Antony and Cleopatra By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 4

Summary

The scene now shifts to Rome and focuses on a discussion between Antony's co-triumvirs as they discuss the problems facing the empire. Here we have our first glimpse of Caesar Octavius and Lepidus. Although the subject of their discussion is Antony, their criticisms of him reveal a good deal about their own characters, not all of it praiseworthy.

Caesar enters reading a letter and is followed by Lepidus and their attendants. The two Romans catalogue Antony's faults ("he fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel"), and there is heavy irony in their apparent concession that Antony's activities might be acceptable under other circumstances. That is, Caesar says, "let's grant it is not / Amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy" (Cleopatra's former husband); of course, Julius Caesar, Octavius's uncle, enjoyed engaging in such sexual activities.

A messenger enters then with news from abroad: Pompey and two infamous pirates, Menecrates and Menas, are making "the sea serve them"; they have made "many hot inroads" into Italy, as well as creating havoc in the Mediterranean. Caesar uses this bad news as one more excuse to disparage Antony, who is conveniently absent and cannot defend himself. As an example of Antony's character, or lack of it, Caesar recalls an incident when Antony was "beaten from Modena," and not only was Antony defeated, but "famine did follow." Caesar also recalls that Antony escaped with his forces to the Alps, where he "didst drink / The stale of horses and the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at." Caesar is saddened: "It wounds thine honor . . . " he says, that Antony can now act so immaturely.

Analysis

Caesar admonishes Antony, the absent triumvir, to leave his "lascivious wassails [revels]" and to return to duty. He dwells on Antony's sensuality and his love of food and drink, and he hints further that Antony lacks character, for it is well known that in the difficult journey across the Alps, Antony would eat virtually anything rather than starve. Caesar cites the fact that Antony drank "gilded puddle" (animal urine) and "browsed on" (ate) tree bark rather than die in defeat. These acts of desperation, he says, suggest that Antony is a man of ignoble tastes, preferring as he does now the base pleasures of Egypt. Yet while it is true that Antony is a far more sensual and even a more self-indulgent man (in theory) than Caesar, the fact that Antony could and did survive the rigors of an Alpine winter attest to the fact that Antony has the prime virtues of strength and courage, regardless of whatever flaws of character that Caesar might accuse him of. Caesar, it should be noted, interprets Antony's character in the worst possible way. As a result, his attempt to turn these incidents into an indictment against Antony tells us, in reality, more about young Caesar's insecurities than it does about Antony. In the course of this play, we shall find that although Caesar is probably the more clever of the two men, Antony has a generosity of spirit that seldom permits him to level such abuses on Caesar and his excesses.

Interestingly, the scene ends as Caesar tells Lepidus that he is eager for the two of them to "show ourselves on the field"; he and Lepidus then pledge their loyalty to each other, echoing an earlier, similar pledge between Antony and Cleopatra in the previous scene.

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