Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.
Proculeius arrives at the queen’s monument and asks Cleopatra’s terms for giving herself up to Caesar. Cleopatra remembers that Antony told her to trust Proculeius and tells the Roman she hopes the emperor will allow her son to rule Egypt. Proculeius assures her that Caesar will be generous and says that Caesar will soon repay her supplication with kindness. Meanwhile, his soldiers, having slipped into the monument, move to seize Cleopatra. The queen draws a dagger, hoping to kill herself before being taken captive, but Proculeius disarms her. He orders the soldiers to guard the queen until Caesar arrives, and Cleopatra cries that she will never allow herself to be carried through Rome as a trophy of the empire’s triumph.
Dolabella arrives and takes over for Proculeius. The queen converses with him, discussing her dreams (in which she sees a heroic vision of Antony), and then persuades Dolabella to admit that Caesar plans to display her as a prisoner of war. Caesar arrives and promises to spare Cleopatra’s children and treat her well if she does not kill herself. She gives him a scroll that hands over all her treasure to him—or so she says. When Cleopatra asks her treasurer, Seleucus, to confirm that she has given Caesar everything, Seleucus contradicts her. Cleopatra rails against the treachery of her servant, but Caesar comforts her. He assures her that he does not desire her wealth, since he is far greater than a mere merchant. When Caesar leaves, Cleopatra admits to her maids that she doubts his intentions, remarking to her companions that he is charming her with words, and Iras and Charmian encourage her to follow her plan toward death. Confirming Cleopatra’s doubts, Dolabella admits that Caesar means to convey the queen to Rome and encourages the queen to respond to this news as she sees fit.
Rather than succumb to the infamy of being a spectacle for the entertainment of filthy Roman crowds, Cleopatra resolves to kill herself. She would rather die than see herself imitated by a boy actor, who would portray her as a common whore. She orders Charmian and Iras to dress her in her most queenly robes. When they have done so, she admits into her presence a clown, who brings her a basket of figs that contains asps—poisonous snakes.
Dressed in her finest royal garments, Cleopatra kisses her maids goodbye. Iras falls dead, and Cleopatra takes a snake from the basket and presses it to her breast. She applies another asp to her arm, and dies. As the guards rush in to discover the dead queen, Charmian presses the snake to herself and joins her mistress in death. Dolabella enters, followed by Caesar. They realize the manner of the suicide, and Caesar orders Cleopatra to be buried next to Antony in a public funeral.
If the Roman Empire represents reason and order, then it is possible to view Antony’s suicide as a result of his Western sensibilities, which prevent him from understanding himself as anything other than a typical Roman hero. Cleopatra’s death follows her lover’s, and though her suicide might, as she hopes, bring about her reunion with Antony, her reasons for killing herself are decidedly non-Western. In the play’s simplified, romanticized conception of East and West, Cleopatra’s application of the deadly snakes is a product of her Eastern sensibilities. Whereas Antony’s Roman mind cannot conceive of Antony as a vanquished general or jilted lover, Cleopatra will not allow her multifaceted identity to be stripped to one of its simplest, basest components. Throughout the course of the play, her character has been as shifting as the clouds that Antony describes in Act IV, scene xv. Her love and her grief are, at turns, convincing and suspiciously theatrical. She gives her heart to Antony and then, with no warning, her political allegiance to his enemy. She treats her servants with surpassing kindness and then, moments later, beats them ruthlessly. Cleopatra is decidedly inconstant; yet, she is never anything less than herself: passionate, grand, and over the top. Thus, she refuses to allow the Romans to reduce her to their understanding of her, to parade her through their filthy streets as some prepubescent boy mimics her greatness: “I’ th’ posture of a whore” (V.ii.217). By killing herself, Cleopatra remains Cleopatra.
Of the many performances Cleopatra stages throughout the play, her triumph over the Romans in Act V, scene ii is, without doubt, her greatest. Here, her complex character seems to have secret longings and undisclosed motivations. For instance, she seems resigned to joining Antony in death at the end of Act IV, scene xvi, concurring with him that suicide and resolve are their only friends. We may wonder, then, why Cleopatra bothers convincing Dolabella to reveal Caesar’s desire to turn her into the empire’s trophy. Caesar’s intentions wouldn’t matter to someone as committed to dying as Cleopatra says she is. Similarly, her motivations for trying to preserve her possessions from Caesar are unclear. Perhaps she entertains a hope of starting a new life in spite of Antony’s death. If so, she may only be pretending to court death until Dolabella’s admission of Caesar’s plans makes her death a necessity.
These doubts and questions testify to the complexity and the contradictions inherent in the queen’s character. There are depths to Cleopatra that we glimpse but to which we never gain total access. She is beyond neat categories and tidy synopses. Indeed, as she prepares to make her final exit, she dons a role that, like her previous incarnations of hussy, enchantress, queen, and shrew, reflects only one aspect of her character. Ironically, she now strikes a pose as wife and nursing mother. As she applies the poison snakes to her skin, Cleopatra fulfills her desire to effect the quickest death in proper Roman fashion. In her quest to win a kind of Roman nobility worthy of Antony, she brags of becoming as constant as marble, her self no longer ruled by “the fleeting moon” (V.ii.236). But to understand Cleopatra in her final moments as a mere domestic, as an uncompromised lover and dutiful wife, is to reduce her to a single aspect of her character. She may claim to be as solid as marble, but before dying she reminds the audience (and herself) that she is made of something much less constant than stone: “I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (V.ii.280–281).
In the Bard's hands and the amorous arms of Egypt, the courageous, gifted Antony of Julius Caesar becomes the doting fool of Antony and Cleopatra.
I just finished A&C in my attempt to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday next year. If you're interested, check out my blog on the play:
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