Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Antony and Caesar enter, Octavia walking between them. Antony and Octavia exchange a few words of decorous love, and Antony promises to be a model husband. Caesar leads his sister away, and the soothsayer first seen in Act 1 now enters and urges Antony to return to Egypt. "Thy daemon"—a modern term might be "guardian angel"—"becomes afeard, as being o'erpowered," whenever Antony comes into close contact with Caesar. "If thou does play with him at any game," says the soothsayer, "thou art sure to lose."

Antony angrily dismisses the soothsayer. But when alone, Antony admits to himself the fortune teller's words are true. Caesar beats him in every game of chance. "The very dice obey him." Although Antony is willing to marry Octavia to keep the peace, his happiness lies in Egypt with Cleopatra.

Analysis

It may be convenient for the alliance to have Antony marry Octavia, and Antony speaks warmly to his future wife, promising her a marriage "by the rule," but what does Octavia think of the arrangement? Her thoughts are not important to the men who strike the deal. For them Octavia is a piece to be moved around their game board.

Shakespeare chooses to keep Octavia in the background, so her emotions play no part in the story. Certainly arranged marriages were usual, especially for political or financial reasons, so this marriage is hardly shocking. For the brief time she is on stage in this scene, she seems content enough to marry Antony. She dutifully promises to pray for him while he is away in battle. If she has negative feelings, she keeps them hidden, suiting the modest, obedient ideal she represents.

But Octavia is more than a literary device; she was a real person in history, and her marriage to Antony actually took place. The real Octavia married the real Antony in 40 BCE, and had two daughters with him. For a while she did, in fact, keep the peace between her brother and her husband. Did she take an active role in smoothing over their conflicts, or was her presence enough to remind them to act as allies? The answer is unknown. Four years later, however, Antony returned to Cleopatra and refused to see Octavia even when she brought him troops and money in 35 BCE. In 32 BCE he divorced her. Even so, Octavia took Antony's and Cleopatra's children into her household after their parents died, and brought them up with her own children by Antony.

Octavia's plight was not uncommon. Women in ancient Rome were definitely second-class citizens. Even Octavia's name is telling, as a woman's first name was the feminine form of the family name (Octavia's brother is Octavius Caesar), plus an identifying number (prima, secunda, and so on) to distinguish among sisters. Before marriage women were expected to obey their fathers; after marriage they were expected to obey their husbands, who also had legal charge over any children of the marriage.

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