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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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