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Roman world, Egyptian earth: cognitive difference and empire in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.

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) 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 time with developments in geometry and cartography that led to "a changed understanding of space" and "a Western man, adequate to that space." (10) Certainly, both the beliefs and prejudices inherited from classical antiquity and the technologies produced by the "new science" contributed to the ideologies that justified the colonial domination of India, Africa, and the Americas by European cultures. However, the most interesting question raised by Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is less which of these two modes of thought is the most implicated in colonialism, than how each belief system works as a mode of inhabiting the world. Although Egypt in the play is certainly marked by orientalizing stereotypes, I want to argue here that it also represents a mode of thought that Shakespeare associated with sixteenth-century England, one that is experientially resistant both to a will to colonize others, and, finally, to being colonized itself.

Although the imperial Roman paradigm wins out in the historical narrative traced by the play, the Egyptian mode proves itself to be difficult to fix, pin down, or grasp. Its intangibility, imagistic richness, and extravagance ally it with both the poetic and the theatrical--that is, with literature as opposed to "science" in its modern sense. The play thus traces the nascent split between C. P. Snow's "two cultures,' although it may also suggest that the Egyptian relation to the natural world involves a kind of knowledge different from, but not necessarily inferior to, the scopic economy of the new science. (11)

Some readers may object that Shakespeare was not a scientific thinker, and that 1606-7, the probable date of Anthony and Cleopatra, was too early for the influence of Boylesian atomism and Cartesian dualism to have made itself felt. However, my argument here is based on a different set of assumptions regarding the nature of scientific knowledge and its relation to literary texts. As contemporary cognitive scientists have suggested, most people hold intuitive beliefs about the nature of the universe that are based on common, everyday experience of the material world and that can contradict the tenets of contemporary organized science. (12) Although there is debate about the extent to which these intuitive beliefs represent universals, as opposed to culturally constructed knowledge, several writers have noted that intuitive physics corresponds in multiple ways with Aristotelian science. (13) Indeed, it seems likely that the corpus of Aristotelian science and its medieval elaborations were, in large part, systematizations of intuitive science. In this case, a critical implication of the shift to the "new science" of the seventeenth century would be the beginnings of a disjunction between intuitive science and official scientific theory, a disjunction that has only increased over time.

My argument about Shakespeare's engagement with this shift is that he (and other writers in the period) were aware of scientific theories that seemed to be moving away from ordinary experience of material existence. The atomic theory espoused by Thomas Hariot and his circle provides one example of a disjunction between theory about nature and experience of it; speculative writings about changes in states of matter, contemporary with Shakespeare, also began to question the validity of Aristotelian science. (14) I'm not arguing that Shakespeare anticipated Descartes as a scientific theorist, but only that he was generally aware that new explanations of the nature of the world were being formulated that questioned his intuitive sense of the ways things worked, an intuitive sense that had been reinforced and legitimated by Aristotelian science.

"Earth" in Antony and Cleopatra is both another name for the "world" and the name of one of the constitutive elements of Aristotelian science: earth, water, air, and fire. Antony's early declaration of love for Cleopatra clearly articulates the difference between imperial world and material earth:
 Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
 Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
 Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
 Feeds beast as man.

The Roman world is an orderly, impermeable, man-made "arch." The Egyptian "earth" is "dungy" "clay"--elemental, life-giving, and allied with another element, water. In general, characters associated with Egypt perceive the world as composed of the four elements. Gillies notes the prevalence of water imagery in the play, but the other elements are present as well. The soldiers who believe they hear Hercules abandoning Antony perceive mysterious"music i' th' air" or "under the earth" (4.3.13). While the Romans refer to battles waged on "sea" or "land" rather than water and earth, Antony reveals his mixed allegiance when he notes that the Roman "preparation is to-day by sea, / We please them not by land" while he and his Egyptian allies "would they'ld fight i' th' fire, or i' th' air" (4.10.1-3). Cleopatra heralds her coming death when she proclaims, "I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life" (5.2.289-90).

Before the beginnings of modern chemistry in the mid-seventeenth century, most educated Europeans believed in some version of the Aristotelian theory that all matter was composed of the four elements. This theory of matter had the advantage of positing that the "qualia" of the material substances--their perceptible qualities such as dryness, wetness, density, and solidity--were direct manifestations of their essential nature. (15) "Earth" was dry and cold, for instance, and the properties of elemental earth were dryness and coldness. In this sense, Aristotelian science read back from sense perceptions to construct a theory of matter that accorded with what could be directly perceived, and it entailed the belief that human senses provided reliable information about the nature of the universe. The theory thus corresponds at many points with modern intuitive science because it codifies and provides explanations for basic everyday experience of the world. In addition, Aristotelian science posited a close connection between the elements constructing the macrocosm and the humors that constructed the human microcosm, such that earth and its inhabitants were made of the same interchangeable stuff. In attempting to account for changes in nonliving elements, Aristotle drew an analogy from the operations of the human body (digestion, concoction, etc.) to understand the operations (melting, evaporation, ripening, decay) of nonhuman matter. In this universe, people and the earth were inextricably intertwined. (16)

The Aristotelian theory of matter had as a disadvantage its assumption that unaided human perception provided an accurate view of the nature of matter, since, as we now know, the atomic and molecular structures that determine its properties are not directly visible. It also had difficulty in accounting for change: in states of matter, for instance, since the transformation of water from liquid to solid or gas involved transformation of its qualities and therefore, potentially, of its essential nature. Early theorists like Galileo and Hariot in the late sixteenth century anticipated the work of seventeenth-century chemists like Robert Boyle and began to replace the Aristotelian theory of matter with the atomic theory that still holds true today, albeit in a different form. Atomic theory better accounts for changes in states of matter, explained by changes in the distance between tiny particles, or their interactions with each other, but it introduces a gap between observation and theory: the tiny, invisible particles that atomic theorists assumed could not be directly seen or perceived in any way. As Christopher Meinel has argued, "there was no experimental proof possible" for an atomic theory of matter until the nineteenth century, and as Thomas Kuhn suggests, "Boyle's constructive attempt to replace existing theories of the elements by a conceptual scheme derived from the prevalent metaphysical atomism of the seventeenth century was a failure" (17) Bruno Latour has emphasized the "work of retrofitting that situates a more recent event"--such as experimental evidence for the existence of atoms--"as what 'lies beneath' an older one"--the speculative atomism of the seventeenth century. Latour's insight reminds us that in 1607, the "new" science might have seemed to be separating the tangible surfaces of the world from their invisible material underpinnings, even though experimental evidence later caught up with theory and provided retroactive underpinnings for it. (18) The end of belief in the Aristotelian elements meant the end of a system in which human sensory experience of the world was thought to give unmediated access to truth about it, and, indeed, in which humans and the world were interconnected in complex ways. Instead, the new science fostered a system in which visual observation, categorization, and naming of the surfaces of matter placed rational man above, apart from, and (in theory) able to control the world.

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra reflects this shift when it depicts Egyptians as porously interconnected with their elemental earth and Romans dominating a hard-surfaced, impervious world. The Egyptian worldview seems to reflect what Mary Floyd-Wilson has termed "geo-humoralism" the pervasive early modern belief that climate and other environmental factors shaped the bodily complexion of humors and, therefore, shaped racial character. (19) The point that I want to emphasize here is not that Egyptians seem stereotypically "warm-blooded" and self-indulgent, while Romans are cold, austere, and self-controlled, but rather, that Egyptians in the play reflect an earlier view that environment shapes subjects while the Romans look forward to a Cartesian mind-body split in which self-contained individuals are separate from and gain mastery over their environment. As Floyd-Wilson argues, the development in the seventeenth century of a new ethnography based on a "disavowal of both environmental and somatic influences on the mind" allows for "the formation of the autonomous-and white--subject," and further, that "the construction of bounded selves goes hand in hand with the construction of racial boundaries." (20)

Thus, the Egyptians in the play imagine themselves as being fed by their "dungy earth," which Cleopatra describes as "the dung, / the beggar's nurse and Caesar's" (5.2.7-8). Cleopatra imagines herself as the embodiment of Egypt because she has been shaped by its environment: she is the "serpent of old Nile" fed with the serpent's "delicious poison" who has become "with Phoebus' amorous pinches black" (1.5.25, 27-28). Cleopatra imagines the triumph that Caesar plans for her in Rome in terms that emphasize the interrelation of body and environment: the Roman citizens have "thick breaths, / Rank of gross diet," in which Cleopatra will be "enclouded, / And forc'd to drink their vapor" (5.2.211-13).

Romans, on the other hand, imagine themselves impervious to environmental influence. They tend to conceive of the world as hard and solid, and themselves as statues or buildings. Philo calls Antony "the triple pillar of the world" (1.1.12). A messenger describes Octavia to Cleopatra as "a statue" (3.3.21). Caesar speaks of the "three-nook'd world" (4.6.5), as if the human demarcation of Europe, Africa, and Asia determined its shape, and Menas calls the triumvirs "world-sharers" (2.7.70), as if they possessed, and shared, the world. As a solid object (rather than fungible "dung" or "clay"), the Roman world is imagined as being broken in half by political division: Octavia believes that war between Antony and Caesar would be "as if the world should cleave" (3.4.31), and Caesar says (depending on the text consulted) that either the "round world" (Riverside, 5.1.15) or "rived world" (Oxford) should be altered by Antony's death. In the Roman world, human relationships are imagined as "cement" holding parts of the world together, as when Pompey notes that Antony and Caesar will "square" between themselves when "fear of us / May cement their divisions" (2.1.45, 47-48). Similarly, Caesar imagines Antony's marriage to Octavia as a "hoop should hold us staunch from edge to edge / A' th' world" (2.2.115-16).

Caesar's long, strange speech in act 1, scene 4, describing the trials that the formerly heroic Antony had been able to survive, offers a weird fantasy that idealizes a complete imperviousness to the environment. Antony "didst drink / The stale of horses," "brows'd" tree bark, and "didst eat strange flesh / Which some did die to look on" but suffered no bodily effects:"thy cheek / So much as lank'd not" (61-62, 66, 67-68, 70-71). Janet Adelman reads this speech as manifesting a "contest between Caesar and Cleopatra, Rome and Egypt" that "is in part a contest between male scarcity and female bounty as the defining site of Antony's masculinity." (21) Adelman is certainly correct that both Rome and Egypt are strongly marked by gender difference. I would simply shift her emphasis a bit to note that women's bodies, as Gail Kern Paster has shown, were seen in this period as more open to environmental influence, more porous, leaky, and impressionable, than male bodies, and therefore that the gendering of Rome and Egypt in the play can be seen as complementary to the different relation to the material world associated with each. (22)

The Egyptian earth is controlled not by its human inhabitants, but by cycles of natural change and transformation that extend from birth through death. The flooding of the Nile--and the fertility that it engenders-is the central Egyptian trope:
 The higher Nilus swells,
 The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
 Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
 And shortly comes to harvest.

This fertility is imagined in elemental terms, as the water of the Nile combines with earth to form "ooze" in which the sun engenders life: "By the fire / That quickens Nilus' slime" (1.3.68-69)."Ooze" "fire," and "slime" conjure up the feel of these materials, suggesting a sensory immersion in the elements rather than visual mastery of them. The interaction of these elements can even spontaneously generate life, as was widely believed until well into the seventeenth century: "Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun. So is your crocodile" (2.7.26-27). Antony states a similar belief, that a "courser's hair" could be transformed into a snake, which "hath yet but life / And not a serpent's poison" (1.2.193-94). Cleopatra imagines that a kind of reverse generation is also possible when she exclaims, "Melt Egypt into Nile! and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!" (2.5.78-79). And, although she can at one point imagine her death as a transformation into immaterial "fire and air," she can also imagine it as a return to the ooze of the Nile:
 Rather a ditch in Egypt
 Be gentle grave unto me! rather on Nilus' mud
 Lay me stark-nak'd, and let the water-flies
 Blow me into abhorring!

In Egypt, characters feel themselves to be part of the processes of nature, upon which they depend and which they can't control. (23)

Romans, on the other hand, view the world as changed only as a result of human agency. They don't seem to perceive, or imagine themselves as part of, the natural cycles that so shape Egypt. Romans rely on visual observation of a world that they almost obsessively divide into geographic entities, which they name and control by naming: "Labienus / (This is stiff news) hath with his Parthian force / Extended Asia; from Euphrates / His conquering banner shook, from Syria / To Lydia and Ionia" (1.2.99-103). In Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire, Claude Nicolet describes how "in order to set boundaries to their empire and to claim to have reached those that were marked out, the Romans needed a certain perception of geographical space, of its dimensions and of the area they occupied." (24) He charts the means through which Romans established this perception of space, some of which have remarkable resonance with Shakespeare's play. In the Res Gestae of Augustus, for instance, lists of geographical names ("no less than fifty-five geographical names divided into four large categories") play a role in helping Romans imagine the world as a space that they could control. (25) Similarly, he notes the "ever-more-frequent appearance of the globe on Roman coins from about 76 B.C. or 75 B.C.," a representation that made the "world" or "orbis terrarium" visible as an artifact. (26) Shankar Raman has linked this moment of imperial Roman domination of space with an "analogous" early modern moment of "the material domination and symbolic appropriation of space," when "staging a geometrized and neutralized space ... helped conceal the colonial practices out of which they emerged and to which they contributed." (27)

The separate, solid, man-made, nameable world in Shakespeare's play thus reflects spatial strategies necessary for imperial domination. When Caesar wishes to portray Antony and Cleopatra as a threat to Roman imperium, he describes them engaged in a scene of imperial naming: "Unto her [Cleopatra] / He gave the stablishment of Egypt, made her / Of lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia, / Absolute queen .... Great Media, Parthia, and Armenia / He gave to Alexander; to Ptolomy he assign'd / Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia" (3.6.8-11, 14-16). Caesar imagines the scene as ornamented with orientalizing trappings: "I' th' market-place, on a tribunal silver'd"; "in chairs of gold"; "She / In th' abiliments of the goddess Isis / That day appear'd" (3.6.3, 4,16-18). Although he attributes these gestures of empire to Antony and Cleopatra, we never see them engage in anything like the scene he imagines, and it seems possible that he fabricates or exaggerates it in order to justify waging war against Antony. It is significant that Caesar translates the earthy imagery of Egypt into hard, though exotic, surfaces--a silver tribunal and a golden chair--as if he cannot imagine Egypt on its own terms.

Egyptian earth, on the other hand, is less suited for conquest--that is, either to conquer or to be conquered. Shaped by their environment, mired in the ooze of the Nile, seemingly inseparable from the earth that gives birth to them and receives their dead bodies, Shakespeare's Egyptian subjects lack the objectified concepts of space and geography that lead to imperium. In the scenes where battles between Antony's Egyptian forces and Caesar's attacking troops are discussed and described, Cleopatra's influence is repeatedly associated with a refusal to occupy and defend hard ground, the space on dry land upon which the Roman world is based. (28) Instead, she insists on fighting at sea, and her sudden retreat is associated with the yielding elements of water and air: "The breeze upon her, like a cow in June-- / Hoists sails and flies"; "Our fortune on the sea is out of breath" (3.10.14-15, 24). Antony's reaction to this first loss at sea takes the form of a sense that the land has rejected him: "the land bids me tread no more upon't .... I am so lated in the world" (3.11.1, 3). After Cleopatra's second retreat at sea, Antony imagines the world, and ultimately himself, as made of the yielding and indistinct elements of water and air that make up clouds and mist:
 Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
 A vapor sometime like a bear or lion,
 A tower'd citadel, a pendant rock,
 A forked mountain, or blue promontory
 With trees upon't that nod unto the world,
 And mock our eyes with air.

These seemingly solid and visible shapes are as insubstantial as his political power and control of Egypt have become: "even with a thought / The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct / As water is in water.... now thy captain is / Even such a body" (4.14.9-11, 12-13). (29)

While the Egyptian forces are unable to achieve mastery, visual or otherwise, over the solid world, we must also nonetheless wonder whether Caesar really is able to conquer Egypt in any meaningful sense. Jonathan Gil Harris cites Enobarbus's famous description of Cleopatra to argue that although "Cleopatra's power appears to be predicated on the visibility of her eroticized body to her subjects, who abandon all activity to gaze on her" Enobarbus never actually describes her: "For her own person, / It beggar'd all description" (2.2.197-98) (30) Harris cites the "synaesthesic" nature of the description of her surroundings, but it may be more accurate to say that it simply focuses on senses other than sight: "so perfumed that / The winds were lovesick with them"; "the tune of flutes"; "whose wind did seem / To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool"; "flower-soft hands"; "strange invisible perfume" (2.2.193-94,195, 203-4, 210, 212). Cleopatra's Egyptian power manifests itself as a spectacle that cannot be fully seen and that therefore cannot be captured by sight, the Roman vehicle of mastery and empire.

Enobarbus's speech thus eschews the Egyptians' earthy landscape of mud, slime, and ooze, replacing it with an ethereal fantasy that is equally ungraspable. This is a vision of fire and air rather than earth and water, a "vision" that is not quite visible, since Cleopatra is insistently likened not to concrete objects but to her differences from them. She "o'erpictur [es]" a portrait of Venus, and her accoutrements are difficult to attach definitively to a solid surface: what exactly is made of "cloth of gold, of tissue" (2.2.200,199)? To what is the "silken tackle" attached (2.2.209)? How does the tackle "swell" (2.2.210)? The culmination of this vision is, appropriately, the threat of "vacancy" or vacuum, not any concrete presence (2.2.216). (31) If Egypt can't be clearly seen or firmly touched, it seems difficult to know or conquer it with any certainty.

Cleopatra temporarily adopts Roman language when she falsely assures Caesar that "all the world, "tis yours, and we, / Your scutcheons and signs of conquest, shall / Hang in what place you please" (5.2.134-36), but her suicide prevents him from leading her in triumph through Rome as a sign of his conquest. Although his final speech attempts to monumentalize Antony and Cleopatra in Roman terms--"No grave upon the earth shall clip in it ! A pair so famous" and "Our army shall / In solemn show attend this funeral" (5.2.359-60, 363-64)--many readers have felt that his final gesture is inadequate as a final word and agree rather with Cleopatra's conclusion that" 'Tis paltry to be Caesar" (5.2.2). (32) Thus, although Caesar does materially conquer Egypt, it is not clear that he has gained any purchase on its way of life. As Ania Loomba has argued, "Cleopatra's final performance, which certainly exposes her own vulnerability, not only cheats Caesar but denies any final and authoritative textual closure." (33) Indeed, although Egypt was annexed into the Roman Empire after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Alexandria remained a center of learning to rival Rome and never really adopted Roman customs. Under the emperor Constantine, the center of the Roman Empire was moved east, to Byzantium, and Alexandria remained an important center of learning after the Byzantine Empire replaced the Roman.

Although I've been arguing that Egypt, as depicted in the play, represents something other than (or in addition to) an orientalizing stereotype, it is important to note that the Egyptian worldview is also flawed. For one, as Gil Harris has argued, Cleopatra can sometimes seem curiously disembodied despite the insistent corporeality of her language, since "reminders of her physicality are supplemented by a counter-narrative in which her very vividness is shown to be the effect of a Roman desire for her presence, prompted by the gaps and absences that repeatedly afflict the play's attempts to represent her. It s as if the play can't quite believe in the elemental Egyptian earth and transcendent fire and air, and at least entertains the idea that they are a powerful fantasy. Thus, Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra seems like a fantastic dream, and the clearest articulation of the central Egyptian trope of spontaneous generation comes from the drunken Lepidus, who desires to believe in an exotic Egypt that he has never seen.

If spontaneous generation is the central trope of Egyptian earthiness, then Egypt is linked to the complex and problematic history of this concept, which raises some of the central issues of the play. Aristotle offers different accounts of spontaneous generation, reflecting the problems that it entailed for his theories of causation and matter. From the very beginning, the process of spontaneous generation raised questions about the very nature of the material world. Was matter wholly natural, or was it infused with some sort of divine spirit? Could life itself be explained in wholly material terms, or did it require a divine spark? In The History of Animals, Aristotle describes spontaneous generation as a wholly material process but gives no explanation of how it works:
 So with animals, some spring from parent animals according to their
 kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock;
 and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from
 putrefying earth or vegetable matter, as is the case with a number
 of insects, while others are spontaneously generated in the inside
 of animals out of the secretions of their several organs. (35)

In The Generation of Animals, book 3, chapter 11, however, he was forced to consider how life could be spontaneously generated from nonliving elements and concluded that a life spark, or "pneuma," must permeate matter and can cause life under the right circumstances:
 Animals and plants are formed in the earth and in the water because
 in earth water is present, and in water pneuma is present, and in
 all pneuma soul-heat is present, so that in a way all things are
 full of Soul; and that is why they quickly take shape once it has
 been enclosed. Now it gets enclosed as the liquids containing
 corporeal matter become heated, and there is formed as it were a
 frothy bubble. The object which thus takes shape may be more
 valuable in kind or less valuable; and the differences herein
 depend upon the envelope which encloses the soul-principle; and the
 causes which determine this are the situations where the process
 takes place and the physical substance which is enclosed. (36)

Doubts about the truth of spontaneous generation surfaced early in antiquity and coexisted with acceptance of it as a fact well into the seventeenth century. Theophrastus questioned it, as did Lucretius. In the early seventeenth century, the Paracelsian alchemist and physician J. B. van Helmont "believed that frogs, slugs, and leeches were generated spontaneously" and provided directions for the generation of mice: "If a dirty shirt is stuffed into the mouth of a vessel containing wheat, within a few days, say 21, the ferment produced by the shirt, modified by the smell of the grain, transforms the wheat itself, encased in its husk, into mice." (37) William Harvey also accepted spontaneous generation as a fact, and not until the experiments of Francesco Redi in the 1660s was it demonstrated that maggots did not appear spontaneously in rotten meat. (38) The history of the theory of spontaneous generation thus reflects the epistemological shift enabled by increasing skepticism about intuitive science that I have been emphasizing here. Aristotelian science took visual evidence that lower forms of life seemed to appear without visible cause in various media to mean that they must be spontaneously generated, since human sense perception should be able to detect the material causes of these life forms if they, indeed, existed.

Scientific experiment in the seventeenth century was able to establish that visible life forms (such as maggots) were caused by eggs deposited in rotten meat by flies. It remained until the nineteenth century for Pasteur to prove that microbes, invisible to the naked eye, were not spontaneously generated. Latour suggests how difficult it was for Pasteur to eradicate "the well-known universal phenomenon of spontaneous generation" which could only be done through "a gradual and punctilious extension of laboratory practice to each site and each claim of Its defenders. (39) With each stage and through great effort, experimentation and technology move scientific theory farther from the purview of ordinary human perception; with each stage, too, matter loses its animate spark and living things are more strictly separated from nonliving things.

Shakespeare's play insists on Egyptian belief in spontaneous generation as a central feature of the Egyptian people's relation to the earth. Only the credulous and drunken Lepidus among the Romans seems to entertain the theory, however. An earth with the capacity to generate life is seen, in the play, as nearing the end of its tenure, to be paved over by Romans who free themselves from enmeshment with the elements by constructing and colonizing an inert and nonliving world. Although it is not yet the mechanistic universe that would become dominant by the end of the seventeenth century, the Romans in the play do imagine an artificial world. The play does not attempt to judge which worldview is scientifically correct. It simply marks the passing of one into the other, and registers the perceptual experience of each.

Although Rome (and science) triumph in the temporal space of the play, the copiously productive Egyptian earth provides a more fertile source for Shakespeare's poetic imagination, with its proliferation of metaphors and analogies, than the spare and plain Roman style. In constructing Rome and Egypt as a perceptual dichotomy, the play may mark an originary site of the disciplinary division into the two cultures of literature and science that has so deeply structured modernity. The nostalgia that seems to attend the final scenes of the play may, in fact, reflect the passing of a worldview that lent itself more readily to the Shakespearean imagination in all its abundance and ambivalence. The play seems to acknowledge the greater efficiency of the Roman mode, and its greater potential for domination of the world and its inhabitants, even as it acknowledges what the theater will lose as a result.

Boston College


(1) See, for example, Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), 186, 191, for an account of readings that contrast the values of Rome and Egypt. See also William D. Wolf, "'New Heaven, New Earth': The Escape from Mutability in Antony and Cleopatra" Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 328-35 (328), for an example of the usual way the polarity has been read: Egypt as "regenerative, hot, emotional, the center of love and overripe sexuality," Rome as "duty, public service, military valor, reason, and policy." See Jonathan Gil Harris, "'Narcissus in thy Face': Roman Desire and the Difference It Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra" Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 408-25 (409), for an account of the controversial role of gender in this polarization of the play.

(2) John Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 118.

(3) Ibid.

(4) All quotations of Antony and Cleopatra are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and are henceforth cited in the text.

(5) See Donald C. Freeman," 'The Rack Dislimns': Schema and Metaphorical Pattern in Antony and Cleopatra" Poetics Today 20 (1999): 443-60, for a reading of the elemental language in the play in terms of the cognitive image schemas CONTAINER, LINKS, and PATH. Like any dichotomy, my differentiation between Rome and Egypt breaks down. Toward the end of the play, for instance, Cleopatra adopts a consciously Roman language when dealing with Caesar: "all the world; 'tis yours, and we, / Your scutcheons and your signs of conquest" (5.2.134-35). Antony uses Egyptian and Roman language interchangeably.

(6) William Cunningham, The Cosmographical Glasse, conteinyng the pleasant Principles of Cosmographie, Geographie, Hydrographie, or Navigation (London, 1559), fol. 6.

(7) Shankar Raman, Framing "India": The Colonial Imaginary in Early Modern Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 16, argues that a new sense of colonialist space was produced by developments in cartography and astronomy: "Out of this historical conjuncture comes a new figure: the abstract, geometrized spatial grid, itself allied with an understanding of Western reason as the universally valid form of rationality. Against the background of an ostensibly neutral and homogeneous space, 'India' and the 'East' take shape as places, as geographical regions 'produced' by concrete practices in accordance with specific needs."

(8) See Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), 146, for the idea that the play enacts a similar shift in the representation of political power, showing "that a whole way of figuring out power has been rendered obsolete" He calls the play an "elegy for the signs and symbols which legitimated Elizabethan power."

(9) Gillies, 4.

(10) Raman, 16.

(11) For the division between the "two cultures" of science and literature, see C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; reissue edition, 1993).

(12) See Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), entries on "intuitive" sciences, also called "Folk Biology," "Naive Mathematics," "Naive Physics," and "Folk Psychology."

(13) See Michael McCloskey, "Intuitive Physics," Scientific American 248 (1983): 122-30; Benny Shanon, "Aristotelianism, Newtonianism, and the Physics of the Layman," Perception 5 (1976): 241-43; and Jochen Buttner, Peter Damerow, Jurgen Renn, Matthias Schemmel, and Matteo Valleriani, Galileo and the Shared Knowledge of His Time (Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2002), for ways in which intuitive physics resembles pre-Newtonian science. Some have argued that McCloskey and Shanon oversystematize intuitive science, but whether they do or not, it seems persuasive that Aristotelian science represents a rather elaborate systematization of intuitive science, however unsystematic that may be in its natural state. See Wilson and Keil, The MIT Encyclopedia, for general accounts of intuitive ("naive") sciences and the controversies over their nature.

(14) See Mary Crane, "The Physics of King Lear: Cognition in a Void," The Shakespearean International Yearbook 4: Shakespeare Studies Today (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 3-23.

(15) Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 85-86.

(16) Ibid., 87. See Gail Kern Paster, "Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare's Psychological Materialism Across the Species Barrier," in Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 113-29, and Mary Floyd-Wilson, "English Mettle," ibid., 130-46, for the interaction of the human humoral system with its environment.

(17) Christopher Meinel, "Early Seventeenth-Century Atomism: Theory, Epistemology, and the Insufficiency of Experiment" in The Scientific Enterprise in Early Modern Europe: Readings from "Isis," ed. Peter Dear (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997), 176-211 (176); Thomas Kuhn, "Robert Boyle and Structural Chemistry in the Seventeenth Century," ibid., 255-72 (236).

(18) Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 170.

(19) Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1-2.

(20) Ibid., 47.

(21) Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, "Hamlet" to "The Tempest" (New York: Routledge, 1992), 177.

(22) See Gall Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 23-63.

(23) As Henry Harris suggests, spontaneous generation was both believed and doubted from antiquity until it began to be disproved in the seventeenth century, first by Francesco Redi, who demonstrated that rotten meat would not generate maggots unless exposed to flies; see Things Come to Life: Spontaneous Generation Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Aristotle wasn't clear about exactly how it worked in material terms, arguing at one point that the heat of the sun was the crucial factor, but later arguing that some form of divine "pneuma" or "psyche" was necessary for life; see Toulmin and Goodfield, 88-89. Spontaneous generation is thus at the heart of questions about material change, the nature of matter, and the interrelationship of matter and spirit.

(24) Claude Nicolet, Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 2.

(25) Ibid., 20.

(26) Ibid., 36.

(27) Raman, 90, 97.

(28) See Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 127, who argues that "whether the fight should take place on the Roman element, the land, or Cleopatra's medium, the water, is at once a matter of military strategy and a measure of Antony's emotional and political affiliations."

(29) Freeman, 457-58, notes the significance of this elemental dissolution and its accompanying failure of vision in terms of cognitive image schemas.

(30) Harris, "Narcissus," 417.

(31) See Crane, 9-10, on the fact that early modern atomic theory raised the threatening possibility that void space, or a vacuum, could exist, contrary to Aristotelian teaching.

(32) See, for example, Paul Yachnin's analysis of the disjunction between Caesar's language of command and the loyalty of followers like Dolabella in "Shakespeare's Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity in Antony and Cleopatra," SEL 33 (1993): 343-63.

(33) Loomba, 130.

(34) Harris, "Narcissus," 417.

(35) Aristotle, History of Animals, trans. D. M. Balme, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 539a 18-26.

(36) Aristotle, Generation of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1943), 762a19-28.

(37) Qtd. in Harris, Things Come to Life, 5.

(38) Ibid., 13.

(39) Latour, 154.
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Author:Thomas Crane, Mary
Publication:Comparative Drama
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Date:Mar 22, 2009
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