This passage also confirms Cleopatra’s theatricality and the world’s preoccupation with spectacle. Spectacle is of supreme importance throughout the play, as Caesar again makes clear when he complains to Octavia about her lack of it. Bent on keeping the peace between her husband and brother, Octavia arrives in Rome without any of the fanfare or trappings that would indicate her station. Caesar insists that the
wife of Antony
Should have an army for an usher, and
The neighs of horse to tell of her approach
Long ere she did appear.
Caesar likens Octavia’s appearance to that of a common maid going to market. Caesar links spectacle with power: the greater the display, the more substantial and genuine the power behind it. Caesar returns to this line of thinking at the play’s end when he plans to display Cleopatra on the streets of Rome as a testament to the indomitable strength of his empire. Here we see the equation between spectacle and power in reverse: Octavia’s unheralded arrival in Rome betrays what Caesar knows too well—his sister has little, if any, power over a husband whose heart visibly belongs to Egypt.
The romance between Antony and Cleopatra is different from the romance between some of Shakespeare’s other major characters because it focuses on how the two mesh with larger historical and social dramas. Whereas Romeo and Juliet, for instance, largely chronicles the private moments of its teenaged protagonists, following the couple as they steal moments together at a crowded party or on a moonlit balcony, Antony and Cleopatra’s concerns are public rather than private. Antony’s return to and reconciliation with Cleopatra take place offstage, as do all of the more private moments of their relationship. What earns stage time in this play are not the muted whispers of discreet lovers but the grand performances of lovers who live in, and play for, the public eye. Love, in Antony and Cleopatra, seems less a product of the bedroom than of political alliance, for we are always aware of the public consequences of the couple’s affair. When Caesar laments that Antony has given up his empire for a whore, we understand the enormous impact—both civic and geographic—that the lovers’ affair will have on the world. Kingdoms stand to be built on the foundation of Antony and Cleopatra’s love or crumble under its weight.