Act II scene vi
After the human rivalry of the previous scene we have latent political rivalry which shows scheming and divisions barely smoothed over. The harmony between the triumvirs has brought Pompey to heel but we know the concord is precarious and this scene diminishes the Romans in our eyes. Caesar has made demands on Pompey and, in reply, Pompey explains his reasons for hostility: they destroyed Cassius and Brutus who died fighting for the same republican ideals as did his father, Pompey the Great, by opposing the overweening Julius Caesar. They stood for “beauteous freedom” and the concept that one man should be merely that and not become an emperor by obtaining too much power and prestige. He feels the need to avenge his father and “scourge the ingratitude” of Rome towards him. A summary of the speech would read: “Julius Caesar found avengers in you; my father, who has me as a living son and has friends also, should not go without avengers.” He is thus reminding them of powerful factions in the recent past and of the strength of his navy which makes the ocean foam with its load.
Antony claims that their navy is a match for his and that they are much stronger on land, a perceptive and plainly delivered military judgement that the audience remembers. Pompey retorts that Antony did not pay for the elder Pompey’s house which he bought at auction, once again pointing to the fissures in any trust between them. Lepidus tries to maintain peace by returning to the present issue and the others chip in until Pompey rehearses the terms of their demands: he will receive Sicily and Sardinia but must rid the sea of his pirates, supply Rome with wheat and then retreat without a fight, shields intact. Pompey claims that he was prepared to comply until Antony irritated him by his ingratitude, since Pompey had kindly sheltered Antony’s mother (even though he does not wish to praise himself for the act.) This gives Antony the chance to show his magnanimous side and offer “liberal thanks” before admitting to Pompey, who was surprised to see him here, that: “The beds i’ the east are soft,” a pithy clause which captures his temptations and, by its use of the present tense, shows he is still susceptible to them. However, he turns Pompey’s rebuke into thanks for recalling him to his Roman duties.
Caesar comments that Pompey has changed but he stoutly claims that ill fate may affect his face but never his heart and courage. They agree on the terms and draw lots as to which of them should be host at the celebratory feast, but Pompey once agains digs at Antony’s weak spot by referring to his luxurious life in Egypt and taunting him about Cleopatra’s previous affair with Julius Caesar. He cannot leave the past alone and mentions another scandal when she was carried to Caesar in bedding, at which point Enobarbus intervenes to stop the issue (with “he did so” as a possible aside.) Pompey praises the soldierly reputation of Enobarbus who replies bluntly that, although he has no affection for Pompey, he has frequently praised him, albeit insufficiently. A feast will take place on Pompey’s galley but, under the formalities, we have seen the worst side of the Romans: fear, distrust, resentment, desire for power, coldness and a needling hostility which cannot forget old scores.
Menas, left on stage with Enobarbus, regrets that Pompey has made the treaty and is sure that Pompey the Great would not have done so. The two men embark on a conversation full of innuendo but it is clear that the triumvirate is stronger militarily on land and Pompey has the advantage at sea. This will become increasingly important and the opposition of land and water runs throughout the drama as a theme. They respect each other but acknowledge deception and disparage women as false. Menas draws attention to the dissipation and recklessness of Pompey who “doth this day laugh away his fortune” and refers the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, both examples of decline and decadence.
Menas is presumably asking a question when he says: “Then is Caesar and he for ever knit together” and gives Enobarbus the chance to express his doubts about the marriage with Octavia as a bond. Menas sees that it is a political device rather than a love match and Enobarbus goes further in forecasting that the apparent tie will become a source of hostility between Caesar and Antony. Octavia’s virtues, being of a holy, cold and still conversation [behaviour] show her to be the female embodiment of Roman values, the ideals of empire transferred to the private area of love. Enobarbus is well aware that these admirable qualities will not appeal to Antony whose character is the opposite and who will “to his Egyptian dish again”: the tough soldier’s wordly wisdom has the ring of truth. He prophesies that Octavia’s betrayal and sorrow will incense Caesar and that, ironically, the union will create discord. He touches on the theme that character is fate and that Antony ‘s passion (“affection”) will take him away from Rome since he has married only his “occasion [expediency]”. They anticipate being drunk and Enobarbus points out that Egypt has accustomed him to this pleasure: his comments underline the political satire and we become aware that the play is full of references to the past and forecasts for the future as befits a chronicle or history play, setting present events in their temporal context.
Act II scene vii
This scene, set on board Pompey’s galley, is political satire and our response is orchestrated by the initial comments of the servants who represent sceptical common sense. The worst side of Roman character is shown and the balance is loaded in favour of Cleopatra’s more genial revelry. The servants note how Lepidus in particular is drunk (on dregs of wine) and the others are plying each other with alcohol until they can barely stand, covering their differences but undermining judgement again The imagery suggests that the leaders have more power than they can manage: again Lepidus is singled out by the imagery of an eyeless face as holding great office but not coping. Many scenes in the play are framed by critical comments and we are predisposed to watch out for flaws and faults which could be catastrophic.
When the main characters enter, Antony is describing life in Egypt to Caesar: the importance of the Nile is stressed as the cause of fertility and we note that any calculations and measurements are to aid growth and fecundity. The leitmotifs of earth and water occur as does the theme of change. Good is seen to emerge from apparently unpropitious material which echoes Cleopatra’s ability to turn base things to matters to be wondered at. Lepidus’ drunken state is apparent but he refuses to opt out even though he is slurring his words at “pyramises” whilst making provocative innuendos. Antony is able to answer his questions about the crocodile with joking nonsense, a mode he cannot employ with Cleopatra, and refers to the doctrine of transmigration.
Meanwhile Menas takes advantage of the careless atmosphere to draw Pompey unwillingly to one side whilst Antony warns Lepidus of the dangers of inebriation, the imagery of quicksands suggesting he is falling over and risking also a metaphorical fall because of self-indulgence, a fate which awaits Antony himself. Menas has kept sober and tempts Pompey with absolute power by foul means typical of a pirate: cutting the cable and then murdering the triumvirate. It is no empy promise: an “earthly Jove”, leader of Rome would be ruler of the known world and Pompey is clearly interested as shown by his questions. Finally he rebukes Menas for having asked, saying that he should have acted without mentioning the deed: Pompey covets such domination but will not take responsibility for the evil involved, although this does noit excuse him in our eyes. His motives are cynical not moral, despite his reference to honour, as he knows he cannot emerge cleanly from such a scheme and he repeatedly criticises Menas for have broached the idea rather than acting alone. Understandably Menas vows to himself that he will serve the weakening Pompey no more: the curt refusal has embittered him and Pompey has made yet another enemy.
The revelry continues and Lepidus is carried off drunk but the atmosphere is sourly comic as Enobarbus points out: “‘A bears the third part of the world, man” and Pompey complains that it “is not yet an Alexandrian feast”. Menas wishes that that everything should speed recklessly towards disaster. Antony is more in his element whilst Caesar knows his own limits as a drinker and the dangers of succumbing. A brief interchange shows the difference between them. Antony advises: “Be a child o’ the time” [adapt to the moment] but Caesar replies: “Possess it” [be master of the moment]. Enobarbus encourages the mood of “Egyptian Bacchanals” and inebriated festivity with loud music whilst Antony seems to wish for oblivion and the forgetfulness induced by wine. There is no sense of true enjoyment and joyousness: the mood is frenzied and forced with underlying enmities and conflict. After the song, Caesar tries to recall the other politicians to “graver business”: a more restained Roman attitude breaks through. He, himself, is slurring his words as his tongue “Splits what it speaks” – we note that this phrase is difficult to enunciate. Caesar fears that their party has “Antick’d” them all [made them foolish]. Pompey encourages further drunken friendship but still remembers his complaint that Antony has his father’s house. The two critics, Enobarbus and Menas, stay aboard when the others go on shore: they throw up their caps but we are left with the sense that life in Egypt compares well with this satirical scene. The Romans criticise Antony for self-indulgence but are equally at fault, being both crafty and dissipated. This drama is leisurely and takes its time to reveal shifting values and constant qualifications of judgement.
During this act Caesar sets about consolidating his authority: he reneges on the treaty, defeats Pompey with the assistance of Lepidus and then orders his death on the grounds of conspiring with Pompey. It opens with the success of Ventidius in the East, who has overcome Pacorus, son of King Orodes of Parthia, and who claims this as revenge for the treacherous killing (by having melted gold poured into his mouth by Orodes) of Marcus Crassus, a member of the first triumvirate. Antony’s fortunes are high at this moment because of this victory on his watch although he was not directly responsible on the field of battle as he once would have been. Married to Octavia, he is playing his part in Roman affairs but this Act will see the start of his downfall. Rome is increasingly shown as less appealing than Egypt: there is little mention of of stability, loyalty, courage or patriotism and the stress is on political duplicity, coldness, self-interest and lack of concern for individuals.
Act III scene i
Silius encourages Ventidius to follow up his triumph and pursue the fleeing Parthians thus gaining, he assumes, gratitude from Antony and glory. Ventidius is cautious and cynical, fearing that his subordinate position would make a great achievement unsafe for him. He is calculating and cool in his assessment of Caesar and Antony who, he feels, have always succeeded by proxy: “More in their officer than person.” He cites the precedent of Sossius who lost favour by too much success, and realises that he must go against his own soldierly instinct of ambition and make “choice of loss”. He could “do more to do Antonius good” but would thereby offend him and harm himself. This is an image of the Roman military man at work under present circumstances: efficient and effective but suspicious and self-preserving and we do not blame him for this even as we see the dangers of the situation.
Silius feels that Ventidius has qualities which distinguish the soldier from his sword and he replies sourly and bitterly that he will tell Antony what has been accomplished in his name, an unprecedented victory over Parthia. Antony, who has now lost the support of Ventidius, a top Roman general, is reported to be bound for Athens and the geographical scope of the play is set before us along with some sympathetic realisation that Antony cannot be in all places at the same time. We have been afforded yet another view of Antony to contribute to the multi-faceted portrait of him given by the entire drama.
Act III scene ii
By “brothers” Agrippa refers to the now brothers-in-law, Antony and Caesar, and their parting is the subject for more political satire. Possibly the only real grief is that of Octavia but she is so undeveloped as a character that we feel little sympathy for her, only for her situation. Sarcastically Enobarbus describes Lepidus as troubled with “green-sickness”, a form of anaemia supposedly suffered by lovesick girls, and the two men imitate and parody his fawningly effusive raptures about his fellow triumvirates. Enobarbus lists the various means by which expression would fail to meet the ecstasies of Lepidus: each noun in one line ties up in order with a verb in the next so that “hearts … think”, “tongues … speak”, “figures [metaphors and similes] … cast” and so on. This elaborate and stylised use of language mirrors the emptiness of Lepidus’ flatteries. The image of him as a beetle lifted off the ground by the others is demeaning to him.
Caesar and Antony part with Caesar’s expressing his belief that his sister will make Antony a fine wife. His tone and message to Antony are different as his doubt as to Antony’s constancy shows through the rhythm and imagery: two strong syllables emphasise his warning: “Let not” and the metaphor of a building with Octavia as either the cement holding it together or an instrument for breaking it apart is powerfully visual. He feels it would be better not to have organised the marriage if it is to be abused. Antony is close to being offended by this mistrust and Caesar does not repeat his caution. Antony claims that, however “curious [keen to find fault]” Caesar may be, he will find no detail in his behaviour to criticise but we know that this cannot be correct as his heart is elsewhere and he may follow it. The brother and sister bid each other farewell (one of many such scenes as the drama’s geographical scope unfolds) Caesar wishing her good weather and happiness connected with it and Octavia weeping. She whispers to him and Antony comments that she cannot voice her emotions, using an imprecise image of a feather on a high tide which could be her feelings torn between brother and husband but which evokes change and fluidity however it is interpreted. Enobarbus and Agrippa wonder if Caesar will also weep as his face is downcast but this would be unmanly although Antony wept ostentatiously at the death of Julius Caesar and Brutus. His tears then are cynically felt to have been false and the product of a “rheum [cold]” since he was bewailing what he destroyed. It is unclear what Enobarbus means by: “Believe’t, till I wept too” but he probably intends to suggest “until I weep on a similar occasion.” Caesar promises to keep thinking of Octavia, Antony embraces him swiftly and they part in formal fashion. The scene is riddled through with insincerity on the part of the politicians and with the consequent doubts of the audience who probably look forward to the conflict when Antony breaks his promises.
Act III scene iii
This scene has the humour of ordinary human reactions precisely observed and conveyed but it also a comic parody of military strategy: Cleopatra is using a spy to assess the strength of her enemy and rival. The messenger is still frightened of her but she is calmer and her motives are explicable and comprehensible to us compared to the cold machinations of the Romans. We have just seen Octavia and so can judge the accuracy of the messenger’s answers as he tries to make them as pleasing and diplomatic as he can within the boundaries of truth. We can visualise her between Caesar and Antony because of the graphic thumbnail portrait as Cleopatra assesses her attractions: height, pitch of voice, way of walking, age, shape of face and hair colour. She is displeased to hear that Octavia is low voiced as this is an appealing feature and the listener must insert a “yet” before “he cannot like her long” as she attempts, transparently, to cheer herself up. Charmian joins the process and Cleopatra is, comically, determined to disparage all that is said: “dull of tongue and dwarfish.” She reminds the messenger that she herself has a majestic manner when she enquires about her gait and is pleased when the man reports her as somewhat static, the opposite of Cleopatra, her movements and manner of standing being similar. His account is precise and clear and we can imagine the ideal Roman matron, dignified as a stature but lifeless, no challenge to Cleopatra’s charms. It is almost laughable when she praises the messenger for his “good judgment” and dismisses any potential in Octavia as “there’s nothing in her yet.” We wonder if she realises that the man is terrified and is desperately trying to please her.
She is delighted to hear that Octavia is a widow but passes over her comparative youth at thirty as her own age is a disadvantage in the sexual battle. To the mention of her too round face, she adds that it is often a sign of stupidity and is satisfied that her hair is a commonplace colour and her forehead very low. Because he has given the answers she needs, or at least those she can interpret as she wants, she comes close to apologising to him and promises him further employment: her desire to belittle her rival has led her to gloss his remarks. She repents to Charmian of her earlier ill treatment of him and she is also so anxious to keep Cleopatra content that she flatters her for her majesty and encourages her to believe that his account shows Octavia to be “no such thing” and not worth jealousy. There is humour in Cleopatra’s having forgotten to ask one more question and uncertainty in her summary: “all may be well enough” as, deep down, she is aware of the insecurity of her situation.
Act III scene iii
In this brief scene set in Athens, Antony is explaining to Octavia, his wife, his reasons for hostility towards her brother, Caesar. He has clearly outlined several but the main ones we hear are: he has reopened conflict with Pompey, a betrayal and breach of honour since they all signed the treaty; he has made a will (leaving money to the people) and read it aloud – we note the short line here as the threat to Antony sinks home; he has disparaged Antony and, when he had to pay him tribute, did it coldly in a limited fashion and from the lips [teeth] only, not from the heart.
Octavia suggests that he should not believe all this or, at least, not take it to heart and bewails her own position, torn between brother and husband with no middle ground. She is indeed in a sad situation and we pity her but without strong feeling as her account and personality are conventional and bland on stage. Audience responses are not always based on moral attitudes and we prefer the charisma of Cleopatra. Antony tries to calm her and explains that he is nothing without his honour (ignoring the fact that his amorous liaison is the main destroyer of this) but accepts her offer to attempt to make peace between them, whilst warning that he will start preparations for war which will belittle [stain] Caesar. She is aware of the scale of the impending disaster as shown by her graphic image of the world splitting with corpses filling the chasm, a short line again emphasising what is at stake. Anotny points out that she will have to decide eventually where the fault lies but promises her all she needs in her mission. Historically Octavia made two efforts at reconciliation but here disaster seems imminent with little hope of a settlement. The drama is leisurely and wide in geographical scope but still needs impetus to drive the plot.
Act II scene vi