“Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scenes 12-13

— 3.12 —

In Octavius Caesar’s camp in Egypt, Caesar was speaking with his friend Dolabella. Caesar’s friend Thidias was also present, along with some attendants.

Octavius Caesar ordered, “Let the messenger sent by Mark Antony appear before us.”

An attendant left to carry out the order.

Caesar asked, “Dolabella, do you know him?”

“Caesar, the messenger is the schoolmaster to Antony and Cleopatra’s children. This is evidence that Antony’s feathers have been plucked; otherwise, he would not have sent so poor a feather from off his wing — not so many months ago, Antony had so many Kings following him that he could send a superfluous King as his messenger.”

Euphronius, Mark Antony’s messenger, entered the room.

“Approach, and speak,” Octavius Caesar ordered.

“Such as I am, I come from Mark Antony,” Euphronius said. “I was just recently as petty to his ends as is the morning dew on the myrtle leaf to the grand sea.”

“I understand,” Caesar said. “State your business.”

“Mark Antony salutes you, who are the lord of his fortunes, and he requests that he be allowed to live in Egypt. If you will not allow that, he lessens his request, and he asks you to let him live and breathe between the Heavens and Earth as a private citizen in Athens. This is what Mark Antony requests.

“Now for Cleopatra. Cleopatra acknowledges your greatness; she submits herself to your might; and from you she asks that you allow her heirs to wear the crown of the Ptolemies and rule Egypt — she knows that the crown has been forfeited as if it were a stake in a game of dice and that you are the person who will decide who will wear that crown.”

“As for Antony, I have no ears to his request,” Octavius Caesar said. “I will not grant him what he requests. The Queen shall not fail to have me listen to her and grant her request, provided that she either drives Antony, her entirely disgraced friend, out of Egypt, or take his life there. If Cleopatra does this, I will grant her request. Take this message to both of them.”

“May Fortune pursue you!” Euphronius said.

“Take him safely through the troops,” Caesar ordered.

Euphronius and some attendants left.

Octavius Caesar said to Thidias, “Separate Antony and Cleopatra, and get Cleopatra on our side. Promise her, in our name, whatever she wants; promise additional benefits to her as needed. Women are not strong even when they have good fortune, and destitution will cause even a vestal virgin to break her vows. Use your cunning, Thidias. Decide how you will be rewarded for doing this, and we will give it to you as if we were obeying a contract.”

“Caesar, I go now,” Thidias said.

“Observe how Antony is reacting to his misfortune,” Octavius Caesar said. “Tell me what you think his every movement tells about his state of mind.”

“Caesar, I shall.”

— 3.13 —

In a room of Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt, Cleopatra was speaking to Enobarbus. Charmian and Iras were also present.

Cleopatra asked, “What shall we do, Enobarbus?”

“Think, despair, and die.”

Using the royal plural, Cleopatra asked, “Is Antony or we at fault for this?”

“Only Antony is at fault because he made his sexual passion the lord of his reason. So what if you fled from that great front of war, whose opposing ranges of ships frightened each other? Why should he follow after you? The itch of his sexual passion should not then have cut short his captainship; at such a point, when half of the world opposed the other half of the world, with him being the sole cause of dispute, it was no less shameful for him than was his loss of the battle to follow after your fleeing flags, and leave his navy gazing after him in dismay.”

“Be silent. Be silent,” Cleopatra said.

Mark Antony entered the room with Euphronius, the messenger whom he had sent to Octavius Caesar.

“Is that his answer to me?” Antony asked.

“Yes, my lord.”

“The Queen shall then be courteously received by him, as long as she will yield us — me — up.”

“So he says,” Euphronius replied.

“Let Cleopatra know what Caesar says,” Antony said.

To Cleopatra, Antony said, “If you send this grizzled head to the boy Caesar, he will fill your wishes to the brim with principalities.”

“That head, my lord?” Cleopatra asked.

Mark Antony said to Euphronius, “Go back to Caesar. Tell him that he wears the rose of youth upon him, and from him the world should note something special. His coin, ships, and legions may belong to a coward, and his agents may be as successful if they were serving a child rather than serving Caesar — Caesar is taking credit for the accomplishments of his agents. I dare Caesar therefore to lay aside his gay comparisons and splendid trappings, and answer me, declined as I am in years and fortune, sword against sword, ourselves alone. I’ll write my challenge to him to fight me in single combat. Follow me.”

Mark Antony and Euphronius left the room.

Enobarbus thought to himself, sarcastically, Yes, likely enough, Caesar, who commands huge armies, will divest himself of his huge advantages, and allow himself to participate in a public spectacle and fight against a gladiator! I see that men’s judgments are part and parcel of their fortunes; I see that external circumstances and fortune draw the inner man after them so that both suffer together. I can’t believe that Mark Antony, who has experienced all measures of fortune from great to poor, can dream that Caesar, riding at the top of Fortune’s wheel, will fight in single combat Antony, who is riding at the bottom of Fortune’s wheel! Caesar, you have subdued Antony’s judgment, too.

An attendant entered the room and announced, “A messenger has come from Octavius Caesar.”

“What! He has come with no more ceremony than that?” Cleopatra said. “See, my women! Against the fading rose, they stop their nose although previously they knelt before the rose’s bud.”

She ordered, “Admit him, sir.”

An attendant left to bring in Caesar’s messenger.

Enobarbus thought to himself, My honor and I begin to quarrel. Loyalty that stays faithful to fools makes our faith mere folly, yet he who can endure to follow with allegiance a fallen lord conquers the person who conquered his master and by doing so earns a place in history.

Thidias, Caesar’s messenger, entered the room.

“What is Caesar’s will?” Cleopatra asked.

“Hear it in private,” Thidias replied.

“No one is here but friends,” Cleopatra said. “Say boldly what you have to say.”

“Perhaps they are friends to Mark Antony,” Thidias said.

Enobarbus said, “Antony needs as many friends, sir, as Caesar has. If he does not have that many, his case is hopeless, and he does not need us to be his friends. If Caesar will allow it, our master will leap to be his friend. As for us, you know, whose Antony is we are, and Antony is Caesar’s.”

“So be it,” Thidias said. “Most renowned Cleopatra, Caesar asks you to not worry about the situation you are in, but to remember that he is Caesar.”

Thidias’ words were ambiguous. He wanted Cleopatra to remember that Octavius Caesar was capable of generosity. Cleopatra knew that, but she also knew that Caesar was capable of ruthlessness.

“Go on,” Cleopatra said. “Caesar is right royal.”

Thidias said, “Caesar knows that you embraced Antony not because you loved him, but because you feared him.”

“Oh!” Cleopatra said.

“The scars upon your honor, therefore, Caesar pities and regards as blemishes forced upon you and not as blemishes you deserve.”

Cleopatra replied, “Caesar is a god, and he knows where the truth lies. My honor was not freely yielded — it was utterly conquered.”

Cleopatra’s words were ambiguous. She could mean that she gave in to Antony out of fear, or that she fell completely in love with him when he conquered her heart.

Enobarbus, who was not sure which meaning Cleopatra meant, said to himself, “To be sure of the truth of that, I will ask Antony. Sir, sir, you are so leaky, that we must leave you to your sinking, for even those dearest to you quit you.”

Thinking of rats leaving a sinking ship, he left the room.

Thidias said, “Shall I tell Caesar what you request from him? He almost begs you to ask him to give you what you want. It would much please him if you were to make a staff of his fortunes that you would lean upon, but it would warm his spirits to hear from me that you had left Antony, and put yourself under the protection of Caesar, who is the universal landlord — he now rules the world.”

“What’s your name?” Cleopatra asked.

“My name is Thidias.”

“Most kind messenger, say to great Caesar this: With you as my deputy, I kiss his conquering hand. Tell him that I am prompt to lay my crown at his feet, and at his feet to kneel. Tell him that from his breath — that all must obey — I will hear the sentence that he gives to me, the Queen of Egypt.”

“This is your noblest course,” Thidias said. “When a wise person meets with bad fortune, if the wise person accepts the bad fortune, nothing can shake the person’s wisdom — it is wise to accept what must occur. Give me permission to lay my lips on your hand and kiss it.”

“Julius Caesar, the father of Octavius Caesar, often, when he was thinking about conquering Kingdoms, bestowed his lips on that unworthy place, as if it rained kisses.”

Thidias kissed Cleopatra’s hand just as Mark Antony and Enobarbus entered the room.

Seeing the kiss, Antony was immediately angry.

Seeing the kiss, Enobarbus thought, This messenger will be whipped. A mere messenger ought not to kiss the hand of a Queen.

“You are giving favors to lackeys, by Jove who thunders!” Antony said to Cleopatra.

He said contemptuously to Thidias, “Who are you, fellow?”

“One who obeys the orders of the greatest man, and the worthiest to have his commands obeyed.”

Mark Antony called for attendants: “Come here!”

He then said, “Ah, you kite!”

A kite is a hawk that feeds on disgusting things. Was Antony insulting Cleopatra for allowing a lackey to kiss her hand? Or was he insulting Thidias for using a position of power to make Cleopatra allow him to kiss her hand?

The attendants were slow in responding to Antony’s call.

Antony cursed, “Gods and devils! Authority now melts from me. Just recently, I would cry ‘Ho!’ and Kings would start forth like boys scrambling to pick up desired trinkets strewn on the ground before them and they would ask me, ‘What is your will?’”

He called to his attendants, “Have you no ears? I am still Antony.”

Some attendants entered the room, and Antony ordered, “Take away from here this rascal, and whip him.”

Enobarbus thought, It is better to play with a lion’s cub than with an old lion that is dying.

Mark Antony cursed, “Moon and stars! Whip him. I would order the same even if I were to find twenty of the greatest tribute-paying rulers who acknowledge Caesar so saucy with the hand of this woman here — what’s her name? What is the name of this woman who used to be Cleopatra? Whip him, fellows, until, like a boy, you see him cringe his face in pain, and whine aloud for mercy. Take him away from here.”

“Mark Antony!” Thidias said.

He may have wanted Antony to know that as a messenger of Octavius Caesar, he was under the protection of Caesar and so whipping him would be a direct insult to Caesar.

“Tug him away,” Antony said. “Once he has been whipped, bring him here again. This rascal of Caesar’s shall run an errand and take a message from us to him.”

The attendants took Thidias away.

Mark Antony said to Cleopatra, “You were half blighted before I knew you! Have I left my pillow unused in Rome, forgone the begetting of legitimate children by Octavia, a gem of women, just so I can be abused by a woman who looks favorably on servants such as this messenger from Caesar?”

“My good lord —” Cleopatra began.

“You have always been a boggler,” Antony said.

In falconry, a boggler is a falcon that does not chase just one bird, but instead chases one and then another and then another.

He continued, “But when we become hardened to our depravity — a misery! — the wise gods sew shut and blind our eyes. The gods make our clear judgments drop in our own filth. The gods make us adore our errors. The gods laugh at us while we strut to our destruction.”

“Has it come to this?” Cleopatra asked.

“I found you as a cold crumb on dead Julius Caesar’s platter. You were a leftover of Gnaeus Pompey’s. In addition, you have enjoyed hotter lecherous hours that have not been gossiped about. I am sure that although you can guess what temperance should be, you have not experienced it.”

“Why are you saying these things?” Cleopatra asked.

“You have let a fellow who will take a tip and say, ‘May God reward you!’ be familiar with my playfellow, your hand — which has signed Kingly documents and sealed the pledges of noble lovers!” Mark Antony said. “Oh, if I were upon the hill of Basan, I would outroar the horned herd!”

Herds of horned bulls were on the hill of Basan. Horns are the symbol of a cuckold, and so Antony was saying that because of the actions of Cleopatra, he would be the biggest and loudest cuckold in that horned herd.

He continued, “I have savage cause to bellow, and to protest in a civilized manner would be like a neck with a noose around it thanking the hangman for being efficient in doing his job.”

The attendants returned with Thidias.

“Has he been whipped?” Mark Antony asked.

“Soundly, my lord,” the first attendant replied.

“Did he cry? Did he ask for mercy?”

“He did ask for mercy,” the first attendant replied.

Mark Antony said to Thidias, “If your father is still alive, let him regret that you were not born his daughter, and as for you, be sorry to follow Caesar in his triumphal procession, since you have been whipped for following him. And henceforth may seeing the white hand of a lady give you a fever and make you shiver when you look at it. Go back to Octavius Caesar and tell him about your treatment here. Be sure that you say that he makes me angry with him; for he seems proud and disdainful, harping on what I am and not what he knew I was. He makes me angry, and at this time it is very easy to do it, now that my good stars, which were my former guides, have left their orbits and shot their fires into the abyss of Hell. If Caesar dislikes my speech and what has been done to you, tell him that he has Hipparchus, my freed slave, whom he may at his pleasure whip, or hang, or torture, as he shall like, to pay me back. Tell him these things. Leave and take with you your stripes — go!”

Thidias left.

“Have you finished yet?” Cleopatra asked Mark Antony.

Antony said, “Alas, our Earthly moon — Cleopatra — is now eclipsed; and it portends the fall of Antony!”

Cleopatra, an Earthly Queen, was often associated with the Moon goddess Isis. In this society, an eclipse of the Moon was thought to be a portent of imminent disaster.

“I must wait until he is finished,” Cleopatra said.

“To flatter Caesar, would you mingle eyes and flirt with a servant who helps him get dressed?” Antony asked.

“Don’t you know me yet?” Cleopatra asked.

“Are you cold-hearted toward me?”

“Ah, dear, if I am, from my cold heart let Heaven engender hail, and poison it in the source; and let the first stone drop on my neck. As the poisoned hailstone melts, so let it dissolve my life! Let the next hailstone smite my son Caesarion! By degrees let the hailstones kill all the children who have come from my womb and kill all my brave Egyptians. Let the melting of the hailstones from this storm kill them all, and let them lie without graves until the flies and gnats of the Nile River eat them and so give them burial!”

“I am satisfied,” Mark Antony said. He ceased to be jealous of and angry at Cleopatra.

He added, “Octavius Caesar has made his camp at and is besieging Alexandria, where I will oppose his fate and destiny. Our army by land has nobly held together; our divided navy has knit together again, and it sails — it is as threatening as the sea. Where have you been, my heart? Do you hear me, lady? If from the battlefield I shall return once more to kiss these lips of yours, I will appear bloody and full of vigor; my sword and I will earn our place in history. There’s hope in battle yet.”

“That’s my brave lord!”

“I will be treble-sinewed, -hearted, and -breathed — I will have the strength, courage, and endurance of three men — and I will fight ferociously. When my fortune was prosperous and happy, I allowed men to ransom their lives for jests and trifles, but now I’ll set my teeth, and send to darkness and Hell all who oppose me. Come, let’s have one more festive night. Call to me all my sad and serious captains; fill our bowls with wine once more; let’s mock the midnight bell.”

“It is my birthday,” Cleopatra said. “I had thought to have observed it poorly, but since my lord is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra. We will be festive.”

“We will yet do well.”

Cleopatra ordered, “Call all of Antony’s noble captains to my lord.”

Mark Antony said, “Do so. We’ll speak to them. Tonight I’ll force the wine to peep through their scars — their white scars will appear to be red from the wine they have drunk. Come on, my Queen; there’s sap — life — in it yet. The next time I fight, I’ll make Death love me. I will compete with Death’s pestilential scythe and kill as many as the plague kills.”

Everyone left except for Enobarbus, who said to himself, “Now Antony will outstare the lightning. To be furious is to be frightened out of fear. He is so angry that he is unable to feel fear, and in that mood a dove will peck a hawk. I have always seen that a diminution in our captain’s brain restores his heart. When his reason grows weaker, his bravery grows stronger. But when valor preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with. Courage in battle requires a good brain if it is to be effective. I will seek some way to leave Antony and stop serving him.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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