Act III scene v
In this scene two years of history have been condensed to give a sense of urgency to the plot. We learn from Eros that Caesar has imprisoned Lepidus who is under threat of death; although Caesar used him in his war against Pompey, he denied him credit and gratitude for this and shows no remorse about his own callousness. He even accused Lepidus of complicity with Pompey. The quick-minded and cynically realistic Enobarbus comments that only a pair of “chaps [jaws]” is left: Caesar and Antony and foresees that, no matter that they have power over the known world between them, they will still make war on each other. The image of eating is brutal and massive. We learn that Antony does show feeling about these events, bemoaning the folly of Lepidus and showing anger that one of his officers was employed to murder Pompey (even though this was probably on his orders.)
Such is the need for mounting political tension that Shakespeare omits a possible reconciliation scene between Antony and Cleopatra despite the fact he built up an expectation of Antony’s return.
Act III scene vi
The first line of this scene is abnormally long to emphasise Caesar’s list of grievances against Antony. He has enthroned himself and Cleopatra in a public place in Alexandria with Caesarion at their feet. He is the natural son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and his recognition is a threat to Octavius, the adopted son of Julius. They also presented to the people their own illegitimate offspring, thus crossing the boundary between the private and the public and showing a certain shamelessness in so doing. The time scale is again warped as there seems to have been insufficient years for the production of several children. Antony has made Cleopatra queen of territories, his sons by Cleopatra have been named kings of tributary countries and Ptolemy given other lands. Cleopatra loved to appear as a deity and here was dressed as Isis, shocking Caesar by her presumptuousness. All these are his reasons for making war on the couple. Caesar is speedy in his reactions and efficient in his summary of the situation: Antony is angry that Caesar has not granted him part of Sicily; has not restored some ships he was lent; has deposed Lepidus and has kept back money. Caesar shows total lack of remorse about the fate of Lepidus and merely justifies his actions but agrees to render Antony some land provided he does the same reciprocally. This cannot be done as Antony has already given away these valuable kingdoms and we realise that Caesar will stand firm in his demands.
The rest of this scene reveals a great deal about the character of Caesar. His sister, Octavia, has come on a peace mission attempting to reconcile him with her husband, Antony, but he shows no sympathy for her and her humiliation. He is concerned about the lack of pomp surrounding her arrival: he describes with hyperbole how a woman of such importance should have been greeted and he sees her entirely in her relationship to men, not as a person in her own right. He claims that she should have been accompanied by an army, preceded by the neighs of horses with men waiting in trees and the dust raised by her troops risimg to heaven; he even personifies expectation as fainting in the process of desiring her approach. The detail with which he imagines the scene shows how much he values ceremony and public adoration and he further adds to her discomfiture by dwelling on the lack of adulation: “but you are come/A market-maid to Rome.” More significant is his sense that he has been prevented from proclaiming his love for her by welcoming her at every stage of the journey and that this might, he threatens, eradicate the affection. This is a clue to his inner self: to him an emotion must be demonstrated in public for it to exist, despite the fact that this is a private feeling.
She insists that she was not obliged to come but chose freely to do so once she realised that war was likely. To this unselfish statement, Caesar responds cynically and hurtfully, saying that Antony would have granted her leave of absence because she is the “abstract [obstacle]” between Cleopatra for whom he lusts and himself and that he, Caesar, knows this because he has spies. She replies with pathos: “Do not say so, my lord” and we feel the poignancy of her position for a moment, particularly when she is trapped into revealing that she does not know where Antony is at this time. Ceasar is comparing Cleopatra to Jove whose nod must be obeyed and he sums up Antony’s fateful attraction in a few memorable words, which colour the remainder of the drama: “He hath given his empire/Up to a whore.” The long list of kings involved in the confrontation emphasises the wide geographical reach of the play and the huge forces at stake: it will be a war of the whole of the known world. Ocatavia rationalises her feelings when she claims that her misery stems from having her brother and husband embattled, not admitting that she is suffering from jealousy and the loss of Antony.
At last Caesar welcomes her and accepts that her letters prevented him from acting sooner but now feels that she is abused and he is in danger. He advises her not to be troubled with the “time” which takes here the sense of history, and wishes her to accept destiny which overwhelms personal sadness. There is a feeling of Fate working through events and Rome as stable and constant, although we are aware its power rests on shifting allegiances. Maecenas and Agrippa address her warmly and yet further humiliation is added by the reference to Antony’s “abominations” and the fact he has given his “potent regiment [authority]” to a “trull [harlot]”. Again, the wretched Octavia can manage only a few words in response to these savage criticisms: “Is it so, sir?” Caesar recommends patience in the sense of bearing ill fortune and the scene ends with a phrase of heartfelt emotion, shown by the falling rhythm: “My dear’st sister.” The situation, as we and on-stage commentators previously guessed it would be, is worse than before the marriage as now there is increased cause for hostility in Antony’s betrayal of Octavia. Our opinions slide here as we see a cold side to Caesar and a reckless aspect to Antony.
Act III scene vi
Cleopatra is determined to enter the war and Shakespeare does not give a particular motivation for this even though Plutarch evidences her fear that Antony might be reconciled with the enemy. We can only assume she does not wish to be relegated to the margins of political and Roman life. Her statement at lines 5/6 is capable of different interpretations but seems to mean that she sees no reason to remain apart if war has not been “denounc’d [proclaimed]” against her. The cool-headed and military-minded Enobarbus is opposed to her intention and has made this clear: in an aside he gives his rationale in vulgar terms saying that, if women are present in battle, they distract the men so that they never mount their steeds but prefer the women. Aloud he expresses his accurate judgement that she will remove from Antony his soldier’s powers of will, strategy and process just at the wrong moment. We notice the use of the word “time” in a wide significance, almost meaning “the times” or “history.” He reports how Antony is already much criticised in Rome for his lack of serious purpose and how gossip claims that a eunuch and women manage his side of the war. She is feminising Antony.
Cleopatra’s rash and irresponsible reply is to hope that Rome might sink, a foolhardy sentiment that reminds us of Antony’s: “Let Rome in Tiber melt” and to wish evil upon the speakers. She cannot bear criticism and is determined to appear as a manly head of a kingdom. Paradoxically, her masculinity makes her the more feminine and her irrationality is revealed when she cannot distinguish between people and states: to her everything is personal and she has no true sense of Antony’s need of honour even though that is what she loves about him. The contradiction is that she is destroying in him the very quailty that enthralls her.
The prophecy of Enobarbus is immediately shown to be true as Antony has been caught unawares by Caesar’s swift approach to a place near Actium. Unkindly and rather unfairly (since she may well be the cause of his lack of attention) Cleopatra pointedly rebukes him for his carelessness and he accepts the criticism as worthy of a man. A major dispute now arises as to whether the forthcoming battle should be by sea or by land: Cleopatra is in favour of a sea encounter and Antony agrees with her despite Enobarbus’ wise and considered preference for land, on which Antony is stronger. Water has appeared, in the imagery of the drama, as shifting and unreliable and the element into which Rome might sink and melt but it is also, strategically, less favourable to Antony. Antony’s: “For that he dares us to’t” shows his decision to be a romantic gesture as was his challenge to Caesar to a single fight. It is obvious to us that he is making a poor judgement in military terms because of his infatuation with Cleopatra.
Ths next speech, of Canidius, shows clearly that Caesar remains cool, astute and rational, rejecting plans that are contrary to his own success and he advises Antony to do the same. Enobarbus endorses this view, trying to persuade Antony that he must not fight at sea because of an inferiority of strength: his sailors are not trained men but other workers conscripted in haste and his ships are heavy in deployment. Caesar, however, has men with experience of naval war and ships that are “yare [easily manoeuvred]”; he claims that there would be no loss of honour if Antony were to refuse a sea battle. Antony’s cry of “By sea, by sea” with its repetition shows that he is making a symbolic not military choice and has lost his sense of pragmatic advantage. Egypt and Cleopatra are associated in his mind – and ours -with water and Rome with earth.
Enobarbus speaks bluntly to warn him that he is throwing away the “absolute soldiership” he has on land and that his decision will confuse his army of veteran foot soldiers. He will not be able to use his own famed mastery of war and is relinquishing a certain victory in favour of chance. Antony’s brief: “I’ll fight at sea” reveals an obstinate and unreasonable attitude and Cleopatra, perhaps sensing that he has no real answer, quickly adds that she has sixty good ships to offer. Antony plans to burn any extra ships (presumably to prevent their seizure by the enemy) and head for Actium, feeling that he can resort to a land conflict if he loses – this is poor strategy and reveals a lack of inner confidence. His amazement that Caesar can have already taken Toryne shows his lack of judgement as he can hardly believe that his enemy and troops can have arrived there in the time. He leaves some land defences and is ready to go to sea.
A nameless soldier enters who adds to the pleas for a land battle and whose voice should be heard as he shows his wounds from the recent fighting: his language is strong and graphic as he speaks of “rotten planks” and going “a-ducking” contrasted with the firmness and solidity of “standing on the earth” which has always led Romans to victory. Again Antony has no answer before leaving and Canidius stresses his agreement with the warrior, criticising Antony for making decisions, not on strength of forces, but because of the will of Cleopatra. They are also astonished by Caesar’s speed of progress which was achieved by sending out his army in detachments to go faster than any spies. Caesar now seems the better strategist. The scene ends with an image of time in labour, giving birth to news which emphasises our sense of chronicle and mighty events unfolding swiftly in what is essentially a history play.
Act III scenes viii and ix These very brief scenes, set on the west coast of Greece, give an impression of a sea fight, the first Battle of Actium, taking place off-stage with both commanders giving orders. Caesar’s instructions show that even he knows he is weaker on land and wants to contain the conflict.
Act III scene x The historical facts are different from the narrative presented here: in reality Antony found he was trapped and would not leave Cleopatra to break out by herself and so they planned to sever Caesar’s lines but Shakespeare has Cleopatra fleeing first and a craven Antony following her. This scene opens with Enobarbus’ shocked repetition of “Naught”, a strong word in itself meaning ruined and come to nothing. This normally unemotional soldier feels his eyes have been “blasted” by the sight of Cleopatra’s fleet leaving the battle in haste and Scarus calls upon all the gods in his amazement. He goes on to stress the scale of the loss: “The greater cantle [portion] of the world is lost” and emphasis the erotic motive behind this huge failure in the word “kiss’d” which also suggests it was done lightly. He brings the latest news: that their side, metaphorically, is showing symptoms of certain death by plague since the foul Cleopatra, on whom he wishes leprosy, hoisted her sails and fled even when victory seemed likely. The lexis is powerful and graphic with animal comparisons which belittle her. Enobarbus knew that she had gone and reveals that he could not bear to watch further, again using disease imagery to describe how his eyes felt at the sight.
Scarus’ phrase: “The noble ruin of her magic” is memorable and keeps both aspects of Antony before us for the rest of the Act, the previously heroic conqueror and the fallen idol. It also emphasises the public/private dichotomy and the rest of his speech stresses this theme. Antony is compared to a wild drake which follows its mate out of foolish love and he is presented as having failed on three counts: experience, manhood and honour of which shame is the diametric opposite. This is a turning point: Antony’s personal affections have caused him public and global shame. Canidius knows that the former Antony would have won and, feeling they have grounds for defection, will give his resources to Caesar as six kings have already gone over; Scarus seems to say he will go with Antony’s army but does not and so his words here may be sarcastic or the intention should belong to Canidius’ next speech. Enobarbus resolves to be loyal to Antony and his “wounded chance” even though his reason tells him he should leave: his is the battle between heart and head and we are moved that this tough and hardened warrior acts on emotion.
Act III scene v