John Milton in Paradise Lost said that man exists on a wheel of power, alluding to how powerplays often comprise the very core of human interaction. Powerplays are the plots and machinations designed to increase one’s control over their environment and destiny, usually at the expense of others. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Martin Scorsese’s police thriller film The Departed (2006) and Jeff Darcy’s political cartoon An Uncivil Vote (2008) all depict various types of power and powerplay, whether it be personal, political or psychological. Through a variety of literary and visual techniques, these texts raise contrasting representations about the nature of powerplays.
Antony and Cleopatra explores the ability of powerplays to turn the personal into the political. Antony is but a shadow of his former, glorious self, letting hedonism cloud the line between romance and duty. This is shown by imagery of ruin in his dismissive statement “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch| Of the ranged empire fall,” highlighting how his passion for Cleopatra has undermined both his tact as a general and politician. Indeed, Cleopatra uses personal powerplays to exert control over Antony, her sexual power obvious in Enobarbus’ oxymoron “she did make defect perfection” and descriptors such as “lustful gypsy” and “Egyptian dish”. Furthermore, she states that “If it be love indeed…I’ll set a bourn how far to be belov’d,” conveying the reckless nature of Cleopatra’s personal powerplays into the political sphere, leading Antony to act rashly when military discretion is needed. This is clear when she insists that he fight at sea despite Caesar’s naval superiority, only to flee twice in the midst of battle with Antony in tow, his general Camidius commenting with bitter irony that “we are women’s men”. Similar to Cleopatra, Caesar turns the personal into a political powerplay by marrying his sister Octavia to Antony to cement their alliance against Pompeii. Enobarbus cynically refers to Caesar’s tears for Octavia despite using her as a political tool: “What willingly he did confound [Octavia] he wailed.” Clearly, those seeking power often turn the personal into the political in order to further their own powerplays.
Sharing the intricate web of political power and shifting allegiances in Anthony and Cleopatra, Scorsese’s police thriller film The Departed ultimately highlights that the powerful can quickly become powerless, as power is dynamic and zero-sum. Sullivan, a police mole for the Irish mob, and Costigan, an undercover cop in Sullivan’s mob, try to hunt each other (‘the rats’) down. In a flashback, Sullivan’s boss and father figure, Costello, compares cops and criminals with his rhetorical question “When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” He thus highlights the dynamic nature of powerplays between law and crime, symbolically reinforced by the change of lighting around him from shade to sunlight. This notion is further emphasised by a chase scene where in Boston’s Chinatown where Sullivan tries to escape Costigan, the constantly changing camera angles and tense, high-strung music emphasising the delicate balance of power between them. Despite killing Costigan (albeit luckily) in a final psychological powerplay to protect his identity as a mole, Sullivan’s dominance is quickly shattered. Dignam, Costigan’s sacked superior in the undercover unit, vengefully murders Sullivan at film’s end, the camera panning out with gentle, reflective music, highlighting how quickly the powerful can become the powerless. Thus, powerplays do not endow permanent control, as power is dynamic and constantly fought over in a zero-sum game.
Another idea conveyed in Antony and Cleopatra is that the power of the masses is integral to political powerplays. Caesar’s simile “This common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to, and back, lackeying the varying tide,” shows public support is a dynamic, unstable force which only supports the victor, that is, the successful powerplayer. Enobarbus speaks cynically in prose about Cleopatra to Antony (“her passions are made of nothing but the finest parts of pure love”), highlighting a sort of equality between the two men despite differing ranks, reflecting the Roman values of civic involvement. This egalitarian concept is reflected again by a footsoldier urging Antony not to fight at sea. Furthermore, Enobarbus speaks distantly in verse when he starts to doubt Antony’s military and political tact: “What mean you sir | To give them this discomfort,” suggesting that the powerplaying individual must be receptive to his subjects and the masses to retain power. Indeed, it is when Antony loses touch with his masses (soldiers) that he seals his loss in the war, Caesar slyly commenting the deserters could alone destroy Antony’s remaining army: “those that serv’d Mark Anthony…enough to fetch him in”. Moreover, Caesar realises that satiating the masses by parading Cleopatra through Rome is key to complete his powerplay for total domination. Expressing her horror of public humiliation through simile: “Like a strumpet…I’ th’ posture of a whore,” the proud Queen is driven to suicide, highlighting the intimidating power of the mob. Hence, the power of the masses is a critical factor in many powerplays, and without it or pitted against it, the powerplayer is doomed to fail.
In contrast to Anthony and Cleopatra, Jeff Davis’ satirical cartoon An Uncivil Vote depicts the mob not as something to be won and feared, but rather something to be used. The cartoon shows Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fighting each other in a modern-day Gettysburg, a commentator in the foreground declaring John McCain’s victory. Donkey carcasses, symbolic of the masses, litter the landscape, symbolising how Clinton and Obama have furthered their own political powerplays by employing bitter, divisive and inflammatory tactics to manipulate the American populace. The fact that donkeys are traditional animals of burden further alludes to the masses as ignorant and helpless by themselves but necessary for the raw power of a political powerplay. Furthermore, Clinton and Obama take cover behind carcasses draped in campaign banners while throwing objects at each other, conveying how politicians skilfully use their loyal mob both to protect themselves and extend their influence. McCain, caricatured as a scavenging vulture smiling over the Democratic infighting, shows that powerplays also involve manipulating divided loyalties and disillusionment in the populace to one’s advantage. The dumbstruck, wide-eyed faces of the donkey carcasses only further emphasise the oblivious, easily swayed nature of the masses. Thus, we see the the mob represented totally opposite to Antony and Cleopatra – while the masses may have raw power, it is ultimately the powerplayer who harnesses it to his control.
– Dave 206
Another one of Dave’s finest essays. See my comments for Dave’s Module A Essay. To surmise: Excellent use of diction, sophisticated use of T.E.EM, impeccable structure, succinct attack of question. Epitome of HSC Response, received perfect 20/20 again. It was a good year for Dave.