Antony and Cleopatra By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act I: Scene 5

Summary

Again we return to Alexandria; Cleopatra is in her palace with her attendants, Charmian and Iras, and Mardian, a eunuch. Now that Antony has departed, Cleopatra is at a loss for something to occupy her time. Primarily, she spends most of her time thinking of him and worrying about what he is doing; she seems to be more like a lovesick adolescent in this scene than the ruler of a great country. She asks for mandragora, a sleeping potion, so that she can "sleep out this great gap of time [that] Antony is away."

She asks Mardian, perhaps only half-jokingly, if he has any "affections" or passionate feelings at all. He tells her that he does, although he can "do nothing"; yet, there are acts that he thinks about "fiercely." This is a play on words to some extent, for Cleopatra may be referring to any strong emotional feeling. Although Mardian's answer is ambiguous, one gets the impression that he is conscious of both meanings, and his answer seems to hint that although his sexual role in life is limited, he is as capable of passion and feeling as his mistress, Cleopatra, is.

Cleopatra then turns to Charmian and asks her to imagine what Antony is doing at this moment, how he looks, and what he is thinking. She can think of nothing that is not concerned with her love for Antony. She is about to swallow the "delicious poison" (her melodramatic term for the sleeping potion) when one of her servants, Alexas, enters with news of Antony. Cleopatra is delighted, and she tells Alexas that the mere fact that he has been near Antony makes him more precious in her eyes.

Alexas gives the Queen a pearl, a gift from Antony. It is a particularly valuable pearl for Alexas says that Antony kissed it; in fact, Antony bestowed upon it "many doubled kisses." In addition, Alexas says that Antony will "piece / [Cleopatra's] throne with kingdoms. All the East . . . shall call her mistress." Cleopatra then eagerly questions Alexas about Antony: how he appeared and what sort of mood he was in. She also asks Alexas whether Antony seemed sad or merry, but Alexas quickly perceives that both potential responses could be wrong answers at this point; therefore, he diplomatically states that Antony seemed neither very sad nor very happy. This seems to satisfy Cleopatra, who would have been disturbed if Antony were distressed, but she would have been furious if he seemed too happy — without her. She then gives Alexas a message to deliver to Antony.

Cleopatra asks Charmian, as proof of Cleopatra's love for Antony, if she ever saw Cleopatra love Caesar (Julius Caesar, Octavius's adoptive father) so well. Charmian, not as clever nor as astute as Alexas in gauging Cleopatra's moods, gives an answer that praises Caesar. That is a mistake; Cleopatra wants unqualified assurance that she never loved anyone as much as she loves Antony; she wants to hear it confirmed that every lover she had before Antony was a mere trifle, a flirtation. Only now has Cleopatra discovered true love. In response to Charmian's comment, Cleopatra orders Charmian never to compare Antony with Caesar again, nor even to suggest that they are equal in any way.

Analysis

This portrait of Cleopatra is, to a great extent, very much like her legendary reputation — that is, Cleopatra is a beautiful seductress, whose power to charm men is derived, in part, from her beauty and, in part, from her beguiling craftiness. Shakespeare doesn't deviate far from this characterization, one which was well known in his day. But beneath Cleopatra's whims and her girlish melodramatics over her absent lover, there is a hint that the very strength of her feeling portends a deeper affection than her behavior would indicate. It is as if adversity and tragedy must work their magic on this all-too-earthly pair before they and we, the audience, realize that the love which they profess may, in fact, be almost a supernatural love, a force ultimately more powerful to Antony than the fate of the Roman Empire itself.

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