Antony and Cleopatra — Act Three, Part 2: Defeat and despair

OK, yesterday, as a part of my Antony and Cleopatra Act Three plot synopsis, I bemoaned the length of the act, 13 scenes long. I know, I know. It’s not the longest Act Three in the Canon (that honor goes to that Danish show-off, Hamlet). And yes, I’m being lazy. But don’t judge or begrudge: I’m on vacation, so excuse me if I spend some time poolside, raising a glass, and not writing for a while.


Anywho… Where was I? Ah, yes.

Ignoring the advice of his lieutenants, Antony, backed by 60 of Cleopatra’s ships, was about to take on Octavian in a sea battle. Let’s see how that works out for him.

Act Three, Scene Eight/Nine: in two extremely short scenes (just a handful of lines apiece), we get our commanders, well, commanding: Octavian telling his lieutenant not to attack by land until after the naval battle; Antony telling Enobarbus to get into a position to view Octavian’s navy, and “so proceed accordingly” (III.iv.4).

Act Three, Scene Ten opens with the most intricate and detailed stage direction I can recall in the Canon: “Canidius marcheth with his land army one way over the stage, and Taurus the lieutenant of Caesar the other way. After their going in is heard the noise of a sea fight” (III.x.opening s.d.). Then in comes Enobarbus, saying he can’t watch this anymore (“I can behold no longer” [III.x.1]). With the entrance of Scarus and Canidius, we get the full story. Cleopatra’s ships turned tail and sailed away, followed by Antony’s flagship. The men are disgusted by their leader, Scarus calling him a “doting mallard” (III.x.20), and Canidius longing for a time when “our general // [Had] Been what he knew himself” (III.x.26-7). Scarus will follow Antony, but Canidius says that he will surrender his legions and horses to Octavian and join his army. And Enobarbus: “I’ll yet follow // The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason // Sits in the wind against me” (III.x.35-7). He’s not even following Antony anymore, but just the general’s fortunes, and this despite what Enobarbus knows is true.

The eleventh scene finds us back in Alexandria, but Antony doesn’t want to walk on the land as he knows the earth is “ashamed to bear [him]” (III.xi.1). He tells his attendants to take his ship, filled with gold, and flee from him, and go to Octavian. They refuse, and Cleopatra enters, prompted by Charmian and her other ladies to “comfort” (III.xi.25) Antony, who rails on how Octavian does no fighting, but leaves it to his “lieutenantry” (III.xi.39).

When Cleopatra does make her presence know, Antony fears where she has “led” (III.xi.51) him. Her response is weird: “Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought // You would have followed” (III.xi.53-4). Excuse me if I’m reading this wrong (and I may well be), but I think that translates as: “Yes, I’m sorry I chickened out. But I didn’t think you’d chicken out, too.” Soooo, she expected him to be killed? Thanks, hon; how was your day?

He states (as if it needed to be said) that he was bound to follow her, that his sword was “made weak by [his] affection” (III.xi.67). And by the scene’s end, he is back where he wants to be, in her arms: “Give me a kiss; // Even this repays me” (III.xi.70-1).

Act Three, Scene Twelve takes us to Octavian’s camp where he grants Antony’s ambassador audience. Antony in his message asks to be left to live in Egypt (or Athens), and for Cleopatra to be allowed to keep Egypt for her heirs. Octavian won’t even listen to Antony’s request, and says that Cleopatra can make her own requests once she either “from Egypt drive[s] her all-disgraced friend // Or take[s] his life there” (III.xii.22-23). Damn. Send Antony packing or kill him, and I’ll listen to your request. Or else. And that’s the message he sends back to Antony with the ambassador.

Not trusting Antony’s ambassador, however, Octavian sends his own messenger to Cleopatra. His orders for his messenger is simple: “Promise, // And in our name, what she requires; add more, // From thine invention, offers” (III.xii.27-9), but win her from Antony. Lie to her if you must, but steal her loyalty from Antony for me. Octavian: classy guy.

Act Three, Scene Thirteen (the last of the act, woohoo!) takes place in Cleopatra’s palace, where Enobarbus laments Antony’s actions in the battle. Antony arrives with the messenger he sent, who has delivered to him Octavian’s response. He tells the ambassador to deliver the message to Cleopatra, but before he can, Antony reconsiders and pulls him offstage so that he can write a new response to Octavian: a proposal for single combat–a request Enobarbus knows will be rejected, and Enobarbus begins to question his decision to stay with Antony.

The messenger from Octavian arrives. This messenger, Thidias, tells Cleopatra that Octavian knows that what she has done for Antony is not “as you did love, but as you feared him” (III.xiii.57). They politicly praise each other, and Thidias then tells her that Octavian offers her protection if she “left Antony // And put [her]self under {Octavian’s] shroud” (III.xiii.70-1). She tells him that she is willing to do this, and he kisses her hand to seal the deal.

Just as Antony walks in.

Antony has Thidias pulled outside and whipped, while he berates Cleopatra for her betrayal. She tries to respond, and in a mirror to Cleopatra’s hammering of Antony in Act One, Antony interrupts, insulting her as a slut, first for Gneius Pompey and then for Julius Caesar.

Thidias returns beaten, and Antony sends him back to Octavian. Antony is somewhat calmed, especially when Cleopatra proclaims her love for him. Antony decides to take the remainder of his army and attack Octavian who has just arrived in Alexandria. This pleases Cleopatra, which then pleases Antony, who calls for a feast, “one other gaudy night” (III.xiii.183). When they leave for the feast, Enobarbus reveals to us that he has decided to desert Antony.

And thus ends a really long Act Three.

[Remember how I said Act Three was long with its 13 scenes? Act Four has 15…but almost 200 fewer lines.]

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