Caesar, encamped near the Egyptian capital of Alexandria, receives Antony’s challenge and laughs at it. Maecenas counsels him to take advantage of Antony’s rage, for “[n]ever anger / Made good guard for itself” (IV.i.9–10). Caesar prepares his army—swelled by deserters from his enemy’s troops—and plans to crush Antony for good.
Enobarbus brings word to Antony that Caesar has refused to fight him. Antony asks why, and Enobarbus suggests that Caesar is so sure of success that one-on-one combat seems unfair. Antony declares that he will fight the next day, whether it brings him victory or death. He thanks his servants for their faithful service and warns them that this night might be his last night with them. They begin to weep, and Enobarbus, with tears in his eyes, rebukes Antony for such a morbid speech. Antony says that he did not mean to cause sorrow, and, as he leads them off toward a bountiful feast, urges them to enjoy their evening together.
That night, Antony’s soldiers hear strange music resounding from somewhere underground. They whisper that it is the music of Hercules, the god after whom Antony modeled himself and who they believe now abandons him.
The following day, Eros arms Antony for battle, and Cleopatra insists on helping. Antony feels confident about the coming fight, promising Cleopatra that anyone who attempts to undo his armor before he is ready to remove it and rest will confront his rage. An armed soldier enters and reports that a thousand others stand ready for Antony’s command. Antony bids Cleopatra adieu, kisses her, and leads his men into battle.
Preparing for battle, Antony admits he wishes he had taken the earlier opportunity to oppose Caesar on land. A soldier comments that had he done so, he would still count Enobarbus as an ally. This report is the first Antony has heard of his most trusted friend’s desertion, and the news shocks him. At first he does not believe it, but Eros then points to the “chests and treasure” Enobarbus left behind (IV.v.10). Antony orders soldiers to deliver Enobarbus’s possessions to him, along with “gentle adieus and greetings,” and laments that his “fortunes have / Corrupted honest men” (IV.v.14–17).
Caesar, feeling certain of his victory, orders Agrippa to begin the battle. Caesar orders that the front lines be fitted with soldiers who have deserted Antony, so that Antony will feel like he that he is wasting his efforts fighting himself. Enobarbus receives the treasure and is overcome by guilt, realizing that he has become a common traitor. Deciding that he would rather die than fight against Antony, he declares himself a villain and goes to seek out a ditch in which to die.
Agrippa calls for his troops to retreat, declaring that the power of Antony’s forces has exceeded his expectations.
Antony’s men win the battle and retake Alexandria with a fierce display of force. Scarus receives a fantastic wound but will not relent, begging Antony for the chance to chase after the retreating army.
Because the play’s dramatic structure suggests that the battle in Act IV will be climactic and probably result in Antony’s death, Antony’s victory in these scenes is surprising and makes the plot much less predictable. After Antony’s flight from battle in Act III, and after Cleopatra’s apparent willingness to betray her lover, all seems lost for the lovers. Indeed, the opening scenes of Act IV confirm and build upon this impression. Caesar rejects Antony’s proposal for hand-to-hand combat with such assurance that we feel that there is something prophetic in the line “Know that tomorrow the last of many battles / We mean to fight” (IV.i.11–12). Antony, seemingly undone by the treachery of his own behavior, manages to burden his men with sadness rather than rouse them for battle, while several soldiers hear an otherworldly music they believe portends the destruction of the once great general and his forces.
Not only do these scenes redirect our expectations, they also suggest different interpretations of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s characters. Up to this point in the play, the two lovers seem to have been so absorbed in their own romance that they have allowed nations to go to war. A decidedly Roman perspective has dominated the presentation of Cleopatra as a wanton gypsy and Antony as her fool. The day of battle, however, brings victory to Antony and, at least for a moment, restores him to good fortune. Fighting a vicious and bloody fight, Antony displays the martial abilities that have forged his reputation, and he wins the battle. In these scenes both Antony and Cleopatra display depths of character that cannot be reduced to the respective fool and strumpet. The boldest, most incontrovertible display of the honor for which Antony is famed comes not in battle but in his decision to return to Enobarbus his abandoned treasures.
Enobarbus’s defection to Caesar’s side underscores one of the play’s main concerns: the mutability of human character. Once one of Antony’s most confident and self-assured comrades, Enobarbus becomes a man ruined by guilt over his disloyalty. The completeness of his change of heart is called into question, however, when he declares that he will go off to die in a ditch, because the latter part of his life has been foul. Although he has changed sides, he refuses to fight against Antony. Enobarbus lacks the distance necessary to see his life as a whole, and to understand the honorability of his past actions. He concentrates only on recent dishonorable actions, and so determines to die. But our understanding of Enobarbus must incorporate his former and present selves, the best and the foulest.
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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