. . . yet must Antony
No way excuse his foils when we do bear
So great weight in his lightness.
In Rome, young Octavius Caesar complains to Lepidus, the third triumvir, that Antony has abandoned his responsibilities as a statesman and, in doing so, has also abandoned the better part of his manhood. Lepidus attempts to defend Antony, suggesting that Antony’s weaknesses for fishing, drinking, and reveling are traits he inherited rather than ones he has chosen. Caesar remains unconvinced, declaring that Antony has no business enjoying himself in Egypt during a time of crisis. A messenger arrives with news that Pompey’s forces are both gathering strength and finding support among those whose prior allegiance to Caesar arose from fear, not duty. Remembering Antony’s valiant and unparalleled performance as a soldier, Caesar laments that Antony is not with them. He and Lepidus agree to raise an army against Pompey.
Cleopatra complains to Charmian that she misses Antony. She wonders what he is doing and whether he, in turn, is thinking of her. Alexas enters and presents her with a gift from Antony: a pearl. He tells the queen that Antony kissed the gemstone upon leaving Egypt and ordered it be delivered to Cleopatra as a token of his love. Cleopatra asks if he appeared sad or happy, and she rejoices when Alexas responds that Antony seemed neither: to appear sad, Cleopatra says, might have contaminated the moods of his followers, while a happy countenance could have jeopardized his followers’ belief in his resolve. Cleopatra orders Alexas to prepare twenty messengers, so that she can write to Antony on each day of his absence. She promises, if need be, to “unpeople Egypt” by turning all of its citizens into messengers (I.v.77).
Pompey discusses the military situation with his lieutenants, Menecrates and Menas. He feels confident of victory against the triumvirs not only because he controls the sea and is popular with the Roman people, but also because he believes that Antony, the greatest threat to his power, is still in Egypt. Menas reports that Caesar and Lepidus have raised an army, and another soldier, Varrius, arrives to tell them that Antony has come to Rome. Menas expresses his hope that Caesar and Antony’s mutual enmity will give rise to a battle between the two triumvirs, but Pompey predicts that the two will come together in order to fend off a common enemy.
Lepidus tells Enobarbus that Antony should use “soft and gentle speech” when speaking to Caesar (II.ii.3). Enobarbus answers that Antony will speak as plainly and honestly as any great man should. Antony and Caesar enter with their attendants and sit down to talk. Caesar complains of the rebellion that Fulvia and Antony’s brother raised against him. He asks why Antony dismissed his messengers in Alexandria and accuses Antony of failing in his obligation to provide military aid to the other triumvirs. Antony defends himself, and Maecenas, one of Caesar’s companions, suggests that they put aside their bickering in order to face Pompey. Agrippa, another of Caesar’s men, suggests that Antony marry Caesar’s sister, Octavia. This bond, he claims, would cement the men’s affection for and alliance with one another. Antony consents. Caesar and Antony shake hands, promising brotherly love, and they agree to march together toward Pompey’s stronghold on Mount Misenum.
When the triumvirs disperse, Enobarbus tells Agrippa of the good life they lived in Egypt. He describes how Cleopatra first came to meet Antony, comparing the queen to Venus, the goddess of love. Antony, he maintains, will never be able to leave her, despite his marriage to Octavia.
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.
Unlike Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra is not confined to a single geographical location. Whereas Macbeth unfolds in Scotland and Hamlet in Denmark’s Elsinore castle, Antony and Cleopatra takes the audience from one end of the Mediterranean Sea to the other in the course of a scene change. This technique is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it shows the global concerns of the play: traveling from Alexandria to Athens to Rome to Syria demonstrates the scope of the empire for which Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar struggle. Second, the use of rapidly shifting locales shows that Shakespeare has become less interested in the deep psychological recesses that he examines in his greatest tragedies and is now addressing more public concerns. A stylistic result of Shakespeare’s interest in the broader world is that Antony and Cleopatra lacks soliloquies, a device that Shakespeare elsewhere uses to reveal his characters’ hidden thoughts to the audience.
As he shuttles the audience from Egypt to Rome, Shakespeare introduces the other members of the triumvirate who, with Antony, have ruled the Roman Empire since Julius Caesar’s death. Octavius Caesar, Julius’s nephew, stands in stark contrast to Antony. His first lines establish him as a man ruled by reason rather than passion, duty rather than desire. He complains that Antony neglects affairs of state in order to fish, drink, and waste the night away in revelry. Even though he lacks the military prowess that he praises in Antony, Caesar is, politically speaking, ever practical and efficient. That he disapproves so strongly of Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra foreshadows the collapse of the triumvirate and forecasts Caesar’s role as a worthy adversary.
Although he speaks little in Act I, scene iv, Lepidus emerges as the weakest of the three Roman leaders. Neither heroic like Antony nor politically astute like Caesar, Lepidus lacks the power and command of his fellow triumvirs. Ledipus works desperately to maintain a balance of power by keeping Caesar and Antony on amiable terms. When Caesar criticizes Antony, Lepidus urges him not to condemn their fellow triumvir so harshly, and later entreats Antony to speak gently when speaking to Caesar. The triumvirate is a triangular form of government, and it is little wonder, given the extreme weakness of one of its sides, that it soon collapses.
The focus on Roman politics and the rising threat of war in Act I, scene iv and Act II, scene i threatens to overshadow the romantic interests of the title characters. To prevent this eclipse, Shakespeare returns the audience to Egypt, in the brief interlude of Act I, scene v. This interlude reminds the audience of Cleopatra’s passion and the threat it poses to the stability of the empire.
Enobarbus’s lengthy description of Cleopatra in Act II, scene ii testifies to Cleopatra’s power. Her beauty is so incomparable, her charms so strong that the “vilest things / Become themselves in her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish [sluttish]” (II.ii.243–245). Her talent for transforming the “vilest things” into things of beauty, and for overturning entire systems of morality so that priests alter their understanding of what is holy and what is sinful, is Cleopatra’s greatest strength.
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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