“Antony and Cleopatra” is one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays; however, it has not been staged nearly as many as plays such as Hamlet or Macbeth because it is such a hard play to produce due to its enormous variety of content. However, the mere strength of the characters within the play creates intense, tragic possibilities, despite the difficulties that may be faced in production.
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Cleopatra and Octavia are contrasting characters in the play, Antony and Cleopatra. Each embodies different aspects of womanhood; each is a model of the qualities that should be seen from the country and culture they belong to.
In Rome, the general society is full of military expenditures and strategy, and this leads to a great deal of tension, and many problems arise from early on in the play, and this can frustrate Antony as they intrude into his life with Cleopatra. This is evident when he says, “let Rome in Tiber melt.” This proves that Antony is frustrated with his responsibilities in Rome and is one of the causes of its downfall – his irresponsibility in handling his duties. He gives the impression by saying that he is conscious of the happenings in Rome, but he is not concerned – this could be due to the presence of Cleopatra. (Fielding, 198)
An important factor when looking at the play is the fact that in Rome, there are two main powerful figures that have control, Antony and Caesar. Even though Lepidus is among the triumvirs, he does not show great involvement with matters involving the Senate. There are many differences between the two characters throughout the play, even after the marriage of Octavia, Caesar’s sister, to Antony. This is different from the Egyptian courts, where single-handedly, only Cleopatra is the ruler. This leads to a different atmosphere in both settings, and this can be seen through the attitude and behavior of Antony, who travels to and from both settings.
With Antony in Rome, he is seen as a great person and a hero, and also respected by many, including Caesar, and this is due to the historical warfare that Antony took part in, such as the Battle of Philippi. For his actions as a soldier, he was respected, but the Roman commoners and Caesar knew what he was doing in Egypt and referred to Cleopatra as “whore” and a “trull” (prostitute).
Even being the man that Antony has made himself into, highly respected and an important figure in the empire, he is never in control in either land. In Egypt, there is Cleopatra, who is unpredictable and exciting, and this is the general reflecting of Egypt compared to Rome – a more exciting and unpredictable land. This is why Antony and Enobarbus enjoy themselves more in Egypt rather than in Rome, where there is more of a military and commanding atmosphere set by Caesar. (Greenblatt, 123) Enobarbus makes this evident when Antony tells him that they must return to Rome. His reply is: “Why, then we kill all our women.”
He is saying mockingly that if they leave, all the women will die due to their absence. In Rome, however, the relationship between the two characters is different, and this is perhaps due to the differences in the atmosphere between Rome and Egypt. In Rome, Antony and Enobarbus speak differently. Instead of the friendly and informal conversation, the conversations are more formal, and at one point, Antony says: “Thou art a soldier only. Speak no more.” (Fielding, 218) This shows that even when, at times, Antony can be friendly and relaxed, he still realizes what his position is, whereas Caesar is always formal and is one of two types of characters within the play.
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The first type of characters are those believing in “Stoicism” and take it that whatever happens is due to the gods, and accept this. This includes Caesar and Octavia, and they seem to be the more serious characters in the play. This can be seen when Caesar, Antony, Lepidus, and Pompey are having a drink (Act II, Scene 7) when Antony and Lepidus are clearly enjoying themselves and drinking without limits, whereas Caesar is more relaxed and controlled in his drinking. (Greenblatt, 129)
The play centers around the contrast between the lavishness of Egypt with the linear qualities of the Roman Empire. Egypt is a country of luxurious feasts where eight wild boars are roasted for breakfast for twelve people (2.2.189-90) and parties; it is a very sexualized place whereas Rome is a country characterized by politics, scenes of intellectuals and battles, thus the lives and loves of a Roman stand in opposition to the lives and loves of an Egyptian.
Cleopatra is a symbol of Egyptian luxury, passion, and lust; she is a highly sexualized woman and is not afraid or embarrassed to show this; this is shown in her sexual innuendo in reference to Antony’s warhorse: ‘Happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!’ Her own language often betrays her own sexual nature. This can be seen where Cleopatra speaks to the Messenger from Rome:
Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears, That long time have been barren. (2.5.23-24)
Egypt is a place dominated by strong-minded mature female sexuality, thus making this play one of Shakespeare’s remarkable works due to its attitude to female sexuality as something natural, beautiful, and open.
Although Cleopatra is described by some in the play as nothing more than a gypsy slut: ‘to cool a gypsy’s lust’ (1.1.9), we understand from the differences between Egypt and Rome and their understandings of each other that Cleopatra embodies Egypt and all it stands for and so can’t be controlled or categorized as a Roman can be. Cleopatra allows men who have grown up in a world where expressing sexual ideas and fantasies is frowned upon, such as that of the view of Puritans in the time in which Shakespeare would have been writing this play, to contact their emotional centers and celebrate erotic possibilities.
Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s most complex and elaborate female characters; he derives his information about her directly from Plutarch’s portrait of her and the reputation she left behind.
Cleopatra is a mixed character and has sudden switches of behavior from one mood to another, for instance, the arrival of a messenger from Rome telling Cleopatra of Octavia, Antony’s new bride. Cleopatra harasses the messenger for news and is violent and abusive to him as she hasn’t heard what she wants to. Once her servants have calmed her down, she feels remorseful and sorry for her actions that were must unlike a royal action should be.
Cleopatra is an irrational and erratic character who often reacts to menial things. However, this can be seen as her way of reacting to the fear of losing what she knows: Egypt and Antony. Her fear for losing and her sense of insecurity is seen through her jealously, which Shakespeare presents clearly in her wish to know what Octavia looks like; she is driven by these uncontrollable passions she feels towards Antony. Her feelings of insecurity are not settled by Antony, and his treatment of both his wives Octavia and Fulvia doesn’t settle her fears but instead gives her little cause for complacency, ‘Now I see, I see, In Fulvia’s death how mine received shall be.’ (1.3.66)
Cleopatra is both seductive and somewhat repellent, and it is this mix that makes her such a mysterious and puzzling mixture. Even Antony, on occasions, doesn’t know how she will react and can’t predict her actions or behavior either. Antony loves Cleopatra because he wants to, not for any political reasons; there is nothing or any reason why he should love Cleopatra; it is merely his choice.
Our deep understanding of Cleopatra’s charm and enchantment comes from the descriptions we are given of her, many of which are taken directly from The Life of Marcus Antonius in Sir Thomas North’s translation of the Roman historian Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1967). Here Cleopatra is compared to Venus, the goddess of Love. Shakespeare has taken North’s basic ideas and developed them to the point that the beauty of Cleopatra is seen almost as supernatural.
It is these descriptive speeches of Cleopatra that help the audience to understand the infatuation that Antony and others before have had with Cleopatra:
For the person of herself: She was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus (North, 87-93)
It is this beauty that Cleopatra relies on to win over men; she feels herself to be the human incarnation of Isis: ‘Now from head to foot I am marble constant. Now the fleeting moon no planet is of mine’ (5.2.237-240), and therefore, men are captivated by her and become addicted by the strange power of Cleopatra’s attractiveness.
It is said by some that Cleopatra used her beauty and her body to gain what she needed and what she felt was needed for Egypt, as Hughes-Hallet observed:
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She captivates Antony and then uses her power over him to demand the Kingdoms of Syria and Arabia. (Hughes-Hallet, 165)
Cleopatra is portrayed as a strong leader of Egypt and, in this respect, has similarities with Elizabeth I, who was on the throne of England through Shakespeare’s early life. She, like Cleopatra, was a dominant figure and felt she embodied Britain as Cleopatra embodied Egypt. How, unlike Cleopatra, Elizabeth I was prepared to listen and take advice from others who were experts in the field in question; this resulted in her defeating the Spanish Armada. Unlike Cleopatra, who, although demanded to be treated as a general upon the war field, refused to listen to the advice which resulted in awful consequences and subsequently the loss of life for her and Antony. (Fielding, 224)
Rome is a place where the need for order and discipline is the norm; there isn’t room amongst the Politics and duties for sensuality and pleasure like in Egypt. It is this that causes Antony to be torn ‘between the military honor and familial duty of Rome and the sensuality and luxurious lifestyle of Egypt.’ Rome is a predominantly male society, which women have no say; it is associated with action, mainly military and political action. Charney describes it as ‘a place of conference tables, armor, political decisions, and hard materials objects ‘ (102)
Octavia is a model of Roman qualities, obedience, and duty. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, her role is reduced greatly in comparison to that of the Octavia described in Plutarch’s version. In this version, she is seen as more of an independent figure rather than one completely dominated by male relations, as portrayed by Shakespeare.
By moving Octavia into background, Shakespeare allows a greater contrast between Octavia and Cleopatra, thus highlighting the great differences between lives in Egypt and lives in Rome. Plutarch wrote of Octavia’s domestic virtues, whereas in Shakespeare’s play, Octavia is ridiculed, especially by Cleopatra as seen in act 3, scene 3:
Messenger: Madam, I heard her speak; she is low-voiced
Cleopatra: That’s not so good. He cannot like her long. (3.3.13-15)
This helps the audience to understand and agree with Antony’s abandonment of Octavia and makes us think of Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship as more than just, and adulterous affair.
Octavia is a modest ‘noble Ladie’ and, unlike Cleopatra, is not fond of a fuss being made of her. When Octavia enters Rome in act 3, scene 4, Caesar is angry that she has not come with a great train of attendants in the manner which is befitting for the sister of Caesar and wife of Marc Antony but instead comes like ‘A Market maid to Rome’ (3.6.51). However, this is how Octavia feels most comfortable and tells Caesar, ‘God, my Lord, to come thus was I not constrained, but did it on my free will.’
Octavia is a Roman woman and comes from a world where women have a very submissive role; this is in complete contrast with Cleopatra, who rules her country of Men and Women single-handedly. Where Cleopatra is compared to Elizabeth I, Octavia can be compared to the Wife of James I or Mary Queen of Scots.
In Rome, men are gods, and women are merely there to serve them, thus meaning Octavia has no power, all decisions are made for her by her male relations as Hughes-Hallet observed:
Roman women could conduct no legal or financial business on their own. All their affairs were handled by a male guardian (usually a husband or father), and his signature was required to ratify any deal or agreement. (Hughes Hallet, 13)
Octavia is a gentle and sincere character, ‘My noble brother’ (3.2.4) ‘O, bless my lord and husband!’ 93.4.16) she cares for both her Brother and her Husband. We, the audience fell empathy and admiration for Octavia; she gives up her chance of real love and real marriage in the hope that by sacrificing herself to her brother’s need, she may be able to bring Caesar and Antony together and untied once more. Even when she is torn between the two men she cares most fore: Antony and Octavius; and Antony has told her to chose between the two of them: ‘can never be so equal that your love can equally move with provide your going; choose your own company, and command what cost your heart has mind to’ (3.4.35-39) Octavia tries to bring the two men back together and tries to help them reconcile.
Octavius used his sister as a pawn to win Antony back on his side. He believed, as did others, that Octavia could solve the problems, but in hindsight, we can see it was Antony’s treatment of Octavia that caused a further rift between the two men. The two men used Octavia, and she was aware of this and allowed them to, showing a weak character in comparison to the strong-minded Cleopatra. Shakespeare also uses stage directions to indicate the purpose of the marriage: as in act 2 scene2, Caesar and Antony enter with ‘Octavia between them’ as a form of go-between. Maecenas states the ‘beauty, wisdom, modesty’ of Octavia are juxtaposed to the wantonness of Cleopatra.
In Shakespeare’s time, Octavia would have represented Puritans, and Cleopatra Cavaliers, the contrast between these two women within the play help the audience to understand the choice which Antony has to make. Cleopatra is Egypt, and Octavia is Rome. Antony must choose which life to led. Cleopatra and Octavia act merely as a visible contrast between each other’s cultures. Hughes-Hallet observes:
Cleopatra chose her own lovers. No Father or gave her to her partners, as Octavius gave his sister to Antony (Hughes-Hallet, 74).
In different performances, these differences between the two women from opposite cultures can be emphasized in a variety of ways, including the uses of costumes. Cleopatra’s would be more revealing and sexual, whereas Octavia’s would be long, covering all areas, as a traditional Roman woman’s costume would be. More subdued lighting could be used on Cleopatra to show her dark and more mysterious manner than Octavia. A strong, predominant actress would portray the role of Cleopatra well, just as a more quiet and natural-looking actress would perform well in the role of Octavia, and thus, the two would together enable the audience to understand the difference between the two women, the two worlds and the two lifestyles.
In conclusion, I would say Octavia and Cleopatra each embody different aspects of womanhood that can be seen in the time of Egyptian dominance of the east and Roman dominance of the west, in Shakespeare’s time through Cavaliers and Puritans and nowadays in Eastern and Western countries. They both represent different worlds with different views and help by the end of the play to show that their worlds need to be kept separate because together results in heartache, pain, and destruction.
Hughes-Hallett, Lucy. Cleopatra: histories, dreams, and distortions. New York: Harper & Row, 1990: 13-165.
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. Michael Neill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Fielding, Sarah. The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia. New York: Garland Publishers, 1974: 197-224.
Greenblatt S. The Norton Shakespeare Tragedies. W.W. Norton & Co, 2001: 119-130.
North Thomas. Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Ams Pr Inc. 1967: 87-93.