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In Egypt, Philo and Demetrius, two Roman soldiers, discuss how their general, Mark Antony, has fallen in love with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, and has lost interest in his proper role as one of the three leaders (or triumvirs) of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra and Antony enter, the queen imploring Antony to describe just how much he loves her, when a messenger from Rome greets them. Antony says that he has little interest in hearing Roman news, but Cleopatra tells him that he must listen. She teases Antony for possibly turning away a command from young Octavius Caesar or a rebuke from Antony’s wife, Fulvia. When she urges him to return to Rome, Antony claims that Rome means nothing to him. He says that his duty requires him to stay in Alexandria and love Cleopatra. Although the queen doubts the sincerity of his sentiment, her suggestions that Antony hear the news from Rome go unheeded, and the couple exits together. After the lovers have gone, Philo and Demetrius express shock and despair at their general’s disrespect for Caesar and the concerns of the empire.Read a translation of Act I, scene i →
Cleopatra’s attendants ask a soothsayer, or fortune-teller, to reveal their futures. The Soothsayer tells Charmian and Iras, the queen’s maids, that their fortunes are the same: their pasts will prove better than their futures, and they shall outlive the queen whom they serve. Cleopatra joins them, complaining that Antony has suddenly turned his mind toward Rome again. She sends Antony’s follower Enobarbus to fetch his master, but changes her mind, and as Antony approaches, she leaves to avoid seeing him. A messenger reports to Antony that Fulvia and Lucius, Antony’s brother, have mounted an army against Caesar but have lost their battle. When the messenger hesitantly suggests that this event would not have happened had Antony been in Rome, Antony invites the man to speak openly, to “taunt [his] faults / With such full licence as both truth and malice / Have power to utter” (I.ii.96–98). Another messenger arrives to report that Fulvia is dead. Antony comments that he long desired his wife’s death but now wishes her alive again.
Enobarbus arrives and tries to comfort Antony with the thought that Fulvia’s death was an event that should be welcomed rather than mourned. Worried that his idleness and devotion to Cleopatra are responsible for these events, as well as a battle being waged by Sextus Pompeius, who is currently attempting to take control of the seas from the triumvirs, Antony decides to break away from Cleopatra and return to Rome.Read a translation of Act I, scene ii →
Cleopatra orders her servant Alexas to fetch Antony. When Antony enters, Cleopatra feigns a fainting spell, lamenting that Fulvia ever gave Antony leave to come to Egypt. She asks how she can have believed the vows of a man so willing to break his vows to his wife. Antony tells her of the volatile political situation in Rome and of Fulvia’s death. Cleopatra notes how little he mourns and predicts that he will grieve as little after her own death. They argue about the depth and truth of his feelings, until Antony finally departs, promising that distance will not threaten their love.Read a translation of Act I, scene iii →
Shakespeare organizes the plot of Antony and Cleopatra around the conflict between East and West, Egypt and Rome. He immediately establishes this opposition in the opening scene, when two Roman soldiers pass judgment on their commander, Mark Antony, for surrendering his martial duties to the exotic pleasures of Cleopatra’s Egypt. The battle is not merely between two geographically distinct empires but also between two diametrically opposed worldviews. As Philo and Demetrius lament Antony’s decline, claiming that his “captain’s heart” now serves as “the bellows and the fan / To cool a gipsy’s lust,” they illustrate a divide between a world that is governed by reason, discipline, and prudence, and another ruled by passion, pleasure, and love (I.i.6–10).
Cleopatra, however, is much more than the high-class prostitute that the Romans believe her to be. Often considered Shakespeare’s strongest female character, Cleopatra is a consummate actress. As her first scene with Antony shows, she conducts her affair with the Roman general in a highly theatrical fashion, her actions fueled as much by the need to create a public spectacle as by the desire to satisfy a private passion. Later, upon learning of Antony’s plan to return to Rome, the queen shifts from grief to anger with astonishing speed. No sooner does she recover from a fainting spell than she rails at Antony for his inability to mourn his dead wife adequately. As he prepares to leave, Cleopatra says, “But sir, forgive me, / Since my becomings kill me when they do not / Eye well to you” (I.iii.96-98). Here, “becomings” refers not only to the graces that become or suit the queen but also to her fluid transformations, her many moods, and the many different versions of herself she presents. In Act I, scene i, Antony points to this mutability when he notes that Cleopatra is a woman “[w]hom everything becomes-to chide, to laugh, / To weep” (I.i.51-52). This talent for perpetual change lends Cleopatra her characteristic sense of drama as well as her complexity.
In the Bard's hands and the amorous arms of Egypt, the courageous, gifted Antony of Julius Caesar becomes the doting fool of Antony and Cleopatra.
I just finished A&C in my attempt to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday next year. If you're interested, check out my blog on the play:
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