The Messenger as Journalist in Antony and Cleopatra

Probably because I am interested in journalism, I started to think of the messengers in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, whose job it is to enter public and private places to obtain information and deliver it to their employers, as proto-reporters. I was most impressed by the work of the messenger/reporter who appears in Act 2, Scene 5, and then again in Act 3, Scene 3. In his first appearance, the mesenger seems to disapprove of the Queen’s sexualized, over-eager demand for news, and his subsequent lines are marked by a dignified, even slightly aloof simplicity that seems more Roman than Egyptian. But when bringing home the nature of Antony and Octavia’s union, the messenger’s tone turns sharp and clever:

Messenger: Free, madam? No, I made no such report. He’s bound unto Octavia.
Cleopatra: For what good turn?
Messenger: For the best turn i’th’bed.
This last line makes me remember Peter Jennings, the former ABC News anchor: the messenger is clearly smart, but may sometimes think that he’s a little too smart for his job. Entering the scene again after being beaten by Cleopatra, he both begs her forgiveness–“I beg your highness’ pardon” (2.5.98)–and speaks his mind–“…To punish me for what you make me do / Seems much unequal” (2.5.102).
The character’s skills are most in evidence when he returns in Act 3. He’s lucky to have found information that will please Cleopatra, and he conveys it in a tempered, creative way. After reporting simply that Antony’s wife is not as tall as the Queen, and that she is also an alto, his description of Octavia’s bearing shows craft:
Messenger: She creeps.
Her motion and her station are as one.
She shows a body rather than a life,
A statue than a breather.
After likening Antony’s wife to a creeping animal, the messenger’s next three lines have a simple, sturdy cadence, bolstered by two first-syllable stresses (mo’-tion/sta’tion // bo’-dy/ra’-ther // sta’tue/brea’ther) in each. The tempered meters of the lines give them authority, and the messenger stakes his reputation on their precision. Several lines later, perhaps anticipating that Cleopatra will be displeased by Octavia’s younger age, the messenger first volunteers that the latter is a widow; adding to his report on Octavia’s hair color, he vouches that her forehead is unappealingly low. These touches, along with the understated veracity of his earlier work, satisfy the Queen.
About Steve Mentz 650 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

3 Comments

  1. I really like how you’ve focused on the messenger here. This ties into how I was thinking about the play in terms of comings and goings. The messenger is an inherently liminal figure – neither ever really here nor there, but always in a state of movement. He is, as you say, both a public and private figure, gaining access to places, in this context, that many would never dream of entering. It’s because he possesses knowledge that he’s granted access to very specific places. Without that knowledge, his mobility would be rendered unnecessary. Yet precisely because he is only the carrier of information (not the origin nor the receptacle), he experiences a bounded sense of place – his mobility and access being dictated, granted, denied by those who give and receive the information.

  2. It is interesting that one of the points you both make is the messenger’s ability to slip in and out of places (scenes) because of the information he seeks to disseminate. An interesting read, for sure.
    It should also be noted that although the messenger plays a vital role in bringing news that adds to the continuity of Antony and Cleopatra’s volatile relationship, it is the more trusted attendants that bear the news of their deaths. The eunuch Mardian who delivers the news of Cleopatra’s “first death” (Act 4, Scene 14) to Antony – fitting perhaps because Antony just prior to receiving the news (from the eunuch) declares how Cleopatra has “robbed me of my sword (manhood)”. It is then Diomedes who brings the news of Antony’s impending death to Cleopatra (Act 4, Scene 15). Dercetus brings the news of Antony’s death to Caesar (Act 5, Scene 1), and finally Dolabella who confirms Cleopatra’s death to Caesar (Act 5, Scene 2). Within their own right each acts a messenger as well; albeit in a more formalized manner.

  3. I really love this idea that the messenger has to be both smart and able to disguise this intelligence in order to continue to gain access to these spaces, “This last line makes me remember Peter Jennings, the former ABC News anchor: the messenger is clearly smart, but may sometimes think that he’s a little too smart for his job”. The messenger must, in order to be an effective messenger, be able to wear many different masks, so to say. As in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, the enlightened one returns to the cave with his message of truth/education and is met with disdain and imminent death. A useful messenger knows how to ease themselves into situations without disturbing the environment until it is absolutely necessary.

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