This scene is the ending of the third act of Antony and Cleopatra and follows their defeat at sea. Both Antony and Cleopatra have sent messages to Caesar. Antony has requested to live in Egypt, or if not to be left in peace to live as a private citizen in Athens. Cleopatra submits to Caesar’s will and requests only that her heirs may inherit the throne of Egypt. Caesar has rejected Antony’s request and promised Cleopatra “shall then have courtesy” if she betrays Antony and banishes him. Antony initially believes that Cleopatra is considering this, but when the two speak they reconfirm their love and intention to fight Caesar once more, which is where this passage begins.
In the broader narrative, this part of the text is a key point leading to the play’s final battle and tragic conclusion in Acts 4 and 5 respectively. The passage begins with Antony fiercely declaring that he will “fight viciously” against Caesar, but he counterpoints this with his desire for a final night of celebration with Cleopatra and his army. The dialogue is written in typically poetic Shakespearean style, flowing from the initial emotional declaration that “I [Antony] will be treble-sinew’d, hearted, breath’d” but ending with a call to celebrate, “Let’s mock the midnight bell”. Cleopatra welcomes the return of Antony’s positive mood, declaring it to be her birthday and that “since my lord is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra”. The dialogue between the pair here shows them to have settled their earlier argument and ready to face their fate together.
Antony continues with further talk of celebration, “I’ll force the wine peep through their scars”, and again reinforces his renewed confidence, stating that “I’ll make death love me, for I will contend even with his pestilient scythe”. The way that death is personified in this speech adds to the poetry and emotion of the moment, and this is the note that Antony and Cleopatra exit on. However it is Enobarbus who is given the final words in Act 3.
Enobarbus is Antony’s closest friend, but at this point he decides he must leave and defect to Caesar. In Act 2, Scene 2, Shakespeare uses Enobarbus as a narrator to provide context and to incorporate descriptions of Antony and Cleopatra’s first meeting and romance into the play. Therefore it seems highly significant that this narrating figure is also a more rounded character who is given agency and chooses to leave his friend in this passage. The language and metaphor used by Enobarbus to describe what is to come (“the dove will peck the estridge”) prepares the audience for Antony’s defeat. His decision is provided in a short simple statement: “I will seek some way to leave him”. The bluntness and finality of this, particularly at this point of the play and in contrast to Antony and Cleopatra’s celebrations, magnifies its effect. While the audience may admire Antony’s statements of obstinate bravery, the words of Enobarbus ring the final note, expose his remarks as folly, and set the scene for what is to follow.