Summary: Act 3: Scene 7

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 Octavius at sea. Camidius and Enobarbus object, pointing out that while they have superiority on land, Octavius’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 fight on foot. After the general and the queen exit, Camidius complains that they are all “women’s men,” ruled by Cleopatra (3.7.87). He comments on the speed of Octavius’s approach, then goes to prepare the land defenses.

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Summary: Act 3: Scene 8

Octavius orders his army to hold off its attack until the sea battle ends.

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Summary: Act 3: Scene 9

Antony instructs Enobarbus to set their squadrons on a hillside, which will allow them to view the battle at sea.

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Summary: Act 3: Scene 10

Enobarbus describes the sea fight he has just witnessed: Antony’s forces were winning the battle until Cleopatra’s ship fled without warning and Antony followed her. The fleet was thrown into confusion, and the victory went to Octavius. Antony’s soldiers are sickened by the sight, one of them declaring that he has never seen anything so shameful. Camidius defects to Octavius’s side, bringing his army and following the lead of six of Antony’s royal allies, but Enobarbus, against his better judgment, remains loyal to his general.

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Summary: Act 3: Scene 11

Deeply ashamed of his performance in battle, Antony berates himself, ordering his servants to leave the service of such an unworthy master. He urges them to abandon him, just as he has abandoned his nobler self. When Cleopatra enters, she finds her lover distraught and alone. She tries to comfort him, but Antony can remind her only of his valiant past: it was he who won fierce battles, who dealt with the treacheries of Cassius and Brutus. But now, he determines, such events do not matter. He asks Cleopatra why she has led him into infamy, and she begs his forgiveness, saying that she never dreamed that he would follow her retreat. He asks her how she could doubt that he would follow her, when his heart was tied to her. Antony complains that he must now seek young Octavius’s pardon, but unable to bear the sight of the queen’s sorrow, he forgives her. As Antony kisses Cleopatra, he remarks that even her mere kiss repays him for his shame.

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Summary: Act 3: Scene 12

Octavius is with Dolabella and Thidias, two of his supporters, when Antony’s ambassador arrives with his master’s request: Antony asks to be allowed to live in Egypt or, barring that, to “breathe between the heavens and earth, / A private man in Athens” (3.12.17–18). The ambassador further delivers Cleopatra’s request that Egypt be passed on to her heirs. Octavius dismisses Antony’s requests but declares that Cleopatra will have a fair hearing so long as she expels Antony from Egypt or executes him. He sends Thidias to lure Cleopatra to accept these terms, hoping that she will betray her lover.

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Summary: Act 3: Scene 13

Enobarbus tells Cleopatra that the defeat was not her fault since Antony could have chosen to follow reason rather than lust. The ambassador returns with Octavius’s message: Antony declares that he will challenge his rival to one-on-one combat. Enobarbus meditates on such a course of action, but he decides that if he remains loyal to Antony, then he might be able to attack Octavius in the event that Octavius kills Antony. Meanwhile, Thidias arrives to tell Cleopatra that Octavius will show her mercy if she relinquishes Antony. The queen concedes that she embraced Antony more out of fear than love and declares Octavius a god to whom she will bow down. Just then, Antony enters in a fury and demands that Thidias be whipped. He then turns to Cleopatra and rails at her for betraying him. The queen protests that she would never betray him, which satisfies Antony. Antony’s fleet has reassembled, and much of his land forces remain intact, ready to attack Octavius again. Enobarbus, who has observed this scene, decides that he has been faithful to Antony long enough. He feels that Antony’s mind is slipping and that he must abandon his master.

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Analysis: Act 3: Scenes 7–13

Scenes 7–10 of act 3 again show how narrative time and chronological time occur at different paces in Antony and Cleopatra. In the space of four scenes, we witness the full battle of Actium. We see Antony and Octavius each prepare for battle, and within the first four lines of act 3, scene 10, we know the outcome of the conflict. In other sections of the play, the same number of scenes conveys far less information and covers much less time. The rapid progression of these scenes attests to the ease with which time can be compressed onstage: in a matter of minutes, an entire naval battle may be waged and won. This compression demonstrates just how quickly events of world-historical importance can unfold. Yet it also has the effect of diminishing the importance of the physical conflict itself, ensuring that more time is spent in scenes that function to trace the arcs of the play’s central characters.

Read more about how the play’s structure compresses our sense of both space and time.

With this in mind, what’s arguably more important than the actual clash between Octavius and Antony are the consequences of this clash for Antony and Cleopatra—both as individuals and as lovers. Indeed, the second half of act 3 amply demonstrates the increasingly turbulent influence Cleopatra has on Antony and the political drama in which he is enmeshed. In scene 7, it is Cleopatra’s insistence on the power of her naval fleet that seems to convince Antony to do battle at sea rather than on land. Despite his own prowess as a foot soldier and the grave counsel of his chief advisors, Antony makes the disastrous decision: “By sea, by sea” (3.7.52). And just as Cleopatra’s zeal leads Antony into a catastrophic loss, her cowardly escape from the battle leads him into shame by luring him to follow her in flight. Nor does the tumult end with the loss to Octavius. Even after the pair is reconciled after the Battle of Actium, they suffer another bout of mistrust when Antony finds Thidias, an emissary from the enemy, kissing Cleopatra’s hand. Though they reconcile yet again, it’s clear that the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra grows more and more tumultuous.

Cleopatra’s evident—and evidently destructive—influence over Antony appears to confirm a claim that many in the play have made about women’s power to emasculate men. For some critics of the play, too, the second half of act 3 has the unfortunate effect of flattening Antony’s character, reducing him to a man rendered weak by love. But Shakespeare’s depiction of Antony is arguably more nuanced. The aftermath of the battle shows that Antony is struggling with competing identities. His lament that he has fled from himself shows that his character has developed beyond his own understanding. The self he believes he has fled is the military hero; the self he now confronts is a man whose heart can lead him to defeat as surely as his reason has previously led him to victory. Though his fellow Romans may find Antony reprehensible for his apparent weakness, his flaws are arguably what makes him a sympathetic character. He is not the demigod Cleopatra insists he is. Instead, he is human, riddled with weaknesses despite his famous strengths.

Although we in the audience may pity Antony in his self-divided state, his closest companions and advisors increasingly distrust his decisions. Enobarbus, especially, weighs the pros and cons of abandoning Antony’s service. His suspicions of Antony first arose back in the final scenes of act 2, where he and Pompey’s advisor, Menas, predicted a decisive clash between Antony and Octavius. Now, in the latter half of act 3, these predictions are coming true, and Enobarbus can do little more than watch as Antony “throw[s] away” all his advantages and “giv[es] up [him]self merely to chance and hazard / From firm security” (3.7.53, 60–61). By the end of the act, having witnessed Antony falter, Enobarbus makes an even clearer and more ominous prediction: “When valor preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with” (3.13.240–41). It is with this prophecy that Enobarbus closes act 3, pledging to “seek / Some way to leave [Antony]” (3.13.241–42).

Read more about the theme of honor and its definition.