Act III scene xi
This scene opens with Antony’s revelation that he has the same sense of shame that Enobarbus experienced for him: he has the impression that the land is mortified to support him and this is significant since his military prowess has always been on land as opposed to sea. He feels lost and yet, despite these powerful emotions, he is magnanimous and generous towards his supporters in his defeat. He offers them a ship filled with gold and the opportunity to take it and go over to Caesar. Having betrayed his own military judgement and responsibility, he has then been betrayed by Cleopatra and is giving his men the chance to leave him but they see this as betrayal of him and refuse.
He takes the entire blame for the situation, saying that he has encouraged others to run away by his example. Hinting that he will commit suicide, the honourable way out for a Roman soldier, he tells them he has no more need of them and presses them to accept his treasure. The blush he mentions is a symptom of shame and he describes the dichotomy he has been confronted with throughout as a rebellion amongst his hairs: the white hairs of age, which should represent wisdom, reproach the remaining brown hairs of youth for their rashness whilst the brown criticise the white for the folly of infatuation. These are large gestures of words and deeds, carefully thought through as he promises them letters of recommendation to help them. Clearly his followers are abject and full of grief but he encourages them to leave and look after themselves, pleading for some time alone to collect himself as he senses that he has lost control.
As Cleopatra enters, Eros suggests she go to comfort Antony but his repeated “No”, although ambiguous in reference, implies that nothing will ameliorate his mood. The next lines of exclamations require interpretation by a director as it could be played so that Cleopatra draws attention to herself. Antony’s mind reverts to the past when Caesar at Philippi let Antony do the terrible deeds and made war by proxy. Iras recognises the shame Antony feels which is unmanning him. Cleopatra approaches him in an attitude of mourning which foreshadows her later death. The short lines of Antony’s response underline his loss of honour, his “unnoble swerving.”
The lexis in the rest of the scene is heavy with references to honour and reputation or the loss of those ideals resulting in shame. Even Cleopatra sees that her wiles are weak against such potent abstracts. Antony stresses the dichotomy between his infatuation with her and what he has lost and feels the need to withdraw into himself to contemplate the destruction of all he once owned She attempts to convince him – and possibly herself – that she did not realise he would have followed her flight from battle but he, referring to her as “Egypt” to remind her of the scale of operations, refuses this excuse in a telling image of love as both strength and weakness: “My heart was to thy rudder tied by the strings”. He recognises his servitude but we ask ourselves if it is true that she knew she had such power over him. Antony dwells on his new servitude, his humiliating subservience to the inexperienced Caesar, whilst recollecting the immense authority he has lost over “half the bulk o’ the world.” We notice a hint of arrogance in this tone. He makes a key statement of his own tragedy, using military terminology: “My sword, made weak by my affection.” There is probably a hollowness in his rhetoric when he declares that a kiss from her makes up for all his loss and he soon recalls the importance of a message he is waiting for. He calls for wine and food to lift his spirits from their leaden state but this is clearly no real solution.
Scene XII This scene opens with the arrival of Antony’s ambassador to Caesar, the man Antony mentioned in the previous scene. It is now made clear by Dolabella, using the imagery of a bird’s wing, that sending a schoolmaster is a sign of Antony’s lowered status as he would have previously employed someone of high rank. The man, although a very minor personage, is a definite character with a tendency to florid speech and punning. Caesar cuts him short as he describes himself as previously being a mere dewdrop compared to Antony’s sea but he delivers his message directly and simply, whilst punning on the word “lessens”. Antony pays homage to Caesar and asks to be allowed to withdraw from public life and reside as a private man in Egypt or Athens; Cleopatra also submits to Caesar’s power and begs that her crown should descend to her heirs. Caesar coldly refuses Antony’s wish but grants Cleopatra her desires provided that she forces Antony out of Egypt or ensures he die there. This is statecraft at its most brutal and unforgiving: he puts Cleopatra in an impossible position in order to eliminate Antony.
During the rest of the scene we increasingly lose all sympathy for Caesar as he attempts to manipulate Cleopatra into accepting separate terms from those for Antony. He shows ruthless cunning and cruelty whilst allowing Thidias free range to augment his harshness. He claims that women, in general, are weak even in good times but, in difficult circumstances, can be forced to break their vows and accept anything. “Try thy cunning” he instructs his messenger and promises to endorse whatevr he decides to offer or say. In addition, he wants Thidias to spy on Antony and notice in detail how he reacts to the breach in his honour: Caesar is determined to consolidate his own strength and shows no compassion towards Antony.
Act III scene xiii
Cleopatra may be feeling true confusion as to her part in the naval defeat or she may be playing the role of bewildered victim: “Is Antony, or we [I], in fault for this?” Enobarbus, despite his essential character of sceptic, is prey to her charms and assures her that the fault lies with Antony who “would make his will/Lord of his reason.” The dichotomy between will, strong desire akin to an animal instinct, and reason, the prerogative of humans which lifts them above their base nature, is paramount: will should always be curbed by rationality. The fact that Enobarbus asks a question induces us, as audience, to try to answer it: could it be said fairly that Cleopatra’s flight was understandable in the face of such a line-up of ships in battle and that Antony had no need to follow? “The itch of his affection” is a potent phrase implying that war is not the place for a personal almost physical emotion which “nick’d” [cheated or maimed] his qualities of leadership. He should have realised that he was the “mered question [sole cause]” of a conflict which brought the two halves of the known world into hostility and that dishonour and loss would result from his following her from the engagement. Again, as on many occasions in this drama, the scope of events is stressed. Yet Enobarbus clings to Cleopatra despite his own reason.
On his entry, Antony summarises Caesar’s terms: Cleopatra is to be offered “courtesy [considerate treatment]” provided she will hand Antony over to his enemy. The broken lines now throw emphasis on Antony’s determination not to yield: he refers disparagingly to Caesar’s comparative youth and bluntly states that, if his own greying head were given to Caesar, the giver would be richly rewarded. Antony claims that Caesar’s followers may be obeying a coward because of the authority of ministers and that, therefore, Caesar should respond to the challenge of single combat with him. This is clearly a fantasy as Caesar has no motive to accept such a contest. The image of a sword literally or standing for power, with sometimes an erotic undertone, is frequent throughout the play.
Enobarbus is shocked by Antony’s lack of realism and sees, as we do, that Caesar would never risk his security in this way; we also perceive that this foolish scheme cannot be attributed to Cleopatra’s influence as Antony alone has conceived it. This hardened soldier has the insight to comments that a man’s outer fortune can affect his inner judgement and induce a dream-like vision of Caesar accepting, which will not happen. A messenger from Caesar enters without ceremony which Cleopatra notes, with honest self-assessment, as an insult to her advancing years. Enobarbus now expresses his inner conflict: his “honesty [loyalty]” is beginning to quarrel with his need to look after himself since he is now in the service of a fool. The dilemma is heart against head but he also realises that the man who follows a master even when fallen, wins victory over the enemy and earns a place in history, thus emphasising, with its glance at the passage of great events, that this is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy. Meanwhile Antony, off-stage, is composing his letter of challenge to Caesar.
Thidias would like to draw Cleopatra to one side to deliver his message but she refuses; he fears that those present are friends to Antony and Enobarbus points out that Antony either needs as many supporters as Caesar has or needs none since his fortunes are so low that no-one can help. There is now some diplomatic side-stepping during which Enobarbus claims they are in thrall to Caesar and Thidias asserts that Caesar is not a tryant, merely himself. Thidias give Cleopatra a loop-hole to dissociate herself from Antony and gain Caesar’s favour by agreeing that she did not love him but was afraid of him and that she therefore has incurred no disrepute but deserves pity. We wait with interest to see if she takes this escape route and are somewhat shocked when she does so, apparently feeling no shame in denying her earlier relationship: “mine honour was not yielded/But conquered merely.” Enobarbus is also taken aback and, with water imagery, goes to tell his master of Cleopatra’s betrayal, feeling that, if she deserts him, so must he.
Throughout these interchanges we may wonder if Cleopatra is embarking on complete duplicity to save herself or if she is playing for time to help both of them. Thidias underlines Caesar’s good will saying that he wishes Cleopatra would lean on him for help but there is a note of subtle emotional blackmail: Caesar would be happier if she left Antony and accepted his protection [“shroud”]. Cleopatra’s language is now so fulsome and yielding that we do ask ourselves if she is withdrawing from all emotional commitment to Antony or if she hopes another course will open up if she agrees temporarily. Can she be serious in accepting the loss of her crown and rights so readily and completely? Thidias praises her wisdom and shrewdness in making this decision and says that rationality will always prevail over chance. Cleopatra, seemingly, cannot resist the opportunity to conduct diplomacy with an erotic element, even in this crisis, and envourages Thidias to kiss her hand as Julius Caesar once did whilst pondering on his conquests.
Naturally Antony is furious when he enters and catches her betraying him so flagrantly. Far from apologising, Thidias provokes him further by referring to Caesar as “the fullest [best] man and worthiest.” Enobarbus correctly forecasts that this will lead to his being whipped and Antony calls for attendants to punish the messenger. No-one responds to his bidding and, with the imagery of melting which he has used before about Rome and the Tiber, he recognises that his authority is declining since, previously, kings would have rushed forward like boys scrambling to obey him. When he states: “I am Antony yet” he may mean that he still has his own identity or that he is still a leader. To Enobarbus he is an old lion with a temper but nevertheless a lion. Antony threatens that, if several of Caesar’s servants had flirted with Cleopatra (though he claims she is no longer herself if she could behave like this), he would treat them similarly yet he fails to finish his sentence out of rage and this produces an anacoluthon. He shows extreme cruelty in his detailed desire to have Thidas suffer and we realise that this uncontrollable anger stems from loss of true power and consequent frustration.
Antony’s attitude to Cleopatra is so unjust that it amounts to a betrayal of their love. Although his accusations are accurate, he knew of her previous affairs when he encountered her and his language is harsh and vindictive: “half blasted”, “abus’d”, “boggler [shifty]”, “viciousness”, “filth”, and so on. By contrast, he praises Octavia as “a gem of women” which reminds us of how he exalted Fulvia after her death. Antony values things and people once he has lost them. He claims to regret that his marriage did not breed “a lawful race” and blames the gods for blinding him and causing loss of judgement, although he acknowledges that he had allowed this by settling himself in vice. Bitterly, he describes what is true of both of them: that they loved their own mistakes and gave the gods opportunity to laugh at them whilst they chose to “strut” to their downfall. Cleopatra can do little but interject briefly as he rages.
When he calls her a “morsel” left by Julius Caesar and a “fragment” of Gnaeus Pompey we recall that their love was flawed from the start and has now turned to deep jealousy on his part of possible other secret infidelities on hers: “hotter hours,/Unregistered in vulgar fame.” He accuses her of an incapacity for moderation, forgetting that it was this quality of excess that infatuated him. What seems to have angered him in particular is her familiarity with a servant and allowing a menial to touch the hand he regards as his “playfellow.” He is irritable and vengeful, wishing he could protest even louder since he is the most cuckolded man on earth and could almost thank a hangman for killing him quickly. His sadistic mood comes to the fore when he is wishes that Thidias had cried out loud and begged pardon and we lose all sympathy for him here, recalling Enobarbus’ phrase about an old lion.
Antony continues to lash out, blaming Thidias for not being born a female and for following Caesar, wishing that he may be terrified of women from now on and never considering that he, himself, is at fault. He is especiually resentful when referring to Caesar and the many monosyllabic phrases in this lengthy speech (lines 134-152) make his words memorable. He is angry with Caesar because he constantly judges Antony on what he is now not on what he was and, with sudden self-knowledge, accepts that “at this time most easy ’tis to do it [make him flare with rage]” because, with an image that opens the scope of the scene, his guiding stars have left him and gone into hell. Anxious that Caesar knows everything that has happened, he reveals that one of his followers has deserted to Caesar and may be tortured or killed in turn as revenge. His downfall is clear but his cruelty removes any compassion we may feel for him.
Cleopatra waits until Antony becomes calmer: his lexis refers to the macrocosm, where the darkened moon foretells his fall, before he turns his anger towards her for flirting with a menial. She seems to bear no malice nor desire for revenge as she reassures him that she is still warm in her attitude to him, using hyperbole to state that, were she cold-hearted as he suggests, this would chill heaven to produce poisoned hail which would injure her or kill her. Further imagery of disintegration and melting follows as she renounces fertility and envisages the total destruction of her kingdom and its descent into oblivion, were she to turn from Antony: her love is more vital to her that her subjects.
This extreme of passion gives Antony hope and he plans another military conflict with Caesar, stating that his army has held together (proving the opinion correct of those who knew he was stronger by land) and that his navy is reunited and ready. His mood has changed but we realise that he is unstable and that his valour could be temporary. He promises to return from any battle blood-stained and worthy of a place in history, showing his awareness of the larger scale of events. To some extent he is pluming himself for a fight when he vows to be “treble-sinew’d, hearted, breath’d” and recalls the times past when he was truly admired and followed. The shallowness of his aspirations is demonstrated by his calling for wine and wishing for another festive night: “fill our bowls once more;/Let’s mock the midnight bell” could be his motto but it has an empty ring. We are not sure if we believe Cleopatra when she says it is her birthday but her emotions are loyal to him at this point.
There is a brutality in the image of his forcing his captains to drink so much that the wine escapes from their healed wounds and his excess contrasts with Caesar’s constant restraint. He promises to make death love him because he is doing his work for him by killing as many as would the plague. Lexis of death, distintegration and destruction runs throughout this part of the scene, undermining any optimism. Left alone, Enobarbus comments on the unconvincing and exaggerated heroism of Antony’s boasts and fears that he is like the weaker bird attacking the stronger goshawk. In the inner conflict between heart and head, Antony’s reason is weakening but, in its feebleness, is encouraging his apparent bravery towards folly which will lead to defeat. Even the loyal Enobarbus feels the need to save himself and desert, another and central instance of support melting away.
These three Acts have covered eleven years of history and, whilst we are moved by the poetry and grand emotions of Antony and Cleopatra, there is little sense of the fear necessary for true tragedy: we do not feel that we could be subject to similar fates because these two are not representative nor are their lives generalisable.
Act III scene xi