Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 2, Scene 7 | Summary

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Summary

The banquet aboard Pompey's ship is under way. Servants enter carrying an abundance of wine and gossiping about the guests. Lepidus, the main topic of conversation, is drunk. The Second Servant comments Lepidus is nothing but a figurehead, powerful in name but nothing else. The First Servant answers that being part of a powerful group but wielding no power oneself is like being a pair of empty eye sockets in a face—useless and disfiguring.

Caesar, Antony, Pompey, Lepidus, and some of their retinue enter. Lepidus is listening to Antony's description of Egypt. He asks about crocodiles and seems not to understand Antony is teasing him with his answer. Meanwhile Menas is trying to get Pompey's attention. An irritated Pompey keeps trying to put him off but finally listens. Menas offers Pompey the chance to become "lord of all the world" by offering to kill the three triumvirs.

Pompey gives a rueful answer. If Menas had gone ahead and killed the men without asking permission, then Pompey would have been happy to seize power. But honor demands he deny Menas the chance now that Menas has been clumsy enough to mention it. Furious, Menas decides to quit Pompey's service.

Meanwhile Lepidus has passed out and is being carried by a servant. Pompey, Antony, and Enobarbas are drunk, and Antony tries to get Caesar to loosen up. Caesar is disinclined to drink any more despite Antony's urging. Antony urges him to "be a child o' th' time"—i.e., live in the present and stop thinking about his responsibilities. The carousing has now reached the point at which the men are dancing in a circle, but Caesar remains stiff and censorious. Antony invites Pompey to continue the fun at his house. They stagger off the ship with everyone except Menas and Enobarbus, who continue the party in Menas's cabin.

Analysis

Two things are clear in this scene: Pompey's ship is nothing like Cleopatra's barge as it is described in Act 2, Scene 2, and Caesar is not much of a diplomat or drinker.

Barges and military ships have little in common, but the two vessels are closely linked in this act. Cleopatra's barge embodies all that is lush and beautiful about Shakespeare's Egypt; Pompey's naval ship, filled with drunken Romans, is almost a parody of a harsh, raucously "macho" setting.

With its perfumed purple sails, its "lovesick" winds, and its silver oars, the barge has no other purpose but to put a lolling Cleopatra on display. On Pompey's ship, by contrast, even a truce-signing party is interrupted by the casual suggestion the guests of honor have their throats cut. As Cleopatra's barge floats down the Nile, it seems sensually joined with the winds and the water, as if nature itself were in love with the Queen. On the ship Antony describes the Nile in terms of "slime and ooze." His nondescription of the crocodile is funny, but it also suggests that these men are not at one with nature. Cleopatra's barge is designed to appeal to every sense except taste; aboard the ship, on the other hand, Antony literally suggests the men drink themselves senseless.

There can be no doubt Cleopatra enjoys being rowed on her barge, but Caesar does not enjoy Pompey's party. If the other men weren't so drunk, they might point out Caesar is being a killjoy. He utters not a word until the scene is two-thirds over. Then, urged to further drinking by Antony, Caesar answers, "I had rather fast from all, four days, / Than drink so much in one." A few lines later, he adds, "Our graver business / frowns at this levity.—Gentle lords, let's part." His response is hardly a gracious acceptance of Pompey's hospitality and once again shows a lapse in diplomacy.

If Caesar overheard Menas's offer to kill the triumvirate, he'd have reason for wanting to leave the ship, but only Pompey hears him. His answer to Menas is striking. Not in the least disturbed at the idea of triple murder, he is visibly disappointed because Menas asked his permission to kill the guests of honor. "Ah, this thou shouldst have done / And not spoke on't!" If Menas had gone ahead and killed the triumvirate, says Pompey, "I should have found it afterwards well done"—but now that Menas has made the suggestion, Pompey has no choice but to condemn it. Pompey explains his honor is more important than gain; however, he is actually talking about his perceived honor, since an honorable man would never condone the murders themselves, whether or not he knew they were happening.

It is clear from the wild party aboard the ship that the Romans are as guilty of excess as they claim the Egyptians to be; the Roman guests will be no less drunk and indulged than their Egyptian counterparts, but there seem to be no women on board. Unlike his carousing colleagues, however, Caesar complains that wine makes his tongue "split what it speaks"—in other words, slur his words. He remains above such behavior and scorns it. Ruled by his ambition and seriousness, he seems never to let down his guard. As readers already know, and Shakespeare's audience knew, Caesar despises Cleopatra, "the serpent of the Nile," and snakes have forked, or split, tongues. Perhaps at some level Caesar is anxious that drunken carousing will make him more like Cleopatra.

It's worth noting that while the Romans are critical of what they see as Egyptian luxury and licentiousness, Shakespeare's representation doesn't really support Roman values. Roman society is unappealing whether it's sober—embodied by Caesar's stiffness and Octavia's "holy, cold, and still conversation"—or celebratory, as evidenced by the unpleasant, treacherous revelry in this scene.

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