Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301
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 comic relief , during which Cleopatra tries to get rid of the Clown, who obviously does not want to leave but rather to enjoy his hour in the sun with the queen and her court. Eventually the Clown does leave, but just before he would have been bodily thrown out of the monument.
Charmian and Iras bring the queen, at her command, the best robe, jewels, and crown. She dons them, stating that it is fitting that she, a royal queen, be dressed in her finest clothes to meet Antony, presumably in the hereafter, for all know that Antony is dead. She bids Iras and Charmian a long farewell, unaware that they too will be dead within seconds. Iras dies first, apparently bitten by one of the asps. Then the queen holds one to her breast, refers to it as her baby, sucking her to sleep, and dies. Charmian then grasps an asp, begging it to kill her, which it does.
Dolabella returns to the monument and finds the three women dead. Then Octavius arrives and is surprised at their deaths, for there was no blood. But Dolabella finds the “vent of Blood” on Cleopatra’s breast and arm. A soldier finds a trail of slime on the fig leaves, such as asps leave on the caves of the Nile River, thus answering for Octavius the question of how the three women died. Octavius pays them homage, orders that Cleopatra be buried with “her Antony,” and makes plans to give them a huge state funeral, which all his army shall attend.
In Scene 1, Octavius’ speech, “O Antony,/I have followed thee to this,” suggests Octavius’ psychological maturity, as do the lines in which he praises his dead opponent as a great man.
In Scene 2, Dolabella apparently outranks Proculeius; otherwise Proculeius would have been reluctant to surrender control of Cleopatra. In Cleopatra’s description of her dream, notice the figures of speech: simile (he was as rattling thunder, dolphin-like, islands were as plates), synecdoche (crowns and crownets), metaphor (winter, autumn), etc.
Dolabella 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. In doing so, Dolabella risks his own life, should Octavius learn of the matter. It gives Dolabella, in the eyes of the audience, much greater stature than any other servant of Octavius and, indeed, stature above most other men in the play.
Later in this scene, Cleopatra’s remark to the emperor, “Wert thou a Man,/Thou would’st have Mercy on me,” suggests that she is addressing Octavius, no doubt facetiously, as a god rather than as a man. The other possibility is that she addresses the remark to Seleucus, in which case it is an insulting and deprecating remark.
Octavius warns Cleopatra against committing suicide and tells her that, should she do so, things will go hard with her children. The viewer of Shakespeare’s day probably would have interpreted that warning as a statement that Octavius will kill all her offspring if she commits suicide. As mentioned earlier, he did kill one son—Caesarion—whom she had borne by Julius Caesar years before her relationship with Antony began. Octavius thus eliminated another possible claimant to the throne.
Cleopatra, with considerable foresight, already has provided a relatively painless way for her, and possibly for her attendants, to kill themselves. During the long period of comic relief while the Clown is on stage, there is an added point of comic relief produced by the pun on the word “lie” which could mean either to tell a falsehood or to have intercourse with.
As Cleopatra dons her best clothes, intending to meet Antony in the hereafter, it should be remembered that Antony in the previous act, metaphorically called himself a “bridegroom.”