Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 1, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Back in Alexandria, Cleopatra is suffering without Antony. She wishes she could drink mandragora, a poison to make her sleep away the time. She calls her eunuch, Mardian, to her and asks whether he is able to still feel love (since he can no longer have sex). She wonders what Antony is doing at that moment. Riding a horse? Asking after Cleopatra, his "serpent of old Nile?" She reminds herself, and the audience, that Julius Caesar (the uncle of Octavius) and Pompey (the brother of the Pompey now attacking Rome) were both her lovers in the past: she is indeed a "morsel for a monarch."

Alexas enters with a pearl that Antony, "the firm Roman," commanded him to bring to "great Egypt," promising that he, Antony, will win so much territory for Cleopatra that "all the East shall call her mistress." Cleopatra wants to know whether Antony was happy or sad as he spoke those words; when Alexas says his master's mood was in the middle of both those extremes, the Queen exults that any mood suits Antony.

Calling for ink and paper to send Antony yet another message, Cleopatra asks, "Did I, Charmian, / Ever love [Julius] Caesar so?" Charmian provokes her by praising Caesar, pointing out Cleopatra used to do the same thing. Cleopatra retorts that those were "her salad days," before she had either judgment or experience.

Analysis

The names of the Caesars and Pompeys can be confusing unless readers know the naming customs practiced in ancient Rome. Males were traditionally given three names: a first name (praenomen), a clan name (nomen), and a third name representing the branch of the clan. The collection of first names from which to choose was limited; usually a first son would be given his father's first name, and often all the daughters in the family would be given the same feminized version of the father's first name. In Scene 5 the Caesar whom Charmian praises is Julius Caesar, great-uncle of the Octavius Caesar who is now one of the triumvirs; the Pompey Cleopatra mentions is the current Pompey's older brother. It is important to remember that these are also famous figures from Roman history, and they would have been familiar to Shakespeare's audience.

Scene 5 has a "meanwhile ... " quality. The little action going on functions as a check-in on Cleopatra while Antony is politicking in Rome. Cleopatra is feeling bored and idle without her lover. She can't think of a way to pass the time except by sleeping. Mandragora—the root of the mandrake plant—was believed to make people sleepy when it was eaten or made into tea, which is why Cleopatra wishes she had some. According to legend, mandragora also drove away demons, which might also suit Cleopatra's mood at this point!

It is significant Cleopatra strikes up a conversation with the eunuch Mardian, although she says she takes "no pleasure / In aught a eunuch has"—a reference to her own sexual appetite. Perhaps she identifies with him, as sexual pleasure is unavailable to her now. But her question "Hast thou affections?" seems cruel, especially since Mardian was probably castrated so that he could serve in her household. It suggests she barely thinks of Mardian as a human being. In any case she pays no attention to the honest and well-considered reply he gives her. Instead her thoughts flit back to Antony. Perhaps loneliness makes her feel undesirable: her memories of Caesar and Pompey seem to cheer her up.

Cleopatra is definitely cheered by Alexas's appearance. The audience has seen Cleopatra mock Antony to his face; without him, however, she is full of praise. She seizes on the mention that Antony's mood was neither good nor bad as proof of his good disposition. Indeed neutrality in describing Antony is a wise tactic to employ to avoid provoking Cleopatra, who might easily fly into a rage upon hearing he is in a good mood or into deeper dejection if he is in a bad mood. Cleopatra also scolds Charmian for teasing her about having once loved Julius Caesar—and indeed, Charmian's taunting does seem to come out of nowhere. But it sets up one of Cleopatra's most famous lines: "My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood, / To say as I said then." "My salad days" is a remarkable example of Shakespeare's gift for coining new expressions, and this one is still used widely today.

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