Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The play begins in a room in Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, Egypt, in the middle of a conversation between two of Antony's companions, Philo and Demetrius. Philo explains that love for Cleopatra has addled Antony's thinking and weakened his courage. Previously Antony embodied Mars, god of war; now he seems more like a servant waiting on Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra enter. Philo murmurs that Antony, formerly "triple pillar of the world," has become a "strumpet's fool." Antony and Cleopatra, who don't see the two men, are deep in a laughing conversation about Antony's limitless love for Cleopatra. A messenger interrupts them, bringing news from Rome.

Cleopatra teasingly says maybe Fulvia, Antony's wife, is angry at him. Or—of lesser consequence—maybe Caesar has some instructions. After all, she hints, Antony is the servant of both Fulvia and Caesar. Ignoring the taunt, Antony replies he belongs where he is; the Empire is worthless clay compared to his love for Cleopatra. Lovers are the world's true nobility, and Antony and Cleopatra's love is the noblest of all.

Cleopatra persists in her teasing. If he loves her, Cleopatra, so much, why did he marry Fulvia? Again Antony refuses to take the bait, asking instead what they should do that evening. Though Cleopatra repeats he should listen to the messenger, Antony orders the man not to speak. He, Cleopatra, and their retinue exit, leaving Philo and Demetrius to shake their heads at Antony's folly.

Analysis

Though Scene 1 is brief, it pinpoints the play's essential conflicts. Philo's opening speech sets out the problems; the rest of the scene illustrates his words. He is acting as a mini-chorus, introducing the main characters and the conflict they embody. In a sense the real play begins after his introduction, but his words also affect the way the audience first encounters Antony: they are encouraged to see him as diminished and undignified in his devotion, not as the noble lover he thinks he is.

Antony has abandoned his responsibilities as both a leader and a soldier, but Philo and Demetrius know him to be a great man. They clearly feel no respect for Cleopatra, whom Philo dismisses as a lustful Egyptian. Antony's "dotage" may be mere silliness or folly, but it is not as bad as Cleopatra's lust. The word dotage suggests love has weakened Antony's brain. In using the word lust in describing Cleopatra, Philo implies her attraction to Antony is purely physical, not emotional.

Should the audience take Philo's word that Cleopatra is Antony's inferior? At this point it is too early to tell. Philo makes it clear he doesn't think she's worth Antony's adulation, but probably any loyal soldier would feel this way. Still, Cleopatra's first line is a demand Antony prove how much he loves her—not an expression of her love for him. This statement hints at her insecurity, as does her unreasonable jealousy of Fulvia, whom Antony met and married long before coming to Egypt.

Both Cleopatra and Antony use exaggerated rhetoric to discuss their love. Although imaginative and poetic, it suggests a certain self-consciousness—as well it might, since they are declaiming in front of several people. Not only do they consider themselves Heroic Beings In Love; they want everyone to know how they feel. This stagey, overwrought dialogue will be a frequent feature in the play.

Despite Cleopatra's fussing and measuring exactly how much Antony loves her, she seems to have a clearer sense of Antony's responsibilities than he does. Twice she urges him to listen to the news from Rome: "Your dismission is come from Caesar. Therefore hear it, Antony." Cleopatra is a queen, after all. She knows visitors from distant places deserve attention, although she is less interested in political instruction than in a possible message from her rival Fulvia.

For his part Antony is determined to ignore the messenger. He also seems to believe his and Cleopatra's love has colossal importance: "Kingdoms are clay ... we stand up peerless." The idea that lovers are greater than kings is typical in love poetry, but it is disconcerting to hear it in a conversation between two actual rulers. And there is a hint Antony suspects his time with Cleopatra is limited: "Let's not confound the time with conference harsh. / There's not a minute of our lives should stretch without some pleasure now." He might not speak this way if he thought he and Cleopatra had all the time in the world to enjoy themselves.

Shakespeare inserts a clever detail in lines 9 and 10. As Philo jeers that Antony has become "the fan to cool a gypsy's lust," Cleopatra immediately enters—fanned by eunuch slaves. Both Philo and Shakespeare may be implying that love has "unmanned" Antony, a theme that returns throughout the play.

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