To distill the opinion of A.C. Bradley, one of the most influential Shakespearean scholars of the late Victorian era, on the character of Cleopatra (as revealed in his Oxford Lecture on Antony and Cleopatra), she ranks as one of the playwright's greatest creations, on par with Hamlet and Falstaff. Yet she languishes through the early acts of the play. Bradley apparently doubts that Antony and Cleopatra should even be termed a tragedy, for a couple of reasons: neither Antony nor Cleopatra exhibit the nobility of character nor the reflective, inwardly searching nature that normally defines the role of a tragic hero; and the diffuse, episodic structure of the work has more in common with the poet's history plays than with the forceful linear structure of the tragedies.
Rather than a tragedy, it might be more accurate to describe the form of this play as "Shakespeare noir," a familiar tale of a hot-blooded man led to his doom by a femme fatale of overpowering magnetism. As Bradley suggests, though, the early scenes of Cleopatra "coquetting, tormenting, beguiling her lover to stay; Cleopatra left with her women and longing for him," are hardly the stuff of tragedy and are highly dispensable. It is only in the final act, following the death of Antony, that she attains the full measure of her character, which, as he says, has a nearly infinite capacity to surprise, delight, perplex, and fascinate. As he describes it:
Only the spirit of fire and air within her refuses to be trammelled or extinguished; burns its way through the obstacles of fortune and even through the resistance of her love and grief; and would lead her undaunted to fresh life and the conquest of new worlds.