Philo utilizes simile to describe his perception of Antony's skill as a general:

PHILO: Those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front.

Philo compares Mark Antony to the Roman god of war, Mars. In addition to emphasizing his military might and prowess, such figurative language places him on the same level as Cleopatra, who is herself frequently compared to Egyptian and Roman goddesses alike.

The location of this passage in the play is important, as it occurs at the very beginning of Act 1, Scene 1, prefacing the first entrance of Antony onto the stage. At this point in the play, the audience has yet to form any opinion on Antony; they are thus immediately met with a simile likening him to a god. This establishes Antony as someone otherworldly and supernatural in his abilities.

From this high praise, Philo shifts directly into the following lines:

His captain’s heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy’s lust.

Thus, the audience is given both a high and a low estimation of Antony's character within the span of a few lines, with the effect of a disorientating first impression.

Act 1, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Antony's Faults:

In the following passage from Act 1, Scene 4, Lepidus defends Antony in the face of a scathing indictment from Caesar, juxtaposing Caesar's assertion of Antony's moral ineptitude. Lepidus utilizes simile to this end:

LEPIDUS: I must not think there are
Evils enough to darken all his goodness.
His faults in him seem as the spots of heaven,
More fiery by night’s blackness, hereditary
Rather than purchased, what he cannot change
Than what he chooses.

Lepidus claims that Antony is too good to be darkened by the circumstances surrounding his relationship with Cleopatra, a needed contrast to Caesar's fiery condemnation. Lepidus utilizes a simile to compare Antony's faults to stars in the night sky; made more prominent by the fact that they stand out against their surroundings. This commentary on Antony's character provides needed context and characterization for both Caesar and Lepidus. The latter is quite evidently a man of high moral character, willing to defend a man such as Antony even in his absence. Notably, Caesar is strategic with his critique, but does not hesitate to call Lepidus naive:

CAESAR: You are too indulgent.

Caesar, as opposed to Ledipus, is less willing to concede that Antony's behavior might be excusable; in this way, he exists almost at the opposite extreme of the spectrum from Cleopatra, favoring pure virtue to any kind of indulgence and unwilling to forgive the prioritization of the latter over the former. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Antony's Immaturity:

The following passage from Act 1, Scene 4 sheds further light on Caesar's opinion of Antony and his behavior. He utilizes simile to clarify his thoughts:

If he filled
His vacancy with his voluptuousness,
Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones
Call on him for ’t. But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport and speaks as loud
As his own state and ours, ’tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure
And so rebel to judgment.

Caesar makes use of simile to equate Antony's tarrying in Egypt—as opposed to answering his summons back to Rome immediately—to the immature behavior of a young boy. Caesar seems to believe that Antony, despite having the experience and capacity to make mature decisions, currently privileges pleasure over all else. It should be noted here that pleasure, something which is neither wrong nor sinful inherently, becomes a pathological object in Caesar's eyes. He cannot, or indeed will not, concede that the experience of pleasure can be an informed choice: people can choose, as Cleopatra does, to prioritize their pleasure and not focus on other things.

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Explanation and Analysis—Caesar on Pompey:

In Act 1, Scene 4, Caesar reflects on Pompey's influence, stating through the use of simile that:

This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide
To rot itself with motion.

In response to the news of Pompey's popularity with the masses, Caesar uses simile to comment on their fickleness, comparing the populace to lackeys that follow any person on a whim. This passage reveals not only Caesar's opinion of Pompey, but his opinion of the people he governs, which is neither a favorable nor a flattering one. This undermines Caesar's legitimacy as a ruler, for he clearly does not respect the people he governs. 

This passage also reveals similarities in how Caesar views Antony in relation to the general populace. Though Caesar has a high opinion of Antony's ability, he clearly considers him as fickle as the masses that follow Pompey: willing to set their diligence and virtue to the side on a whim; unable to set aside the present pleasure to fixate on the long-term goals. In Caesar's mind, Antony has lowered himself to the level of Pompey's followers, something that is inexcusable for a revered leader and military general.

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Explanation and Analysis—Antony as a Soldier:

Extending his use of simile, in Act 1, Scene 4, Caesar further laments Antony's perceived loss to the wiles of Cleopatra:

CAESAR: Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsèd. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh
Which some did die to look on.

Recounting the harsh conditions Antony weathered as a soldier, Caesar describes a time when he was forced to eat the bark off of trees like a "stag when snow the pasture sheets." This simile broadens the audience's perception of Antony as not only a hedonist but a man capable of going to extremes to deny himself when necessary. Caesar would have Antony return to that other extreme lifestyle, which is more valorous, in his mind, than hedonism and indulgence. What Antony's current lifestyle in Egypt and the time period Caesar reminisces about have in common is that they are both extremes: neither seem balanced or temperate in any way. In Egypt, Antony very nearly over-indulges; on the field of battle, fighting a military campaign, he deprives himself of necessary nutrients and consumes what Caesar describes as "strange flesh." Neither of these are sustainable lifestyles, yet it is telling that Caesar is nostalgic for one and critical of the other.

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Act 1, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Between the Extremes:

In Act 1, Scene 5, Cleopatra receives news of Antony from Alexas. She quizzes him about everything she can possibly think of, asking questions to ascertain his state of mind. Alexas responds with a simile to describe Antony's mental state: 

CLEOPATRA: What, was he sad, or merry?

ALEXAS: Like to the time o’ th’ year between th’ extremes
Of hot and cold, he was nor sad nor merry.

Alexas reports that Antony appears to exhibit no extremes of emotion upon departing Cleopatra, but is rather balanced or exhibiting a kind of restrained temperance. Alexas compares Antony's behavior to the transition period between extreme seasons (winter and summer). This greatly troubles Cleopatra, as she sees this shift in him as evidence that Rome is exerting its influence on her lover, who may wish to bear that title no longer. 

This passage further reinforces the audience members' understanding of Cleopatra's character: she is a jealous lover, and like a goddess, expects Antony to remain devout, keeping his thoughts constantly on her. Like the Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament, she is quick to anger at the thought of infidelity—despite the fact that Antony already has a wife and Cleopatra is his mistress.

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Act 2, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Eunuchs and Women:

In Act 2, Scene 5, Cleopatra entreats Mardian, a eunuch, to come play billiards with her, utilizing the following simile to describe him:

CLEOPATRA: As well a woman with an eunuch played
As with a woman.—Come, you’ll play with me, sir?

In Cleopatra's mind, Mardian is the equivalent of a woman because he does not have all of his genitals. This simile plays on the 17th-century belief that women lacked a form of intelligence that was quintessentially male. Just as Cleopatra's sensuality, sexual drive, and power make her too male, Mardian's lack of sexual ability makes him not male enough—thus, the two appear well-matched in a game of wits, as Cleopatra herself claims.

This passage, though short, provides interesting insight into the sexual and gender roles of Shakespeare's time period: just as Eve is born out of Adam's rib in the biblical Book of Genesis, so are women seen as sexually derived from men, but lacking some essential component to make them equal. Both the overt expression of sexuality and the assertion of intellectual capacity were considered male privileges during this time period. Anything a woman expressed in either area was perceived as derivative and therefore lesser.

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Explanation and Analysis—Cleopatra's Emotions:

Over the course of Act 2, Scene 5, Cleopatra oscillates between extremes of emotion, alternately lashing out against and reassuring the messenger who brings her news of Antony's whereabouts. Cleopatra attacks the messenger verbally, utilizing simile and allusion to warn him of the dangers of bringing her bad news:

Well, go to, I will.
But there’s no goodness in thy face—if Antony
Be free and healthful, so tart a favor
To trumpet such good tidings! If not well,
Thou shouldst come like a Fury crowned with snakes,
Not like a formal man.

Cleopatra compares the messenger, using simile and allusion, to a Fury—a monster from Greek mythology known to wear a crown of snakes. Snakes are often utilized in western literature as symbols of duplicity; thus, if the messenger comes bearing bad news, as a Fury, Cleopatra makes it clear that she will view this as an act of betrayal. In the face of bad news, the messenger's presence becomes a threat to Cleopatra, and she vows to treat him as such. This passage reveals not only the extent of Cleopatra's oscillation between emotional extremes; it also demonstrates how little she considers the humanity of her subordinates. The messenger is not a person to Cleopatra, but an object to be tossed around and discarded when found unpleasant. She views him as an apathetic god might view her human subjects.

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