Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 3, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

In Alexandria Cleopatra asks her attendants, "Where is the fellow?" She is referring to the messenger she sent to get a good look at Octavia. In that meeting Cleopatra was so rough with the messenger that he is understandably afraid to see her now. But his message is unthreatening, even to someone as insecure as Cleopatra: Octavia is short and low-voiced. "Dull of tongue and dwarfish," comments Cleopatra approvingly. Octavia's gait is a "creep," she seems more like a statue than a real person, and "her forehead [is] as low as she would wish it."

"I find thee most fit for business," a relieved Cleopatra tells the messenger. When the messenger has left, Cleopatra confesses she's now sorry for her earlier behavior. Clearly Octavia isn't worth worrying about! Cleopatra adds she has one more question, but it can wait.

Analysis

Even when Cleopatra is behaving badly, it's hard not to enjoy her "infinite variety." In her conversation with the messenger about Octavia, she would sound like an insecure teenager except that she is funny. She must realize the messenger is so frightened he won't pay Octavia any compliments; moreover, she has no way of verifying anything the messenger says. But because she's in a merry mood, she twists his carefully innocuous report into a hideous caricature: "dull of tongue and dwarfish." This time—no doubt to the messenger's relief—she is enjoying his report. This exchange reinforces the idea that perception is what matters, as shown by Venditius and Pompey: Octavia is supposed to be beautiful and well-spoken, but what matters here is the report, not the reality.

Considering how Cleopatra behaved the last time he saw her, the messenger has good reason to be nervous. But clearly Cleopatra has already adjusted to the truth and has decided to be a good sport this time. On some level, she must still be jealous of Octavia, but she manages to make fun of her own jealousy. It is an admirable performance.

The messenger is lucky in one way. Octavia's calmly reserved demeanor may be the height of Roman respectability, but it is nothing Cleopatra would envy. Cleopatra likes being temperamental; she knows Antony loves her exhibitionism. And she's a savvy ruler who knows why an arranged marriage can be a political expedient.

When the messenger says Octavia's forehead is "as low as she would wish it," the line recalls Antony's description of the crocodile in Act 2, Scene 7: "It is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth." Both accounts seem to make sense but actually say nothing at all. The messenger is really just saying that Octavia wouldn't want her brow to be any lower than it is. But since a low brow was considered unattractive and a sign of poor intelligence, who would want a lower brow, regardless of what it looked like now?

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