illustration of Antony and Cleopatra facing each other with a snake wrapped around their necks

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare
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Act I, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244

New Characters:
Philo: friend of Mark Antony

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Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt

(Mark) Antony: triumvir of Rome

Messenger: one of several carrying messages between Rome and Egypt. Other messengers appear during the play; none are named

Demetrius: friend of Mark Antony

Charmian: attendant of Cleopatra and, apparently, the queen’s favorite attendant

Alexas: friend of Cleopatra and Mark Antony and sometimes the unofficial representative of Antony when he cannot be present at Cleopatra’s court

Soothsayer: accurately predicts the future and warns Antony to beware of Octavius

Iras: attendant of Cleopatra

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Latest answer posted November 1, 2007, 10:55 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

(Domitius) Enobarbus: Roman soldier and friend of Mark Antony

Mardian: a eunuch attendant of Cleopatra

Other attendants, soldiers, etc., sometimes unnamed

In Scene 1 at Cleopatra’s court in Egypt, Demetrius and Philo are discussing the idle behavior of their beloved friend and general. Cleopatra and her attendants enter with Antony. A message arrives from Octavius and Lepidus demanding Antony return and help them in their fight against the son of Pompey the Great. Antony refuses to receive the messengers, but Cleopatra urges him to hear the message. He refuses. She knows that Fulvia (Antony’s wife) is a rival, with a greater claim on Antony than she has, even though she is the queen.

In Scene 2, which takes place the next day at Cleopatra’s court, the Soothsayer’s comments in lines 4 and 5 suggest that Antony will fall before the onslaught of Octavius. The messengers return and deliver their message from Octavius and Lepidus. They demand Antony’s return to Rome. Antony learns that Fulvia has died of wounds received in military action.

Octavius was not the son of Julius Caesar but rather was the son of his niece. Julius Caesar “adopted” him when he was 18 years old and named him his heir. Shakespeare calls him “Caesar” throughout Antony and Cleopatra. In this study guide, he is usually referred to as “Octavius,” because he really had not achieved the position of caesar, regardless of his adopted name, until both of the other two triumvirs were dead and he had consolidated the Roman Empire under his rule as emperor.

Shakespeare understood and vividly portrayed the willful and impetuous nature of Mark Antony. Antony had been wildly successful in defeating Brutus and Cassius at Philippi to secure control of the Roman Empire for the triumvirate. Unfortunately, his success at Philippi led to both arrogance and the belittling of aid given to him there by Octavius and by the third triumvir, Lepidus.

Shakespeare considered Lepidus too weak a man to seriously consider as a leader, either military or civil. His actions in the play add to the audience’s opinion of him as weak and lacking in personal discipline. The playwright knew that a man lacking in personal discipline was unlikely to be a successful leader on the battlefield or in the halls of government for very long. Lepidus, both in the play and in real life, quickly faded from public view. Even today, most historians consider him to have been a weak leader at best.

Shakespeare’s principal characters in this play were real people well known in history. Under such circumstances, there is a limit to how far the playwright can stretch the truth. Antony’s impetuosity is obvious in the play; whether he was just as impetuous as a younger man leading the forces of the triumvirate against Brutus and Cassius is a matter of question. What is emphasized is the fact that General Mark Antony, once a man of strong personal discipline, had lost much of that quality through his dalliance with the beautiful Cleopatra. Only near the end of the play, does Antony begin to reassume the figure of the disciplined soldier that marked his younger and most successful years. His fall from his position of near worship by soldiers and friends, visible even in the first few lines of the play, is more than obvious. Near the end of the play he begins to regain their respect.

Although Shakespeare does not specifically say so, he does intimate that Antony’s first wife, Fulvia, was much more like Antony was as a young man than as Antony was as an older man resting on his laurels and consorting with Cleopatra. Fulvia supposedly died of wounds received in armed conflict, and that fact serves as a foil to highlight her husband’s failure to serve the state in its crisis with Sextus Pompeius. Fulvia had been exiled from Rome because she had participated in a rebellion against the Roman government, but that fact only slightly dulls the foil she provides here. Also important is Antony’s reaction to the news of Fulvia’s death, and Cleopatra’s rather frigid reaction to the same event, in direct violation of Charmian’s wise suggestion to her mistress.

The first act constitutes rising dramatic action, as the audience gradually begins to realize that the triumvirs are becoming competitors rather than colleagues, and armed conflict between Antony and Octavius (Caesar) most certainly will result. The alert observer will sense that Lepidus, is not now and never has been a serious factor in the action.

The prophecy of the Soothsayer, of course, is the original clue of how the matter will turn out. This foreshadowing is followed by a dozen less obvious instances. Here we see Octavius ascending and Antony descending, leading to the inevitable triumph of Octavius. In Scene 2, the Soothsayer’s comments suggest that Antony will fall before the onslaught of Octavius—an oblique prophecy here, to be sure, but a valid one. The foreshadowing continues throughout the play. The reference to Herod recalls the fact that he had slaughtered infants in Judea, including, he had hoped, the baby Jesus of Nazareth. Notice also another instance of sarcasm. The overflowing Nile presages not famine, but plenty, because the waters of the Nile are what make the production of food possible in most of Egypt. Without them the nation would be almost entirely a desert, incapable of producing any kind of crops.

Notice the bawdy repartee between Charmian, Alexas, and the Soothsayer at the opening of the scene. Almost every line has sexual overtones, but the references, perfectly plain to an Elizabethan, are much less so to modern readers. “Figs” can refer to the fruit, but also to a penis or an aphrodisiac. Charmian wishes Alexas a wife whom he cannot satisfy sexually, so that she will have 50 other men as lovers. All this is said, of course, in good humor.

The bawdy conversation ends abruptly when Cleopatra enters. Antony’s metaphor with “weeds” involves a pun (earing/hearing) in which “earing” means a plant’s bearing the “ears” for which it was planted (such as corn). Antony’s point is that, just as a blowing wind prevents the growth of some weeds in the fields, so hearing (and appropriate attention to) “news,” even if the news is unfavorable, can save us from mistakes later. This metaphor represents a switch in positions for Antony. In Scene 1 he refused to hear the news the messenger brought from Rome. Antony demands an end to the levity. What he must do is both serious and difficult; furthermore, his wife Fulvia is dead.

Later in the act, Shakespeare invokes another pun (“Adiew,” after referring to tears and weeping–i.e., dew). Also, here is an example of a metonymy, in which the whole (Egypt) is used for the part (Cleopatra). This usage is commonplace throughout much of the work.

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Act I, Scene 3: Summary and Analysis