Article Title

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


Critics over the years have found many different ways to read the binary division of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra between the poles of Rome and Egypt. I approach this division first, as a cognitive one, based in changing theories of the relationship between human perception and scientific truth. My talk traces some of the epistemological underpinnings, and political implications, of the very different cognitive orientations of the two locations. Romans in the play name their environment the “world,” and they 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 cities and nations. 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. Egyptian understanding of their relation to the earth is partly based in the Aristotelian system of elements and humors that was, by 1606, at the beginning of the end of its dominance. Romans, on the other hand, seem to have left behind that system and its porous inter-relationships 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 Shankar Raman’s “colonialist space,” and toward the rational subject who can exploit it. Egyptian earthiness suggests the both the intractability and inscrutability of nature in the face of human will to power.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.