Antony and Cleopatra: Verse, scansion, and character

With every play, I like to take a look at some of the verse variations within a play to see what we can find in terms of characterization or performance. There are two scenes of note in Antony and Cleopatra, that give us an opportunity to compare and contrast.

So let’s dive in…

In Act One, Scene Three, as Antony is attempting to leave Egypt to return to Rome–and more importantly, explain that exit to Cleopatra–we see two exchanges filled with antilabes that show a changing dynamic between the two. (Antilabes, for those new or those with failing memories, are shared verse lines between two or more characters). In the first, Cleopatra seems to want to put distance between herself and Antony, but her verse lines belie this:

CLEOPATRA
Help me away, dear Charmian! I shall fall.
It cannot be thus long; the sides of nature
Will not sustain it.
ANTONY
 Now, my dearest queen—
CLEOPATRA
Pray you stand farther from me.
ANTONY
 What’s the matter?
CLEOPATRA
I know by that same eye there’s some good news.
What, says the married woman you may go?
Would she had never given you leave to come.
Let her not say ’tis I that keep you here.
I have no power upon you. Hers you are.
ANTONY
The gods best know—
CLEOPATRA
 O, never was there queen
So mightily betrayed! Yet at the first
I saw the treasons planted.
ANTONY
 Cleopatra—
CLEOPATRA
Why should I think you can be mine, and true—
Though you in swearing shake the thronèd gods—
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous madness,
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows
Which break themselves in swearing!
ANTONY
 Most sweet queen—
CLEOPATRA
Nay, pray you seek no color for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words. No going then!
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent; none our parts so poor
But was a race of heaven. They are so still,
Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turned the greatest liar.
ANTONY
 How now, lady?
CLEOPATRA
I would I had thy inches. Thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.
ANTONY
 Hear me, queen:
The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile, but my full heart
Remains in use with you. Our Italy
Shines o’er with civil swords; Sextus Pompeius
Makes his approaches to the port of Rome;
Equality of two domestic powers
Breed scrupulous faction; the hated grown to strength
Are newly grown to love; the condemned Pompey,
Rich in his father’s honor, creeps apace
Into the hearts of such as have not thrived
Upon the present state, whose numbers threaten;
And quietness, grown sick of rest, would purge
By any desperate change. My more particular,
And that which most with you should safe my going,
Is Fulvia’s death.
CLEOPATRA
Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness. Can Fulvia die?
  • I.iii.15-58

At the start of this first passage, note the first two shared lines: Cleopatra begins each, and each half-line ends with an unstressed syllable, creating a situation where Antony must–if he (symbolically) wants to share the iambic foot–complete the line, beginning with a stressed syllable. And in both cases, Cleopatra doesn’t let him move on to a second line; she cuts him off definitively with a new line, begun with a stressed syllable in either a trochee or spondee.

CLEOPATRA

It cannot be thus long; the sides of nature
~ / ~ / ~

Will not sustain it.
ANTONY
/ ~ / ~ /

 Now, my dearest queen—
CLEOPATRA
/ ~ / / ~ / ~

Pray you stand farther from me.
ANTONY
/ ~ / ~

 What’s the matter?
CLEOPATRA
/ / ~ / / / / ~ / /

I know by that same eye there’s some good news.

While her words depict an escape from him, the scansion (especially in the beginnings and endings of her lines) keeps her in the dialogue, and in fact does not let him escape. Cleopatra, as to be expected, in performance. As her speech continues, it’s filled with five consecutive fully end-stopped lines (either periods or question marks at the end of each line). These are all opportunities for Antony take control of the dialogue. Only after the fifth line does he finally take advantage; he begins with an iamb and a spondee–after an initial unstressed, three consecutively stressed syllables–as if to take control of the dialogue, only to have her cut him off mid-line with a spondee:

ANTONY
~ / / /

The gods best know—
CLEOPATRA
/ / ~ / ~ /

 O, never was there queen…
So mightily betrayed!

As if teasing him back into the dialogue, she completes her sentence mid-line. When he doesn’t take the bait (maybe since that sentence ends with a stressed syllable), she speaks another sentence, again ending it mid-line, this time with a unstressed syllable. He finally takes the bait, only to have her cut him off again with a stressed syllable:

 Yet at the first
/ / ~ / ~ / ~

I saw the treasons planted.
ANTONY
/~ / ~

 Cleopatra—
CLEOPATRA
/ ~ ~ / / ~ ~ / ~ /

Why should I think you can be mine, and true—

Cleopatra is setting scansion traps for the unwitting Antony, and she doesn’t stop there. Her response speech again ends midline with an unstressed syllable, and Antony again takes the bait, only to have Cleopatra shut him down at the end of the line with a new line kicked off by a stressed syllable:

CLEOPATRA
~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Which break themselves in swearing!
ANTONY
/ / /

 Most sweet queen—
CLEOPATRA
/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /~

Nay, pray you seek no color for your going,

Only here, by the time she reaches the end of the speech, while she still baits him with the half-line ending with an unstressed syllable, now her responding interruption kicks off with a weaker iamb and lasts only a line and a half. Antony begins his response, “Hear me, queen:” with a full stop, almost as if waiting for her to cut him off once more. When she doesn’t, he finally can deliver his news. And when he does, in a final half-line of the speech announcing Fulvia’s death, Cleopatra cannot complete Antony’s line: she’s been stunned into silence.

CLEOPATRA
~ / ~ / ~ /~

Art turned the greatest liar.
ANTONY
/ ~ / ~

 How now, lady?
CLEOPATRA
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

I would I had thy inches. Thou shouldst know
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~

There were a heart in Egypt.
ANTONY
/ / /

 Hear me, queen:

Is Fulvia’s death.
CLEOPATRA
Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness. Can Fulvia die?

Over the course of these forty-plus lines, we see Cleopatra toy with Antony, then allow Antony to take control, and finally fail to respond when she’s heard his news.

Less than dozen lines later, they begin a new sequence, again filled with antilabes, but this one shows a more equal balance of power:

ANTONY
Quarrel no more, but be prepared to know
The purposes I bear, which are or cease
As you shall give th’ advice. By the fire
That quickens Nilus’ slime, I go from hence
Thy soldier, servant, making peace or war
As thou affects.
CLEOPATRA
 Cut my lace, Charmian, come!
But let it be; I am quickly ill and well;
So Antony loves.
ANTONY
 My precious queen, forbear,
And give true evidence to his love, which stands
An honorable trial.
CLEOPATRA
 So Fulvia told me.
I prithee turn aside and weep for her,
Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears
Belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene
Of excellent dissembling, and let it look
Like perfect honor.
ANTONY
 You’ll heat my blood. No more!
CLEOPATRA
You can do better yet, but this is meetly.
  • I.iii.66-82

The first three speeches of the sequence all end with a half-line, completed by the other character. They share these lines in perfect pentameter rhythms. No interruptions, with no speaker dominating. The balance of power in this sequence is exactly that, balanced. Each half-line ends with a stressed syllable, so that the responder kicks off the answer with a full poetic foot of its own. However, at the end of the fourth speech, Cleopatra’s, she concludes with an unstressed syllable. Antony’s response begins with an unstressed syllable, and if we look closely at the scansion, we notice a funny thing:

CLEOPATRA

~ / ~ / ~

Like perfect honor.
ANTONY
~ / ~ / ~ /

 You’ll heat my blood. No more!

The shared line becomes iambic pentameter only if Antony jumps on her last unstressed syllable with the one he uses to start his line. In other words, he has to interrupt her. It’s a shocker and it has stunned her. And he ends his speech at the end of that line. And notice that Cleopatra answers with a full line of her own, with no half-line ending; after this interruption, she will no longer play the game.

When Antony arrives in Rome in Act Two, Scene Two, we see two speeches that can show through their scansion the low regard Octavian has for Lepidus. When he finally sits the other two triumvirs down for their conference, Lepidus begins with a very short three-syllable line:

LEPIDUS
Noble friends,
That which combined us was most great, and let not
A leaner action rend us. What’s amiss,
May it be gently heard. When we debate
Our trivial difference loud, we do commit
Murder in healing wounds. Then, noble partners,
The rather for I earnestly beseech,
Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms,
Nor curstness grow to th’ matter.
  • II.ii.18-26

By waiting seven beats before starting the rest of his speech, Lepidus acts like a kindergarten teacher waiting for the class to settle down. This is definitely one way to play this speech. Lepidus will wait until everyone else has settled down; the fact that he has to wait is evidence of the low regard he has from the others.

But I said that it was Octavian who holds Lepidus in such contempt. Why?

That, we see in the ending of the conference. Octavian tells Antony,

 With most gladness,
And do invite you to my sister’s view,
/ ~ / / / /

Whither straight I’ll lead you.
ANTONY
/ ~ / ~ /

 Let us, Lepidus,
~ / ~ / ~ /

Not lack your company.
LEPIDUS
/ ~ / ~ /

 Noble Antony,
Not sickness should detain me.
  • II.ii.176-180

Octavian holds Lepidus in such low regard, that he’s willing to move on without him, speaking only to Antony. Notice, though, that Octavian’s half-line is three feet long (no iambs), and Antony’s completion of the antilabe is two and a half feet long. For the line to work as pentameter, Antony has to cut off Octavian by half a foot, interrupt him, with his inclusion of Lepidus. What’s interesting is that nearly the same thing happens in Lepidus’ antilabe-completing answer to Antony. Antony’s half-line is three perfectly iambic feet; Lepidus’ completion is the same type of two and a half feet as Antony’s was to Octavian. Does Lepidus interrupt? It’s possible. I suppose you could play it that way to show how even the lowly Lepidus is superior over the (now) less-than-Roman Antony. More likely, I’d argue, is that there’s actually a half-beat caesura (or pause) between the speeches and that the line isn’t pentameter but sestameter or six feet long. Rome is no longer big enough for the three of them; they can no longer fit into the usual pentameter line.

There’s no prescription that you have to play it one way or the other. But the fact that the overlaps are there definitely seems to show you that you have to play it some way.

2 thoughts on “Antony and Cleopatra: Verse, scansion, and character”

  1. For me, your verse analyses are always some of your strongest, most thought-provoking postings. I like how you treat the verse line as a window onto character, as a modulator of the action, as the way a drama breathes. So many traditional analyses of Shakespeare’s verse treat it as mere poetry on a page. You never forget this is theater.

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