Act III, scenes viii–x show that narrative time and chronological time occur at much different paces in Antony and Cleopatra. In the space of three scenes, we witness the full battle of Actium. We see Caesar, then Antony, prepare for battle and know the outcome of their meeting within the first four lines of Act III, scene x. In other sections of the play, the same number of scenes conveys 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 is waged and won.
What Enobarbus witnesses certainly complicates our perception of Antony, demonstrating that his failures take place not just in his private affiliations but in his public life as well. Although by Caesar’s and even by his own account he has neglected his duties to Rome, Antony has remained a fierce and respected soldier: his quietly threatening presence, as much as any offer of Sicily and Sardinia, persuades young Pompey to accept the triumvir’s offer of peace. Indeed, until this point, the blemishes on Antony’s character have been of a more personal nature: although he is twice an adulterer, although he has risked the security of the empire in order to partake in the pleasures of Egypt, his military prowess has never been in question. His retreat, however, conflicts with his values, as he is a man whose honor rests almost exclusively in his performance as a soldier.
A number of critics have attacked this moment in the play, asserting that such a retreat by an experienced general is unbelievable. To condemn or dismiss this scene for its lack of realism, however, misses the point for several reasons. First, by failing to allow Antony to be both the famed soldier and the distracted lover, to be both noble and irresponsible, one simplifies and diminishes his character. Second, the lost navy battle is more crucial on a symbolic than a literal level, for Antony’s decision to flee encapsulates the climactic neglect of duty that haunts him throughout the play.
The aftermath of the battle shows that Antony is struggling with divided, 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 into defeat as surely as his reason has led him into victory. The play, however, refuses to side with Antony in his argument against himself. We may share in Enobarbus’s disapproval of his commander’s performance, but surely we still view Antony as a worthy and sympathetic character. Indeed, the fallen general’s plea to Cleopatra makes it impossible to respond to him with simple contempt:
Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Antony’s willingness to accept defeat out of his great love for Cleopatra does not make him a two-dimensional character, nor does it make him reprehensible to us. In fact, his flaws may be exactly what we respond to, since they highlight that he is human, riddled with weaknesses despite his famous strengths.