Antony complains to Octavia that since departing Rome, Caesar has not only waged war against Pompey but has also belittled Antony in public. Octavia urges Antony not to believe everything he hears, and she pleads with him to keep the peace with her brother. Were Antony and Caesar to fight, Octavia laments, she would not know whether to support her brother or her husband. Antony tells her that he must do what needs to be done to preserve his honor, without which he would be nothing. Nevertheless, he sends her to Rome to make peace again between Caesar and himself. Meanwhile, he prepares for war against Pompey.
Enobarbus converses with Eros, another friend of Antony. The two discuss Caesar’s defeat of Pompey’s army and the murder of Pompey. Eros reports that Caesar made use of Lepidus’s forces, but then, after their victory, denied Lepidus his share of the spoils. In fact, Caesar has accused the triumvir of plotting against him and has thrown him into prison. Enobarbus reports that Antony’s navy is ready to sail for Italy and Caesar.
Back in Rome, Caesar rails against Antony. He tells Agrippa and Maecenas that Antony has gone to Egypt to sit alongside Cleopatra as her king. He has given her rule over much of the Middle East, making her absolute queen of lower Syria, Cyprus, and Lydia. Caesar reports that Antony is displeased that he has not yet been allotted a fair portion of the lands that Caesar wrested from Pompey and Lepidus. He will divide his lot, he says, if Antony responds in kind and grants him part of Armenia and other kingdoms that Antony conquered. No sooner does Maecenas predict that Antony will never concede to those terms than Octavia enters. Caesar laments that the woman travels so plainly, without the fanfare that should attend the wife of Antony. Caesar reveals to her that Antony has joined Cleopatra in Egypt, where he has assembled a large alliance to fight Rome. Octavia is heartbroken, and Maecenas assures her that she has the sympathy of every Roman citizen.
Cleopatra plans to go into battle alongside Antony and responds angrily to Enobarbus’s suggestion that her presence will be a distraction. Enobarbus tries to dissuade her, but she dismisses his objections. Antony tells his general, Camidius, that he will meet Caesar at sea. Camidius and Enobarbus object, pointing out that while they have superiority on land, Caesar’s naval fleet is much stronger. -Antony, however, refuses to listen. Cleopatra maintains that her fleet of sixty ships will win the battle. Antony leaves to prepare the navy, despite the protests of a soldier who begs him to forgo a doomed sea battle and advocates fighting on foot. After the general and the queen exit, Camidius complains that they are all “women’s men,” ruled by Cleopatra (III.vii.70). He comments on the speed of Caesar’s approach, then goes to prepare the land defenses.
Caesar’s description of Antony and Cleopatra in Act III, scene vi shows the play’s preoccupation with the sexualized East. The scene recalls an earlier speech by Enobarbus in which he states that the Egyptian queen floats down the Nile on a glittering throne. Just as Cleopatra and her barge are a vision of decadent beauty in the earlier speech, so is the image of the queen and her lover in the marketplace of Alexandria. Caesar’s exchange with Maecenas underscores the spectacular nature of Antony and Cleopatra’s appearance:
CAESAR: Contemning Rome, he has done all this and more
In Alexandria. Here’s the manner of’t:
I’ th’ market place on a tribunal silvered,
Cleopatra and himself in chairs of gold
Were publicly enthroned. . . .
MAECENAs: This in the public eye?
CAESAR: I’ th’ common showplace, where they exercise.
. . .
In th’habiliments of the goddess Isis
That day appeared, and oft before gave audience
Antony and Cleopatra draws distinctions between the West and the East by illustrating the West as sober, military, and masculine, and the East as exotic, pleasure-loving, and sexual. In this scene, it is not only the public appearance of Antony with a woman not his wife that shocks Maecenas, Caesar, and Agrippa, but also the decadence with which they appear. While the military men confer in the West regarding the machinations of war, Antony’s life in the East is represented as focused on sensual pleasures, both with Cleopatra and within the wealth and splendor of her kingdom.
This passage also confirms Cleopatra’s theatricality and the world’s preoccupation with spectacle. Spectacle is of supreme importance throughout the play, as Caesar again makes clear when he complains to Octavia about her lack of it. Bent on keeping the peace between her husband and brother, Octavia arrives in Rome without any of the fanfare or trappings that would indicate her station. Caesar insists that the
wife of Antony
Should have an army for an usher, and
The neighs of horse to tell of her approach
Long ere she did appear.
Caesar likens Octavia’s appearance to that of a common maid going to market. Caesar links spectacle with power: the greater the display, the more substantial and genuine the power behind it. Caesar returns to this line of thinking at the play’s end when he plans to display Cleopatra on the streets of Rome as a testament to the indomitable strength of his empire. Here we see the equation between spectacle and power in reverse: Octavia’s unheralded arrival in Rome betrays what Caesar knows too well—his sister has little, if any, power over a husband whose heart visibly belongs to Egypt.
The romance between Antony and Cleopatra is different from the romance between some of Shakespeare’s other major characters because it focuses on how the two mesh with larger historical and social dramas. Whereas Romeo and Juliet, for instance, largely chronicles the private moments of its teenaged protagonists, following the couple as they steal moments together at a crowded party or on a moonlit balcony, Antony and Cleopatra’s concerns are public rather than private. Antony’s return to and reconciliation with Cleopatra take place offstage, as do all of the more private moments of their relationship. What earns stage time in this play are not the muted whispers of discreet lovers but the grand performances of lovers who live in, and play for, the public eye. Love, in Antony and Cleopatra, seems less a product of the bedroom than of political alliance, for we are always aware of the public consequences of the couple’s affair. When Caesar laments that Antony has given up his empire for a whore, we understand the enormous impact—both civic and geographic—that the lovers’ affair will have on the world. Kingdoms stand to be built on the foundation of Antony and Cleopatra’s love or crumble under its weight.
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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