Although in other plays Shakespeare often limits the number of lenses through which the audience views his characters, he refrains from doing so in Antony and Cleopatra. Antony is not simply a hero, nor is he simply a fool who has thrown away reason and duty for love. An accurate picture of his character must incorporate both of these traits. Similarly, Cleopatra is both the regal, incomparably beautiful seductress of Enobarbus’s speech and the spoiled, petty tyrant who beats her servant for delivering unwelcome news. More than any other character in the play—and perhaps in all of Shakespeare—Cleopatra assumes each of these contradictory roles with unmatched passion and flair. She is, above all else, a consummate actress, a woman whose grief over Antony’s marriage to Octavia can be soothed only by the theatrics of drawing a knife on her innocent messenger. Cleopatra’s over-the-top behavior may cause us to doubt the authenticity of her emotions and question whether her grief is more performance than actual feeling. But to entertain such doubts about her may be to look at the play too much from the Roman point of view. We should remember that Cleopatra is more than the harlot the Romans see when they look at her. As Enobarbus says in Act II, scene ii, Cleopatra is a woman of “infinite variety”: there is room in her for both theatrical emotions and genuine love, for both stately grandeur and for girlish insecurity (II.ii.241).
The Roman characters repeatedly remark that Cleopatra’s beauty is sufficient to undo otherwise indestructible men. In general, Antony and Cleopatra exhibits a great deal of anxiety about the power of women over men. The Romans constantly chastise Cleopatra for her ability to topple Antony’s sense of reason and duty, while they expect Octavia to quell the animosity between Antony and Caesar by serving to “knit [their] hearts / With an unslipping knot” (II.ii.132–133). Notably, both the blame for men’s downfalls and the hope for their recovery are burdens placed on women.