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This scene presents the readers with a brief preface to the universally known love story of Antony, the ‘triple power of this world’, and Cleopatra, his ‘wrangling strumpet’. The scene opens with two Romans, Philo and Demetrius, discussing the incredible power Cleopatra has over Antony and the remarkable change they can perceive in Antony’s character. Through Philo’s opening speech we are told that Antony’s former qualities included those of a strong-minded ruler and a valiant warrior, including physical prowess and military skill.
However, the Romans now see him as a changed man who is no longer behaving like a ruler; instead of fulfilling the duties of a leader and returning to Rome, he is being ruled by a “tawny gypsy”. Thus, before meeting the lovers themselves, we are presented with the Roman attitude towards the relationship; responsibility and allegiance has been abandoned for love. We sense that Antony must be debating in his mind whether to pursue his passion or perform his duty, and those around him are anxiously waiting for him to embrace his role as a leader again and return to his former self.
On observing the interaction between the two characters, I found myself accepting Philo’s objections to the relationship and his observations on Antony’s altered state, and studying the evident infatuation that is blinding Antony as he loses his sense of responsibility. Cleopatra is his self-indulgence, and he cannot entirely understand his great sexual passion for her. We know that his overindulgence leads to a loss of reason and control later in the play, and the disregard he expresses in this first scene towards his obligations makes us aware of the great power his passion has.
“Let the Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/of their love. ” His indifference towards the news from Rome again illustrates how he is shirking his duties in Rome when under the spell of the exotic, mysterious eastern monarch. From the first scene, we learn of Cleopatra’s ‘tawny front’, entrapment of a great general and her ‘gypsy lust’. Her entrance is a grand one, accompanied by Antony, ‘her Ladies, the train, with Eunuchs fanning her’.
Her authority and command as a ruler are emphasized, and as we then witness in the dialogue between the lovers, her power over Antony mirrors her political power. In this first scene, we see Cleopatra as both dominant and skeptical. ‘If it be love indeed’, she taunts Antony, ‘tell me how much. ‘ Antony, the ‘triple pillar of the world’ is ‘transform’d /Into a strumpet’s fool’ as he prepares to renounce all his power in exchange for Cleopatra.
Cleopatra seems to love these assertions of love, as she is wary of the fact that she stands on loose ground, even though she is a seductress of the best abilities. Antony is married to Fulvia, and Cleopatra questions his love for his wife… is it greater than the love he holds for her? We see here that her love for Antony is possessive, yet she too depends on it. Although she dominates Antony in the opening exchanges, her first line ‘If it be love indeed, tell me how much’ points to the ever searching, questing, explorative nature of her personality.
She teases, wrangles and resists the definite, whilst playing on Antony’s weak spots, reminding him of his wife and public responsibilities. Thus, I feel the strongest aspect of the relationship that Shakespeare conveys here is highlighted when Antony tells Cleopatra ‘There’s not a minute of our lives should stretch/Without some pleasure now’: all is to be reduced and sacrificed for the sensuous, intense pleasure of the moment – hedonism is to predominate over duty and responsibility.