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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT II, SCENE 5
Scene 5 returns to Alexandria, where Cleopatra is pining away during Antony's absence. Preoccupied with thoughts of her beloved, she is unable to concentrate, suffers from mood swings, and displays complete restlessness. One minute she starts to play billiards with the eunuch, Mardian, whom she teases about his disability; the next moment she reminisces about going fishing with Antony. Her thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of a messenger from Rome, whose countenance betrays the fact that he is bringing bad news. Cleopatra immediately fears that something has happened to Antony. She warns the messenger that if he says that Antony has died she will pour molten gold down his throat.
The messenger quickly allays Cleopatra's fears about the state of Antony's health. He then tells her that Antony has married Octavia. An enraged Cleopatra goes into a mad frenzy, repeatedly striking the messenger. She utters horrible curses at him and threatens to have him whipped with wire and stewed in brine. When she draws a knife to kill him, he barely escapes.
A few moments later Cleopatra regrets her loss of restraint and self-control. Realizing that she has behaved in an undignified manner, she remarks, "These hands do lack nobility, that they strike / A meaner than myself." She asks Charmian to call the messenger back and then inflicts further torture on herself by making him repeat the fact that Antony has indeed married Octavia. She then gives the messenger some gold pieces, but she says that she hopes that they will lead to his ruin.
The scene draws to a close with Charmian attempting to comfort her mistress. The distraught Cleopatra claims that she is being repaid for displeasing Julius Caesar in her blind love for Antony. Before departing for her chamber to be alone, she instructs Alexas to inquire from the messenger about the appearance and personality of Octavia. She wants to know what she is fighting in her effort to win back Antony from his wife.
This scene further depicts Cleopatra as an emotional and excessive female. As the scene opens, the restless queen cannot keep her mind off the absent Antony. Unable to focus her attention, she constantly changes her mind about what she wants to do; one minute it is billiards, and the next it is fishing. As she teases the eunuch about his disability, she also reveals her wit and bawdiness. The verbal sparring between Mardian and the queen provides comic relief before Cleopatra hears bad news.
When she learns from the messenger that Antony has married Octavia, Cleopatra become totally enraged, behaving like a lovesick teenager. She strikes the messenger and even threatens to kill him with a knife. It is a very different picture of Cleopatra than the golden vision of her on the river Cydnus earlier in the play.
The messenger is a frequently appearing character throughout the play. Although he usually bears news of utmost importance to the person who receives it, it is usually not news to the audience. Although Cleopatra is shocked to learn that Antony has married Octavia, it is no shock to the audience. As a result, the purpose of the scene is to depict Cleopatra's reaction to the news, further developing her character.