Conflict of Rome versus Egypt; West versus East

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1425

As its title plainly suggests, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra revolves around the extraordinary relationship between two unique individuals, one a Roman general and the other an Egyptian queen. Along with Augustus Caesar, these figures dominate the tragedy's narrative progression. But while Antony and Cleopatra focuses upon an incendiary love affair,...

(The entire section contains 5230 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Antony and Cleopatra study guide. You'll get access to all of the Antony and Cleopatra content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Act and Scene Summaries
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Quotes
  • eText
  • Short-Answer Quizzes
  • Teaching Guide
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

As its title plainly suggests, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra revolves around the extraordinary relationship between two unique individuals, one a Roman general and the other an Egyptian queen. Along with Augustus Caesar, these figures dominate the tragedy's narrative progression. But while Antony and Cleopatra focuses upon an incendiary love affair, Shakespeare makes it apparent that there is a much larger tension involved here, a clash between two worlds. Encompassing much of the known world at the time, what is at stake in Antony and Cleopatra is not confined to the fortunes of two (or three) characters. From the very start, we are encouraged to look upon Antony, Cleopatra, and (Augustus) Caesar as global, indeed planetary forces. Thus, in Philo's complaints about his commander in Act I, scene i. of the play, Antony is consistently identified with the god and the planet of war, Mars, while Cleopatra is associated with the god and planet of love, Venus (see, for example, Madrian's speech at I, v. l.17ff.). Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus Caesar are not merely powerful rulers within the ancient world; they are world-sharers whose actions determine how power will be distributed long after their lives have passed. As Caesar's extensive roster of kings and principalities who align themselves with Antony and Cleopatra underscores (III, vi., ll.68-75), what transpires here is not merely a struggle between powerful individuals, but rather a collision between two civilizations: Rome in the West and Egypt in the East. The question naturally arises: Whose "side" is Shakespeare on?

The simple answer to this question is evident from the very start: Shakespeare sides with Rome. Opening outside of Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria, two of Antony's officers leave no doubt that, from their Roman perspective, their general's dalliance with Cleopatra has caused him to neglect his rightful duties. This normative viewpoint is immediately reinforced by the behavior of Cleopatra, who actively taunts Antony's residual concern for his marital obligations toward Fulvia and, more important, his political obligations toward the Roman Senate. There is a gender inversion at work her: Cleopatra, the female or female principle governs Mark Antony, the erstwhile embodiment of male virtue. Shakespeare highlights the irony in Act I, scene ii, when Enobarbus hears the sounds of the powerful figure approaching with an entourage and assumes that it is Antony but is corrected on this count by Charmian's words "Not he, the Queen" (I, ii., l.78). Cleopatra (and Egypt) have usurped what properly belongs to Antony (and Rome). After Cleopatra's chides her lover for his "Roman thoughts," Antony withdraws from contact with his homeland, and it is clear that the Eastern seductress has used her physical beauty and her mental wiles to separate him from his natural loyalties to his homeland. Worse, in Act II, scene iii, having reiterated his solemn bond with Rome and cemented it through his marriage to Octavia, Antony immediately proves false to both as he prepares to return to the East where Cleopatra and his "pleasure" lie. Augustus Caesar is justifiably outraged when he learns that Mark Antony has not only broken his pledge by taking up his affair with the Egyptian Queen, but gone so far as to crown her and himself joint rulers of the Roman Empire in the East. This certainly demonstrates that under Cleopatra's oriental sway, Antony is no longer an honorable man.

Cleopatra and her Egyptian mores of sensuous pleasure, emotional manipulation, and political deception are posed against the Roman qualities of self-sacrificing stoicism, calculated rationality, and brute force. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's sympathies are not entirely with the Romans and their cause. In the play's final act, we are led to believe that the Romans are themselves duplicitous, that while Caesar and his emissaries reassure Cleopatra that she will be treated with dignity they plan to parade her through the streets of their capital as a trophy of war.

It is not because Caesar and Rome are morally superior to Cleopatra and Egypt that Shakespeare favors the former over the latter. The structure of the play is meant to present an appearance of incertitude as to which side will ultimately triumph. The play follows rapidly shifting political alliances and a whirl of battles. Before Act I is concluded, Caesar puts down one rebellion--that of Antony's wife Fulvia and his brother--and confront another, that of Pompey with league with the pirates Menas and Menecrates. This second rebellion does not come to a head, for in Act II, scene vi. Pompey and the other rebel leaders meet with Caesar, Antony, and Lepidus and agree not to fight. If war is uncertain, so is peace. Although Pompey admirably resists the suggestion of his pirate allies to dispatch with his rivals through a double-dealing act of subterfuge, in Act III, scene v we learn from, that Caesar and Lepidus have made war on Pompey and beaten him. From here we move to the conflict between Caesar, on the one hand, and Antony and Cleopatra on the other. The tides of battle shift back and forth: indeed, as late as Act IV, scene viii, the outcome of the conflict appears to lie in the balance, as Antony and his Roman followers and Egyptian allies beat Caesar's Roman force back to their camp.

Yet despite the surface impression that the world lies at stake, Antony and Cleopatra is an historical drama and Shakespeare's audiences (as well as ourselves) are never in doubt about who will prevail. Rome is bound to win, while Egypt is bound to subordination within a Roman world order. In Act II, scene iii, when Antony asks the Soothsayer whose fortunes will rise higher, his own or those of Caesar, the seer's answer is unqualified and immediate--Caesar will rise above Antony. At the end of Act III and while the outcome of the conflict is yet to be resolved, Antony nonetheless sees that he and his side's fate has already been determined: "Alack, our terrene moon/Is now eclipsed, and it portends alone/The fall of Antony" (III, xiii, ll.153-154), and after watching Cleopatra's "betrayal" he again proclaims that "Fortune and Antony part here" (IV, xii, l.19). In fact, as Lepidus comments to Caesar in Act I, Antony's faults seem to be hereditary "rather than purchas'd" (I, iv, l.14). Nothing that Antony can do will prevent his demise and, with it, the victory of the Roman West over the Egyptian East.

Just as Antony, Cleopatra and Egypt are the pre-determined losers, Augustus Caesar and Rome are destined to be the winner of the global power struggle at hand. At the midpoint of the play, with the military and the political advantage still gyrating between the two sides, Caesar tells his sister Octavia that she should not be troubled by the times but "let determined things to destiny/Hold unbewail'd their way" (III, vi., ll.84-85). Caesar knows in advance that, like Aeneas in Virgil's epic poem, he is destined to play a leading part in the formation of a great Empire that will endure long after his own death. In Act IV, scene ii, at a feast held in Cleopatra's palace, Antony is told by Enobarbus that Caesar has refused his challenge to fight in single combat. Antony's faithful officer tells his commander that Caesar "thinks, being twenty times of better fortune,/He is twenty men to one" (IV, ii., ll.3-4). As it turns out, Caesar need not consign his future empire to the uncertainty of a personal combat with Antony; the planets have already foretold that he will emerge victorious.

In the end, Shakespeare sides with Rome not because Caesar and his cohorts are morally better than Antony, Cleopatra and Egyptian civilization, but because the former's victory will usher in what the Bard and his contemporaries longed for most, an end to civil strife and the establishment of universal order. In Act IV, scene vi, Augustus Caesar proclaims: "The time of universal peace is near/Prove this a prosp'rous day, the three-nook'd world/Shall bear the olive freely" (ll.5-7). The triumph of Rome and the West eliminates all uncertainty, all tension, and all cause for conflict within both the West and in the world at large. By doing so, it sets the stage for an even greater world order that will grow forth from the period of the Pax Romanum into Shakespeare's own day, the rise of Christendom. Shakespeare sides with Rome while acknowledging that its leaders are not morally superior to Egypt because Rome must win if the potential of Western Christian civilization and culture is to be realized.

The Character of Cleopatra

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936

After Antony's death at the end of Act IV, Cleopatra says to her handmaiden Charmian that "Our lamp is spent" and concludes "Come we have no friend/But resolution and the briefest end" (IV, xv, ll.90-91). This strongly implies that the Egyptian queen is determined to take her own life and that its is the death of her paramour, Antony, that compels her toward suicide. Plainly the bond between Cleopatra and Antony is powerful, and her tragic love for the fallen Antony seems strong enough to drive her to self-destruction. But Cleopatra's love for Antony does not fully explain her ultimate demise. After all, just two scenes earlier the Egyptian monarch is told that Antony is enraged by her betrayal and plans to take her life, and she responds to the threat by sending word to her lover that she has already killed herself. Cleopatra is not a love-stricken maiden akin to Shakespeare's Juliet. She is, in fact, a mature, practical-minded woman whose "salad days" when she was "green in judgement" have long since passed (I, v., l.72). Most significant of all, although she seems to be intent upon taking her own life immediately after Antony's death, there is another full act in the play. In the midst of Act V, Cleopatra consoles herself by asserting that it is "paltry to be Caesar," since he is not Fortune and is therefore under Fortune's sway, prefacing this observation by saying, "My desolation does begin to make/A better life" (V, ii. l1.1-2). Thus, having indicated that she will kill herself for the sake of her lost love, Cleopatra nevertheless demurs and begins to bargain with Caesar and her own circumstances.

As an alternative explanation for her suicide, in the final scene of the play (Act V, scene ii.), the trustworthy Roman Procleus tells Cleopatra that the victorious Caesar intends to treat her kindly. Contrary to this report, however, the Queen is seized by Roman soldiers and she is told by the sympathetic Roman Dolabella that Augustus actually plans to parade her in the streets of Rome as a trophy of war. Caesar himself appears on the scene and states that he will allow Cleopatra to retain her dignity and a portion of her wealth to boot. But Cleopatra is herself a master of deception and sees through Caesar's benign façade. After he leaves, Cleopatra addresses her servant Iras: "Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown/In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves/With greasy aprons, rules and hammers shall/Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths/Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded/And forc'd to drink their vapor" (V, ii., ll.208-213). To this, the lowly Iras exclaims "the gods forbid," and if Iras will not suffer such indignities, plainly the noble Cleopatra cannot allow them to inflict her person. Seen in this light, Cleopatra's suicide is less a matter of lost love than an unwillingness to serve as a puppet on a Roman string.

But in trying to weigh whether it is her past love for Antony or her aversion to future abasement at the hands of Caesar, we can never be too certain, for Cleopatra's stock and trade is play-acting to manipulate others. In Act I, scene iii., Cleopatra sends Charmian to find Antony and instructs her serving woman, "If you find him sad,/Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report/That I am sudden sick" (I, iii, ll.3-5). Cleopatra's actions are always conducted with a target audience in mind and with their impact upon the beholder calculated in advance. Indeed, she carefully monitors the emotions of others, educes what they mean for her and how they can be exploited to serve her interests. Thus, in Act I, scene iii, when Antony enters with the news that his wife Fulvia is dead, Cleopatra remarks that Antony is not disturbed by his "beloved" wife's end, and says, "Now I see, I see/In Fulvia's death how mine receiv'd shall be" (I, iii, ll.64-65). This comment, of course, is both a playful tease and a calculated means for inducing Antony to profess his love for Cleopatra and to act accordingly. In both blunt and sublime language, Cleopatra is distinguished by her capacity for dramatic gestures. In III, vii, when Enobarbus tells Cleopatra that it is not proper for her to take part in the battles against Caesar, she replies with a defiantly profane "Sink Rome." On the cusp of her suicide, Cleopatra pauses to make the rhetorically grand statement, "Give me my robe, put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me" (V,ii, ll.280-281). Indeed, to the very end, we cannot be sure that Cleopatra will follow through with suicide. The means used to that end, a clown appearing with a basket of poisonous asps, arrive without any pre-announcement and we are given no clue as to when and how the Queen arranged for this lethal bounty to be brought to her, especially given that she is already under Roman guard.

There is another explanation for Cleopatra's suicide. Antony and Cleopatra is an historical drama and, therefore, its outcome in not in doubt. Antony, Cleopatra, and Egypt are pre-destined to lose in their conflict against Caesar and Rome, and all of Cleopatra's stagecraft and witchcraft cannot alter the end result. It is only by taking her own life by means that she conjures into existence that Cleopatra can gain some modicum of control over her own life and ultimate demise. In essence, she willfully commits suicide before Fortune can fully determine her death.

Shakespeare's Use of Solar and Lunar Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432

In the final scene of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen relates the contents of dream to Dolabella in which her deceased paramour appeared to her as the Emperor of the world. She describes her fallen consort's visage: "His face was as the heav'ns, and therein stuck/A sun and moon, which kept their course and lighted/The little O, th' earth" (V, ii, 11.79-81). Cleopatra's depiction of Antony embodying the sun and the moon is but one of the many instances in which Shakespeare uses solar and lunar imagery to underscore the play's principal thematic concerns. Throughout the text, Cleopatra is figuratively identified with the "fickle" moon, most frequently through associations with the goddess of the moon, Isis. In complementary fashion, Antony is often identified with the "constant" sun. These tandem image clusters reinforce our sense of the cosmic stature attributed to both Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare. They also correlate with the play's theme of time, particularly the tension between the inevitable passage of the sun and moon in their daily marches and the tragic desire of both Antony and Cleopatra to somehow control or disregard time. Moreover, the conjunction of solar and lunar images is emblematic of human nature as Shakespeare shows it to us in Antony and Cleopatra: both of the lovers display a combination of the fickle and the constant. In the end, it is fitting that the deaths of both Antony and Cleopatra are framed by references to twilight, for both exhibit a combination of solar and lunar traits.

Throughout the text Cleopatra is symbolically identified with the fickle moon through the medium of Isis. This association is first broached by Cleopatra's maid, Charmian in Act I, scene ii (11.64-70), but the strongest expression comes in Act III, scene vi. At that juncture, Caesar rages against Antony's division of territory to his heirs and notes that on the day when Antony proclaimed these kings, Cleopatra was garbed in the habiliments of the goddess Isis (1.17). Cleopatra herself acknowledges the connection. She ultimately refers to it when she decides to shed her fickle ways and embrace death rather than be "beclouded" by Rome's vulgar rabble: "My resolution's placed, and I have nothing/Of woman in me: now head to foot/I am marble constant: now the fleeting moon/No planet is of mine" (V, ii.238-241).

In parallel manner, Antony is closely identified with the sun. The first association of the Roman general with the solar orb occurs as he prepares to leave Cleopatra in Act I, scene iii and swears, "by the fire/That quickens the Nilus slime, I go from hence" (11.69-70). When Antony learns that he has been betrayed by that "triple-turned whore" Cleopatra, he too tries to discards his connection to his ruling planet, exclaiming, "O, sun, thy uprise I shall see no more/Fortune and Antony part here" (IV, xii, 18-19).

Moreover, there is strong textual evidence that Antony and Cleopatra see each other respectively as the sun and the moon. In Act I, when Cleopatra ingests a narcotic and longs to be with Antony, she tells Charmian, "Now I feed myself/With most delicious poison. That am with Phoebus" (I, v, 11.26-28), Phoebus, of course, being the sun. When Cleopatra espies the mortally wounded Antony, her thoughts again turn to solar images, as she commands, "O sun/Burn the great sphere thou mov'st in: darkling stand" (IV, xv, 11.9-10). For his part, when Antony is angered at Caesar's reply to his terms, he behaves in the same passionate manner as Cleopatra did upon learning of Antony's marriage to Octavia, swearing "by the moon and stars" that Caesar's servant be whipped for bearing an unwanted message (III, xiii, 1.95). Finally, when Antony dies, a chastened Cleopatra laments, "the odds is gone/And there is nothing left remarkable/Beneath the visiting moon" (IV, xv, 11.66-67).

On one level, these associations plainly reinforce our appreciation of Antony and Cleopatra as figures of cosmic proportions. With reference to Cleopatra, Enobarbus tells Antony: "We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears/They are greater sighs and tempests than almanacs can report" (I, ii, 11. 149-151). Realizing that Antony is about to commit suicide, one of his guards remarks that "a star is fallen," while another replies "and time is at his period" (IV, xiv, 11.107-108). Even his nemesis Caesar duly acknowledges Antony's stature as "a sovereign creature" whose legs bestrode the ocean, saying of his adversary's death, "the breaking of so great a thing should make/A greater crack. The round world/Should have shook lions into civil streets" (V,i,11.14-15).

On a second level, we recall that throughout Antony and Cleopatra there are innumerable references to the passage of time, and with it, to the movement of the sun and moon across the skies. In the second scene of the play, the Soothsayer tells Charmian that, "you shall outlive the lady whom you serve" (I, ii, 1. 31), a prediction which the royal attendant ironically interprets as meaning a long life for herself, rather than a short one for her mistress. When Antony leaves Cleopatra in the next scene, he does so because, "the strong necessity of time commands/Our service awhile" (I, iii, 11.43-44). Antony later marvels at the pace at which Caesar's forces have advanced. The notion of the world spinning on its axis is also evoked when Menas and Enobarbus become increasingly intoxicated aboard Pompey's galley, and Enobarbus encourages Menas to increase the spinning of the world (II, vii, 1.95). Shortly thereafter, Pompey's guests sing a song that concludes with a chorus of "Cup us till the world go round" (II, vii, 1.120).

Both Antony and Cleopatra express their desire to either control time or to disregard its passage. In the play's opening scene, Antony speaks to Cleopatra:

Now for the love and Love and her soft hours,
Let's not confound the time with conference harsh.
There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now (I, i, 44-47).

Near the conclusion of Act I, Cleopatra orders Charmian to bring her the narcotic mandragora root, so that "I may sleep out this great gap of time my Antony is away" (I, v, 11.5-6). As their fortunes dissipate, Antony laments to Cleopatra, "Alack, our terrene moon/Is now eclipsed, and it portends alone/The fall of Antony" (III, xiii, 1.153-154). But he then defies changed circumstances and is soon determined to "mock the midnight bell" by engaging in a night of revelry before the final battle with Caesar's forces (III, xiii, 1.184).

We recall Cleopatra's vision of the deceased Antony with both the sun and the moon emblazoned on his face. Indeed, both characters display aspects of the fickle moon and the constant sun. Under the influence of Cleopatra's nocturnal glow, the battle-resolute Antony makes the arbitrary and rash decision to challenge Caesar's power by sea. Yet when all is lost, Antony becomes his constant self again, carrying out his suicide alone as his faithful followers blanche at the thought of the deed. In the words of the relatively minor character, Maecnenas, we find that within Antony, "his taints and honors waged equal with him" (V, i, 1.30), just as sun and moon divide rule over the earth.

Cleopatra, to be sure, is less noble and constant than is Antony. Her suicide is prompted less by Antony's death than by her aversion to being led in disgrace through the streets of Rome by a victorious Caesar. Still, in the final estimation, Cleopatra exhibits admirable constancy. Thus, in Caesar's epitaph for her we hear, "Bravest at the last/She leveled at our purpose, and being royal/Took her own way" (V, ii, 11.334-335). Neither Antony nor Cleopatra is all sun or moon. They are both complex figures who combine both spheres in their persons. We get the sense that their tragedy stems from their tragic desire to operate outside of their natural ambits, that Antony should simply have stayed "constant" as a soldier beneath the sun, while Cleopatra should have remained "fickle" as a creature of the moon.

Immediately before his suicide, Antony says to one of his friend, "Unarm, Eros. The long day's task is done/And we are for the dark" (IV, xiv, 11.35-36). This image of the setting sun is subsequently recapitulated on the cusp of Cleopatra's suicide as Iras whispers to the queen, "Finish, good lady, the bright day is done/And we are for the dark" (V,ii, 11.193-194). In the end, both of these luminary figures are extinguished into a world in which neither sun nor moon exists any longer.

Antony and Cleopatra: Analysis of the Final Act and Scene

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437

The language of the final act and scene of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra richly reflects the metaphors and images of the preceding acts. As a final statement by Cleopatra of her devotion to Antony, the scene is rich in references to the dead lover’s majesty; comparisons with Caesar serve to heighten the glory of Antony’s greatness in life and death.

The setting is the Monument, and the scene opens on Cleopatra, whose grief over Antony’s death is beginning to turn into resolution of the course she must now take. In her first words she speaks of her “desolation”, the first of many times in the scene when each word spoken holds at least two meanings. Cleopatra’s desolation is at the death of her lover, and her part in it. But her word carries in it her plan for her own desolations--first of Caesar and then of herself. In this first speech we see for the first time that Cleopatra has learned the “paltry” value of worldly power, and that the decision to commit suicide has been made in a spirit which glorifies an honorable death at one’s own hand.

Cleopatra’s title of Queen of Egypt is stressed throughout the following lines, in contrast with the position of “beggar” which Caesar would have her reduced to. Her conversation with Proculeius illustrates her total rejection of the possibility that she might be able to deal with Caesar for her freedom. She bids the messenger to tell Caesar that she is “his fortune’s vassal”; we recall that moments before she has called the emperor “Fortune’s knave.” In this response to Proculeius we also find that Shakespeare furthers the irony of each of Cleopatra’s speeches by having part of what she says directly answer her listener, only to be followed by lines which undercut what she has just said. When the Queen speaks of obedience, we can be sure that she means obedience to Antony and not Caesar. Irony in speech is not limited to Cleopatra, although hers may be the most conscious. When Proculeius stays Cleopatra in her attempt to stab herself he pleads, “Do not abuse my master’s bounty by/Th’undoing of yourself” the words abuse and bounty can clearly be taken in two ways. It is interesting that when Cleopatra finally reveals that she knows Caesar’s plan to lead her in chains through the streets of Rome, she expresses equal revulsion for being “chastis’d with the sober eye/Of dull Octavia.” This speaks well for her noble intentions since it shows she is thinking of Antony’s honor as well as her own.

Cleopatra begins to identify herself with the mud and earth of Egypt when she says she would prefer a “ditch in Egypt” or “Nilus’ mud” to Rome, and this serves as a contrast with the lines beginning “I dream’d there was an Emperor Antony.” We are reminded of Act IV, scene 14, in which Antony speaks of the cloud formations which portend dark occurrences; he thinks of Cleopatra, and blaming her for his defeat, also blames her for the fact that he feels himself drifting, like the clouds: “Here I am Antony;/Yet cannot hold this visible shape.” Cleopatra too thinks of the heavens, but how differently than Antony! Antony is not just the sun nor moon in the Queens’s sky. He is the universe, and the earth itself is nothing more than his footstool. In this speech the Queen combines the powerful Antony, world conqueror, and the passionate lover, conqueror of the Queen of Egypt. The image of Antony, “his legs bestrid the ocean,” is at once one of power and sexuality. It is more accurate an estimate of Antony’s worth than he gave himself, and shows the development of a sense of something like humility in Cleopatra.

After speaking of the grandeur of Antony, Cleopatra must now face the ruler of the world, Octavius Caesar. He addresses her as “Egypt”, and we recall that she has just spoken of realms as “plates dropp’d from his (Antony’s) pocket.” We know, then, what her realm is worth in relation to Antony. Cleopatra kneels, not to Caesar but to her only “master and lord,” Antony. Cleopatra and Octavius discuss the transfer of the Queen’s possessions, with Caesar pretending a kindness he does not feel; he tells her not to worry but to “feed and sleep,” as if she were some animal he was fattening for sacrifice. When he has left, Cleopatra says openly what she has implied in her irony all along. “He words me, girls, he words me,/that I should not/Be noble to myself.”

Cleopatra tells Iras what Caesar has in store for her, and though some have interpreted this as revealing her fear for her own reputation, it seems clear that what she cannot bear is the mockery of her and Antony’s love. When she speaks of the Alexandrian revels of herself and her love we know that she cannot bear to be reduced to that aspect of their life; she will not see the passion and power of her love in caricature.

For the last time, Cleopatra dresses in her royal robes to be worthy of Antony, and places her crown on her head. With the entrance of the Clown, who brings the “pretty worm of Nilus,” the scene takes on a sense of other-worldliness. We know that Cleopatra has been immortalized in literature, and Shakespeare has the clown say of the worm, “his biting is immortal; those that do die of it do seldom or never recover.” At this point we see that the longing for immortality is so strong in Cleopatra that she cannot wait to be rid of the Clown and die. Four times she interrupts his tale with a sharp “farewell.” We should note that the Clown says that a woman is a “dish for the gods,” echoing both the plan that Caesar has for Cleopatra, and the sense in which she sees herself as a “dish” to be offered to Antony.

There follows the speech in which a kind of spiritualization takes place in Cleopatra. It is interesting because she is fully conscious, in this moment of her life at least, of the action she is about to take and its consequences. How different in her real death she is from the self which feigned death for Antony. She disavows the sensual and selfish part of her--“I am fire and air; my other elements/I give to baser life”--and embraces that part of herself which is poetry, loyalty, and courage. Having been Antony’s lover, but not his wife, in death she aspires to a spiritual marriage. In fact she has always, in the sense of the love between them, been Antony’s wife. One would not have thought that the Queen of Egypt wanted a title so simple as “wife.”

Cleopatra does not want an after-life filled with the conquests and pleasures of life. She says that it is only Antony’s kiss which is her “heaven to have.” There is a gentleness in the Queen’s last lines, and a softness even as she applied the zap. In her last breath she calls out Antony’s name, and dies with it on her lips. As she dies, Charmian notices that her crown has fallen to one side. We know that Cleopatra no longer needs a crown to be called “O eastern star”; having proven herself as a woman, she no longer needs to be a queen.

Caesar arrives too late to take his prize possession. Yet we can see in his reaction to Cleopatra’s death the powerful effect it has upon him. For the first time in the play a bit of poetry enters his manner, and gazing down at Cleopatra he sees that she resembles Antony. He gives her credit for being both brave and noble in her death, and even orders that she be buried with Antony.

If one were to select the key words of the last scene in this play, they would have to include star, sun, moon, and immortality among them. The overwhelming impact is of transmutation of the earth and earthly concerns into the indestructible spiritual essence won by a noble death. Above all, Cleopatra, in her glory, has turned the tables on Caesar, and in a sense allowed herself and Antony to triumph over him together. As Charmian says, “It is well done, and fitting for a princess/Descended of so many royal kings.”

Illustration of PDF document

Download Antony and Cleopatra Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Critical Evaluation

Next

Antony And Cleopatra (Vol. 27)