The final act belongs to Cleopatra and this ensures that, when we have seen the play on stage, she seems the primary figure. The outcome is more or less evident, even to those who do not know the history, but we wait to see how she will accomplish a suicide and may even entertain a doubt as to whether or not she will try to come to terms with Caesar. The life-or-death choices are seen largely in the context of this world: there is little real sense of an after-life except Cleopatra’s view that it is rather like this one. There is a change of pace after the short battle scenes of Act IV and even some comedy. As always, Cleopatra’s reactions make for drama. We know that, like Antony, she will die out of pride and no higher motive, adding to our impression that this is a history play rather than tragedy although there are tragic elements.
Scene i Just as Caesar in issuing instructions about Antony, his sword is brought in and, at first, Caesar fears that Decretas is an assassin, ironically showing nervousness at the sight of the weapon of his dead enemy. Decretas praises his own past loyalty to a living master and offers his services to Caesar, presumably hoping that, by bringing him the good news of Antony’s death, he will find favour. On hearing of this, Caesar issues a formal lament to his rival, emphasising the significance of such a death and picturing how the world should have responded. There is some sincere emotion here but we note also that, in mentioning a “moiety of the world”, he reminds his audience that he is the the other half and therefore equally great. Decretas is anxious that Caesar should appreciate that Antony was not murdered but died a courageous and honourable death at his own hand: he shows the sword, symbol of manhood and power, stained with Antony’s blood which he took from the wound, hoping that Caesar would treat him well because of it.
Caesar draws attention to the fact he is weeping although this is unmanly and, as always with him, this is probably partly sincere and partly show (as Agrippa’s sceptical comment points out.) Maecenas sums up Antony succinctly: “His taints and honours/Wag’d equal with him”, using the imagery of war in this account of his flaws and virtues. Agrippa’s next remark is fair: that Antony was a rare being but that the gods humanise all by giving faults. Maecenas is now cynical about Caesar’s tears, saying that he is weeping for his own possible fate. Throughout the play there have been conflicting opinions about deeds, events and characters and here we are reminded of the great Antony by his enemies. Caesar’s regrets may well be authentic when he compares Antony to a disease which must be lanced because two such men could not have continued together. He says more than is necessary in praise of Antony and yet his rhetoric is the overblown and forced language expected on such an occasion when he stresses their closeness and blames fate and the stars for their hostility. He seems almost relieved when an Egyptian messenger enters and he can pause his eulogy.
The Egyptian states that Cleopatra wants to know what Caesar intends for her so that she can adapt to necessity and it is typical of her to plan ahead how to behave. Caesar plays for time and utters vague reassuring words about how kind he will be towards her. When he calls for Proculeius we are reminded that this is the one man Antony thought trustworthy and we wonder how he will carry out a duty to deceive her by giving comfort solely in oder to prevent a suicide. Caesar acknowledges that she has a greatness of spirit but sees the possible taking of her own life as a defeat for himself (as he would be unable to show her off in Rome as a conquered enemy.) His apparent gentleness with her would be merely to keep her alive for his own cold and cunning purposes. He is open about his motives and gives his servant freedom to say what is needed whilst being anxious to hear quickly what happens. Dolabella is occupied elsewhere and Caesar asks the others to accompany him so that he can justify to them his own actions.
Scene ii This last long scene concernes the superiority of the truths of the imagination to the facts of imperial conquest and we long to see Cleopatra victorious in finding a way to convince herself that she has won. She starts by claiming to be above Fate/Fortune, feeling that she has a better life in her loss than Caesar in his triumph since he is still the servant of Fate: in this way she scorns Roman values and tells herself in a powerful, almost monosyllabic, description that to take one’s own life is “To do that thing that ends all other deeds” since it prevents future harms and prevents change and which sleeps but never eats human food upon which the beggar and Caesar depend. This is a repudiation of wordly values and a clear attempt to boost her own morale by will power and imagination.
Cleopatra tells Proculeius that she does not care whether or not she is deceived and argues with adroitness that, if Caesar wants a queen as his slave, he must let her keep her throne. She reminds him in this way that she is royal and that Egypt is hers and asks for it to be kept for her son. Proculeius claims that Caesar is “full of grace” and will take care of her but we have seen his other side and know what he has in mind. We have also seen another side to Cleopatra and know that she will not show “sweet dependency” any more than Caesar will beg her to help him to be kind. Cleopatra appears to yield but she has just denied being “fortune’s vassal” and we know that she is unlikely to follow a “doctrine of obedience”: she too is playing for time, having perceived the hypocrisy and decided to answer it with her own.
Gallus and soldiers enter and Cleopatra takes a dagger but is disarmed. Proculeius tries to persuade her that she should stay alive to let Caesar show his generosity but she threatens a slow death by starvation even if, at the moment, words are all she has. She will not be held in Caesar’s power like a bird with clipped wings for Octavia, with her high morality, to criticise, there being a note of comedy here in the emergence of the old female rivalry. She will not be made mock of by the plebs of Rome but would prefer the vilest death in Egypt, blown by fles as a naked corpse or hanged. We are reminded of her capacity to make the lowest things precious and of the ditch in which Enorbarbus died as well as her earlier triumph on her barge on a river.
Dolabella is left to deal with Cleopatra who starts by giving him her vision of Antony as transcending reality and existing on a cosmic level. Her speeches are a source of comfort and inspiration to her and contain uplifting poetry. He was like a Colossus with a voice like the tuneful planets (believed to make music as they moved) but terrifying as thunder when he chose, showing his emotional range. His generosity paradoxically grew as his wealth lessened and his love of life, Egyptian in its dolphin-like freedom, lifted him above his normal element. His stature was such that royalty served him and kingdoms were like coins dropped from his pockets. There is truth in this but also the hyperbole of imagination, creating an Antony greater than the actual man, however heroic, and worth dying for.
She questions her own vision and Dolabella seems torn between his sense of the reality of a different Antony and his response to her words which have moved him despite all. When he denies her view, she accuses him of lying but feels that such a man is beyond even the capacity of a dream since reality lacks the materials to compete with imagination in the creation of wonderful forms. To imagine an Antony would be a triumph of conception which would discredit the workings of fancy being greater than anything the imagination could conjure up: her musings are not fully logical but Dolabella confesses to being touched by her loss which causes grief in himself: she has always had the capacity to move others with her strong emotions. This response in him makes him admit honestly that Caesar witll parade her in triumph.
Caesar enters and soon assures her that the wrongs she has done him, though severe, can be written off as accidental but this is obviously insincere as he is remembering them at this moment. She is a consummate actress and we are glad of this when she confesses plausibly that she cannot excuse herself but has womanly weaknesses. Caesar shows his most cruel aspect when he threatens her saying that she should subject herself to him but that, if she copies Antony’s suicide, he will kill her children: this is a brute and blatant use of power although we have never been made aware of Cleopatra as a mother. Sarcastically, she acknowledges his power and hands him a list of her property excluding small items, presumably hoping for sympathy and showing cunning in holding some objects back.
Seleucus, whom she had trusted to keep her secret, gives her game away but Caesar does not seem angry that she has withheld more than trifles. With quickness of mind she warns him that his servants would betray him and some of her earlier wild spirit shows when she threatens Seleucus who hastily retreats. There is comedy in her excusing herself meekly for keeping some treasures, claiming that Seleucus had exaggerated and that she only retained some “lady trifles” as might be presents for ordinary people. Even more cunningly, she purports to have saved more valuable pieces as gifts for Livia and Octavia to persuade them to help her cause: we are amused and support her instinct for survival. She cannot bear the sight of her betrayer and, with elemental imagery, shows that she is not fully defeated and could be fiery once more.
Important poeple, she says, are misunderstood and suffer for the faults of others but Caesar excuses her as he is conscious of his image and does not want to be seen as greedy and mercenary. He promises to do what she wants to make herself comfotable with food and sleep but, after his departure, she makes it clear that she has seen through him and knows he only wnats to prevent her death. In her whisper to Charmian she presumably discloses her plot to outwit Caesar and we hope she will do so, particularly when Dolabella, out of affection for her, betrays his master and reveals Caesar’s dark intentions to send for her and her children.
Cleopatra now hardens her women’s hearts by describing what will happen if she stays alive: they will be mocked publically in Rome before the common people and slaves whose stinking breath will enter them with its stench of poor food. Law enforcers will treat them like prostitutes and there will be jingles composed about them. Actors will imitate them and their feasts with Antony portrayed as drunk and she will be played by some boy as a whore. This particularly offends the actress in her and the whole imaginative picture is clear, detailed and horrifying. Instead she will present her own show and herself as triumphant in death. Her motive for suicide is to “fool their preparation, and to conquer/Their most absurd intents”: she dies for no higher cause but is uplifted by the thought of meeting Antony once more.
In doing so she is the actress conscious of an audience and wants a presentation like that of her royal arrival on her barge. A low-life man is announced carrying figs which conceal her means of death, bringing her “liberty.” In contrast to her unpredictable and volatile behaviour throughout, she now resolves on unwomanly determination and constancy, rejecting her association with the changing moon. She asks the Clown if he has the snake (“worm”) of the Nile with him and we note that she calls it “pretty” and does not want to endure pain. He jokes that those who die of its bite rarely recover but, in the crude humour, we are reminded of the permanence of death. This act by this actress is not a rehearsal. He goes on to discuss the honesty of women and the trap of believing what others say, both topics being relevant to her and to Antony. There is truth too in his phrase “all joy of the worm” and in his assertion that it will do what is natural to it: this raises the question of whether or not Antony’s character was his fate. The Clown’s reluctance to leave is also the stuff of comedy but his chatter has point in places: Cleopatra, as a woman, is a “dish for the gods” and the snake will bring a joyous triumph.
High poetry follows this prose interlude as Cleopatra puts on her garments and asks the women to crown her: she will die a queen. Death is seen in the worldly context of loss of pleasure such as wine and she claims to hear Antony call to her and raise himself to praise her and mock Caesar whose luck is a cheating gift to excuse the nemesis of the gods. She is consciously self-deceived and this is the first time she has called him “husband.” To her, death purges her of the lower elements of earth and water (with which she has been connected throughout) as she becomes fire and air: she regards herself as ennobled but we may not share this vision. Iras dies on kissing her and this causes Cleopatra to see death like the sensual pinch of a lover in its ease. Cleopatra is sympathetically human in not wishing to let Iras meet and kiss Antony first but this is hardly the tone of tragedy. Applying the snake (asp) to her breast she begs it to untie the complex knot of life and her last wish is that she would like to hear how she has folled Caesar. The terror of death is softened by the image of a baby feeding as well as by the gentle lexis: “sweet”, “soft”, “gentle”, all Egyptian associations. Charmian pays tribute to her after she dies as a “lass unparallel’d” and her eyelids are closed so that the sun will never again see eyes so majestic. Symbolically, her crown has tilted but Charmian restores her royalty by adjusting it again.
As he feared, Caesar has been tricked in a manner worthy of a royal but he wisely praises her as it is too late to criticise. He enquires about the method of death of all of them, showing an objective medical interest along with appreciation of the charm of Cleopatra, even now. They find the traces of blood on her and slime on the fig leaves which point to poisoning by a snake which has not marred her beauty or caused pain. The ever pragmatic Caesar recalls that she had been seeking easy methods to kill herself and he now pays liberal tribute to them both and offers to bury them together saying that no other grave will hold “A pair so famous.” He reinstates their grandeur and can afford to do so now that they offer him no challenge. They will leave their effect in a story full of pity and glory and there will be a fitting funeral. He behaves well and generously here in appropriate Roman fashion. We may feel that their deaths were the best part of the lives that we have seen and that their affair was degenerating already but we rejoice that they have regained their stature at the end.
This has been a drama of scope and grandeur, conflicts, charismatic individuals, fluctuating fortunes and changing viewpoints. It is constructed around oppositions: Egypt/Rome; land/water; restraint/luxury; duty/love and pleasure; public/private; purposeful activity/idleness; loyalty/betrayal; intuition/rationality; mystery/reality; feminine/masculine; politics/personal life and honour/shame. Sets of values are contrasted in action and the play as a whole is a challenge to actors and director.