Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Lepidus is urging Enobarbus to ask Antony not to "stir up embers" by arguing with Caesar. Enobarbus replies he'll ask Antony only to be himself. If Caesar says something provoking, why shouldn't Antony fight back? But Lepidus wants to avoid trouble; for him it is more important the members of the triumvirate get along than Antony raise personal grudges.

Antony and Ventidius enter from one side of the stage; Caesar, Maecenas, and Agrippa enter from the other. Lepidus begs everyone to stay calm. Though Antony and Caesar keep their tempers, both clearly are angry. Antony begins the discussion by saying Caesar has been criticizing him over matters that are none of Caesar's business. Why does Caesar care whether Antony has been living in Egypt?

Caesar replies he wouldn't care except Antony has been plotting against him. Antony's wife and brother led the insurrection against Caesar and did so in Antony's name. Anthony protests: his brother never asked him to take arms against Caesar, and Antony never supported the insurrection. If Caesar wants to quarrel, he'll have to come up with something worthier. Caesar reminds Antony of the messenger to whom he refused to listen. This charge, Antony admits, is true—but only because Antony had a hangover and explained his condition to the messenger the next day.

Now Caesar hits back with a substantial allegation: "You have broken the article of your oath." When Caesar needed help in battle, Antony refused it. Again Antony pleads his condition—constant revelry made him neglect his duty. With matters at a standstill, Agrippa proposes a solution: why shouldn't Antony marry Caesar's sister Octavia, making the two men brothers! Antony and Caesar approve and shake hands.

The three triumvirs and their followers exit; Enobarbus, Agrippa, and Maecenas remain. Enobarbus obliges the two other men with an extensive description of Cleopatra, painting a near-fantastic vision of beauty, wealth, and charm. When Maecenas mentions Antony must now leave Cleopatra, Enobarbus knows he will not.

Analysis

This scene focuses on the character and influence of the members of the triumvirate, Enobarbus, Agrippa, and Cleopatra. Lepidus, the triumvir with least power, acts as a peacemaker between Caesar and Antony, as well he should, for relations are strained between the two and with sufficient reason. While Lepidus lacks influence and persuasiveness, and others pay little attention to him, his perspective is actually valuable. Lepidus is concerned with the common good, not a wounded ego, and he is right that further squabbling over "trivial differences" creates further problems—"Murder in healing wounds."

The other two triumvirs are more powerful and less willing to appease one another. Caesar believes he has been wronged and presents three incidents of Antony's offenses. One involves Antony's wife and brother, but Antony claims not to be involved. Whether Caesar believes it or not, the insurrection they led has troubled Caesar, and he is reluctant to trust Antony. The second and third offenses are related; Antony dismisses one and admits fault for the other. However, his explanations—drunkenness, hangover, excessive revelry, preoccupation with Cleopatra—are seriously questionable. If Antony is above it all and dismissive of his duties as a ruler of the Roman Empire because he is too hung over to execute them, then Caesar is justifiably irritated and accusatory, although he is a stiffer, less sympathetic character. Although both may consider themselves political tacticians, neither is showing much diplomacy, but Caesar's suspicious nature will serve him well later on.

Indeed their subordinates show more insight and definitive action. Agrippa comes up with an actual plan, however seemingly random—the marriage of Antony and Octavia. It is a step toward establishing trust through shared family ties. Enobarbus, however, is more perceptive, for he knows Antony will never give up Cleopatra. He knows the depth of their commitment and the power she has over him. It would be hard to know whether this marriage is actually doomed before it begins, but Enobarbus's insights do not foreshadow a successful political union, which is, of course, what the marriage is intended to be.

Finally, there is the influence of Cleopatra, which for Antony is all encompassing. He is, and will be, unquestionably and unalterably committed to her, as Enobarbus knows and tries to explain. Indeed his description of Cleopatra is among the most famous of Shakespeare's scenes, although it is not seen on stage; in film it has inspired lavish production spectacles and captured the fantasies of artists and designers. He relates the first time Antony laid eyes on the Egyptian queen as she sailed along the water: "The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Burned on the water ... / Purple the sails, and so perfumed that / The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were / silver." But for Antony it is not merely a question of beauty; Antony is beguiled by her passion, her drama, her ambition, and her unpredictable nature, encapsulated in one of Shakespeare's best-known descriptions: "Age cannot wither her, not custom stale / Her infinite variety. Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies." In stark contrast, the "beauty, wisdom, modesty" Mecaenus attributes to Octavia—her traditional Roman virtues—will not hold Antony's attention for long.

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