Antony and Cleopatra
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
An officer under Antony’s command, Ventidius, has won a military victory, but tells another officer that he will downplay it when reporting to Antony: “Better to leave undone, than by our deed / Acquire too high a fame when him we serve’s away” (III.i.14-15). This is frighteningly true office politics for those sick institutions where your competence threatens your superiors. Ventidius could do more, but it would offend Antony, so he’ll play up the fear struck by Antony’s name instead.
Agrippa and Enobarbus mention recent events and Octavia’s sorrow at leaving Rome with Antony, and they try to outdo each other in praising the other’s superior: Caesar and Antony. Lepidus, to Enobarbus, is the beetle between two “shards” (wing-cases) (III.ii.20) — that is, Caesar and Antony are two glorious wings, and Lepidus is the insect in the middle.
Caesar, Antony, Lepidus, and Octavia enter, Octavia as a would-be mediator but called “cement” (III.ii.29). Antony promises Caesar he’ll honor Octavia. Agrippa and Enobarbus provide side comments addressing the notion of crying at a farewell scene such as this: Caesar almost does weep here but ultimately is too insecure to show emotion; Antony in the past has been excessively emotional.
Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra solicitously interrogates the messenger she had terrorized earlier about Octavia. She wants to know about her height, voice, gait, the shape of her face, hair color, and so forth. Cleopatra twists his description so that she can declare Octavia “dull of tongue, and dwarfish” (III.iii.16).
Not published until 1683, the Memoirs of Sir James Melville records incidents occurring in 1564 between this emissary of Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth: “He describes in detail Queen Elizabeth’s anxious inquiries about the appearance and accomplishments of her dreaded rival” (Morris 272; cf. Rinehart 82f). See II.v also, regarding the historical relevance of Cleopatra’s striking the messenger who brings the news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia: “for these aspects of her character, too, Shakespeare had not far to look for a model. His own queen, brilliant and captivating, was yet capable of undignified spurts of rage, hysterical nerve storms, and public flirtation” (Morris 275). Ambassadors such as the Spanish Mendoza and other witnesses continually refer to her tantrums (see Morris 275-276).
How are these parallels accounted for? As to how these undignified moments are found in the play, Stratfordians can say only that Will Shakspere “must have seen and heard the queen, besides hearing continual talk about her” (Morris 271).
It is not, of course, claimed that Shakespeare had heard of Elizabeth’s inquiries about her rival, or even that he was echoing her speech to Parliament. It is merely suggested that in two scenes where Cleopatra’s conduct has been stigmatized as unregal, Shakespeare came uncannily close to contemporary examples of queenly behavior — closer, indeed, than Samuel Daniel did in his statuesque portrait. (Muir 200)
In Athens, Antony gripes to Octavia about Caesar waging new war on Pompey and insulting Antony publicly. “If I lose my honor, / I lose myself” (III.iv.22-23). Antony must build his army. Octavia will visit Caesar and try to smooth things over: “Wars ‘twixt you twain would be / As if the world should cleave, and that slain men / Should solder up the rift” (III.iv.30-32) — she’s been reading Henry V.
Eros (another friend of Antony) tells Enobarbus that as soon as Caesar and Lepidus defeated Pompey, Caesar turned on Lepidus, who is now imprisoned for letter-writing treachery. Enobarbus comments: “Then, world, thou hast a pair of chaps [jaws] — no more, / And throw between them all the food thou hast, / They’ll grind th’ one the other” (III.v.13-15). Antony is reportedly vowing revenge on the officer who killed Pompey.
In Rome, Caesar tells Maecenas and Agrippa about Antony’s having returned to Egypt, appointing Cleopatra Queen of Egypt, lower Syria, Cyprus, and Lydia, and giving conquered lands to his own young sons. Cleopatra was dressed as the goddess Isis in this spectacle. Caesar claims Antony sent a letter demanding some of Pompey’s lands in Sicily and accusing Caesar of imprisoning Lepidus for another land-grab. Caesar has replied with an explanation of the Lepidus situation and a land compromise which he figures Antony will reject.
Octavia arrives and Caesar is less concerned with her than with missing out on the opportunity of publicizing Antony’s poor treatment of her. He tells her Antony let her come only so that he could return to Cleopatra.
The scene brings up all the main characters’ self-deceptions.
Cleopatra, Antony, and Enobarbus prepare battle strategy. The issue of women in the military arises with Enobarbus arguing against Cleopatra’s involvement and mentioning the mockery in Rome. But Cleopatra cries, “Sink Rome, and their tongues rot / That speak against us!” (III.vii.15-16). Despite all advice, Antony impulsively agrees to fight Caesar at sea. Canidius complains, “So our leader’s led, / And we are women’s men” (III.vii.69-70).
A self-assured Caesar orders his lieutenant Taurus to attack by sea.
Antony and Enobarbus place their squadrons on a hillside in order to count Caesar’s ships.
Enobarbus is horrified. He reports that during the battle, Antony retreated, and Cleopatra’s first retreat is blamed. Cleopatra is called “Yon ribaudred nag of Egypt” (III.x.10) and her flight “like a cow in June” (III.x.14), and Antony followed “like a doting mallard” (III.x.19). Canidius will surrender to Caesar, but Enobarbus worriedly will stick with Antony, for now.
Antony despairs over his cowardice: “I / Have lost my way for ever” (III.xi.3-4). He accuses himself of rashness, fear and doting. He cites Caesar’s cheesiness, but insists, “I have offended reputation, / A most unnoble swerving” (III.xi.49-50). Cleopatra apologizes, saying she didn’t know he’d follow her, but their love for each other obliterates the need for regrets and apologies. They kiss. Antony has sent Euphronius, the schoolmaster, to negotiate a peace treaty.
“Antony’s sense of shame at the hold that Cleopatra exerts over him resembles at times the self-disgust of the persona of the sonnets’ relationship with his dark lady” (Wells 302-303). (Note in particular Sonnet 129.) And the destructive power of time is a mutual theme (308).
The low rank of Euphronius as messenger is noted by Caesar’s officer — it seems a slight against Caesar. Euphronius presents Antony’s request to remain in Egypt, or at least as a private citizen in Athens. Cleopatra requests remaining Queen of Egypt. Caesar wants Cleopatra to drive Antony from Egypt or kill him, and he thinks women are always easy to bribe because of their devotion to self-interest.
“What shall we do, Enobarbus?” asks Cleopatra. “Think and die,” he replies (III.xiii.1-2). This is reason #312 I love Shakespeare.
Enobarbus tells Cleopatra that Antony was to blame for the defeat because of his devotion to her. Antony has learned of Caesar’s plot and wants a one-on-one combat. Enobarbus is losing faith, but says,
he that can endure
To follow with allegiance a fall’n lord
Does conquer him that did his master conquer,
And earns a place i’ th’ story.
Caesar’s messenger Thidius tells Cleopatra it is known that she was forced to stay with Antony (wink wink), and when Cleopatra seems to agree with this political cover story, Enobarbus is convinced all have deserted Antony. Thidius tells Cleopatra that Caesar would be pleased for her to give Antony the boot “And put yourself under his shroud, / The universal landlord” (III.xiii.71-72). He, “of course, means protection. But who can doubt what Shakespeare meant? There in perhaps the grimmest pun in the play he announces once for all that domination of the earth is death” (Goddard, II 191).
When Antony enters, he also is convinced of her betrayal and he accuses her in similar words to her accusations against him beforehand, and he uses food imagery: “I found you as a morsel, cold upon / Dead Caesar’s trencher; nay, you were a fragment / Of Cneius Pompey’s” (III.xiii.116-117). Thidias is whipped and sent back to Caesar with Antony’s declaration of wrath. Cleopatra tells Antony it was a charade, that she was just playing along earlier, and Antony is mollified immediately. They exit, planning to celebrate her birthday night: “since my lord / Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra” (III.xiii.185-186).
Enobarbus decides that Antony’s judgment is gone and not even valor will reverse matters. He resolves to desert Antony: “When valor preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with. I will seek / Some way to leave him” (III.xiii.198-200).