Most noble Antony,
Let not the piece of virtue which is set
Betwixt us as the cement of our love
To keep it builded, be the ram to batter
The fortress of it. . . .
A group of servants discusses Pompey’s dinner party, commenting on Lepidus’s drunkenness in particular. Pompey enters with his guests as Antony discusses the Nile River. Lepidus babbles on about crocodiles, which, according to popular belief, formed spontaneously out of the river mud. Lepidus asks Antony to describe the crocodile, and Antony responds with a humorously circular and meaningless definition: “It is shaped, sir, like itself, and is as broad as it hath breadth” (II.vii.39–40). Menas pulls Pompey aside to suggest that they set sail and kill the three triumvirs while they are still drunk and onboard the boat, thus delivering control of the Western world into Pompey’s hands. Pompey rails against Menas for sharing this plan with him. Were the deed done without his knowledge, Pompey says, he would have praised it, but now that he knows, it would violate his honor. In an angry aside, Menas expresses his disappointment with Pompey and swears that he will leave his master’s service. Meanwhile, the triumvirs and their host continue their drunken revelry, eventually joining hands, dancing, and singing before they leave the ship and stumble off to bed.
Ventidius, fighting for Antony, defeats the Parthians, killing their king’s son. One of Ventidius’s soldiers urges him to push on into Parthia and win more glory, but Ventidius says he should not. If he were too successful in war, he explains, he would fall out of Antony’s favor and not be able to advance as a member of Antony’s forces. Instead, Ventidius halts his army and writes to Antony, informing him of his victory.
Agrippa and Enobarbus discuss the current state of affairs: Pompey has gone, Octavia and Caesar are saddened by their nearing separation, and Lepidus is still sick from his night of heavy drinking. Agrippa and Enobarbus mock Lepidus, the weakest of the three triumvirs, who trips over himself in order to stay on good terms with both Antony and Caesar. A trumpet blares, and Lepidus, Antony, and Caesar enter. Caesar bids farewell to Antony and his sister, urging his new brother-in-law never to mistreat Octavia and thereby drive a wedge between himself and Antony. Antony implores Caesar not to offend him, making assurances that he will not justify Caesar’s fears. Antony and Octavia depart, leaving Lepidus and Caesar in Rome.
Cleopatra’s messenger returns to report on Antony’s bride. He tells Cleopatra that Octavia is shorter than she and that Octavia has a low voice and is rather lifeless. This news pleases Cleopatra, who delights in thinking that Antony’s bride is stupid and short. She decides that, given Octavia’s lack of positive attributes, Antony cannot possibly enjoy being with her for long. She promises to reward the messenger for his good service, showers him with gold, and asks him not to think of her too harshly for her past treatment of him. She then tells Charmian that Antony will almost certainly return to her.
Both Ventidius’s speech after the victory over Parthia and the events of the party challenge and complicate our understanding of honor. Ventidius’s contemplation of his performance in battle in Act II, scene i offers a definition of honor based on prowess in battle. Ventidius explains that it would not be honorable to conquer too extensively, since eclipsing his captain’s fame would reflect poorly on himself. Whereas Pompey’s definition of honor has to do with appearance, Ventidius’s has to do with ambition. Ultimately, it is clear that Ventidius contemplates his honorable leading of the army as a way of achieving greater status; he ends his speech describing the perils of overachievement with the words, “I could do more to do Antonius good, / But ’twould offend him, and in his offence / Should my performance perish” (III.i.25–27). Ventidius seems to care at least as much about Antony’s opinion of his performance in war as about his sense of honor.
Pompey’s sense of honor, however, is based on surface appearances. His desire that the triumvirate be deposed might easily be seen as dishonorable, since he appears to be making peace with them. However, he believes that he retains his honor by not acting on his dishonorable feelings. When Menas suggests that he be allowed to assassinate the triumvirs in order to deliver world power into Pompey’s hands, Pompey’s reasoning for condemning Menas’s plan shows that it is not the act itself that would challenge Pompey’s public honor, but rather its appearance:
Ah, this thou shouldst have done
And not have spoke on’t. In me ‘tis villainy,
In thee ‘t had been good service. Thou must know
‘Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour it. Repent that e’er thy tongue
Hath so betrayed thine act. Being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done,
But must condemn it now.
Pompey does not condemn the assassination of his unsuspecting—indeed, helplessly drunken—guests as treacherous or morally irresponsible. Instead, he complains that Menas shared the plan with him, a divulgence that, if discovered, would affect the way that the world sees him. Pompey would no longer be looked upon as an honorable man if he murdered his guests. In a play that invests so much in surface, even qualities such as honor and nobility have more to do with spectacle than with deeper human emotions.
Lepidus’s drunkenness symbolizes his physical and political weakness: indeed, he makes only one more appearance before being eliminated by Caesar, fulfilling the servants’ prophesy that even world leaders can be easily overthrown. That Caesar proves the wind that blows Lepidus (and eventually Antony) down should not come as any surprise, given his behavior aboard Pompey’s ship. Caesar alone manages to elevate duty above pleasure; he alone interrupts the night’s carousing to remind Antony that their more serious business conflicts with the extended revelry. Perhaps the most telling phrase Antony utters in this scene comes as he tries to persuade Caesar to forget duty for the night. While urging his men to drink until “the conquering wine hath steeped our sense / In soft and delicate Lethe,” he bids Caesar to “[b]e a child o’th’ time”—to live, in other words, strictly for the moment, for the pleasure of the present (II.vii.94–103). Antony’s propensity to live according to the moment, with little regard for the future or the consequences of his actions, is one of the greatest factors in his demise.
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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