Nay, ‘tis most certain, Iras. Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ th’ posture of a whore.
(Act 5, scene 2, lines 261–68)

Soon after Antony’s death, Cleopatra determines to follow her lover into the afterlife. She commits to killing herself and, in act 5, scene 2, convinces her handmaids of the rightness of this decision. To do so, she conjures up a horrific image of the humiliation that awaits her as Octavius’s trophy, employing the vocabulary of the theater, fearing that “quick comedians / Extemporally will stage us.” She imagines that Antony will be played as a drunk, and a squeaking boy will portray her as a whore. Given that, throughout the play, Cleopatra has shown herself to be a consummate actress, her refusal to let either Antony or herself be portrayed in such a way is especially significant. Cleopatra rails against the cruelty and injustice of how the Romans have misunderstood her character and her relationship with Antony. This is just as much a matter of contemporary misperceptions as it is of how she’ll be remembered in the future. Rather than being a queen of the order of Isis, she will go down in history “[i]’ th’ posture of a whore.”

In one way, Cleopatra’s reasoning in favor of suicide echoes that of Antony’s in act 4. Just as he couldn’t allow his self-image to expand to include defeat, Cleopatra can’t allow her image to be simplified and reduced for the purpose of ridicule. Refusing such horrific abasement, she chooses death. In doing so, however, she doesn’t simply avoid the humiliation of being Octavius’s trophy; she also triumphs over the soon-to-be Roman emperor. Although Octavius has achieved a decisive military victory over the Egyptian forces, he has earned no such victory over Cleopatra herself. In the more intimate battle of wits, Cleopatra chooses never to yield and, using her personal network, arranges for asp snakes to be brought to her from the Nile. Using these venomous reptiles from Egypt’s most iconic river, Cleopatra kills herself—at once defeating Octavius in life and reuniting with her lover in the afterlife.