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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT III, SCENE 7
This is the first of several scenes that focus on battle. Although no fighting takes place in this scene, Shakespeare presents the reasons for Antony's eventual defeat at Actium. The chief cause of the defeat lies in the internal disagreements between Antony's men, resulting in their being split into several factions. The pragmatic, cynical, and perceptive Enobarbus believes that Cleopatra's presence in the battle camp is detrimental to their purpose. He tells Cleopatra that she distracts Antony at a time when all his faculties and time should be focused on the goal of winning the war. He also claims that her presence leads to rumors in Rome that Photinus, her eunuch, and her maids are managing this war. Cleopatra is furious, for she is resolved to participate in the war beside Antony. She angrily replies to Enobarbus, "Sink Rome, and their tongues rot / That speak against us!" She has a right to be angry since she is financing the war and supplying a fleet of sixty ships.
Cleopatra's quarrel with Enobarbus draws to an abrupt close when Antony enters. He expresses surprise at the lightning speed with which Caesar has shown up in Greece, near Actium. Cleopatra remarks sarcastically that "celerity is never more admired / than by the negligent." Antony realizes that she is criticizing him for not quickly attacking Caesar, but he takes her jibe in good spirits. He then announces his decision to oppose Caesar in a naval engagement even though Enobarbus and Canidius (his lieutenant- general) have advised against it. He fears that Caesar will think him cowardly if he fights only on land. Enobarbus argues that Antony's ships are not well manned nor do his men have much experience in sea battles. In addition, Caesar's ships are lighter and faster. He claims it would be foolish to throw away the advantages that lie in fighting on land, where they are certain to be victorious. Antony, however, remains unmoved by the arguments of Enobarbus, and Cleopatra interposes that her sixty ships are an equal match to Caesar's fleet.
After Antony, Cleopatra, and Enobarbus leave, there is an exchange between Canidius and another soldier. In the dialogue, Shakespeare reinforces the folly of Antony's decision to fight a sea battle.
This scene is crucial because it presents the reasons why Antony will lose at Actium. In Plutarch, Antony's reason for fighting the battle of Actium by sea is given as his total submission to the wishes of Cleopatra, but in Shakespeare's play the sea battle is not Cleopatra's idea. Shakespeare indicates that Caesar challenges Antony to a naval engagement, and Antony thinks it would be cowardly not to respond. Cleopatra readily agrees to the idea, for her source of military might in Egypt lies in her navy, which includes a fleet of sixty ships that will be a match for Caesar's fleet.
Throughout this scene, Cleopatra's character emerges as one of great strength. She refuses to leave the battle, even though Enobarbus tells her that she should, for she has contributed towards funding this war and is lending her sixty ships to fight the battle against Caesar. As a result, she firmly asserts her right to fight alongside Antony. She also fears that Antony's character is weaker than her own and feels that she must be present to motivate him to victory against Caesar.
Enobarbus presents himself in the scene as a logical and practical man. He tells Cleopatra that she should leave the battle, for she serves as a distraction to Antony at a time when he should be totally focused on winning the war. He also argues with Antony that it is foolish to fight Caesar on the sea, for his ships are lighter and faster, and his men are more experienced in naval warfare; he also feels that Antony is almost assured of victory if he fights Caesar on land. Enobarbus' beliefs about Cleopatra's presence and the naval engagement are shared by most of Antony's men and foreshadow the fact that Antony will not be victorious against Caesar.
From this point onward in the play, the scenes move with rapidity as the dramatic action pushes towards the climax.