Previously on Antony and Cleopatra: Act One of the play begins with a doting Antony and a manipulative Cleopatra. News arrives that Fulvia, Antony’s wife has died. Against the wishes of his lieutenant Enobarbus, Antony decides to return to Rome and reconcile with Octavian Caesar and assist in the war against Pompey. Cleopatra tries to get Antony to stay, but to no avail. In Rome, we see little respect for the absent Antony, and when we return to Alexandria, we see the effects of a now absent Antony on Cleopatra.
Act Two of Antony and Cleopatra opens neither in Alexandria nor Rome, but instead in Messina on the island of Sicily. And we’re not with Cleopatra or Antony (or Octavian, for that matter), either. No, we’re in the army camp of Pompey.
What are we doing here?
As I mentioned in our look at Act One, Pompey (and the fight against him) is one of the reasons why Antony decides to leave Alexandria and return to Rome. Pompey is at war with the Second Triumvirate (of Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian–and wouldn’t Octavian just HATE it that I listed that alphabetically, putting him at the end!). Moreover, Pompey feels the advantage: his powers are increasing (“crescent” [II.i.10]), while “Mark Antony // In Egypt sits at dinner” (II.i.11-12), “Caesar gets money where // He loses hearts. [And} Lepidus flatters both” (II.i.13-14).
There are false reports that Caesar and Lepidus are on the march, spoiling for a fight, but Pompey doesn’t believe so, especially when he learns that Antony is on his way to Rome. All signs point to discord within the Triumvirate, but Pompey is concerned that “the fear of [his army] // May cement their division” (II.i.47-8).
The second scene of Act Two takes us to Rome where Lepidus implores Enobarbus to try to keep Antony in “soft and gentle speech” (II.ii.3) when he meets with Octavian. Enobarbus will have none of it. Before they can go much further, that meeting takes place.
And we quickly understand why Lepidus made the request he did to Enobarbus. Everything seems to be a pissing war between the two generals. From deciding who will sit first, to not being “concerned” (II.ii.40) with one another, to the parsing of words like “practiced” (II.ii.45), it’s all one-upsmanship, with Octavian getting the better of Antony. So much so that Enobarbus starts to answer for Antony, and Antony must order him to silence.
Into this tension, Agrippa–one of Caesar’s circle–proposes a solution to “knit [their] hearts // With an unslipping knot” (II.ii.134-5): the newly widowed Mark Antony should marry Octavia, Octavian’s sister. Mark Antony–and it’s unclear at this point if the response is purely political or partially face-saving (proving that he isn’t Cleopatra’s lapdog)–agrees. The peace made, they then turn their thoughts to defeating Pompey, and they leave the stage to their soldiers, one from Antony (our ol’ pal Enobarbus), and two from Octavian (Maecenas and Agrippa). Octavian’s men give Enobarbus a ribbing for the life of luxury being had in Alexandria, and Enobarbus answers with kind words of Egypt. And he delivers one of the most classic descriptive speeches in all the Canon (the barge speech):
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description. She did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-color’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Enobarbus may be a soldier, but he’s also a heck of a reporter (if he’s doing the reporting, but more on that tomorrow–ooooh, a tease!). He tells them of Antony’s falling for Cleopatra, and when Maecenas notes that now Antony must leave her, Enobarbus predicts that he won’t be able to.
Act Two, Scene Three takes place in Octavian’s house with he, Antony, and Octavia, finalizing the wedding agreement. When the siblings leave, the Egyptian soothsayer arrives. Under question, he reveals that Caesar’s fortunes shall rise higher than Antony’s, and that Antony must leave Octavian. Antony then decides to go back to Egypt by way of Parthia, and we learn through soliloquy Antony’s reason for marriage: “And though I make this marriage for my peace, // I’ th’ East my pleasure lies” (II.iii.38-39).
The fourth scene of Act Two is incredibly short as Lepidus tells a couple of Octavian’s soldiers to send Octavian and Mark Antony when they are ready; they will meet again to fight Pompey.
Act Two, Scene Five takes us back to Alexandria, to Cleopatra’s court, where she is attempting to divert her attention away from thoughts of the absent Antony. She tries billiards, memories about fishing trips, even some bawdy innuendo, but it doesn’t really work. When a messenger arrives, she jumps to the conclusion that “Antonio’s dead!” (II.v.26). She then continues to interrupt (and threaten) the messenger as he tries to deliver his news. I’m thinking this is played for laughs, but there’s a certain manic element to Cleopatra here that seems almost unhinged. She’s happy to hear “he’s well” (II.v.46), but when the messenger delivers the news that Antony is now married to Octavia, Cleopatra strikes him and threatens worse. Charmian tries to calm her queen when she draws a knife on the messenger, who runs off in fear. When he returns to reiterate his news, she sends him off and falls into self-pity, and seeming regret as she says, “In praising Antony I have dispraised Caesar…I am paid for’t now” (II.v.107,109). Now, she wants only comfort: “Pity me, Charmian, // But do not speak to me” (II.v.118-19).
In Act Two, Scene Six, the leaders of the two armies (the Triumvirs and Pompey) meet to exchange hostages, but Octavian has sent a truce proposal to Pompey, who says, “I came before you here a man prepared // To take his offer; but Mark Antony put me to some impatience” (II.vi.40-42). While he accepts the truce, he takes every opportunity to insult Antony (saying he didn’t think he’d see Antony here, talking about Antony’s “fine Egyptian cookery” and of how “Julius Caesar // Grew fat with feasting there” [II.vi.63 and 64-65]). Antony is politic in his answers, and the leaders go off to feast leaving Enobarbus and Pompey’s soldier Menas behind. Menas in an aside shows his disappointment in the treaty, then the two trade compliments and gossip. Menas is surprised by the news of Antony’s marriage to Octavia, and says that it should settle matters and that “Caesar and he [will be] forever knit together” (II.vi.114). In a moment of brutal and impolitic honesty, Enobarbus responds, “If I were bound to divine of this unity, I would not prophesy so…He will to his Egyptian dish again” (II.vi.115-16, 125) and that this will restore the conflict. And with that, the two soldiers leave to join the celebratory feast.
The seventh and final scene of Act Two takes us to that feast aboard Pompey’s ship. We hear from servants that Lepidus is already drunk, having been fooled into to drinking more than his share. Antony regales the others with tales of Egypt, using them to toy with the drunk Lepidus. While this is happening, Menas keeps whispering in Pompey’s ear, and what he’s saying is obviously upsetting his leader (prompting exclamations of “Go hang, sir, hang! Tell me of that? Away! …I think thou’rt mad” [II.vii.52, 55]); as the frivolity continues, we catch what it is that Menas has been saying: he wants to assassinate the Triumvirs and give the world to Pompey.
Pompey’s answer is interesting to say the least:
And not have spoke on ’t. In me ’tis villainy;
In thee ’t had been good service. Thou must know
’Tis not my profit that does lead mine honor;
Mine honor, it. Repent that e’er thy tongue
Hath so betrayed thine act. Being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done,
But must condemn it now. Desist and drink.
Dude, Pompey seems to say, you should have done it without telling me. Then I could have thanked you. But now that I know about it beforehand, I’ve got to put the ol’ kibosh on it.
Anyone remember why Macbeth hesitated to kill Duncan (at that time)? Because the Scot was his king’s host…if it wasn’t under his roof, there wouldn’t be an issue…I’m thinking this applies here as well. And thus, Pompey says no, and we are spared the Second Triumvir’s version of Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding.”
And their revels end, seemingly at peace at the end of the second act of Antony and Cleopatra.