Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1338
Pompey: Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, and now the leader of a rebellion against the triumvirate that is sufficiently serious to cause great concern among the triumvirs
Menecrates: friend of Pompey
Menas: friend of Pompey
Varrius: friend of Pompey
Mecenas: friend of Octavius. Occasionally confused with Menas
Agrippa: friend of Octavius (Caesar)
Ventidius: friend of Antony and commander of one of Antony’s armies
Octavia: sister to Octavius, wife of Antony
Scene 1 takes place at Pompey’s home in Messina, Sicily. The scene opens with Pompey’s men discussing the situation just as the first act opened with Antony’s men discussing the situation among themselves before Antony made his appearance.
At the absolute insistence of Octavius, Antony had returned to Rome. Pompey’s insurrection was the primary reason that Octavius and Lepidus wanted Antony back in Rome; Pompey was a real threat and was becoming more so each day. Pompey discusses with his friends the existing military situation concerning his revolt against the triumvirate. Varrius arrives with the news that Antony is expected momentarily in Rome. In a rather arrogant and pompous speech, Pompeius denigrates Antony by calling him an amorous surfeiter, but admits that Antony’s “soldiership is twice the other twain” (i.e., twice as competent as that of Octavius and Lepidus combined).
In Scene 2 at Lepidus’ home in Rome, Lepidus, in conversation with Enobarbus before the other principals enter, warns Enobarbus to be extremely careful not to stir up any quarrel between Antony and Octavius (Caesar). When Octavius and Antony enter, Lepidus urges them not to let personal differences obscure the purpose for which Antony returned to Rome. Ignoring the plea, Octavius brings up the fact that Fulvia and Antony’s brother made war on Octavius. Antony replies he had nothing whatsoever to do with the matter and that they had not asked his advice or permission.
Nevertheless, Antony pays Fulvia a kind of left-handed compliment in saying that she could not be controlled by himself or any other man. He suggests that it would be easier for Octavius to conquer the world than to control Fulvia. At this point, Enobarbus expresses a wish that all men might have wives such as Fulvia, so that the women might go to wars with the men. Here Enobarbus is making a partially sarcastic comment, suggesting that Antony and Octavius are wrangling over relatively trivial matters while a crucial problem faces them. An angry Antony silences his friend and subordinate, Enobarbus, but the soldier still gets in his cut. Octavius replies that he doesn’t mind what Enobarbus said but resents the way he said it.
Challenged by Antony to find other grounds for upbraiding him, Octavius accuses Antony of breaking his pledge to come to the aid of the other triumvirs. Here Antony’s defense is threefold: (1) his presence in Rome really was not needed earlier, (2) he had been “poisoned” by the beauty of Cleopatra and thus was not in his right mind, and (3) he had indeed returned to Rome as soon as he felt he was needed there. He apologizes for not returning sooner. He receives Lepidus’ approval for the apology. Mecenas reminds the principals that a far more important matter presses for their immediate attention.
Agrippa suggests to seal the friendship of the triumvirs, Antony marry Octavius’ sister Octavia; in short order, all agree that this should happen. Enobarbus, in the closing lines of the scene (after the other principals have left the stage), praises the grace and beauty of Cleopatra and says that Antony will never leave Cleopatra, especially for a woman such as Octavia, no matter what formalities (of marriage) might be involved.
The second act of Antony and Cleopatra continues the rising action begun in the first act. We are introduced to Sextus Pompeius and his staff, against whose as yet sporadic attack the triumvirate is attempting to hold Rome. Sextus, a son of Pompey the Great, is now referred to by the playwright simply as “Pompey,” risking confusion with his deceased father. The act opens with Pompey’s men discussing the situation among themselves. Shakespeare knew that what the men say among themselves while alone often is notably different than what they say in the hearing of any one or more of the principals. At the absolute insistence of Octavius (Caesar), Antony had returned to Rome. Pompey was a real threat and becoming more so by the day.
Menas’ comment, “We are ignorant of our selves,” represents a theme that runs through many of Shakespeare’s writings, including several plays. Shakespeare seems to be telling us that we don’t know what is really good for us and thus we seek goals which in the end, if achieved, would only harm or destroy us.
Sextus Pompeius (Pompey) is far too sure of himself and was certain that Antony would stay in Egypt and be no threat to him. Mark Antony returning to Rome from the court of Cleopatra is a fact that should have greatly alarmed Pompey, but apparently did not. Pompey had acknowledged Antony’s “soldiership is twice the other twain.” Pompey’s arrogance and pomposity come through flagrantly, and the audience has only slight respect for him at this point. The respect increases a bit, though, when he refuses the suggestion of Menas that, while he has a golden opportunity, he murder the triumvirs and seize control of the entire Roman Empire.
Lepidus’ primary motivation throughout most of the act is to keep the animosity between Octavius (Caesar) and Antony from destroying the triumvirate, and possibly Rome, too. Perhaps he senses his own inadequacy and realizes that an outright break between Octavius and Antony would destroy him as well. But his efforts are only partly successful, as Octavius and Antony have at it with words, although not yet with weapons. Antony’s apology for his late return to Rome reveals a certain humility in his character to balance the arrogance which he sometimes exhibits. It takes all that Lepidus, Mecenas, Agrippa, and Enobarbus can do to bring the conversation back to the principal point—what to do about Pompey. At his wit’s end and afraid open warfare might break out between the two triumvirs at any moment, Agrippa proposes marriage between Antony and Octavius’ sister, Octavia.
Octavia is offered no real choice in the matter. She is simply a pawn in a political contest. She speaks only a few lines in this act and the next, then permanently disappears from view. Her only real effect on the principals is to give Octavius a perfect excuse for fighting Antony after Antony returns to Cleopatra’s court, even though he is married to Octavia.
Perhaps the most important points of Antony and Cleopatra are the almost total destruction of Antony’s manhood that his dalliance with Cleopatra has produced, the arrogance and pomposity that Pompey has displayed, which inevitably leads to his downfall, and Octavius’ desire for personal revenge against Antony that leads to the destruction of many lives in the war in the Ionian Sea and in Egypt. Even the great Octavius wants to proclaim to everyone his “triumph” over his enemies by parading Cleopatra and Antony through the streets of Rome, but not until after he has had his own chance at love-making with Cleopatra. His intentions gradually become known as the play progresses.
Scene 2 portrays the rising conflict between Antony and Octavius (Caesar), which Lepidus tries to quiet. The underlings are acutely aware of this problem, but envision greatly different ways of resolving it. Enobarbus recalls the triumvirs to the problem of what to do about Pompey; Agrippa suggests that a marriage with Octavia might allay the tension. Both approaches are tried; neither works. When Octavia is informed that she is to be married to Antony, she reacts with all the grace of a woman acknowledging her duty and trying to please the triumvirs. Nevertheless, she comes across later as a human pawn in the hands of her brother Octavius.