Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

It is evening, and several of Cleopatra's attendants are gathered in another room of the palace. Charmian teasingly asks a soothsayer to tell her fortune. Scanning her palm, the soothsayer announces Charmian will "be yet far fairer than you are" and that she will outlive the lady she serves—that is, Cleopatra. Next the soothsayer reads Iras's palm and announces her fate will be the same as Charmian's.

As the courtiers laugh and joke, Cleopatra enters, looking for Antony. When Alexas points out the approaching Antony, Cleopatra commands her retinue to leave with her and exit as Antony and a messenger appear on stage.

The messenger has bad news. Fulvia and Antony's brother have joined forces against Caesar. Antony upbraids himself for having neglected his duty to be with Cleopatra. A second messenger arrives with the shocking news Fulvia has died. Antony informs Enobarbus, who at first cannot make sense of the words: "Fulvia is dead." "Sir?" "Fulvia is dead." "Fulvia?" "Dead." Then he shrugs off the news: "Your old smock brings forth a new petticoat"—in other words, the death of Antony's old love paves the way for this new one. Enobarbus adds that Cleopatra needs Antony too much for him to leave. But Antony is determined to return to Rome, where the situation is grave. He orders Enobarbus to prepare for the journey.

Analysis

Scene 2 mirrors the preceding scene in some ways. Charmian's mischievous banter calls to mind Cleopatra's teasing banter to Antony in Scene 1. Again there is the suggestion of important messages being ignored: Charmian and Iras both laugh at the soothsayer's predictions, and Enobarbus refuses to take seriously Antony's announcement that he must return to Rome. When Antony adds Fulvia is dead, Enobarbus is literally unable to take in the message. He even jokes about the death. In Scene 1 Cleopatra urges Antony to listen to the messenger; now Antony urges Enobarbus to take him seriously. "No more light answers," Antony says sternly.

To the modern reader the soothsayer's function may be ambiguous. He is, somehow, a disturbing character, and watching the attendants joke about him is vaguely unpleasant. He certainly is not trying to drum up business; when Iras urges him to be more specific about her future, he refuses. He is not there merely to give away the ending because Shakespeare's audience, familiar with Roman history, likely came to the theater knowing the play's end. For them the soothsayer's words add a frisson of dread to a comic scene. What matters is that the soothsayer's audience ignores his message.

Scene 1 sets up a contrast between the rigors and responsibilities of war and the pleasures of love. Scene 2 reveals greater contrast between these elements. Shakespeare is concerned with more than merely the difference between Antony and Cleopatra; each has been shaped by dramatically opposing cultures. When Antony says he must break the "strong Egyptian fetters" that bind him, he is referring not only to Cleopatra, whom he often calls "Egypt," but to Egypt itself. In the play, Rome represents gravity, purpose, and rigor—the traditional Western male culture of war and power—whereas Egypt embodies the traditionally female and also Eastern concepts of pleasure, luxury, and love. Scene 1 opens with Philo's solemn speech about the way Antony is neglecting his duties; Scene 2 opens with Cleopatra's retinue having fun with a fortune-teller. In this scene Antony struggles to recall himself to his Roman duties.

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