David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 3

— 1.3 —

In another room of the palace, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, and Alexas were talking.

“Where is Mark Antony?” Cleopatra asked.

“I have not seen him recently,” Charmian said.

“See where he is, who is with him, and what he is doing,” Cleopatra ordered Alexas. “Do not tell him that I sent you. If you find him serious, say I am dancing; if you find him mirthful, tell him that I have suddenly become ill. Do this quickly, and return.”

Alexas exited.

“Madam,” Charmian said to Cleopatra, “it seems to me that if you love Mark Antony dearly, you are not doing what you ought to make him love you.”

“What should I do that I am not doing?” Cleopatra asked.

“In everything give him his way,” Charmian replied. “Cross him in nothing.”

“That is the advice of a fool,” Cleopatra said. “You are teaching me the way to lose him.”

“Don’t provoke him so much,” Charmian said. “I wish that you would be more patient. Remember: In time we hate that which controls us. But here comes Antony.”

Mark Antony entered the room.

“I am sick and depressed,” Cleopatra said.

“I am sorry to tell you my reason for coming here —” Mark Antony began.

Cleopatra interrupted, “Help me away, dear Charmian; I shall fall. I can’t stand this. My body cannot take it.”

“Now, my dearest Queen —” Mark Antony said.

“Please, stand further away from me,” she replied.

“What’s the matter?”

“I know, by the way you are looking at me, that there’s some good news. What does the married woman — Fulvia, your wife — say? You may go and return to her. I wish that she had never given you permission to come to Egypt! Let her not say it is I who keep you here. I have no power over you; you belong to her.”

“The gods best know —”

“Oh, never has there been a Queen as mightily betrayed as I have been! Yet from the beginning I saw the treasons planted. I knew this day would come.”

“Cleopatra —”

“Why should I think you can be mine and true, even though you in swearing shake the throned gods, when you have been false to Fulvia?” Cleopatra complained.

She was referring to oaths made by Jupiter, King of the gods. When he swore an oath, the abode of the gods shook. Even if Mark Antony were to out-swear Jupiter, his oaths were not to be believed — so said Cleopatra.

Cleopatra continued, “It is riotous and extravagant madness to be entangled with those mouth-made vows, which break themselves in the swearing! You make vows with your mouth with no intention to keep them — you break them even as they are leaving your mouth!”

“Most sweet Queen —”

“No, please seek to give me no excuse for your leaving me. Just tell me goodbye, and go. When you begged me to be allowed to stay here, that was the time for words. You did not think of going then.”

Using the royal plural, she continued, “Eternity was in our lips and eyes, bliss was in the arch of our eyebrows, none of our body parts was so poor that it was not Heavenly in its origin. Our body parts are Heavenly still, or you, the greatest soldier of the world, have turned into the greatest liar.”

“Please, lady!” Mark Antony said.

“I wish I had your inches,” Cleopatra said. “Then you would learn that there is courage here.”

By “inches,” Cleopatra could have meant the inches of Mark Antony’s height, or the inches of his penis, or both. She was metaphorically referring to masculine courage.

“Listen to me, Queen,” Mark Antony said. “The strong necessity of time commands my services in Rome for awhile; but my entire heart will remain here in Egypt with you. Shining swords raised in civil war are besetting Italy. Sextus Pompey approaches the port of Rome. His power is equal to the power of the triumvirs, and when two domestic powers are equal, then quarrels break out over trivial matters.

“People who have been hated, once they have acquired strength, newly acquire love. The condemned Sextus Pompey, rich in his father’s honor, creeps quickly into the hearts of people who have not thrived under the present government. The numbers of these discontents threaten the government. Quietness has led to discontent, which having grown sick of rest, wants to purge itself with any desperate change — these discontents want to exchange peace for war.

“My more particular reason for wanting to go to Rome, and that reason for which you should most grant my going, is the death of Fulvia, my wife.”

“Although age cannot give me freedom from folly, it does give me freedom from childishness,” Cleopatra said. “Can Fulvia be dead?”

“She’s dead, my Queen. Look here at this letter, and at your sovereign leisure read about the quarrels she awaked. At the last of the letter, best, you can read about when and where she died.”

Mark Antony’s use of the word “best” was deliberately ambiguous. He used it to refer to Cleopatra, whom he regarded as the dearest and best — he thought that in some ways she was better than all other women. But he realized that Cleopatra would regard the news of his wife’s death as being the best news in the letter.

“Oh, your love for her has been most false! Where are the sacred vials you should fill with sorrowful water? You should fill vials with your tears of mourning so that they can be placed in your late wife’s tomb. Now I see, by how you react to Fulvia’s death, how you shall react to my death.”

“Quarrel no more with me,” Mark Antony said, “but be prepared to know the things I intend to do, which I will pursue, or cease to pursue, as you shall tell me. By the fire — the Sun — that dries the mud deposited on the land by the Nile River and makes it ready for planting, I will leave here and act as your soldier-servant; I will make peace or war, whichever you prefer.”

Pretending to be about to faint, Cleopatra said, “Cut the laces of my clothing, Charmian, so I can breathe. Come; but no, don’t cut the laces. I am quickly ill, and quickly well, depending on whether Antony loves or does not love me.”

Mark Antony said, “My precious Queen, stop this. Look at the true evidence of Antony’s love for you. It has been honorably tested.”

“So Fulvia told me,” Cleopatra said sarcastically. She had not literally talked to Fulvia, but was simply saying that she had learned from Fulvia whether Mark Antony could stay true to one woman.

She continued, “Please, turn aside and weep for her, then bid adieu to me, and say the tears you shed are shed for me. Be a good actor now, and play one scene of excellent dissembling. Act as if you have perfect honor.”

Mark Antony replied, “You’ll heat my blood and make me angry. Let me hear no more of this.”

“You can act better than this, but this acting of yours is not bad.”

“Now, I swear by my sword —”

“And small shield,” Cleopatra said.

She said to her servants, “Mark Antony’s acting is improving, but this is not his best performance. Look, please, Charmian, at how this Herculean Roman acts in his performance of anger.”

Mark Antony claimed to be descended from the Greek hero Hercules, who was super-strong, but who also was a buffoon in old comedies and a raging tyrant in bad tragedies.

“I’ll leave you, lady,” Mark Antony said.

“Courteous lord, one word more,” Cleopatra said. “Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not the word I meant. Sir, you and I have loved, but that’s also not the word. I wish I could remember what the word is, but it is obliterated from my memory, and soon I will be obliterated from Antony’s memory.”

He replied, “If I didn’t already know that you are an idle Drama Queen, I would think that you are the personification of idle drama itself.”

“It is sweating labor to bear such drama so near the heart as I, Cleopatra, bear this. The pain of separation from you is like the pain of childbirth. But, sir, forgive me; when my attractive features do not appeal to you, they kill me. Your honor calls you away from Egypt; therefore, be deaf to my unpitied folly. And may all the gods go with you! Be the conquering hero! May a laurel wreath of victory sit upon your sword! And may smooth success be strewn before your feet in the form of rushes!”

“Let us go,” Mark Antony said. “Come. Our separation so abides, and flies, that you, residing here, go yet with me, and I, hence fleeting, here remain with you. Although we will be separated, a part of you goes with me, and a part of me remains here with you. Away!”

He left.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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