Act II scene i
Pompey is talking to the two pirates, Menecrates and Menas, intent on avenging the deafeat of his father by Julius Caesar by challenging his adopted son and heir, Octavius Caesar, member of the triumvirate. The scene is of interest because it shows the cunning side pf politics and statecraft and adds another dimension to our view of Cleopatra.
Menas warns Pompey that we may not always be wise in praying for certain things but Pompey is full of confidence in his own popularity, control over the sea and growing strength. He rejoices in Antony’s weakness and bondage to Cleopatra which renders him incapable of war as he believes and clearly Antony is the most formidable of the triumvirate in military matters. Pompey is smooth in manner and treacherous in intent, full of overweening confidence, conflicting qualities. He states that Caesar is losing support through undue taxation and that Lepidus is an unloved yes man. The concept of flattery is worth examining in the play: who is honest with whom and who flatters even him or herself.
Pompey continues to disbelieve warnings and denies that two of the triumvirate are out of Rome ready for battle with a strong army: he thinks they are still in Rome awaiting an Antony who may never come. His coarse view of women is apparent when he wishes that Cleopatra should accentuate all her charms, calling her “salt [lustful]” and bidding her soften her aging lip and add witchcraft to her beauty with licentiousness in the mixture. The idea of her having an extra magic apart from beauty is repeated throughout the play: it increases her magnetism for Antony and the audience. Pompey’s portrayal of life in Egypt is sensual and sensuous evoking the smells and tastes of food which could lead Antony to degenerate idleness and sleep which would “prorogue [suspend the operation of]” his honour and render him unfit for war. This view of undue and unending indulgence is, in fact, similar to Antony’s own and is the opposite of the Roman virtues of discipline and harsh duty summed up in the Latin word “virtus” meaning all that becomes a true man. What it omits is Cleopatra the ruler, capable and tough, and this aspect is pushed to the background throughout the drama.
Varius brings the unwelcome news that Antony has detached himself from Cleopatra and is due in Rome. Pompey is alarmed as he did not think the “amorous surfeiter” would have done so and he acknowledges that Antony is a much better soldier that his confederates. Yet Pompey stirs up his own self-esteem by flattering himself that his threat was enough to draw the “ne’er-lust-wearied” Antony away from Egypt. Menas believes that there will be discord between Caesar and Antony because of the trouble Fulvia caused along with Antony’s brother, Lucius, but the calculating Pompey foresees that they will unite against him once minor causes of dispute can be overcome. He leaves the outcome to the gods. He is cynical and sees the worst side of people: virtues to him are matters to be reckoned and dealt with.
Act II scene ii
Lepidus is a peace-maker, neutral as host to Caesar and Antony, and he tries to persuade Enobarbus to encourage Antony to be calm with Caesar for the good of all. Enobarbus replies that Antony should behave as himself, like Mars, god of war, and be belligerent, not shaving his beard which could be the cause of a quarrel. He refuses to accept political strategies in favour of being true to oneself. There is the possibility of a campaign in Parthia which would win Antony great power and wealth but he intends to send Ventidius instead of going there himself. On the entry of Caesar and Antony, Lepidus continues his role as pacifier and begs them to consider what binds them together rather than what separates them which could be: “Murther in healing wounds.”
There is political satire in the physical manoeuvring for positions in each trying to make the other sit down first and thus lose height. Antony and Caesar quarrel as Pompey predicted they would, Antony saying essentially that his affairs are no business of Caesar’s but Caesar replying that he would not take offence if there were no reason for him to be involved. Antony is sternly questioning and Caesar distinguishes between public and private matters saying that, if Antony plotted against him in Egypt, his residence there would concern him and that Antony’s wife and brother did act against him. Antony claims, probably correctly, that his brother’s actions were not connected to him and were intended to discredit him, which was a cause for annoyance on Antony’s part also. He hints that Caesar is being a trouble-maker by picking a quarrel on such flimsy grounds, an accusation that Caesar repudiates. Antony excuses himself in a manner which makes him seem guilty, penitent and defensive, saying that Caesar could not have thought he would side with his brother against him and that no-one could control Fulvia – but this gives the impression he could not manage his wife and is therefore weak. Enobarbus’ brief and blunt prose intervention at line 65 points up the circumlocutions of the politicians and the absurdity of their in-fighting at a difficult time. Caesar does have grievances, as his reference to the letters he sent shows, and Antony is a public man who should not claim to be unable to master his private life.
At line 74 Antony virtually admits he cannot control even himself and was suffering from a hangover when he dismissed the messengers but this informal tone, intended to be tactful and diplomatic, is not in keeping with the severity of the military position that the triumvirate is facing. Lepidus tries to intervene in an argument about honour and the keeping of promises: the concept of honour is significant to Antony and he again excuses himself about not sending required military aid. Denying arms and neglecting to send them are the same to Caesar. He continues to play the penitent, claiming that Fulvia made war to lure him away from Cleopatra and out of Egypt, another confession that the public and private have become dangerously mixed. Maecenas urges reconciliation in a greater cause and Enobarbus (in prose again) sensibly urges them to leave these quarrels for the future when Pompey has been defeated but is rudely snubbed by Antony. His words: “That truth should be silent, I had almost forgot,” remain in our memory. Caesar objects to Antony’s manner but hopes for a “hoop” to bind them, one which would hold the world together and we are are reminded of the massive geographical scope of the drama.
Agrippa seizes his chance to propose a solution to bond the two and, as he hints at it, Caesar pre-empts Antony’s possible objection by suggesting that Antony is not a widower but, in effect, married to Cleopatra. This is, ironically, a tactic such as Cleopatra might use. Antony abruptly states that he is not married and encourages Agrippa to speak. He does so, using imagery of a knot and knitting, hoping that the resolution will be permanent in that it will make Caesar and Antony brothers-in-law: Antony should marry Octavia, Caesar’s beautiful, gracious and virtuous sister, a worthy wife for “the best of men.” This flatters Antony and paints Octavia as the epitome of Roman womanhood but the opposite of Cleopatra. The union would make “little jealousies” disappear and fears would be allayed. Dealings would become truthful and love of Octavia would draw the two quarrelling men together and Agrippa claims that he has thought long about the scheme. The plan engenders a crisis in Antony’s way of life: he can no longer keep his private and public life separate and he has little choice other than to submit to this political marriage.
Caesar lets Antony speak first and he accepts the suggestion. Octavia is a mere pawn in the political scheming but the presentation is managed so that she remains a shadowy and rather abstract figure, only occasionally engendering sympathy since Cleopatra is much more fascinating. Antony’s use of the word “dream” is significant since the impediment (his affair) is real not imaginary; the florid language does not conceal the fact that the plan will not work and the situation will be even worse if and when he abandons Octavia for Cleopatra. We never quite know if the men believe it might afford a bond or if they are wholly cynical in sacrificing Octavia for a temporary truce.
Antony explains that he never thought he would fight against Pompey who had afforded shelter to Fulvia and Antony’s mother in their defeat but that he will defy him after thanking him for those “strange courtesies.” The urgent military situation is now forefronted and Antony asks pertinent questions as a true soldier. “Would we had spoke together,” he states, meaning he wishes they had already fought but it is his fault they have not done so. They depart for the marriage leaving the ministers talking. Enobarbus describes the opulence of life in Egypt in answer to their questions: he epitomises the theme of the relativity of all human judgements as he is the sceptic, detached yet romantic particularly in the speech about Cleopatra’s barge, much of it taken from Plutarch. (It is well worth doing a close comparison with this to see the differences and similarities.) Antony did not see her on the Cydnus in fact, being in the market place. He had been in the rich eastern part of the divided empire and had summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus to query her conduct but also to ask for help in his Parthian campaign. It is clear that Rome is buzzing with reports and gossip about Antony’s stay in Egypt.
This richly sensuous speech, set in blank verse rather than the prose normal for Enobarbus, contrasts Egyptian sumptuousness diametrically with the severity of Roman life and, coming so soon after the suggestion of the marriage of Antony to Octavia, points to the hopelessness of that union. Enobarbus, the cynic, is lyrical and romantic in the description and it is notable that Shakespeare has put Plutarch’s ideas into his mouth to give them veracity. There is little about Cleopatra herself except a refusal, akin to occupatio, by which he says that her own person “beggar’d all description” and claims in his own words that it outdid the picture of Venus, goddess of love, (by Appelles), which, in turn, outdid nature. Wealth is stressed in the gold poop and silver oars; the sense of smell in the perfumed sails; the sense of hearing in the sound of flutes and the eroticism is emphasised in the hyperbole that the water is in love with the rowing strokes (Enobarbus’ own detail) and the comparison of the boys to Cupids. There is colour and paradox: the cheeks are both warmed and cooled and this mirrors the essential enigma of the public and private aspect of the image with Cleopatra as a royal but intimate lover.
The speech continues with brief interjections to keep the audience alert (since listeners have to comprehend Antony’s infatuation) with stress on her entourage, who seem mythical, and illusion and reality intermingle to form the whole picture. There is no dichotomy between surface appearance and underlying truth. The sense of touch is apparent in “flower-soft hands” and this triumph of imaginative creation attracts crowds to watch whilst the faintly ridiculous Antony sits alone in the market-place as, with another hyperbole, the very air is presented as wishing to go to see the spectacle. Antony is further belittled when he cannot refuse her invitation to supper, since he cannot say no to any woman, and shaves repeatedly before paying with his heart for his “ordinary [public dinner]”. Agrippa’s metaphor of Julius Caesar’s sword for his virility, with erotic undertones by metonymy, emphasises Cleopatra’s tendency to emasculate her soldier lovers, paradoxically reducing in them the very masculinity she craves. Cruder imagery points to her having given birth to Caesarion. Her charm is the keynote in Enobarbus’ account of her hopping through the streets until breathless making “defect perfection”: she can turn the mundane into the magical and this is a greater gift than beauty – against which Octavia has no resources. Another paradox is that, even breathless, she breathes power and the listeners realise that the political marriage can never work: even though Octavia has “beauty, wisdom, modesty” this cannot tip the balance in her favour as Cleopatra has something inexplicable to weigh against the Roman virtues personified in Antony’s new wife.
Enobarbus sums up Cleopatra in the lines:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety:
She has an immortal quality and, in a further paradox, he claims that she, unlike other women, stimulates more appetite where she satisfies it by her capacity to transmute “vilest things” into attractions so that even the priests bless her lascivious moments. The mood is set so that, when Antony enters with Octavia in the next scene, we know the marriage is futile and that even worse political tumult will follow its breakdown. Enobarbus has evoked Cleopatra’s rich and paradoxical mixture of royal stateliness and sexuality, languidness and vitality, spontaneity and deep planning. A further function of this verbal image is to assist the actress faced with the nearly impossible task of playing the enchantress: some of the image has been portrayed in words.
Act II scene iii
Caesar is watching the behaviour of Antony to his new wife, his sister Octavia, and so Antony is careful to speak to her with correctness and moderation It may be that he means what he says for the moment when he apologises in advance for future absences caused by: “The world, and my great office” but it may also be that he is already planning an escape to be with Cleopatra. Octavia is dutiful and vows loyalty. When he admits that his past conduct has been open to criticism for its “blemishes” and promises to live “by the rule” the audience probably wishes that this rather dull outcome will not happen and hopes that he will stray to more interesting company. Roman morality is in opposition to the fascination of Egypt for him and for us.
There is little supernatural in the play but here the Soothsayer persuades Antony to return to Egypt, a warning from his “motion” [the involuntary working of his brain]. When Antony presses him as to his future rivalry with Caesar the Soothsayer warns him that he is disadvantaged by the present proximity because his guardian spirit which has kept him: “Noble, courageous, high, unmatchable” becomes afraid when close to Caesar. He goes on to suggest that Antony cannot win because of Caesar’s “natural luck” and that his charisma is therefore dimmed. This introduces the theme of character as fate as Antony would almost certainly have left Rome without this supernatural warning. He does not seem to have free will because of the grip of his obsession though he attributes his attitude to the Soothsayer’s words.
As a soldier, he now makes a doubtful decision: to send another man, Ventidius, to Partia so that he can return to Egypt. He feels that chance events, such as the throw of dice, will favour Caesar and that this will even prevail over circumstances where Antony has greater skill or in such contests as cock fighting or with quails. The rhythms here are hesitant but when he concludes: “I will to Egypt:/And though I make this marriage for my peace/I’the east my pleasure lies” the firm intonation tells us that this is what he would have done no matter what the Soothsayer had said. His character is his fate.
Act II scene iv The play is characterised by a number of short scenes and, in this one, Lepidus speaks efficiently of military matters to Caesar’s generals. The brevity of Antony’s farewell to Octavia is stressed as is soldiers’ dress as the theme moves towards war.
Act II scene v
By contrast, this scene shows Cleopatra languishing in self-indulgent mode, constantly changing her mind as to what she wants to do in front of her ever-present audience on stage. Her physical strength is emphasised as she has worn out Charmian at billiards but she refuses Mardian’s offer to play in favour of a fishing expedition. She thinks of nothing other than Antony but we know he has weighty issues on his mind. The poetry describing the “tawny-finned fishes” uplifts the activity above the mundane but she shows in the analogy of catching Antony that she believes herself superior to him. Even in her stated distress, she has a vitality and love of life which is engaging. They recall the jokes and tricks she played on Antony and the way she controlled his moods, angering him and then restoring his good humour before making him drunk. Once inebriated, he allowed her to dress him in her clothes whilst she wore his sword, a symbolic interchange which suggest emasculation in the imagery. (This particular sword was, significantly, the one used to defeat Brutus and Cassius at Phillipi.)
The entry of a messenger reminds us how many of these there are in the drama as it is a play of reaction rather than action. Cleopatra is highly irrational in that she will blame or reward the man according to the tidings he brings and a reward would have a financial and also a sensual element in that he could kiss intimately her “bluest veins” which kings have trembled to kiss. The terrified messenger chooses his words with care as he says Antony is “well”, a caution that Cleopatra recognises as she threatens him with a horrifically violent torture if Antony is dead. She continually interrupts the messenger despite wanting his news in a manner that is almost comic but which extends the tension by dramatic irony as we wait to see her reaction to the fact that Antony is now married.
Cleopatra recognises that the messenger’s face or “favour” is “tart” and sour and does not suggest that he carries good news if there is any “goodness [honesty]” in his expressiveness. Her melodramatic streak shows when she says that he should look like a Fury if Antony is unwell, not like a normal man. Her emotions fluctuate and she appears whimsical and autocratic, varying from one extreme of threatening to hit him even before he speaks to offering to reward him with pearls and gold if his tidings are positive. She continues to interrupt him noting the word “but” which cancels the good news coming before it whilst asking him to be like a peddlar with a pack to be emptied. Finally the frustrated messenger picks on the word “free” to announce that Antony is bound to Octavia “for the best turn in the bed”, putting the announcement as bluntly as possible in his fear, which is soon shown to be justified as she strikes him and drags him about whilst making threats of further extreme physical violence. The victim protests reasonably that he is merely the bearer of news of events not their creator but Cleopatra is completely irrational asking him to change the message and be rewarded with land and gifts although clearly this will not alter the reality. When the terrified man blurts out the truth that Antony is married she draws a knife and he escapes. Dramatically her violence satisfies the audience’s expectations.
Charmian protests, using reason, that the messenger is innocent and begs her mistress to keep within herself, to maintain control. Cleopatra’s response is noteworthy since, in threatening to unleash a thunderbolt, she is comparing herself to Jove and, in declaiming: “Melt Egypt into Nile” she echoes Antony’s: “Let Rome in Tiber melt.” She also reveals that she places her love affair above her responsibilities as ruler and cares little for her subjetcs. The scene again moves close to comedy when she tries to recall the messenger and is told he is too frightened to come. Cleopatra’s snobbery shows when she rebukes herself for striking him, not because the act was cruel but because she was demeaned by hitting someone of lower rank – though the act was caused by her love for Antony. She makes no attempt to be fair or just when the man returns, saying that good news should be broadcast but bad news should tell itself – a ludicrous assertion, particularly when she repeatedly asked him to reveal his knowledge. She continues to press him to change the message as if that would alter the reality and, when he does not, once again wishes her kingdom destroyed by flood, which was not a remote possibility. Repeatedly she asks if Antony is married and the poor man protests at the injustice of her attitude, punishing him for doing his duty. She feels that Antony’s fault has made the messenger a “knave” and dismisses him brusquely, although she does seem to recognise towards the end that he is not the message: “That art not what thou art sure of” and the half line: “Are all to dear for me” has a falling rhythm which indicates genuine sorrow. Her view of the world centres on herself and Antony: she firstly denies the truth to herself and secondly beats the messenger as if to oust Octavia from her preferred scenario.
Cleopatra accepts that she has “disprais’d” Caesar and that this new event is a revenge of fate for that. Immediately she starts fighting back and sends for information about her rival as a soldier would assess his enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. She wants to know Octavia’s age, temperament, hair colour and height and changes her mind quickly about her feeling towards Antony finding him both a Gorgon (presumably Medusa the sight of whose face truned men to stone) and the god of war. As is her custom she instructs her attendants as to how they should react to her: “Pity me, Charmian/But do not speak to me” like an actress manipulating an audience. Yet there is humour in the common humanity and jealousy she shows here and she is far from being a tragic heroine.
Act II scene i