Shakespeare's "Anthony and Cleopatra" begins and ends with a banquet. The play opens with the image of Anthony and Cleopatra arm in arm, talking about how much they love one another in the context of revelry and feasting in Egypt. The play ends with Cleopatra, alone with her handmaids, being consumed by an asp. "Will it eat me?" she asks the asp-seller in the final act. (5.2.263) It is a fitting end to a play that uses food as a metaphor throughout its dialogue as a measure of how excessive various characters are in love and in politics.
Cleopatra in particular uses food frequently to express her love for Anthony. She not only does this physically over the course of the play, using banquets and strong drink as a way of celebrating his return and whiling the hours away when he is in Rome. Everything is something to be consumed in Cleopatra's eyes, and food also functions verbally as metaphor for her love and her desire to possess Anthony completely and utterly. "Give me some music, moody food/Of us that trade in love." (2.5.1) However, in the eyes of some of the other characters in the play Cleopatra is herself a kind of food. Enobarbus, Anthony's trusted friend states: "Other women cloy/The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/Where most she satisfies." (2.2.241-244)
Unsurprisingly, given his love for this exotic 'dish,' Anthony is a hedonist by nature, in stark contrast to his ally (eventually his enemy) Octavius Caesar. In the drinking scene with Lepidus, Anthony toasts: "It [the wine] ripens towards it. / Strike the vessels, ho! / Here's to Caesar! But Caesar responds:" I could well forbear't/It's monstrous labor when I wash my brain/An it grow fouler." Even in a toast drunk to him in his own name, Caesar is revolted by over-consumption, particularly of grape and of alcohol. He makes clear he is only drinking because he hopes to construct a military alliance with the other, less disciplined revelers at the party. This ascetic quality in Caesar's nature helps set up the dichotomy created between Rome and Egypt throughout the play. Within the context of the play, Rome is sober, masculine, and lacking excess and festivity. Rome is represented by Octavius Caesar's temperament. "But I had rather fast from all, four days, / Than drink so much in one." (2.7.96-97) Egypt is excessive, feminine, full of strange, intoxicating potions, appetites, and desires. Cleopatra best represents the contrasts of Egypt. Anthony's divided soul provides a kind of bridge between these two divided moral worlds of Rome and Egypt. He is Roman and a manly soldier yet also full of desire for what is womanly and soft, and excessive.
Caesar succeeds in his bid for power, the play suggests, because he represents the clear-eyed Roman view of the world. When the singing boy, at the end of the drinking bout, sings "Plumpy Bacchus, with pink eyne! / In they vats our cares be drowned, / With thy grapes our hairs be crowned!" Caesar states in blatant disbelief: "What would you more?" (2.3.110-115) He rejects the level of consumption the other characters at the feast delight in enjoying. He states that "Our graver business/Frowns at this levity..." (2.3.110-115) Although he has entered into the party for military, tactical reasons ultimately his temperament rejects excess. Because of his natural temperament, this is why he succeeds politically in the context of the moral world of the play. Ultimately, the day-to-day business of the world is with Rome, with the light of day rather than the partying of the night. One cannot drown one's cares in vats all day long, and ignore the sober details of reality. Cleopatra, significantly, asks for a drink of the opiate mandragora when Anthony is away, so she may sleep until his return. (1.5.3) Caesar wishes to remain clear-eyed in his assessment of reality, even when there is pressure to do otherwise.
It is interesting that the song at the revelries contains an image of hair being crowned with grapes. Such a crown, Caesar's retreat after the song suggests, is ephemeral. The boy's song ends with the words "Cup us till the world go round!" This is obviously a reference to the desire to drink until the…