Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

In Rome Caesar is reading a letter as he walks with Lepidus and their retinue. The letter's contents clearly irritate Caesar. Antony, he says, is wasting his time dallying with Cleopatra in Egypt; he has ignored Caesar's messengers; he is the epitome of a fault-filled man.

Lepidus, eager to keep peace among the triumvirs, answers Antony is not all bad. In fact, he says, Antony is so worthy his few faults serve only to enhance his greatness. Caesar replies although Antony's behavior is perhaps understandable, it is dangerous to Rome and the triumvirate.

A messenger enters to announce Pompey has raised a strong fleet of ships and is gaining support among some of Caesar's followers. Caesar is not surprised: potential leaders, he says, are always popular until they become actual leaders. A second messenger reports two of Pompey's men are attacking coastal regions and terrifying the people who live there. Caesar becomes even angrier at Antony, furious that such a tough and celebrated soldier should behave so shamefully now. "Let his shames quickly drive him to Rome." Meanwhile he and Lepidus must visit the battlefield and meet with their soldiers. Lepidus promises to help.

Analysis

A great distance separates Alexandria and Rome, both literally and symbolically. Throughout the play Shakespeare creates a fantasized, symbolic conflict between the strict, moralistic West, represented by Rome (and Antony), and the pleasure-seeking, luxury-loving East, represented by Egypt (and Cleopatra). This attitude is typical of the period: as Western Europe began to have more frequent contact with Asia and South Africa, Europeans began to develop a mythology of the East as a place of exoticism, luxury, and sensuality. Scene 4 is set in Rome, and Rome's ruler, Octavius Caesar, could not be more different from Cleopatra. Nor could he be more disapproving of her. She has transformed the formerly heroic general, Mark Antony, into what Caesar thinks is a lazy, thoughtless loser.

According to Caesar Cleopatra has also unmanned Antony. Antony's being "not more manlike than Cleopatra" is another way of saying "as womanlike as an actual woman," although it also draws attention to Cleopatra's remarkable power. Women in Caesar's Rome are wives and sisters, not rulers; indeed it is noteworthy how few women appear in the Roman scenes. In Egypt, by contrast, Cleopatra's courtiers are mostly women or eunuchs; very few soldierly men stride about the palace in Alexandria.

Caesar clearly feels wounded by what he sees as Antony's betrayal. His feelings of abandonment mirror the Queen's. Both Caesar and Cleopatra are rivals battling to control Antony, and while the battle is symbolic—between war and love—it is also literal. Both characters want Antony's loyalty, and each wants him to demonstrate that loyalty in a way totally opposite to what the other wants. Antony remains pulled between Rome and Egypt, and it remains to be seen how Roman Antony will become after he has left Alexandria.

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