Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 5
Cleopatra is bored and pensive as this scene opens in Alexandria. She turns to her servants and asks them to amuse her. She wants Charmian to play billiards with her, but Charmian begs off and suggests that Cleopatra play billiards instead with Mardian, the eunuch. The idea of thrusting balls into pockets with a long billiard stick gives Cleopatra plenty of opportunity to tease the eunuch about his physical disability; the many double entendres of the dialogue in this scene no doubt amused Shakespeare's audience and provided a short and rather bawdy comic interlude.
As Charmian and her mistress talk together, Cleopatra reminisces about the things which she and Antony did together; she recalls their going fishing together and how she tricked Antony into catching an old salt fish. She also tells about another time, when they pretended to be Hercules and Omphale, who enslaved Hercules with her charms and made him wear her clothes as a joke, while she strutted around wearing his sword.
A messenger enters then with news of Antony, and Cleopatra is so excited that she hardly gives him a chance to speak. She interrupts him, she rambles, she threatens him with punishment if the news is bad, and then she promises him wealth if the news is good. The messenger is understandably anxious. He rightly suspects that his queen will not be pleased to learn that Antony has made friends with Caesar and that he has married Octavia.
Upon hearing the news, Cleopatra strikes the messenger and threatens to stab him. She later regrets her impulsiveness, however, for she realizes that it is ignoble for one in power to hit someone who has done no wrong and who is powerless to defend himself. She asks that the messenger be brought back to her, and she asks him to tell her more about what has happened. Again she hears the incredible news, and again she orders the messenger from her sight. Cleopatra is grief-stricken; she can think of nothing but her need to get away and hide. She wants to be alone with her distress, but she wants to know more. Since the messenger is too frightened to speak further in her presence, she sends her servant Alexas alter him. She wants Alexas to find out what he can and to report back to her what Octavia is like. Although Cleopatra is deeply hurt, she has not been defeated yet. If she can find out what kind of woman Octavia is, she can make plans to win Antony back.
This scene illustrates yet another facet of the complex personality of Cleopatra. Although at times she can be giddy and superficial, the depth of her feeling for Antony is not shallow. In this scene, for example, we also see evidence of her emotional fury. The cause is clear: the most terrible thing she could imagine in her relationship with Antony has happened: Antony is involved with another woman, and not only is he involved with her, but he has married her. Yet Cleopatra recovers sufficiently to take some tentative steps to find out if she can regain Antony's love. This in itself is proof of her inner strength and resourcefulness.
Cleopatra is a person of extremes — that is, she is dramatic and emotional, to excess, but she is also a warm and vulnerable woman, and she is mature enough to be rightly suspicious of Antony. In fact, her passion for Antony frightens her; we see evidence of this when she realizes that she was wrong when she blamed the messenger for telling her that Antony had married Octavia. Even though she is an absolute ruler, she does not have the right to punish a messenger by threatening him with a knife for the content of a distressing message.