Antony and Cleopatra — Act Three, Part 1: No happy moment…

Previously on Antony and Cleopatra: Act One of the play begins with a doting Antony and a manipulative Cleopatra. Following news of his wife’s death, Antony decides to return to Rome and reconcile with Octavian Caesar and assist in the war against Pompey. In Rome, there little respect for the absent Antony, and in Alexandria, we see the effects of a now absent Antony on Cleopatra. In Act Two, we find Pompey concerned about further war with the Triumvirs, who reunite in Rome. There is obvious tension and conflict between Octavian and Antony, and to reconcile them, Antony agrees to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia. This news, when received in Alexandria, brings much consternation to Cleopatra. When the two armies meet to parlay, Pompey accepts the truce offered, and the generals feast (despite the desire of Pompey’s lieutenant to assassinate the Triumvirs). And all seems peaceful…for now.

Act Three of Antony and Cleopatra begins in Syria, where Antony’s war goes well: his generals are capturing land and prisoners. But it may be going too well: the victorious lieutenant Ventidius fears that his success, if it continues, might “los[e] his favor” (III.i.20) with an envious Antony, citing a recent example. He “could do more to do Antonius good, // But ‘twould offend him” (III.i.25-6). Instead of attempting to capture more land, Ventidius will take his prisoners to Antony who now moves toward Athens.

Act Three, Scene Two, finds the two lieutenants of Octavian and Antony–Agrippa and Enobarbus, respectively–reviewing current events and praising the other’s general. It’s unclear how much of this is political grandstanding and how much is mockery, but it continues in asides as we see the parting of the Triumvirs and Octavia. And seemingly all is well.

The third scene of the act is the comic interrogation of Alexas, who has returned from Rome, “half afeard” (III.iii.1) to report to Cleopatra; he must have heard how she treats messengers who deliver bad news (cough Act Two, Scene Five cough). He has seen Antony’s new wife Octavia, and must describe her to Cleopatra. It’s not a flattering verbal portrait. When forced to guess at the new wife’s age, Alexas responds, “And I do think she’s thirty” (III.iii.28), followed by a long pause (at least two poetic beats). At this point in the play, Cleopatra is 29. Is she surprised to learn of Octavia’s “advanced” age? Or is she upset that she’s so close to thirty as well? (In reality, they were born in the same year, so both were 29 at this point in history.) Regardless, by scene’s end, Cleopatra is at least telling Charmian that she’s relieved.

From the humor and relief at the end of that scene, we enter Act Three, Scene Four, in mid-rant, with Antony in Athens complaining to his new wife how Octavian–her brother–has disrespected Antony and has resumed the war against Pompey. He’s not a happy camper. Octavia attempts to calm him, and suggests she talks to her brother. Antony says to Octavia that he worries “if I lose mine honor, // I lose myself; better I were not yours // Than yours so branchless” (III.iv.22-24). So, he’s worried about his reputation both to the public and Octavia. Is this (the concern over Octavia’s opinion) true or feigned? Regardless, Antony agrees to her becoming a go-between, and sends her on the mission alone.

If we as an audience learn in Act Three, Scene Four, that Octavian had resumed the war against Pompey, then in the next scene, Enobarbus receives more news: While Octavian “made use” (III.v.6) of Lepidus against Pompey, Octavian has now arrested his fellow Triumvir and jailed him. But there’s more news: Eros tells the lieutenant of “murdered Pompey” (III.v.18). So Octavian has defeated Pompey, and Pompey is dead. Enobarbus leaves to speak with Antony, after hearing that their navy is ready to head back to Italy and Octavian.

Act Three, Scene Six takes us back to Rome where Octavian tells his lieutenants what he has heard from Egypt: Antony has returned to Alexandria, enthroned Cleopatra and himself as monarchs, and has given certain Roman conquests to her. Octavian has also received Antony’s letters of “accusations” (III.vi.23), including complaints over the killing of Pompey, and NOT being granted part of the captured land, plus the deposing of Lepidus; Octavian has sent letters of answer back, saying,

For what I have conquered,
I grant him part; but then in his Armenia,
And other of his conquered kingdoms, I
Demand the like.
  • III.vi.34-37

In the midst of all this, Octavia arrives to reconcile her brother and husband, but her brother tells her of what her husband has done in Egypt, breaking her heart. Octavian says that he will act as “the high gods[‘]…minister” (III.vi.88-9) to bring Octavia justice. Well, the high gods, and their army and navy.

Act Three, Scene Seven takes us to Antony’s military camp, Cleopatra berating Enobarbus for saying “it is not fit” (III.vii.6) for Cleopatra to be in the war. Enobarbus tells her that her “presence needs must puzzle Antony; // Take from his heart, take from his brain, from’s time” (III.vii.10-11). It’s bad enough that she’ll be a distraction, but it’s already joked in Rome that Cleopatra’s eunuch and maids are running Antony’s army. Cleopatra restates that she will stay and fight. Antony enters discussing the latest news with Canidius: Octavian is moving on them quickly, and dares them to a naval fight. Antony has responded with a challenge to “single fight” (III.vii.30) on land, but Octavian has refused; both Canidius and Enobarbus counsel Antony to refuse the naval battle as they are better prepared for a land battle than a sea one. Antony refuses, and says they will fight by sea, to which Cleopatra promises 60 ships. News arrives that Octavian has arrived in the region, and the fight is looming.

And this third act is looooooong. We’re seven scenes in, with six more to go (some are really short, but seriously, 13 scenes?).

This third act of Antony and Cleopatra is so long.

How long is it?

So long that I’m going to say “so long” for today, with a wrap-up of Act Three tomorrow.

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