Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 3
As the scene opens, still in Rome, Antony and Octavia, the betrothed couple, bid each other good night, and Antony admonishes Octavia not to believe all that she hears of him. Seemingly, he hopes to reassure his future wife that he will be a good husband, in spite of his past reputation for sexual excesses. His words, however, ring hollow at this point.
As Octavia and her brother Caesar leave, the soothsayer from Egypt enters, and Antony is reminded of Egypt and all his pleasures there. Antony asks the soothsayer, "whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar's or mine?" The soothsayer warns Antony that he can never achieve any great success so long as he remains "by [Caesar's] side," for Caesar will always overshadow him. This disturbs Antony, and he abruptly tells the Egyptian not to speak of such things. Instead, he turns his attention to tactical matters. He speaks of a plan to send his officer Ventidius to Parthia to suppress some trouble in the East.
Antony is troubled; he cannot forget what he has just been told by the soothsayer. He is also troubled by his memories of how he has always fared the worst in any competition with Caesar, even in mere games. He wonders if the soothsayer has indeed spoken truthfully. But again he resolves to put such matters out of his mind, and he decides impulsively to go to Egypt ("In the East my pleasure lies"). Although he will soon marry Octavia, he cannot forget his strong passion for Cleopatra, and although he tried to reassure Octavia that he would be a good husband, and despite the fact that he wants to maintain harmony between himself and Caesar, Antony decides that he must go to Cleopatra. He is not an evil man; he does not purposely want to hurt Octavia, but he cannot calm his passions. Politics are one matter, but love is another, and thus we see his duplicity in the fact that he can pledge his loyalty to Octavia one minute, while planning all the while to return to his real love, Cleopatra, as soon as possible. While such marriages of convenience were no doubt common and quite acceptable, Antony's sudden shifts of thought, and especially his surges of desire, again illustrate how Antony is caught between the pressing duties of Rome and the urgent demands of love. In one moment, Antony seems to be all business — planning military strategy like a militaristic Roman general — and in the next minute, he can think of nothing but Cleopatra and the pleasure that awaits him in Egypt. Significantly, at this point, Antony cannot face the challenge of facing up to Caesar and testing his valor, so, for the moment, he puts all thoughts of that problem out of his mind and decides to hurry back to Cleopatra.
This scene illustrates very briefly and very succinctly Antony's greatest weakness: his inability to face facts. He is not wholly honest with himself, and so he fares poorly when he is matched with those who are more self-confident than he is. Antony's weakest flaw of all, however, is his overpowering passion for Cleopatra — especially its illegitimacy. This fact was not lost on Shakespeare's audience; great love stories were often told and much admired, but the ideal love story centered on a love that was climaxed by marriage. Here, this is impossible; despite Antony's love for Cleopatra, it has led him to duplicity, and eventually it will cause his death. The question which Shakespeare is already posing for us is whether or not Antony's means of achieving his love's desires are justified.