Antony promises Octavia that although his duties will often force him to be away from her, he will avoid the sexual indiscretions of his past. Octavia and Caesar depart, and Antony is joined by the Egyptian soothsayer, who predicts Antony’s return to Egypt. Antony asks whether he or Caesar has the brighter future, and the Soothsayer answers that Caesar’s fortune will rise higher. As long as Antony remains in Rome, the Soothsayer predicts, he will be overshadowed by Caesar. He advises Antony to leave plenty of space between himself and Caesar. Antony dismisses the fortune-teller but agrees with his assessment, and he resigns himself to returning to the East, where his “pleasure lies” (II.iii.38). Antony summons Ventidius, a soldier and friend, and commissions him to go east to make war against the kingdom of Parthia.
Meanwhile, Lepidus orders Maecenas and Agrippa to gather their soldiers and meet at Mount Misenum, where they shall confront Pompey’s army.
In Egypt, Cleopatra amuses herself with her servants Charmian and Mardian, a eunuch. As she reminisces about Antony, likening him to a fish that she has caught, a messenger arrives from Italy. Noting his unhappy expression, Cleopatra fears that Antony is dead and threatens the messenger should he deliver such unwelcome news. The messenger assures the queen that her lover is alive and well, but admits that Antony has married Octavia. Cleopatra strikes the messenger furiously, but he insists that he must tell her the truth. Cleopatra admits that it is beneath her station to treat a menial servant so viciously, but she cannot help upbraiding the man as she forces him to repeat that Antony belongs to another. She finally dismisses the messenger, then sends him orders to go and see Octavia so that he may report her features—how old she is, how she acts, even the color of her hair.
Before waging a war, Pompey and the triumvirs hold a meeting. Pompey tells Caesar, Lepidus, and Antony that he is fighting to avenge his father, whose defeat by Julius Caesar led him into Egypt, where he was killed. Antony informs Pompey that despite the latter’s strength at sea, the triumvirs’ army will prevail. The three offer Pompey rule over Sicily and Sardinia should he agree to rid the sea of pirates and to send payments of wheat to Rome as a tax. Pompey admits that he was ready to accept this offer until Antony offended him by refusing to acknowledge the hospitality he showed Antony’s mother on her recent visit to Sicily. Antony assures Pompey that he intended to offer a gracious thanks, at which the men shake hands and make peace.
Pompey invites the Romans aboard his ship for dinner, and the triumvirs join him. Enobarbus and Menas stay behind discussing their military careers, the current political situation, and Antony’s marriage to Octavia. Enobarbus repeats that he is sure Antony will inevitably return to Egypt. After the talk, the two go to dinner.
Although the contradictory impressions we are given of the major characters may be confusing, they allow us to gain a more complex understanding of each character by seeing him or her from a variety of viewpoints. For example, in the opening scenes of the play, Demetrius and Philo complain that their general has sacrificed his better self for the sake of a gypsy’s lust. Three scenes later, Caesar describes Antony’s incomparable prowess in battle, confirming the audience’s impression of the general’s military might. When Antony appears in Act II, scene iii, however, he seems less interested in maintaining this heroic reputation than in pursuing his own pleasure. We may find it difficult to decide whether the Antony we see is the celebrated war hero or a man corrupted by his desires for fame and romance. The play does not offer simple answers to such questions, because it declines to privilege one point of view over another. Throughout, we must balance Caesar’s impressions with Enobarbus’s in order to reconcile Cleopatra’s understanding of Antony with Antony’s understanding of himself. Antony, like each character in the play, is the product of three distinct elements: what other characters think of him, what he thinks of himself, and what he does.
Although in other plays Shakespeare often limits the number of lenses through which the audience views his characters, he refrains from doing so in Antony and Cleopatra. Antony is not simply a hero, nor is he simply a fool who has thrown away reason and duty for love. An accurate picture of his character must incorporate both of these traits. Similarly, Cleopatra is both the regal, incomparably beautiful seductress of Enobarbus’s speech and the spoiled, petty tyrant who beats her servant for delivering unwelcome news. More than any other character in the play—and perhaps in all of Shakespeare—Cleopatra assumes each of these contradictory roles with unmatched passion and flair. She is, above all else, a consummate actress, a woman whose grief over Antony’s marriage to Octavia can be soothed only by the theatrics of drawing a knife on her innocent messenger. Cleopatra’s over-the-top behavior may cause us to doubt the authenticity of her emotions and question whether her grief is more performance than actual feeling. But to entertain such doubts about her may be to look at the play too much from the Roman point of view. We should remember that Cleopatra is more than the harlot the Romans see when they look at her. As Enobarbus says in Act II, scene ii, Cleopatra is a woman of “infinite variety”: there is room in her for both theatrical emotions and genuine love, for both stately grandeur and for girlish insecurity (II.ii.241).
The Roman characters repeatedly remark that Cleopatra’s beauty is sufficient to undo otherwise indestructible men. In general, Antony and Cleopatra exhibits a great deal of anxiety about the power of women over men. The Romans constantly chastise Cleopatra for her ability to topple Antony’s sense of reason and duty, while they expect Octavia to quell the animosity between Antony and Caesar by serving to “knit [their] hearts / With an unslipping knot” (II.ii.132–133). Notably, both the blame for men’s downfalls and the hope for their recovery are burdens placed on women.
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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