Octavius Caesar is a challenging role for an actor. On the one hand, the man became Augustus, giving his name to an era marked by peace and founding an empire that lasted more or less for a millennium and a half (if you count the "Holy" version of the Roman Empire). He's no insignificant figure and shouldn't be presented as one. But on the other hand, the play isn't about him. The actor who plays him needs to make his presence felt, to be a credible opponent to Antony but not a dominant figure, or even a terribly vivid one like Enobarbus. In the Trevor Nunn production, Corin Redgrave plays Caesar for the most part as a chilly prig, a man who, as Dorothy Parker said of Calvin Coolidge, seemed to have been weaned on a pickle. Ian Charleson, in the 1981 Jonathan Miller production, provides more complexity: still a figure of cold authority, but one capable of human feeling.
I mention this because in the absence of Antony and Enobarbus, Caesar becomes the dominant male figure in the last act, and he is charged with bringing the drama to a coherent close. In the first scene he is presented with Antony's bloody sword by Dercetus, who seems to hope that the act will win favor from Caesar. But for once Caesar isn't thinking about power -- he doesn't have to, since he's just won it absolutely. It allows him to speak generously of the fallen Antony and to cause Agrippa to note, with some surprise, that "Caesar is touched." Maecenas shrewdly knows why: Antony's death reminds Caesar of his own mortality even at achieving the summit of power. "We could not stall together / In the whole world," Caesar says, recognizing that either he or Antony had to be the one to fall, that they could not remain what they once were -- "Friend and companion" -- when they pulled the Roman state together after Julius Caesar's murder.
And now, even when he is in the midst of recognizing the implications of Antony's death, he has to set that aside to deal with the problem of Cleopatra, who has sent one of her people to Caesar to learn her fate. He dispatches Proculeius, the one of Caesar's aides whom Antony has told her to trust, to reassure her that "We purpose her no shame."
[5.2 -- Location: Inside Cleopatra's monument]
Once again, the flexibility of the Shakespearean stage comes into play. The concluding scene takes place supposedly inside the monument that presented so much difficulty in 4.15, what with the business of hauling Antony's body aloft. It was supposed to be an impregnable place of refuge, yet now it seems to be open to anyone who wants to wander in and out, including arresting officers and old men selling baskets of figs and snakes. This inconsistency, however, didn't bother Shakespeare's audience and it shouldn't bother us, as long as director and stage designer don't clutter things up too much.
Cleopatra renews her resolve "To do that thing that ends all other deeds" -- that is, commit suicide. But Proculeius enters to reassure her that she doesn't need to do that. She tells him that she will submit to whatever Caesar wants "If he please / To give me conquered Egypt for my son." He assures her, "I know your plight is pitied / Of him that caused it." But just as he is apparently winning her confidence, Gallus enters with soldiers and arrests her. Cleopatra draws a dagger, but Proculeius takes it from her and asks her, "Let the world see / His nobleness well acted, which your death / Will never let come forth."
Cleopatra is defiant: She will starve herself if necessary. "This mortal house I'll ruin, / Do Caesar what he can." She would rather rot on the banks of the Nile or be hanged from one of her obelisks ("My country's high pyramides") than be exhibited in triumph before "the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome." Dolabella enters to relieve Proculeius and Gallus as guard to Cleopatra, but before he leaves, Proculeius says he will tell Caesar whatever she wants to say to him. Her reply is "Say I would die."
Dolabella tries to be gentle with her, but she wants only to speak about Antony, whom she now recalls as if she had dreamed him, bestriding the ocean like a colossus, shaking the spheres with his voice, in short, a characteristically extravagant (and beautiful) apotheosis, at the end of which she asks Dolabella, "Think you there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?" When Dolabella replies, "Gentle madam, no," she replies:
You lie up to the hearing of the gods!It's a beautifully late-Shakespearean speech in its valorizing of the imagination, but also in its affirmation that nature itself can challenge the things of the imagination. Prospero, too, will remind us that the things seen on the stage are just shadows and "the stuff that dreams are made on," but that they are no less valuable for being that.
But if there be nor ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming. Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.
Dolabella struggles to return Cleopatra from the exaltations of her grief and back to reality, admitting that through her he feels "a grief that smites / My very heart at root." His sympathy seems to touch her, and she asks, "Know you what Caesar means to do with me?" When he expresses reluctance to say, she gets to the devastating truth:
CLEOPATRAA beautifully economical statement of her worst fear, and one crowned by the arrival of Caesar himself, whose question, "Which is the Queen of Egypt?" seems unnecessarily rude but may just be a way of stating the fact that they have not been formally introduced -- after all, Caesar acknowledges that she is still a queen.
He'll lead me, then, in triumph.
Madam, he will. I know't.
She kneels and when he bids her rise, she does so, emphasizing that her acts are done out of formal obedience, a recognition of her status, rather than genuine respect. He maintains his air of authority, to the extent of warning her against suicide:
if you seekIn other words, if she makes him look cruel, then he will be cruel. It is a reminder to her that she is a prisoner of war.
To lay on me a cruelty by taking
Antony's course, you shall bereave yourself
Of my good purposes, and put your children
To that destruction which I'll guard them from
If thereon you rely.
Before he can leave, she hands him an inventory of her treasure, and calls her treasurer, Seleucus, as witness to its accuracy. But Seleucus testifies that she has left half of what she owns off the list, causing her to denounce him angrily. She claims that what she kept off the list were items that she intended to give as gifts, including to Caesar's wife, Livia, and to Octavia. Caesar assures her that she can keep the items and that she shouldn't worry about anything: "Feed and sleep. / Our care and pity is so much upon you / That we remain your friend; and so, adieu."
When he has gone, she reveals to Charmian that she knows he was just trying to talk her out of committing suicide, and she whispers to Charmian what we will later recognize as the instructions for summoning the peddler with the snakes. Charmian leaves as Dolabella enters to tell her that Caesar is preparing to return to Rome by way of Syria, and that he will send her and her children ahead of him. "Make your best use of this," he advises.
When he leaves, she tells Iras that they will be exhibited to "Mechanic slaves / With greasy aprons, rules and hammers" and "In their thick breaths, / Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded / and forced to drink their vapour." Shakespeare, as an actor, presumably knows something about the "thick breaths" exhaled by a crowd. As Wilders points out, he refers to the bad breath of the mob in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus also. And here he adds one of his cleverest, most recursive in-jokes:
The quick comediansCharmian returns and Iras is sent to "fetch / My best attires. I am again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony.... Bring our crown and all." There's a noise outside and a guardsman says "a rural fellow" wants to bring her some figs. She tells him to bring the man in, and he returns with the Clown, which the note glosses as "a word regularly used for a countryman or rural labourer."
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.
When the guardsman leaves, she asks the Clown if he has "the pretty worm of Nilus. He assures her that "his biting is immortal. Those that do die of it do seldom or never recover." He leaves, wishing her "joy o'th' worm." Iras brings the robe and crown and jewels, and Charmian helps Iras dress Cleopatra. She speaks to Antony, "Husband, I come!" and proclaims, "I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life." Fire and air are the aspiring elements, the ones associated with the realm of the spirit, as earth and water are with the body.
She kisses Charmian and Iras, and the latter falls dead, perhaps, as Enobarbus did, from grief. Cleopatra interprets it as a sign that death is easy: "If thou and nature can so gently part, / The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch / Which hurts and is desired." It's notable that the erotic element of dying is invoked here: After all, this is Cleopatra's Liebestod. She also frets that if Iras sees Antony first, "He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss / Which is my heaven to have."
She takes the asp and puts it to her breast, calling on it to "Be angry and dispatch" -- the note observes that Plutarch indicated that Cleopatra stuck the serpent with "a spindell of golde" to make it angry and more eager to bite. Charmian calls out, "O eastern star!" referring to Venus and to Cleopatra, who hushes her: "Dost thou not see my baby at my breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?" She takes another asp, which bite her on her arm, and dies, saying "What should I stay --." Charmian completes the sentence: "In this vile world?" She notices that Cleopatra's crown is crooked, as bends to straighten it as the guard enters to announce Dolabella's return. Charmian takes up an asp for herself and dies.
Dolabella enters to see what has happened, followed shortly by Caesar and his attendants. They are puzzled at the cause of the deaths -- presumably the snakes have made a retreat with all the commotion caused by the arrival of Caesar. He observes that Cleopatra "looks like sleep, / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace." And he orders,
She shall be buried by her Antony.
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous.
The 1974 Trevor Nunn production:
Because the previous clip omits the play's ending, here's a different clip from the same production:
The 1981 Jonathan Miller production, on which the Arden edition's editor, John Wilders, was a consultant: