David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 6

— 2.6 —

In a house near Mount Misena in the Bay of Naples, Sextus Pompey and Menas met with Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony, Lepidus, Enobarbus, and Maecenas. Soldiers on both sides were present.

Pompey said, “I have your hostages, and you have mine, and we shall talk before we fight.”

As was customary, the two sides had exchanged important hostages before meeting. After the meeting, both sides would release their hostages at the same time. The hostages ensured the safety of the people in the meeting. Should a person at the meeting be assassinated, the hostages held by that person’s side could be killed in retaliation.

Octavius Caesar said, “It is very fitting that first we come to words before we come to blows. Therefore, we have earlier sent to you our written proposal for peace between us. If you have considered our written proposal, let us know if it will restrain your discontented sword. If it will, then you can carry back to Sicily many brave youths who otherwise must perish here.”

Sextus Pompey replied, “The three of you alone are the senators who rule this great world, and you three alone are the chief agents for the gods.”

One reason for Pompey to oppose the triumvirs was that so much power was concentrated in their hands. Rome had a Senate, but much of the power that used to belong to the Senate now belonged to the triumvirs.

Sextus Pompey continued, “I do not know why my father, Pompey the Great, should lack revengers, since he has a son and friends; after all Julius Caesar, who at Philippi haunted the good Marcus Brutus, saw you there laboring to avenge his death.”

Brutus and Cassius, among other Romans, had assassinated Julius Caesar because they believed that he wanted to be crowned King of the Romans. At the Battle of Philippi, the armies of Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony had defeated the armies of Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius, both of whom committed suicide.

Sextus Pompey’s father, Pompey the Great, fought and lost a war to Julius Caesar. Seeking refuge in Egypt, Pompey the Great was assassinated.

Sextus Pompey continued, “What was it that moved pale-faced Caius Cassius to conspire against Julius Caesar; and what made the all-honored, honest Roman Marcus Brutus, with other armed men, who were the courtiers of beauteous freedom, to drench the Capitol with the blood of Julius Caesar, but that they would have one man stay a man and not become a King? And that is what has made me rig my navy, at whose burden the angered ocean foams. With my navy I have intended to scourge the ingratitude that spiteful Rome cast on my noble father.”

Pompey was becoming emotionally overwrought, so Octavius Caesar told him, “Take your time.”

“You can’t make us afraid, Pompey, with your sails,” Mark Antony said. “We’ll fight against you at sea; on land, you know how much we outnumber you.”

Sextus Pompey replied, “On land, you have played funny games with numbers as you did when you bought my father’s house for a set sum but did not pay for it. But, since the cuckoo builds not for himself, remain in my father’s house as long as you can.”

The cuckoo does not build a nest in which to lay its eggs, preferring to lay its eggs in the nests of other birds. Sextus’ words to Mark Antony contained a veiled threat: Antony could remain in Sextus’ father’s house until Sextus forced him to leave.

Lepidus said, “Please tell us — for what you are talking about now is off the subject we should be talking about — how you take the offer we have sent you.”

“That’s the point we should be talking about,” Octavius Caesar said.

“Don’t think that we are begging you for peace,” Mark Antony said, “but do consider the benefits that you will receive if you make peace with us and accept our proposal.”

Octavius Caesar added, “And think about what may follow, if you were to try to get a larger fortune.”

One way for Sextus Pompey to try to get a larger fortune than what was offered to him would be to fight the armies of the triumvirs, but of course he might lose. Another possibility for a larger fortune would be to join forces with the triumvirs. He would get now what was promised to him and in the future he might get more.

Sextus Pompey said, “You have offered to give me the islands of Sicily and Sardinia; and in return I must rid all the sea of pirates and send measures of wheat to Rome. If I agree to this, then we can part with the edges of our swords unhacked and with our shields undented.”

The triumvirs replied, “That’s our offer.”

“Know, then,” Pompey said, “that I came before you here as a man prepared to take this offer, but Mark Antony made me somewhat angry.”

He then explained a reason why he was angry at Antony.

Speaking to Mark Antony, he said, “Although I lose praise of my good deed by telling you about it, you should know that when Octavius Caesar and your brother were at war, your mother came to Sicily and did find her welcome by me friendly.”

“I have heard it, Pompey,” Mark Antony said, “and I am well prepared to give you the liberal thanks that I owe you.”

“Let me have your hand,” Pompey said.

They shook hands.

Pompey then said to Antony, “I did not think, sir, to have met you here.”

“The beds in the East are soft,” Antony said, “and I give thanks to you, who made me return to Rome sooner than I intended, because I have gained by it.”

Octavius Caesar said to Sextus Pompey, “Since I saw you last, you have changed.”

“Well, I don’t know what lines harsh fortune has cast upon my face, but I never let harsh fortune enter my heart and take away my courage.”

“This meeting has been fruitful,” Lepidus said. “We are well met here.”

“I hope so, Lepidus,” Sextus Pompey said. “Thus we are agreed. Now I want our agreement to be written and sealed among us.”

“That’s the next thing to do,” Octavius Caesar said.

“We’ll feast each other before we part, and let’s draw lots to see who shall host the first feast.”

“I will host the first feast, Sextus Pompey,” Mark Antony said.

“No, Antony, we will draw lots,” Sextus Pompey said, “but whether you host the first or the last feast, your fine Egyptian cookery shall receive fame. I have heard that Julius Caesar grew fat with feasting in Egypt.”

Julius Caesar had had an affair with Cleopatra — something that Mark Antony was touchy about.

A little angrily, Antony replied, “You have heard much.”

“I don’t mean anything negative,” Pompey said. “I have fair meanings, sir.”

“And fair words to them,” Mark Antony replied.

Antony may have been sarcastic. In using the phrase “fair words,” he may have been thinking about this proverb: “Fair words make me look to my purse.”

Pompey said, “Then so much have I heard. And I have heard that Apollodorus carried —”

Enobarbus interrupted, “— say no more about that, but yes, it is true.”

“What is true?” Sextus Pompey said.

“Apollodorus carried a certain Queen to Julius Caesar in a mattress,” Enobarbus said.

Enobarbus had interrupted because he knew that this was a touchy subject for Mark Antony. Cleopatra had started her affair with Julius Caesar after her loyal follower Apollodorus had smuggled her, wrapped in bedding, into Julius Caesar’s presence. Much later, she started her affair with Mark Antony. Enobarbus, however, was plainspoken, and so he had acknowledged the truth of what Pompey had said.

“I recognize you now,” Sextus Pompey said to Enobarbus. “How are you, soldier?”

“I am well, and I am likely to continue to do well,” Enobarbus replied, “for I see that four feasts are coming.”

“Let me shake your hand,” Sextus Pompey said. “I have never hated you. I have seen you fight, and I have envied your behavior in battle.”

“Sir, I have never personally cared for you much, but I have praised you when you have deserved ten times as much praise as I have given you.”

“Enjoy your plainspokenness,” Sextus Pompey said. “It becomes you.”

He added, “Aboard my galley I invite you all. Will you lead, lords?”

The triumvirs replied, “Show us the way, sir.”

“Come,” Sextus Pompey said.

Everyone departed except for Menas and Enobarbus.

Menas said to himself, “Sextus Pompey, your father would never have made this treaty.”

He then said to Enobarbus, “You and I have known each other, sir. We have met.”

“At sea, I think.”

“We have met at sea, sir.”

“You have done well by water,” Enobarbus said.

Menas replied, “And you by land.”

“I will praise any man who will praise me, although what I have done by land cannot be denied.”

“Nor what I have done by water.”

“Yes, there is something you can deny for your own safety,” Enobarbus said. “You have been a great thief by sea. You have been a pirate.”

“And you have been a great thief by land.”

“That I deny,” Enobarbus replied, “but give me your hand, Menas.”

As they shook hands, Enobarbus joked, “If our eyes had the authority to arrest people, here they might take into custody two thieves whose hands are kissing.”

“All men’s faces are true, whatever their hands are doing,” Menas said.

This is a cynical sentence. It means that all men try to appear to look honest, whether or not they are honest.

The word “true” has more than one meaning. One meaning is “honest”; another meaning is “without makeup.”

Enobarbus joked, “But there was never a fair woman who had a true face.”

He meant that beautiful women wear makeup, but in order to make a joke Menas understood “true” to mean “honest.”

“This is no slander,” Menas replied. “Beautiful women steal hearts.”

“We came here to fight you,” Enobarbus said.

“For my part, I am sorry it has turned into a drinking bout,” Menas replied. “Today Sextus Pompey laughs away his fortune.”

“If he does, I am sure that he cannot get it back again by weeping.”

“You’ve said the truth, sir,” Menas said. “We did not expect to see Mark Antony here. Tell me: Is he married to Cleopatra?”

“Octavius Caesar’s sister is named Octavia.”

“True, sir; she was the wife of Caius Marcellus.”

“But she is now the wife of Mark Antony.”

“Really, sir?”

“It is true.”

“Then Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar will forever be friends,” Menas said.

“If I had to prophesy about this unity between Caesar and Antony, I would not prophesy that they will forever be friends.”

Menas said, “I think that this marriage of Antony and Octavia was made more for political reasons than for reasons of love.”

“I think so, too,” Enobarbus said. “But you shall find that the band that seems to tie Caesar and Antony together as friends will be the very strangler of their friendship: Octavia is of a holy, cold-rather-than-hot, and gentle disposition.”

“Who wouldn’t want his wife to be like that?” Menas asked.

“A man who does not have that disposition, and that man is Mark Antony. He will go to his Egyptian dish again, and then the sighs of Octavia shall blow the fire up in Octavius Caesar, and as I said before, that which is the strength of their friendship shall prove to be the immediate author of their disunity. Antony will satisfy his lust back in Egypt. He married Octavia only because of political necessity.”

“All that you have said is probably correct,” Menas said. “Come, sir, will you go aboard Sextus Pompey’s vessel? I have a health for you. I want to toast you.”

“I shall take the drink you offer, sir,” Enobarbus said. “We have used our throats to drink in Egypt.”

“Come, let’s go.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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