*Greco-Roman Influence in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Greco-Roman mythological images seem to dominate Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Ever since the humanist revolution started, Renaissance writers, including Shakespeare, systematically tried to revive Greek literature and Greek mythology. It was an attempt to establish an alternative authority to Catholic scholastic dogma that has the stamp of antiquity.
Shakespeare's knowledge of mythology was almost exclusively Roman, especially in relation to love and war. As a matter of truth, the Romans did not have created gods of their own, because '' They were a people of deep religious feeling, but they had little imagination.'' In fact, the influence of Greek art and literature were powerful in Rome. Thus, they adopted Greek gods, and the Greek mythological figures turned into Roman mythological figures to suit their society. For example, Ares, who is the Geek deity of war, turned into Mars, the Roman god of war. ''The Roman liked Mars better than the Greeks liked Ares,'' because Ares was not a typical deity of war, so Mars became the embodiment of military virtues and the defender of Rome.
In fact, a thorough understanding of the mythological figures and images in Antony and Cleopatra like Phoebus, Furies, Venus, Mars, Hercules and Bacchus, can be the best guideline to a perceptive interpretation of the play. These mythological figures can be mirrors which reflect the nature of a specific character or the culture of a society. Therefore, the function of these myths is very important in Antony and Cleopatra being one of the ways to approach the play.
The values and culture of the Egyptian society are exposed in Enobarbus' speech:
Ha, my brave Emperor,
Shall we dance now the Egyptian bacchanals
Bacchus was the Greek god of wine. The ''Egyptian bacchanals'' means that the Egyptians, like the Romans, adopted Greek mythology and made it suitable to their society. For this reason, the Egyptians are not selves enclosed and they know other cultures, which is a positive value in the Egyptian society.
Cleopatra's nature and royalty are reflected in the images of Phoebus and Fury. The Furies were the Greek goddesses who were sent to punish the crime. They had black bodies and snakes in their hair. Cleopatra says: ''If not well, /Thou shouldst come like a Fury crowned with snakes'' . This means that she will make this Messenger like a Fury to punish him because of his bad news about Antony. At the same time, that image is a reference to her primitive nature, when she becomes angry. Her anger is always connected with the snakes' images, and her primitive nature brings to her mind such fearful figures from the dim past. In addition, in her speech she uses another image to reflect her shape ''Think on me/That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black'' . Phoebus was the Greek god of light or the sun-god. She uses this image to reflect her sensual nature as she is burnt dark with sun rays of voluptuousness. Phoebus' figure is a reference to Cleopatra's royalty at the end of the play. Charmian says:'' And golden Phoebus never beheld/Of eyes again so royal!'' She indicates the glory that Cleopatra acquires after her death.
Cleopatra is identified by Venus, who was the Roman goddess of Love and Beauty, from a Roman point of view. Antony says to Cleopatra: ''Now for the love of Love, and her soft hours, /Let's not confound the time with conference harsh.'' Here, Cleopatra is likened to Venus, and many qualities in Cleopatra's character reflect the similarities between the two. Edith Hamilton gives an account of Venus:
The Goddess of Love and Beauty, who beguiled all,
gods and men alike; the laughter-loving goddess,
who laughed sweetly or mockingly at those her wiles
had conquered; the irresistible goddess who stole
away even the wits of the wise.
Also, she was the goddess of sexuality, and her multi-relationships with gods and mortals revealed her love for life*. Like Venus, Cleopatra is the presentation of love in the play. She uses the tricks to keep Antony beside her. Also, Cleopatra seems to steal Antony's wit. Moreover, Cleopatra's relationships with men represent her love for life, which makes her ignore any duty to her kingdom and care only about her pleasures.
Antony is portrayed as another Hercules, who is also the ''demi-Atlas'', taking for granted the similarities between their stories. Cleopatra describes her lover '' The demi- Atlas of earth, the arm/And burgonet of men.'' She likens Antony to the gigantic Titan, Atlas, who supported the sky on his shoulders, according to Greek mythology. This image of Atlas brings to the mind Hercules' figure. Through this image Cleopatra refers to Hercules, to whom Antony is likened too. Hercules had been ordered to carry out twelve tasks to purify himself of blood guilt, after Hera, who hated him made him mad. Then he killed his wife and three children. One of those tasks was ''To steal the apples of Hesperides'' . Hercules persuaded Atlas to go and fetch the apples while he took his place. The role of Atlas which Hercules took for sometime made Hercules the ''demi-Atlas''. For that, Cleopatra is supposed to mean Hercules more than Atlas himself, considering the fact that sometimes Antony achieves his duties by the help of his friends. Ventidius refers to that when he says: ''Caesar and Antony have ever won/More in their officer than in person.'' Also, Antony's anger is like that of Hercules'. Cleopatra says to Charmian:
''How this Herculean Roman does Become/The carriage of his chafe.'' Again Antony, similar to Hercules, is brave when he achieves heroic deeds to his nation. Like Hercules, he reaches that stage of suffering because of the woman he loves:
The shirt of Nessus is upon me: ....
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o' th' moon.