Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048
Scene 1 takes place at the camp of Octavius and his forces, near Alexandria. Octavius (Caesar) receives the letter from Antony, resents that Antony has called him “Boy,” and refuses to fight a duel with him. Mecenas wisely suggests that Octavius take full advantage of Antony’s angry and irrational behavior and be careful not to become angry himself. Octavius mentions that enough men have defected from Antony’s forces to assure Octavius’ victory.
In Scene 2 at Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Antony learns from Enobarbus that Octavius will not fight a duel with him. He discusses the coming land battle and invites his friends to a lavish dinner. He bids his leaders farewell and alludes to the “last supper” Jesus ate with his disciples, another anachronism. Enobarbus upbraids Antony for the defeatist speech to his comrades, but Antony insists he did not mean it in that manner. Notice Cleopatra’s “asides” to Enobarbus, asking what Antony meant by his words.
Scene 3 takes place where some soldiers are keeping watch near Cleopatra’s palace. The soldiers hear sounds of revelry, apparently coming from beneath the pavement where they are standing. One soldier says that it is the sound of Hercules, from whom Antony claimed descent, now leaving him. They agree it is an ominous omen for Antony.
For a day and a half, Antony begins to resemble the great Mark Antony of his younger years. His contempt for Octavius still oozes from his language, but he can inspire his men and overcome blows, such as the defection of Enobarbus. Now that he has a chance to fight on land, rather than sea, he can out-general Octavius and win the day.
Eros and Enobarbus, two of Antony’s closest friends, are contrasted here. Throughout the play to this point, Enobarbus has occupied the superior position and was entrusted with more responsibility than was Eros. But it is Enobarbus who defects to the enemy, and Eros who stays with his friend and commander to the moment of their deaths. The audience may ponder what it was in the characters of the two men that caused the proverbial tables to be turned, nearly at the end of the play, and demonstrated that Eros was, in fact, the superior man, whereas, throughout almost the entire play, Enobarbus was given that position.
Never resolved is why Cleopatra’s navy deserted her and Antony. The audience is to assume that Cleopatra did indeed love Antony, probably as much as such a woman could love any man. Could she not control the commanders of her navy? Did she know she could not do so? If she did know, why had she not warned Antony? She had boasted of her naval strength only days before the treachery. In the first sea battle, her ships had fled, with Cleopatra aboard. Could she not have controlled her admirals? She did not protect Antony when presumably she could have done so, nor was she willing to risk herself to descend from her “monument” to kiss and talk with her dying Antony; she insisted that he be raised up to where she was. Perhaps the audience is to understand that a woman such as Cleopatra could not truly love anyone but herself.
At the moment of Antony’s death, the conflict of emotions within Cleopatra must have been heavy. She knew that the immediate cause of his death was her arranging to have a false report of her own suicide brought to him. That she should have done such a thing strongly indicates her own immaturity and lack of self-confidence—even a desperate psychological need to find out if Antony really cared about her. She had thought, too late, that her plot might have caused his suicide; a fully mature woman probably would have thought of that possibility before she initiated the plot. On the other hand, she had had sufficient control of her faculties to realize that once she was in the clutches of Octavius’ soldiers, it would be difficult for her to follow Antony in suicide. Therefore, she had made arrangements for the delivery of the figs, with the asps hidden in the bottom of the basket. This planning indicates considerable emotional maturity, suicide was considered an honorable act in Shakespeare’s times.
Antony’s strong feelings for Cleopatra is not disputed; did he really love her or was it simply “sex appeal”? Antony deserted his men in the first sea battle to chase Cleopatra, who swore later that she was not responsible for the flight of her ships, and Antony believed her. Perhaps she really thought that Antony would not follow her until the battle was over.
In the last analysis, the reader must believe that Antony was not responsible for his final defeat. Shakespeare offers no help in this respect, other than to tacitly suggest that his great fault was to team up with Cleopatra in the first place.
In Scene 1, Antony should have known that Octavius would refuse to fight the duel. If he really did know that, the challenge would have been symbolic, but here, once again, Antony’s emotions have overruled his intellect, as Mecenas well knew. It was that knowledge that allowed Mecenas to suggest that Octavius take full advantage of Antony’s angry and irrational behavior and be careful not to become angry himself.
In Scene 2, Cleopatra senses that Antony’s mind might be cracking under the strain of the previous defeat. Enobarbus’ replies offer her precious little encouragement. Enobarbus, perhaps Antony’s most trusted friend and soldier, had already planned to defect to Octavius. Therefore, his attitude would be extremely pessimistic about Antony, and he communicates that pessimism to Cleopatra at perhaps the worst time, psychologically, for the queen to hear it.
In Scene 3, there are ghost footsteps. Octavius’ soldiers keeping watch there discuss the strange sounds, apparently coming from underneath the pavement. At first they decide it must be the sound of Bacchus departing from the festivities. Were that the case, the omen would have been neutral. But when the soldiers decided it was the sound of Hercules (from whom Antony claimed descent) departing, the omen became obvious: it was extremely unfavorable to Antony and his cause. This entire scene may be taken as foreshadowing Antony’s defeat.