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Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary



Cleopatra finds herself at loose ends. First she demands to hear music; then changes her mind and wants to play billiards; then she changes her mind again, suggesting a walk to the river. There she'll go fishing and pretend every fish she catches is Antony.

Charmian mentions a time when Cleopatra and Antony went fishing together and Cleopatra's diver secretly fastened a dried, salted fish onto Antony's line. Later they made love, and the next morning she out-drank Antony, who passed out. While he slept, Cleopatra dressed him in her clothes and put on his sword herself. Those were the days!

A messenger from Italy enters, and Cleopatra toys with him as if he were caught on her line. If the messenger can give her good news of Antony, she'll reward him. When the messenger answers Antony "is well," Cleopatra instantly assumes (or pretends to assume) her lover is actually dead. No reward, then! "The gold I give thee will I melt and pour down thy ill-uttering throat."

After Cleopatra interrupts him a few more times, the messenger reveals Antony has married Octavia. Cleopatra attacks the messenger in a rage. Charmian remonstrates that the messenger is innocent, but Cleopatra answers that innocent people don't always escape punishment. Then she reminds herself that as a queen, she shouldn't strike an inferior. Calling the messenger back, she half-apologizes—but flies into another rage when the messenger clings to the story of Antony's wedding. Once more the messenger leaves, and once more Cleopatra repents. She orders Alexas to follow the messenger and demands a description of Octavia. She tells Charmian to pity but not speak to her and then retires to her chamber.


The scene provides insight into Cleopatra's emotional range, her sincere love for Antony, and her insecurity about their union. She is aware of the intensity of her emotions, and although she makes little attempt to control them, she does realize what her position allows her to do and what it does not.

At the beginning of the scene it appears her highs and lows seem stuck in the middle ground, where she is not meant to be for long. She may be melancholy, but she is not one to sit around brooding. Instead, and in character, she keeps changing her mind about her next amusement—music, no music; billiards, no billiards; fishing is most appealing at the moment because she can talk about Antony and hooking him like a fish. In her description to Charmian, she sheds light on the nature of her "infinite variety," as Enobarbus has described what attracts and binds Antony to her. After she and Antony went fishing, Cleopatra relates, "I laughed him out of patience, and that night / I laughed him into patience. And next morn, / Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed, / Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst / I wore his sword." In describing their lovemaking—the games, the laughter, the drinking, and the games again—she reveals her inventiveness and the staying power of their relationship. Although the action doesn't occur on stage, Shakespeare nonetheless reveals Cleopatra in high spirits and provides the audience with a bit of bawdy humor. It also invokes the running issue of appropriate gender roles: Antony is symbolically effeminized by his love for Cleopatra, while Cleopatra's power and independence are, by Roman standards, unnaturally masculine. In Cleopatra's description, she is both physically stronger—she wins the drinking game—and ultimately masculine even in her appearance.

From high comedy the scene shifts to high drama with the arrival of the messenger. Cleopatra has been bored and looking for excitement; now a new outlet appears for her. The messenger is frightened of her but must reveal the news of Antony's marriage. Predictably this time, Cleopatra is enraged and releases her fury at the messenger: "Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine." However, by sending Alexas to find out about Octavia, Cleopatra seems back on course. Her passion has overwhelmed her, and she knows it. In later regretting her behavior toward the messenger, she regains some emotional control, showing her awareness of the responsibilities of power, and admits to no justification for mistreating a person doing his duty and giving her news she prefers not to hear.

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