Act I scene III
Both the central characters have friends and colleagues in a social situation unlike the isolation of some other tragic figures and here Cleopatra is seen with hers. It gives a chance for her to explain her main means of controlling Antony which is to send someone to spy on him and then behave in a way opposite to his mood. Charmian disagrees and suggests that she should comply with his mood and “cross him in nothing” but Cleopatra is disparagingly dismissive and claims this is the way to lose him: we sense that this game-playing could have serious consequences and so the discussion acts as foreshadowing. The brief interlude also reveals that Cleopatra thinks only of Antony when separate from him, whereas he has affairs of state of his mind. She is watchful, deceitful, changeable but charming. When Antony enters, she proves the accuracy of Enobarbus’ prediction that she will overreact and claims illness because of a premonition of bad news. There is insensitivity in her jibes that he is Fulvia’s slave (emphasized by the dramatic irony as we know that his wife is dead) as he does have momentous matters to deal with and she sees only the personal, perhaps trying to prove to Charmian that she is right to tease and contradict him. Histrionically she blames herself for believing his vows and he is unable to speak more than a few words as she declaims. She recalls the time when their passion was at its height and he begged to stay, when their love seemed eternal, using excessive alliteration to stress her point: “Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor”. We share Charmian’s view that this is a dangerous tactic when she angers him by calling him “the greatest liar”, a slur on his honor.
His response shows him as the former Antony, resolute and strongly in command, as he finally silences her for a few moments. It is vital that we see something of his earlier glory in order to appreciate his fall. He opposes “the strong necessity of time” with her evocation of “eternity” and he rationally draws a distinction between duty and emotion, although we question whether or not it is his “full” heart that he leaves behind with her as the Roman ideal also engages his feelings. He points out the very real dangers of civil war and the threat of Pompey’s powerful opposition to the triumvirate, stressing how the son has inherited his father’s reputation and showing his own political awareness that those who have not thrived under the present regime will have “grown sick of rest” and rebel also. There is a feeling of decadence and an uneasy peace here. Finally he breaks the news of Fulvia’s death and we await Clepoatra’s reaction with interest to see what trick she will perform now. Her fascinating behavior has more pull on the audience than Roman politics and distorts the moral balance.
Cleopatra expresses disbelief that Fulvia could die, saying that her own age has not released her from the foolishness of loving Antony but has saved her from childish incredulity, a complicated remark which buys her time and to which Antony replies by repeating the news, giving her proof of the death and of the troubles Fulvia caused politically. She now states that his love must be false since he does not weep and claims that he will be as unemotional over hers. He wants her support and swears by the sun, which makes life from the mud of the Nile, that he goes for her as soldier and servant wishing for her bidding. Cleopatra acts as if to swoon before her audience of women, still protesting that he is as fickle as her health. He protests his honor in love, but she continues to behave histrionically and even refers to the insincerity of their “dissembling” as if they were in a play, a moment of metadrama which distances us temporarily. He becomes angry, but she still treats him as if her were acting a part, calling on Charmian to watch. Antony moves to leave and she realizes she has gone too far, calling him back and trying another role, that of the bereft lover. He accuses her of emptiness and “idleness”, but she evokes a contrast between feelings and action, saying that her love is near her heart but earns his disapproval. She encourages him to be “deaf to [her] unpitied folly” and go where military honors awaits, using a Roman Lexis and wishing her hero well since she loves this aspect of him, to which he points the paradox that they can be together though separate. He does not analyze his situation because these are not moral abstractions, but the opposing tugs of two different worlds with their embodied sets of values.
Act I scene iv
This blank verse scene is set in Rome with the other two members of the triumvirate discussing Antony and the reception he gave to their messengers. Caesar is anxious that Lepidus should understand that he is not naturally full of hatred for a “great competitor”, here meaning, somewhat confusingly, “partner” but that Antony’s behavior, as reported, causes him grave concern. Significantly, his view of Antony’s conduct matches Antony’s own self-reproaches about idleness: “he fishes, drinks, and wastes/The lamps of night in revel.” Caesar also stresses the sense that Antony is no longer manly but has been weakened and feminized, ironically by a Cleopatra who loves his virility. There is also anger that the messengers were snubbed, an attitude which indicates that Antony disregards his colleagues: he has become a man composed of all possible human faults. Caesar’s wrath is comprehensible, but we also feel he is both dutiful and ambitious and that the latter is motivating him here, at least in part.
Lepidus defends Antony and pays tribute to his greatness: it is necessary for the drama that the heroic qualities of Antony are kept before us so that his diminution carries pathos and weight. Using natural imagery of the stars which are enhanced by the blackness of night, he reverses the usual connotations of light and dark and aligns Antony’s faults with brightness, creating a paradox which suggests that his flaws are such as would not be noticed in a lesser man. The metaphor and the explanation indicate that Antony’s character is fixed and inherited and that he has no choice but to act in accordance with his desires. This is a telling and thematic comment on Antony and is more judicious than Caesar’s view. It implies that character is fate.
Caesar is much harsher and stresses Antony’s lax behaviour, detailing how he has conducted himself in Egypt with a good deal of truth in the account, as we have seen for ourselves. Yet, as the story progresses, these words and the graphic picture they paint come to mind when Caesar is willing to marry his sister off to the degenerate Antony for political motives. He is incensed by Antony’s behavior in Egypt: his sexual liaison; his willingness to “give a kingdom for a mirth [jest]”; his drinking with slaves; his exchanging blows with sweaty low men and feels that such “foils [faults]” must be blemishes on his essential character as they would be with anyone’s. Caesar makes a distinction between the public and private, complaining of the “great weight” of matters of state that he has to bear because of Antony’s “lightness” and then pointing out that such excesses, the result of his filling “his vacancy [leisure] with his voluptuousness” would take their own toll physically. But worse is his wasting time which needs rebuking as one would boys old enough to know better who trade “experience for their present pleasure”. The speech is confused in structure and contains breaks in syntax which show that Caesar is angry and not a mere automaton. Antony’s decadent style of life enrages him as does his abnegation of duty and disregard for Rome.
A messenger brings news of Pompey’s success in recruiting discontented people to his cause and Caesar demonstrates his suspicion of the common folk, which contrasts with Antony’s willingness to mingle with them. He points out that a person in power was wished to be in power until he is actually in power (line 42) and that a man on the downward path is wished back in power again: the comparison is with an iris (fickle public opinion) on a stream, going backwards and forwards till it rots and the watery image contributes to a leitmotif in the play as well as showing an unattractive side of the Rome Caesar had previously been upholding. Yet this and the next message about the pirates show that Caesar has strong reasons to be concerned; the pressure is real and Antony should be there. Menecrates and Menas are menacing the coasts whose inhabitants are pale with fear and, again, the rebels are collecting support. Ships are being taken and the very name of Pompey is more effective than his armed forces would be if they were resisted.
Caesar’s next speech (line 59 ff) is based on contrasts between luxurious, depraved living, “lascivious wassails”, and harsh conditions serving to point the decline of Antony from stern soldier to playboy. The lexis is of food and drink. It helps to keep the pre-fall hero before us as we never see Antony as he was before his affair with Cleopatra. Caesar recalls his retreat from Hirtius and Pansa (whose deaths Caesar engineered in order to obtain their armies) when Antony survived famine despite his comfortable upbringing and showed great “patience [ability to tolerate]” in utmost adversity. He drank the urine of horses and ate berries and the barks of trees like a stag in the snow. Reports stated that he also consumed flesh which others would die to look at and bore all this honourably although his reputation is shamed by mention of it now. He did not even lose weight because of these deprivations and Caesar clearly admires this dauntless side of him – as does, ironically, Cleopatra. The speech has changed rhythms from Caesar’s usual clipped verse to expansiveness to show his emotional repsect for this ideal Antony and it adds to the many depictions and mentions of the past throughout the play. The quality praised is not Roman careful asceticism, however, but a kind of prodigality of pain and endurance and is therefore allied to Antony’s present self-indulgences: they are linked by the fact they are extremes along a spectrum.
Caesar’s mention of “honour” contrasts with his use of the word “shames” reflecting Antony’s reputation before and after his liaison with Cleopatra: a similar opposition is “business” (line 80) and “idleness” (line 76) and the scene ends with Caesar’s statement: “I know it for my bond”, meaning “I recognise it as part of my agreements”. This tends to shift our sympathies to the generally unsympathetic Caesar as he has shown emotion rather than coldness and has military matters to deal with, which call for Antony’s expertise and presence as a part of his bond as a member of the triumvirate.
Act I scene v. We now return to Egypt, the source of Antony’s temptations and what Caesar believes to be his degenerate living: Cleopatra, always more sensual and devoted in Antony’s absence than in his presence, is acting her role as the abandoned lover and we do find her more magnetic and fascinating than Caesar, provided that the actress is up to the part. In watching a drama, our reactions are not always moral and we may enjoy and be empathetic to ethically reprehensible behaviour if it is entertaining on stage. Even villains can be appealing and Cleopatra is not evil in that sense to other than Roman eyes and some of those (Enobarbus for example) are sympathetic. She is rarely alone and so has the opportunity to perform before her private audience as well as the theatre spectators; it is hard to imagine how she could conduct herself without an entourage. She is indulgent towards her own feelings and calls for a soporific to help her to “sleep out this great gap of time” without Antony as he has finally heeded the call to Rome. Her court is focussed on love and sex whilst Antony is now attending to affairs of state and military engagements. She enquires of her eunuch if he has sexual desires and has no wish to hear him sing which was probably the reason for his castration. There is a pun on “indeed” meaning “in deed” as he cannot perform a sexual act but he admits to allied fantasies about the gods.
Cleopatra also indulges her imagination asking questions about what Antony may be doing, even calling his horse fortunate to carry this semi-mythical hero, the “demi-Atlas of this earth” and assuming that he is mentally dwelling on her as his “serpent of old Nile”, wily and unpredictable. She is self-aware when she accepts that she is feeding herself “with most delicious poison”, indulging in the painful emotions caused by separation. (The mention of poison foreshadows the end of the drama). Her description of herself “with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black/And wrinkled deep in time” is an excellent example of how the grand poetry of the play lifts the reality as she is essentially saying that she is sunburnt (an unattractive feature to Elizabethans), elderly and wrinkled. Yet she presnts herself through the lexis as the lover of the sun-god and almost eternal. She has always loved great men and recalls two earlier visitors to Egypt with whom she had affairs: Julius Caesar and another Pompey, (Cneius, son of Pompey the Great) who would gaze at her face obsessively and would die (a word also meaning achieve orgasm) in so doing. These reminiscences have two effects: they make us realise that Antony cannot be wholly blamed for his infatuation if others have shared it and that he has more cause to doubt her fidelity than she his.
When Alexas enters, Cleopatra’s first thought is how unlike Antony he is although affected and improved by contact with her hero: she is determined to present herself as the obsessed and forsaken lover. Alexas says exactly what she wants to hear: Antony has kissed a pearl which he has sent her, saying that he will add kingdoms to hers so that she rules all the east. The verbal picture of him mounting his horse which neighs so loudly that it drowns the voice, is clear and memorable. Alexas’ answer to her query about Antony’s disposition is diplomatic and her response almost comic as she interprets his neutral mood, his “heavenly mingle”, as avoiding sadness so as not to depress his followers and not merry because of recalling her. Yet even in extremes, his emotions would suit him. She has been sending many messages a day and claims to love Antony more than she ever loved Julius Caesar, a statement that Charmian receives with scepticism. Cleopatra reacts violently before retreating into the excuse of youth, “salad days”. Her threats to “unpeople Egypt” (reminding us of Antony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt”) or to strike out at those who do not agree with her have a masculininity and suddenness and it should not surprise her that few attendants dare speak their minds. Cleopatra will always win and think of some escape from a situation.