Antony and Cleopatra | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Antony and Cleopatra | Act 5, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Inside the monument, Cleopatra tells Charmian and Iras Caesar has no control over their fate. True control of one's fortune lies in suicide, the deed "that ends all deeds."

Proculeius enters and says Caesar is waiting to hear legitimate requests she may have. Cleopatra asks that her son be allowed to rule the now-conquered Egypt. Proculeius, whom Antony advised Cleopatra to trust, assures her Caesar will gladly be merciful as long as Cleopatra accepts him as a leader. Cleopatra's reply is meek and chastened. Caesar is the master, and she's schooling herself in obedience to him. As Proculeius begins a kindly answer, Gallus and other soldiers rush in and seize Cleopatra, ordering she be held prisoner until Caesar arrives.

Cleopatra draws out a dagger and prepares to stab herself, but Proculeius grabs the weapon before she can use it. Cleopatra swears to him she'll do anything to "ruin this mortal house," her own body. She'll never allow herself to be kept captive for Romans to gawk at. It would be better to die stark naked in the mud of the Nile; it would be better to be hanged on one of the pyramids. Dolabella enters and says he'll take charge of Cleopatra. As Proculeius leaves, the Queen once more orders him to tell Caesar all she wants is death.

Dolabella and Cleopatra are alone now. Cleopatra asks him to interpret a dream she had about Antony. The man in her dream was all powerful; his legs straddled the ocean and his arm waved over the whole world. He was endlessly gracious to his friends, but to enemies his voice was like thunder. Whole kingdoms meant nothing more to him than coins falling out of someone's pocket. Does Dolabella believe there could ever be a man like that? But Dolabella isn't there to talk about Antony. Assuring Cleopatra he shares her grief, he confides Caesar does indeed plan to parade her through the streets of Rome.

Before Cleopatra can answer, Caesar and his lieutenants enter. Caesar (falsely) promises he has forgiven her offenses against him. If she will obey him, he will treat her kindly. But if she tries to kill herself, she will make Caesar look bad, and her children will suffer for it.

Still affecting meekness, Cleopatra gives Caesar a list of her possessions, saying they now belong to him. When her own treasurer tells Caesar Cleopatra is holding back a vast quantity of treasure, the Emperor claims to admire Cleopatra's canniness. Cleopatra feigns shame as she apologizes; all she wanted, she says, was to keep a few trinkets and some gifts for Caesar's wife and Octavia. Again Caesar pretends not to mind. She can keep everything of hers! He's going to treat her as a friend! She can settle her arrangements any way she likes!

On this note Caesar and his men leave—and Cleopatra stops pretending to grovel. She whispers something to Charmian and orders her to hurry. As Charmian exits, Dolabella returns. Caesar, he says, is going to send her and her children through Syria before three days have passed.

A Countryman suddenly appears and pesters the guards to let him deliver a basket of figs. Several poisonous asps are hidden under the fruit. Before he leaves, the Countryman and Cleopatra converse about snakes. Then Cleopatra orders her ladies to dress her in all her majesty. She is on her way to meet Antony. As happened with Enobarbus, Iras suddenly dies from overwhelming emotion. Cleopatra uses two of the snakes to kill herself, and Charmian follows with a third snake. When Caesar and his men arrive at the mausoleum, they find the three women dead. Shaken, Caesar promises that Antony and Cleopatra will be buried together amid great solemnity.

Analysis

The final scene of the play brings the characterization of Cleopatra to its highest point of eloquence and imagery. At the beginning of the play she entered on the arm of Antony as they spoke of their love and passion in terms special to them. Now at the end she must find a way to fulfill her own vision of unity and devotion to him while still controlling her destiny and the image others have of her.

Throughout the play Cleopatra has demonstrated contradictory qualities and impulses. She is unpredictable and fluid, loyal and treacherous; she has shown great heights and depths of passion and scorn, rarely the same woman from one minute to the next. And her greatness manifests in her last act: she will die with her loyal companions, finding a way to show dominance and selfhood in the face of the greatest loss. Her final role is one that she, not the conquering Caesar, chooses for her.

While Antony is in all ways memorable and affecting as a character lost in his own errors and weaknesses, Cleopatra's independence and dominance are more important than her life. Caesar will bring her back as a captive, foreign presence to Rome and parade her imprisoned in front of dirty smelly masses, as she disgustedly imagines them. Having lost on land and sea, she will find another element to join Antony outside of mortal time, she hopes. Her "immoral longings" serve her well in the final scene: she is able to preserve both her image and her liberty in her suicide.

The stolid figure of Caesar contrasts sharply with her. All he can do at the last pages of the play is to count and view the dead bodies, whose sacrifice he seems, at least in part, to admire. He rightly promises their funeral rites will be attended by the Roman soldiers, and afterward he must go back to lead the Empire, as is his destiny. He aspires to be a great Emperor, and Shakespeare knew he would become one. Antony and Cleopatra will not be forgotten, but their story is written, while Caesar's is not yet over.

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