Antony and Cleopatra

Summary and Analysis of Act One, Scenes 1-3

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Act One Scenes 1-3:

Summary:

Scene One. Cleopatra's palace, in Alexandria. Philo complains to Demetrius that Cleopatra has transformed Antony from a great general to a whore's fool. Antony and Cleopatra enter, with Cleopatra pushing Antony to describe how much he loves her. A messenger comes from Octavius, but Antony, clearly annoyed, commands the messenger to be brief. Cleopatra, partly mocking, partly serious, chides Antony and tells him to hear the message. But in the end Antony refuses to hear the message, and he and Cleopatra set out for a night in the city. Philo and Demetrius do not approve.

Scene Two. Cleopatra's palace, in Alexandria. The servants of Cleopatra's court ask a soothsayer to predict their futures. The soothsayer seems to start out well, telling Charmian that she will outlive her mistress, but then he warns that the days to come will be worse than the days past. When the soothsayer insinuates that Charmian's loose, she's had enough. The soothsayer tells Iras that her fortune will be like Charmian's.

Cleopatra enters looking for Antony, and the man himself enters shortly after. Cleopatra takes off with a huff, taking her servants with her. Antony hears the messenger: his wife, Fulvia, and his brother have united in a war against Caesar, and have been driven from Italy. The other news is worse: Rome's most powerful adversaries, the Parthians, have overrun the territories of the Near and Middle East.

A second messenger brings yet more grim news: his wife Fulvia is dead. Antony muses that he sometimes wished her dead while she lived, and now that she's gone he can only miss her. Antony resolves to stop dallying in Egypt. He summons Enobarbus, and informs him that they'll have to leave. Enobarbus talks, with irony and cynicism, about how their departure will shatter Cleopatra. When informed of Fulvia's death, Enobarbus continues with this lightness of tone. Antony has learned that Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the great, now rules the seas in defiance of the triumvirate. Lepidus and Caesar will have need of Antony if they are to overcome him.

Scene Three. Cleopatra's palace, in Alexandria. Cleopatra enters with Charmian, Alexas, and Iras. She tells them to find Antony, and exactly what deceptions to use to bring him to her. When Charmian suggests that honesty and obedience might be a better way to keep Antony's heart, Cleopatra replies that such behavior would be a sure way to lose him. When Antony appears and tries to tell Cleopatra that he must leave, her response is scathing. Even news of Fulvia's death only increases her distress: as Fulvia goes unmourned, Cleopatra says, so will she. Yet eventually she asks forgiveness for her behavior, and wishes Antony success. He promises that though they separate, they will be with each other in spirit.

Analysis:

The first three scenes of Act One all take place in Queen Cleopatra's palace, in Alexandria. They establish quickly the conflict between duty and passion, ambition and pleasure, Rome and Egypt. They also showcase Cleopatra's complexity: her incredible emotional vicissitudes, her theatricality, her manipulative streak, and her genuine passion for Antony. They also hint at the destructive powers of historical necessity, a great theme of the play, through the figure of the soothsayer and the juxtaposition of his unsettling presence with the gayness of Cleopatra's court.

The first scene is short, and framed by the disparaging comments of Philo and Demetrius, two of Antony's men. The Roman soldiers disapprove of Antony's decadent affair with the queen, and are quick to write her off as a whore. Philo calls her a gipsy, which in Shakespeare's time connoted sorcery, treachery, and cheap trickery. Their view is simple and straightforward, and perhaps not perfectly in line with what we see when Antony and Cleopatra themselves appear. Cleopatra, though mocking of Antony's Roman duties, does in fact encourage him to hear the message. Her purposes for doing so are not entirely clear: she may be using reverse psychology on her lover, and her arguments already have a hint of irony, which can be played up in productions of the play.

The theme of duty versus passion, and Rome versus Egypt, both come together in this scene. Antony is having too fine a time to be bothered by news from the capitol, and shirks his duties: "Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space, / Kingdoms are clay . . ." (1.1. 33-35). Egypt is escape from the duties of empire, and in Alexandria Antony is able to live life as he loves to live it. But Antony's attitude will be sharply reversed by the next scene, and he will force himself back to Rome: Antony is torn throughout the play between duty and passion, between Roman power and the good life of Egypt.

He is never able to reconcile the two, and their fundamental incompatibility are emphasized by the commentary provided by Philo and Demetrius. When Antony and Cleopatra appear before us, they are beautiful in their excess. They are a grand, godlike couple, a handsome Roman general and a magnificent queen, playful and exuberant, and conscious of their glamour. Youth is not part of their glamour; both are middle-aged. Their beauty is one of ripeness and maturity, and Antony revels in his Egyptian life as rest from a lifetime of fighting wars. Antony proudly proclaims, "We stand up peerless" (1.1.39), and within a certain realm he's right. But the world where they stand up peerless is a different one that Rome's world of duty, war, and ambition. The couple's beautiful language and delight in one another make no great impression on Philo and Demetrius, who can't understand Antony's shirking of his duties.

Scene Two contrasts the incredible gaiety and liveliness of Cleopatra's court with a dour, though not humorless, Soothsayer. The play touches on the theme of fate for the first time here. Playfully seeking some kind of entertainment from the Soothsayer, the servants of Cleopatra make bawdy jokes and tease each other, even as the Soothsayer, in words whose meaning only becomes clear later, foretells the maids' deaths. The gay and frivolous world of Cleopatra's palace seems an unfit place to speak of death, and this scene drives home how grim historical necessity will put an end to this Eastern world of fun and play.

The beginning of that process follows immediately. As the servants and Cleopatra exit, Antony enters with messengers and finally hears the news he has been avoiding. Antony sees the price of his neglect of his duties, and he is immediately remorseful, owning up to his faults and encouraging the messenger to tell him all bad news without fear. This scene makes an interesting juxtaposition with later scenes (2.5 and 3.3) where Cleopatra takes bad news out on the messenger. One of Antony's most outstanding qualities is his capacity for remorse. His sincere emotional response to his own failures is in marked contrast to Octavius' detached machinations. Antony's remorse leads, at least temporarily, to renewed resolve.

Enobarbus' response to Anthony's new resolve is cynical, cutting, and strangely light considering the gravity of the news. He seems to mock Cleopatra's intense emotions, warning of what she'll do when she hears news of Antony's departure: "I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment" (1.2.143-4). Yet he defends her, with an undetermined degree of irony, from the charge of insincerity. His lightness leaves much open to the actor's interpretation: does he believe Cleopatra's sincerity, or is he speaking with deep irony? His response to Fulvia's death is strangely light: although at first he seems shocked (Antony needs to tell him the news three times), he quickly becomes cynical, telling Antony that Fulvia's death would only be sad if there were no other women left on earth. While this might be a real bit of misogyny on Enobarbus' part, it also refers to Antony's relationship with Cleopatra. He mocks Antony a few lines later, saying with sly innuendo that though the business in Rome cannot do without him, the sexual business he has started with Cleopatra can't do without him either. Enobarbus speaks in prose, and his talk with Antony is bold and plain. Their familiarity with each other shows a relationship not between master and subject, but between two soldiers and old friends, even if Antony is his superior. That kind of equality is part of Rome's tradition of citizenship, as well as a function of military service together, not possible to the same degree between Cleopatra and one of her subjects.

The next scene (1.3) gives amazing characterization of Cleopatra: "If you find him [Antony] sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick" (1.3.3-5). Cleopatra's emotions are often sincere, but she also knows how to use emotion for her own ends. Her relationship with Antony has something of the feeling of a game to it. She seeks to play him in a way that will keep him hers, and although she decries falseness in a man sees nothing wrong with keeping Antony on his toes with a few well-placed lies. Proclaiming she is faint several times, she goes through emotional changes at a dizzying speed: first she rails against Antony, saying she should never have trusted a man who was so faithless to his wife; then she hears news of Fulvia's death and says that as Antony seems unmoved by the loss of Fulvia, so will he be unmoved by the loss of Cleopatra; then she tells Antony to forgive her, and to be on his way, with her hopes for his success. Note that Cleopatra sees every bit of news only in terms of how it relates to her. Antony's departure, for reasons of vital importance to the empire, is seen as faithlessness to his love. Fulvia's death is evaluated not as news of death, but as a sign of the faithlessness of Antony's heart. Yet Cleopatra also recognizes Antony's duty, and in the end asks forgiveness for her ways. She lets him go, though not without commenting on her own (as she tells it) pitiful status: "Therefore be deaf to my unpitied folly, / And all the gods go with you. Upon your sword / Sit laurel victory, and smooth success / Be strewed before your feet!" (1.3.98-101). Even as she relinquishes hold and asks forgiveness for her "becomings" (1.1.96), which means her graces but suggests the rapid changes of her emotional state, she cannot help but toss in a self-pitying note to elicit some response from Antony. Cleopatra has lived her life as the center of attention, as if life is a play in which she is the star. For the queen, even love has an element of performance, and Antony must proclaim his love to satisfy her.