David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 4

— 1.4 —

In a room of Octavius Caesar’s house, two of the triumvirs — Octavius and Lepidus — were meeting in the presence of some servants. Octavius Caesar was reading a letter.

He said to Lepidus, “Now you may see, Lepidus, and hereafter know, that it is not Caesar’s — my — natural vice to hate our great competitor: Mark Antony. From Alexandria this letter brings the latest news. He fishes, drinks, and wastes the lamps of night in revelry and merry-making. He is not more man-like than Cleopatra; nor is the widowed Queen of Ptolemy more womanly than he. He hardly gave audience to my messengers, preferring almost to ignore them. He has barely remembered that he has partners in the other two triumvirs: us. You shall find in this letter a man who is the epitome of all vices that all men follow.”

“I cannot think that enough evils exist to darken all of Mark Antony’s goodness,” Lepidus replied. “The faults in him seem like the spots — the stars — of Heaven, which are made more fiery by night’s blackness. In these troubled times, his faults stand out and are noticed. His faults must be hereditary, rather than acquired. His faults must be what he cannot change, rather than what he chooses.”

“You are too indulgent and forgiving,” Octavius Caesar said. “Let us grant, for the sake of argument, it is not amiss to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy and commit adultery with Cleopatra; to give a Kingdom in exchange for a joke; to sit and take turns drinking with a slave; to reel and stagger in the streets at noon; and to brawl with knaves who smell of sweat. Let us say that this is suitable for him — although his character must be rare indeed if these things cannot blemish it — yet Antony is guilty of other things. He cannot excuse his failings, not when we bear such a heavy weight of work and responsibility because he plays so delightfully and shirks his duty. If at a different time he filled his idle hours with his riotous living, then he would suffer the illnesses of gluttony and the venereal diseases of lechery and those would be enough punishment — no need for a lecture. But he wastes time that he should gain by ceasing his entertainments — we called him to come to Rome because of our positions as triumvirs. We should chide him as we berate boys, who, although they know better, use their time to pursue immediate pleasure, thereby rebelling against mature judgment.”

Seeing a messenger coming toward them, Lepidus said, “Here’s more news.”

The messenger addressed Octavius Caesar: “Your orders have been carried out; and every hour, most noble Caesar, you will receive news of developments abroad. Sextus Pompey is strong at sea and has many ships, and it appears that those men who have feared but not loved you, Caesar, love him. To the ports these discontented men go, and men say about Pompey that he has been much wronged.”

“I expected no less,” Octavius Caesar said. “Ever since the first government, we have learned that the man in power was wished-for until he achieved power, and the man who loses power, who was not loved when he had power, is loved after he loses power. The common people are like a drifting reed upon the stream. It goes forward and backward, following the varying ebb and flow of the tide the way a page follows the heels of his master. The reed rots while following the movement of the tide, and the general public wastes its approval by frequently changing the person whom it approves.”

The messenger said, “Octavius Caesar, I bring you word that Menecrates and Menas, famous pirates, have taken command of the sea, which serves them, and which they plow and wound with the keels of their ships of every kind. They make many destructive raids on Italy. The people living on the shore turn pale with fear when they think about the pirates, and hotheaded young men revolt and serve them. Each vessel that sails forth is captured as soon as it is seen. The very name of Sextus Pompey causes more destruction than we would have suffered if we had declared war and fought against him.”

Octavius Caesar addressed the man whom he wished were present: “Antony, leave your lascivious and lecherous orgies and revelries. In the past, you fought an army led by the consuls Hirtius and Pansa. You killed the consuls, but their army defeated your army, and you and your army were forced away from the city of Modena. At that time, famine followed at your heels. Although you enjoyed an upper-class upbringing, you fought the famine — which not even savages could endure — with patient self-control. You drank the urine of horses, and you drank water from a puddle gilded with iridescent scum — water that beasts would not drink. Your palate then condescended to eat the roughest berry on the rudest hedge. Indeed, like the stag, when snow covers the pasture, you ate bark from the trees. It is reported that on the Alps you ate strange flesh that some people preferred to die rather than eat. All this — your honor now cannot live up to your honor then — you bore so like a soldier that your cheeks did not even get thin.”

“It is a pity that Mark Antony is not like that now,” Lepidus said.

“Let his shames quickly drive him to Rome,” Octavius Caesar said. “It is time we two showed ourselves in the battlefield; and to that end we immediately assemble a council of war. Pompey is thriving while we are idle.”

“Tomorrow, Octavius Caesar, I shall be able to inform you correctly which forces by sea and land I am able to assemble to fight this war.”

“Until we meet tomorrow, I will be doing the same thing. Farewell.”

“Farewell, my lord,” Lepidus said. “Whatever you should learn in the meantime of events abroad, please inform me, sir.”

“Don’t doubt that I will,” Octavius Caesar said. “I know that it is my duty.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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