Act V, Scenes 1 and 2: Summary and Analysis
Proculeius: friend of Mark Antony
Seleucus: attendant to Cleopatra (and her treasurer)
Clown: brings the deadly asps to Cleopatra
Scene 1 takes place in Octavius’ camp outside Alexandria. Octavius (Caesar) learns from Decretas that Antony is dead, the message verified by Decretas’ presentation to Octavius of Antony’s sword, stained with the triumvir’s own blood. Octavius weeps for him, uttering another of the famous Shakespearan passages: “The Breaking of so great a thing should make/a greater Crack.” He says that the world should shake to its very foundations and everything in it be upset by the death of so great a man as Antony. Afterwards Agrippa says, in another well-known passage, “But you Gods will give us/Some Faults to make us Men.” Octavius muses that it might have been Antony who became sole ruler of the world instead of himself.
A messenger from Cleopatra arrives to ask Octavius how she should prepare for whatever he should order her to do. He offers a peaceful answer, but then sends Proculeius (and Gallus, who does not speak in most extant manuscripts of this play) to Cleopatra with kind words, fearing that she, like Antony, might commit suicide. But Octavius is crafty and intends to physically seize the queen while her attention is distracted by talking with Octavius’ emissary, Proculeius (and, presumably, Gallus).
Scene 2 takes place in Cleopatra’s monument. Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, and Mardian are there when Proculeius enters. He tells the queen that she will be treated well by the emperor, but while he is saying so, soldiers enter to seize her. They take from her a dagger with which she had intended to commit suicide. Nevertheless, she threatens suicide or, at the very least, disfigurement, and Proculeius tries desperately to dissuade her, knowing that her suicide will foil the emperor’s plans for her (and, incidentally, subject Proculeius to possible disciplinary action by Octavius). Dolabella enters and tells Proculeius that Octavius has sent for him and that he may leave, that he (Dolabella) will assume responsibility for the queen’s safety and that of her retinue.
Cleopatra tells Dolabella about a dream she has had about a magnificent Antony who seems far beyond other men in stature and magnificence. She asks Dolabella if such a man could exist. He replies in the negative, but feels great sympathy for Cleopatra and tells her, albeit reluctantly, that Octavius intends to parade her through the streets of Rome as a prize of war.
Octavius (Caesar) enters, speaks kind words to Cleopatra, and she replies, pretending abject submission to him. But Octavius warns her against committing suicide and tells her that, should she do so, things will go hard with her children. She offers him what she says is her entire treasure, but her treasurer Seleucus denies that fact and says it is only about half her treasure. Furious at this treason from one of her attendants, she blushes, but Octavius congratulates her on her foresight in holding something back. She says part of what was held back was intended as a present for Livia (Octavius’ wife) and Octavia. She asks Octavius to leave, which he does, along with his retinue.
In a bitter conversation with Iras and Charmian, the queen tells them how they will be treated if Octavius takes them to Rome. Iras replies that she’s sure that her nails are stronger than her eyes—that is, that she will tear out her eyes before she will submit to such humiliation.
Cleopatra, with considerable foresight, already has provided a relatively painless way for her, and possibly for her attendants, to kill themselves. A “rural man” (later identified as the Clown) arrives with what purportedly is a basket of figs, but actually contains several asps hidden beneath the figs. Cleopatra questions him about the asps and asks if he personally knows of anyone actually killed by them. He replies that he knows many. Here Shakespeare introduces a long period of
(The entire section is 1,301 words.)