Let’s grant it is not
Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy,
To give a kingdom for a mirth, to sit
And keep the turn of tippling with a slave,
To reel the streets at noon, and stand the buffet
With knaves that smells of sweat. Say this becomes him—
As his composure must be rare indeed
Whom these things cannot blemish—yet must Antony
No way excuse his foils when we do bear
So great a weight in his lightness. If he filled
His vacancy with his voluptuousness,
Full surfeits and the dryness of his bones
Call on him for’t. But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport, and speaks as loud
As his own state and ours—’tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to the present pleasure,
And so rebel to judgement.
In Act I, scene iv, Caesar meets with Lepidus to discuss the threat that Pompey poses to the empire. Here, he chastises Antony for staying in Egypt, where he pursues pleasure at the expense of his duty to the state. Caesar’s speech is significant for two reasons. First, it defines the Western sensibilities against which Cleopatra’s Egypt is judged and by which Antony is ultimately measured. As Caesar dismisses Antony’s passion for Cleopatra as boyish irresponsibility, he asserts the Roman expectation of duty over pleasure, reason over emotion. These competing worlds and worldviews provide the framework for understanding the coming clashes between Caesar and Antony, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cleopatra and Caesar.
Second, Caesar’s speech to Lepidus is significant for its suggestion that the oppositional worlds delineated here are a result of perception. For example, just as our perception of Antony changes according to the perceptions of other characters—to Caesar he is negligent and mighty; to Cleopatra, noble and easily manipulated; to Enobarbus, worthy but misguided—so too our understanding of East and West depends upon the ways in which the characters perceive them. To Caesar, Alexandria is a den of iniquity where the noontime streets are filled with “knaves that smell of sweat.” But we should resist his understanding as the essential definition of the East; we need only refer to Cleopatra’s very similar description of a Roman street to realize that place, as much as character, in Antony and Cleopatra, is a quilt of competing perceptions: “[m]echanic slaves / With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall / Uplift us to the view” (V.ii.205–207).