To Cleopatra, the lodestar, the temptress, the predestined mate of Antony, we now turn: and perhaps even Shakespeare has no more marvellous creation than she, or one in which the nature that inspires and the genius that reveals, are so fused in the ideal truth. Campbell says: “He paints her as if the gipsy herself had cast her spell over him, and given her own witchcraft to his pencil.” The witchcraft everybody feels. It is almost impossible to look at her steadily, or keep one's head to estimate her aright. She is the incarnate poetry of life without duty, glorified by beauty and grace; of impulse without principle, ennobled by culture and intellect. But however it may be with the reader, Shakespeare does not lose his head. He is not the adept mesmerised, the sorcerer ensorcelled. Such avatars as the Egyptian Queen have often been described by other poets, but generally from the point of view either of the servile devotee or of the unsympathetic censor. Here the artist is a man, experienced and critical, yet with the fires of his imagination still ready to leap and glow. He stands in right relation to the laws of life; and his delineation is all the more impressive and all the more aesthetic, the more remorselessly he sacrifices the [p. 414] one-sided claims of the conception in which he delights to the laws of tragic necessity. Cleopatra is introduced to us as a beauty of a somewhat dusky African type in the full maturity, or perhaps a little past the maturity, of her bloom. The first trait is for certain historically wrong.1 The line of the Ptolemies was of the purest Grecian breed, with a purity of which they were proud, and which they sought to preserve by close intermarriage within their house. But Shakespeare has so impressed his own idea of Cleopatra on the world that later painters and poets have followed suit ever since. Tennyson, in the Dream of Fair Women tells how she summons him:
I, turning, saw throned on a flowery riseHawthorne in his Transformation, describing Story's statue of Cleopatra, which here he attributes to Kenyon, goes further:
One sitting on a crimson scarf unroll'd,
A Queen with swarthy cheeks and bold black eyes,
Brow-bound with burning gold.
The face was a marvellous success. The sculptor had not shunned to give the full Nubian lips and the other characteristics of the Egyptian physiognomy. His courage and integrity had been abundantly rewarded: for Cleopatra's beauty shone out richer, warmer, more triumphantly beyond comparison, than if, shrinking timidly from the truth, he had chosen the tame Grecian type.Hawthorne goes astray through taking Shakespeare's picture, or rather another picture which Shakespeare's suggested to his own fancy, as a literal portrait; but his very mistake shows how incongruous a fair Cleopatra would now seem to us. Not often or obtrusively, but of set purpose and beyond the possibility of neglect, does Shakespeare [p. 415] refer to her racial peculiarities. Philo talks of her “tawny front” (I. i. 6), and both he and Antony call her a gipsy with reference not merely to the wily and vagabond character with which these landlopers in Shakespeare's day were stigmatised, but surely to the darkness of her complexion as well. But the most explicit and the most significant statement is her own:
This is one of her ironical exaggerations; but does it not suggest something torrid and tropical, something of the fervours of the East and South, that burn in the volcanic fires of Othello and the impulsive splendours of Morocco? Does it not recall the glowing plea of the latter,
Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black.
The sun has indeed shone on her and into her. She has known the love and adoration of the greatest.
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.（M. of V. , II. i. 1.)
Shakespeare magnifies the glories of her conquests, for it was not Pompey the Great but his son who had been her lover of old. But these experiences were only the preparation for the grand passion of her life. She has outgrown them; and if the first freshness is gone, the intoxication of fragrance, the flavour and lusciousness are enhanced. However much she believed herself engrossed by these early [p. 416] fancies, now that she is under the spell of her Antony, her “man of men,” she looks back on them as of her
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch: and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow;
There would he anchor his aspect and die
With looking on his life.
Talking of her preparations to meet Antony, Plutarch says:
When (she) was green in judgement, cold in blood.
Gessing by the former accesse and credit she had with Julius Caesar and Cneus Pompey (the sonne of Pompey the Great) only for her beawtie; she began to have good hope that she might more easily win Antonius. For Caesar and Pompey knew her when she was but a young thing, and knew not then what the world ment: but now she went to Antonius, at the age when a womans beawtie is at the prime, and she also of best judgement.“At the prime” are Plutarch's words; for in point of fact she was then twenty-eight years of age. In this Shakespeare follows and goes beyond his authority; he gives us the impression of her being somewhat older. Pompey talks of her contemptuously as“ Egypt's widow,” and prays:
She herself in ironical self-disparagement avows that she is “wrinkled deep in time” (I. v. 29) and exclaims:
All the charms of love,
Salt Cleopatra, soften thy waned lip.
But what then? Like Helen and Gudrun and the ladies of romance, or like Ninon de Lenclos in actual life, she never grows old. As even the cynical Enobarbus proclaims, “age cannot wither her.” She has only gained skill and experience in the use and embellishment of her physical charms, and with these the added charms of grace, culture, expressiveness. She knows how to set off her attractions with all the [p. 417] aids of art, wealth and effect, as we see from the mise-en-scéne at the Cydnus: and her mobility and address, her wit, her surprises, her range of interest do the rest. Again Shakespeare has got the clue from Plutarch:
Though age from folly could not give me freedom,
It does from childishness.
ow her beawtie (as it is reported) was not so passing, as unmatchable of other women, 2 nor yet suche, as upon present viewe did enamor men with her; but so sweete was her companie and conversacion, that a man could not possiblie but be taken. And besides her beawtie, the good grace she had to talke and discourse, her curteous nature that tempered her words and dedes, was a spurre that pricked to the quick. Furthermore, besides all these, her voyce and words were marvelous pleasant; for her tongue was an instrument of musicke to divers sports and pastimes, the which she easely turned to any language that pleased her.In one respect Shakespeare differs from Plutarch; he bestows on her surpassing and unmatchable beauty, so that she transcends the artist's ideal as much as that transcends mortal womanhood; she o‘er-pictures
But he agrees with Plutarch in making her beauty the least part of her spell. Generally speaking it is taken for granted rather than pointed out; and of its great triumph on the Cydnus we hear only in the enraptured reminiscences of Enobarbus. Thus it is removed from the sphere of sense to the sphere of imagination, and is idealised in the fervour of his delight; but, though this we never forget, it is of her other charms that we think most when she is present on the scene. [p. 418] She is all life and movement, and never the same, so that we are dazzled and bewildered, and too dizzy to measure her by any fixed standard. Her versatility of intellect, her variety of mood, are inexhaustible; and she can pass from gravity to gaiety, from fondness to banter, with a suddenness that baffles conjecture. We can forecast nothing of her except that any forecast will be vain. At her very first entrance the languishing gives place in a moment to the exasperating vein:
that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature.3
If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
For she turns to account even the gibe and the jeer, stings her lover with her venomous punctures, and pursues a policy of pin-pricks not to repel but to allure. The hint comes from Plutarch.
Fulvia perchance is angry; or, who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His powerful mandate to you.
When Cleopatra found Antonius jeasts and slents to be but grosse and souldier-like, in plaine manner; she gave it him finely and without feare taunted him throughly.And on the other hand she can faint at will, weep and sob beyond measure.
We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears: they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report. (I. ii. 152.)Here, too, the hint is given by Plutarch, but in a later passage, when she fears Antony may return to Octavia:
When he went from her, she fell a weeping and blubbering, looked rufully of the matter, and still found the meanes that Antonius should often tymes finde her weeping.In the play, when he announces his departure, she is ready to fall; her lace must be cut; she plays the seduced innocent; but she mingles wormwood with her pathos and overwhelms him with all sorts of [p. 419] opposite reproaches. Since he does not bewail Fulvia, that is proof of infidelity:
When his distress is not to be confined, she taxes him with mourning for his wife:
O most false love!
Where be the sacred vials thou shouldst fill
With sorrowful water? Now I see, I see,
In Fulvia's death, how mine received shall be.
When he loses patience, she mocks at him:
I prithee, turn aside and weep for her;
Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears
Belong to Egypt.
But at the word of his leaving she is at once all wistful tenderness:Ant.
You'll heat my blood: no more.
You can do better yet; but this is meetly.
Now, by my sword,--
And target Still he mends;
But this is not the best. Look, prithee, Charmian,
How this Herculean Roman does become
The carriage of his chafe.
But thence again she passes on the instant to grave and quiet dignity:
Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that's not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there's not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,--
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.4
It is the unexpectedness of her transitions, the impossibility of foreseeing what she will say or do, the certainty that whatever she says or does will be a [p. 420] surprise, that keeps Antony and everyone else in perpetual agitation.5 Tranquillity and dullness fly at the sound of her name. Her love relies on provocation in both senses of the word, and to a far greater extent in Shakespeare than in Plutarch. Thus Plutarch tells how Octavius' expedition in occupying Toryne caused dismay among Antony's troops: “But Cleopatra making light of it: “And what daunger, I pray you,” said she, “if Caesar keepe at Toryne?”” On which North has the long marginal note:
All the gods go with you! upon your sword
Sit laurel victory! and smooth success
Be strew'd before your feet!
The grace of this tawnt can not properly be expressed in any other tongue, bicause of the equivocation of this word Toryne, which signifieth a citie of Albania, and also, a ladell to scoome the pot with: as if she ment, Caesar sat by the fire side, scomming of the pot.Shakespeare makes no attempt to find an equivalent for the untranslatable jest, but substitutes one of those bitter mocks before which Antony has so often to wince. When he expresses wonder at his rival's dispatch, she strikes in:
[p. 421] And she does this sort of thing on principle. She tells Alexas:
Celerity is never more admired
Than by the negligent.
Is it then all artifice? Are all her eddying whims and contradictions mere stratagems to secure her sway? For a moment Antony seems to think so. “She is cunning past man's thought,” he says in reference to her swooning: and perhaps it is because of her cunning as well as her sinuous grace that his endearing name for her is his “Serpent of old Nile” (I. v. 25). Enobarbus' reply is in effect that her displays of emotion are too vehement to be the results of art; they are the quintessence of feeling: “her passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love” (I. ii. 151). And both these views are correct. It is her deliberate programme to keep satiety afar by the swiftness and diversity of the changes she assumes; but it is a programme easy to carry out, for it corresponds to her own nature. She is a creature of moods. Excitement, restlessness, curiosity pulse in her life-blood. In Antony's absence she is as flighty with herself as ever she was with him. She feeds on memories and thoughts of him, but they plague rather than soothe her. In little more than a breathing-space she turns to music, billiards, and fishing; and abandons them all to revel once in her day-dreams. When the messenger arrives after Antony's marriage, she in her ungovernable eagerness interrupts him and will not let him disclose the tidings for which she longs. When she hears what they are, she loses all restraint; she stuns him with threats, curses, blows; she hales him by the hair and draws a knife upon him. Then, sinking down [p. 422] in a faint, she suddenly recovers herself with that irrepressible vitality and inquisitiveness of hers, that are bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh:
See where he is, who's with him, what he does:
I did not send you: if you find him sad,
Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
That I am sudden sick.
And while we are still smiling at the last little touch, comes that moving outburst of a sensitive and sorely stricken soul:
Go to the fellow, good Alexas; bid him
Report the feature of Octavia, her years,
Her inclination, let him not leave out
The colour of her hair.
Not long, however, is she in despair. Her knowledge of Antony's character, her knowledge of her own charms, even her vanity and self-illusion combine to give her assurance of final triumph; and when we next meet her, she is once more hopeful and alert. “Why, methinks,” she sums up at the close of her not very scientific investigation, “this creature's no such thing” (III. iii. 43); and she concludes, “All may be well enough” (III. iii. 50). The charm and piquancy of this nimble changefulness are obvious, and it is not without its value as a weapon in the warfare of life. But it is equally true that such shifting gusts will produce unreliability, and even shiftiness. It is quite natural that Cleopatra, a queen and the daughter of kings, should, in her presumptuous mood, insist on being present in the campaign and on leading to battle her own sixty ships. It is no less natural that amid the actual horrors of the conflict, the luxuriously bred lady should be seized with panic and take to flight. Indeed it is precisely what we might expect. For despite the royalty of soul she often displays, there is in Cleopatra a strain of physical timidity, for which Shakespeare has already prepared us. When [p. 423] the messenger of woe is to give his tidings to Antony, he hesitates and says:
Pity me, Charmian,
But do not speak to me.
The nature of bad news infects the teller,and Antony answers nobly and truly:
We cannot help remembering Antony's words when Cleopatra visits on the bearer the fault of the bad news to her:
When it concerns the fool or coward.
Such a reception according to Antony stamps the fool or the coward. Cleopatra is no fool, but there is a touch of cowardice in her, that appears over and over again. Thus it is perhaps fear, fear blended with worldliness, that gains a hearing for Thyreus. There is absolutely no indication that she is playing a part and temporising, out of faithfulness to Antony. She had already sent her own private petition to Caesar, confessing his greatness, submitting to his might, and requesting “the circle of the Ptolemies” for her heirs. This, otherwise than in Plutarch, she had done without Antony's knowledge, who tells her, as though for her information, that he had sent his schoolmaster to bear his terms; with which Cleopatra's were not associated. Her whole behaviour shows that she dreads Octavius' power, and dreads the loss of her own wealth and dignities. But, in the scene with Thyreus, is she really prepared to desert and betray her lover? Antony suspects that she is, and appearances are indeed against her. Enobarbus believes that she is, and Enobarbus generally hits on the truth. Yet we have always to remember the temptation she would feel to try her spells on Thyreus and his master: [p. 424] and even after Enobarbus' desertion she remains with Antony, clings to him, encourages him, arms him, is proud of him. In any case it would not be cold-blooded perfidy, but one of those flaws of weakness, of fear, of self-pity, of self-interest, that take her unawares. 6 For the final treason of the fleet at any rate, of which Antony imagines her guilty, she seems in no way responsible. Plutarch mentions Antony's infuriated suspicion but adds no word in confirmation, and Shakespeare, who would surely not have left us without direction on so important a matter, is equally reticent. Such hints as he gives, point the other way. We may indeed discount the disclaimers of Mardian and Diomedes who would probably say anything they were told to say. But when Antony greets Cleopatra, “Ah, thou spell! avaunt!” her exclamation,
Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me
Thou wouldst appear most ugly.
seems to express genuine amazement rather than assumed innocence. And in her conversation with her attendants her words, to all appearance, imply that she cannot understand his rage: to her it is merely inexplicable frenzy:
Why is my lord enraged against his love?
Moreover, if she had packed cards with Caesar, it is difficult to see why she should not claim a price for her treachery, instead of locking herself up in the Monument as she does, and trying to keep the Romans out. All the negociations and interviews after Antony's death seem to imply that she had no previous understanding with Octavius. But she recoils from her lover's desperation, as she always does when he is deeply moved. She [p. 425] has ever the tact to feel the point at which her blandishments and vexations are out of place and will no longer serve her turn. Just as after the disaster of Actium she only sobs:
Help me, my women! O, he is more mad
Than Telamon for his shield; the boar of Thessaly
Was never so emboss'd.
and then can urge no plea but “pardon”; just as after her interview with Thyreus, with no hint of levity, she solemnly imprecates curses on herself and her offspring if she were false; so now she bows before his wrath and flees to the monument. Then follows the fiction of her death, a fiction in which the actress does not forget the finesses of her art.
O my lord, my lord,
Forgive my fearful sails!
It is not the most candid nor dignified expedient, but probably it is the most effective one; for violent ills need violent cures; and perhaps there was nothing that could allay Antony's storm of distrust but as fierce a storm of regret. At any rate it has the result at which Cleopatra aims; but she knows him well, and presently foresees that the antidote may have a further working than she intends. Diomedes seems to state the mere truth when he says that her prophesying fear dispatched him to proclaim the truth. But it is too late; and there only remains the lofty parting-scene, when if she still fears to open the gates lest Caesar should enter, she draws her lover up to the monument, and lightens his last moments no less with her queenliness than with her love. She feels the fitness and the pathos in his ending, that none but Antony should conquer Antony: she not obscurely hints that she will take the same path. When he bids her:
Say, that the last I spoke was “Antony,”
And word it, prithee, piteously.
[p. 426] she answers well, “They do not go together.” Her passionate ejaculation ere she faints above his corpse, her appeal to her frightened women,
Of Caesar seek your honour, with your safety;
have a whole-heartedness and intensity that first reveal the greatness of her nature. And yet even now she seems to veer from the prouder course on which she has set out. We soon find her in appearance paltering with her Roman decision. She sends submissive messages to Caesar; she delays her death so long that Proculeius can surprise her in her asylum; she accepts her conqueror's condescension; she stoops to hold back and conceal the greater part of her jewels. It is a strange riddle that Shakespeare has here offered to the student, and perhaps no certain solution of it is to be found. In this play, even more than in most, he resorts to what has been called his shorthand, to the briefest and most hurried notation of his meaning, and often it is next to impossible to explain or extend his symbols. The usual interpretation, which has much to commend it, accepts all these apparent compliances of Cleopatra for what on the face they are. They are taken as instances of Shakespeare's veracious art that abstains from sophisticating fact for the sake of effect, and attains a higher effect through this very conscientiousness and self-restraint. Just as he makes the enthusiastic fidelity of Enobarbus fail to stand the supreme test, so he detects a flaw in the resolute yearning of Cleopatra. The body of her dead past weighs her down, and she cannot advance steadily in the higher altitudes. She wavers in her determination to die, as is implied by her retention of her treasure, and “the courtesan's instincts of venality and falsehood” 7 still assert their [p. 427] sway. She has too easily taken to heart Antony's advice, and is but too ready, despite all her brave words, to grasp at her safety along with her honour or what she is pleased to consider her honour to be. And, just as in the case of Enobarbus, an external stimulus is needed to urge her to the nobler course. The gods in their unkindness are kind to her. Dolabella's disclosures and her own observations convince her that Caesar spares her only for his own glory and for her shame; that, as she foreboded, her safety and her honour do not go together. Then, at the thought of the indignity, all her royal and aristocratic nature rises in revolt, and she at last chooses as she ought. On the other hand it is possible to maintain that all these apparent lapses are mere subterfuges forced on Cleopatra to ensure the success of her scheme; and this interpretation receives some support not only from the text of the play, but from the comparison of it with North, and a consideration of what in the original narrative Shakespeare takes for granted, of what he alters, and of what he adds.8 After her more or less explicit statements in Antony's death scene, her suppliant message from the monument is an interpolation of the dramatist's; but so is the very different declaration which she subsequently makes to her confidantes and in which her purpose of suicide seems unchanged:
what's brave, what's noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion,
[p. 428] Which of these two utterances gives the true Cleopatra, the one transmitted at second hand for Octavius' consumption, or the one breaking from her in private to her two women who will be true to her till death? Quite apart from the circumstances in which, and the persons to whom, they are spoken, there is a marked difference--in tone between the ceremonious official character of the first, and the spontaneous sincerity of the second. Then just at this moment Proculeius arrives and engages her in talk. It is not wonderful that she should look for a moment to the man Antony had recommended to her; but, though she is deferential to Octavius, her one request is not for herself but for her son. And when the surprise is effected, there is no question of the genuineness of her attempt at self-destruction. Even when she is disarmed, she persists, as with Plutarch, in her resolution to kill herself if need be by starvation. In Plutarch she is dissuaded from this by threats against her children; in Shakespeare events proceed more rapidly, and she has no time to put such a plan in practice; nor is any serious use made of the maternal “motif.” From first to last it is, along with grief for Antony, resentment at the Roman triumph that moves her. And these feelings are in full activity when immediately afterwards she is left in charge of Dolabella, This passage also is an addition, and it is noteworthy that it begins with her deification of Antony, and ends with Dolabella's assurance, which in Plutarch only follows later where the play repeats it, of her future fate.
My desolation does begin to make
A better life. ‘Tis paltry to be Caesar;
Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
A minister of her will: and it is great
To do the thing that ends all other deeds;
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change;
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,9
The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.
It is just then that Caesar is announced; and it is hard to believe that Cleopatra, with her two master passions excited to the height, should really [p. 429] contemplate embezzling treasure as provision for a life which surely, in view of the facts, she could not care to prolong. Moreover, in Plutarch's narrative there is a contradiction or ambiguity which North's marginal note brings into relief, and which would be quite enough to set a duller man than Shakespeare thinking about what it all meant.Cle.
He'll lead me, then, in triumph?
Madam, he will; I know't.
At length, she gave him a breefe and memoriall of all the readie money and treasure she had. But by chaunce there stoode Seleucus by, one of her Treasorers, who to seeme a good servant, came straight to Caesar to disprove Cleopatra, that she had not set in al, but kept many things back of purpose. Cleopatra was in such a rage with him, that she flew upon him and tooke him by the heare of the head, and boxed him wellfavoredly. Caesar fell a laughing, and parted the fray. “Alas,” said she, “O Caesar: is not this a great shame and reproche, that thou having vouchsafed to take the peines to come unto me, and hast done me this honor, poore wretche, and caitife creature, brought into this pitiefull and miserable estate: and that mine owne servaunts should come now to accuse me, though it may be I have reserved some juells and trifles meete for women, but not for me (poore soule) to set out my selfe withall, but meaning to geve some pretie presents and gifts unto Octavia and Livia, that they making meanes and intercession for me to thee, thou mightest yet extend thy favor and mercie upon me?” Caesar was glad to heare her say so, perswading him selfe thereby that she had yet a desire to save her life. So he made her answere, that he did not only geve her that to dispose of at her pleasure, which she had kept backe, but further promised to use her more honorably and bountifully then she would thinke for: and so he tooke his leave of her, supposing he had deceived her, but in deede he was deceived him selfe.And North underlines the suggestive clauses with his comment:
Cleopatra finely deceiveth Octavius Caesar, as though she desired to live.It is not hard therefore to see how the whole episode may be taken as contrived on her part. It would be a device of the serpent of old Nile, one of her [p. 430] triumphs of play-acting, by means of which she gets the better of her conqueror and makes him indeed an ass unpolicied. And though the suggestion would come from Plutarch, whom Shakespeare follows in the main very closely throughout this passage, it is pointed out that some of Shakespeare's modifications in detail seem to favour this view. And to begin with it should be noticed that in all this episode he passes over what is abject or hysterical or both in Plutarch's Cleopatra, and gives her a large measure of royal self-respect and selfcommand. This is how Octavius finds her in the original story:
Cleopatra being layed upon a little low bed in poore estate, when she sawe Caesar come in to her chamber, she sodainly rose up, naked in her smocke, and fell downe at his feete marvelously disfigured: both for that she had plucked her heare from her head, as also for that she had martired all her face with her nailes, and besides, her voyce was small and trembling, her eyes sonke into her heade with continuall blubbering.Thus, and with other traits that we omit, Plutarch describes her “ougly and pitiefull state,” when Caesar comes to see and comfort her. We cannot imagine Shakespeare's Cleopatra ever so forgetting what was due to her beauty, her rank, and herself. Then the narrative proceeds:
When Caesar had made her lye downe againe, and sate by her beddes side; Cleopatra began to cleere and excuse her selfe for that she had done, laying all to the feare she had of Antonius. Caesar, in contrarie maner, reproved 10 her in every poynt.In the play this suggestion is put back to the interview with Thyreus; and is made, not refuted, on the authority of Octavius.
But this was before the supreme sorrow had come to quicken in her her nobler instincts. Now she has no thought of incriminating Antony and exculpating herself. She says with quiet dignity:Thy.
He knows that you embrace not Antony
As you did love, but as you fear'd him.
O! [p. 431]
The scars upon your honour, therefore, he
Does pity as constrained blemishes,
Not as deserved.
He is a god, and knows
What is most right: mine honour was not yielded,
But conquer'd merely.
Even her wrath at Seleucus is less outrageous than in Plutarch. She threatens his eyes, but does not proceed to physical violence. She does not fly upon him and seize him by the hair of the head and box him well-favouredly. These vivacities Shakespeare had remarked, but he transfers them to the much earlier scene when she receives news of Antony's marriage and strikes the messenger to the ground, and strikes him again, and drags him up and down. Now she has somewhat more selfcontrol, and is no longer carried beyond all limits of decency by her ungovernable moods. Shakespeare, therefore, gives her a new dignity and strength even in this most equivocal scene; and how could these be reconciled with a craven hankering for life and a base desire to retain by swindling a share of its gewgaws? But a further alteration, we are told, gives a definite though unobtrusive hint that all the while she is in collusion with Seleucus, and that the whole affair is a comedy arranged between them to keep open the door of death. Not only does the treasurer escape unpunished after his disclosure, but he is [p. 432] invited to make it. In Plutarch he merely happens to stand by, and intervenes “to seeme a good servant.” Here Cleopatra calls for him; bids Caesar let him speak on his peril; and herself orders him, “Speak the truth, Seleucus.” Moreover his statement and her excuse point to a much more serious embezzlement than Plutarch suggests, and just in so far would give Octavius a stronger impression of her desire to live. In the biography Seleucus confines himself to saying that “she had not set in al, but kept many things back of purpose ”: and she confesses only to some juells and trifles meete for women . . . meaning to geve some pretie presents and gifts unto Octavia and Livia. In the play to her question: “What have I kept back?” Seleucus answers:
Sole sir o‘ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear: but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties, which before
Have often shamed our sex.
and she, after the express proviso she makes in advance, that she has not admitted petty things in the schedule, now acknowledges that she has reserved not only “lady trifles, immoment toys” these were already accounted for-but some “nobler token” for Octavius' sister and wife. If these clues are unduly faint, we are reminded that such elliptical treatment is not without parallel in other incidents of the drama. Octavius' policy in regard to Octavia's marriage, for example, has, in just the same way, to be gathered from the general drift of events and the general probabilities of the case, from an unimportant suggestion in Plutarch, from the opportunity furnished to Agrippa, and his agency in that transaction, which are not more explicit than the opportunity furnished to Seleucus, and his agency in this. These arguments are ingenious and not without their cogency, but they leave one unconvinced. The difficulties in accepting them are far greater than in [p. 433] the analogous question of Antony's marriage. For in the latter the theory of Octavius' duplicity does not contradict the impression of the scene. Nor does it contradict but only supplements the statement of the historian: the utmost we can say is that it is not made sufficiently prominent. And, lastly, the doubt that is thus left possible does not concern a protagonist of the drama, but at most the chief or one of the chief of the minor characters. But in the present case the impression produced on the unsophisticated reader is certainly that Cleopatra is convicted of fraud: and however that impression may be weakened by a review of the circumstances as a whole, there is no single phrase or detail that brings the opposite theory home to the imagination. Besides, the complicity of Seleucus would be a much bolder fabrication than the complicity of Agrippa: the latter is not recorded, but the opposite of the former is recorded, and was accepted by all who dealt with this episode from Jodelle to Daniel, and probably by all who read Plutarch: the treasurer was present by accident and used the opportunity to ingratiate himself. So Shakespeare, without giving adequate guidance himself, would leave people to the presuppositions they had formed under the guidance of his author. Surely this is a very severe criticism on his art. But this is not all. The misconstruction which he did nothing to prevent and everything to produce, would concern the heroine of the piece, an even more important personage than the hero, as is shown by her receiving the fifth act to herself, while Antony is dismissed in the fourth. These objections, however, only apply to the view that the suppression and discovery of the treasure were parts of a deliberate stratagem. They do not affect the arguments that Cleopatra has virtually accepted death as the only practical solution, and [p. 434] that the rest of her behaviour at this stage accords ill with mercenary imposture. In a word both these antagonistic theories approve themselves in so far as they take into account the facts alleged and the impressions produced by the drama. If we credit our feelings, it is quite true that Cleopatra is taken by surprise and put out of countenance, that she seeks to excuse herself and passionately resents the disloyalty of Seleucus. And again, if we credit our feelings, it is quite true that from the time the mortally wounded Antony is brought before her, she has made up her mind to kill herself, and that she is nobler and more queenly for her decision than she was before or than Plutarch makes her. Of course, buoyant and versatile, feeling her life in every limb, and quick to catch each passing chance, she may even now without really knowing it, without really believing it, have hoped against hope that she might still obtain terms she could accept undisgraced. And the hope of life would bring with it the frailties of life, for clearly it is only the resolve to die that lifts her above herself. So here we should only have another instance of the complexity of her strange nature that can consciously elect the higher path, and yet all the while in its secret councils provide, if it may be, for following the lower. But is there not another interpretation possible? What are these “lady trifles” and “nobler tokens” that together would purchase all the wealth of money, plate and jewels she has declared. Plutarch, talking of her magnificence when she obeyed Antony's first summons, evidently does not expect to be believed, and adds that it was such “as is credible enough she might bring from so great a house, and from so wealthie a realme as Aegypt was.” And now she is “again for Cydnus,” and [p. 435] needs her “crown and all.” Already to all intents and purposes she has resolved on her death, as is shown by her frequent assurances. She has also resolved on the means of it; for scarcely has Caesar left, than she tells Charmian:
Enough to purchase what you have made known:
Will she not also have resolved on the manner of it; and both in the self-consciousness of her beauty and in memory of her first meeting with Antony, does she not desire to depart life for the next meeting with due pomp and state? If we imagine she was keeping back her regalia for this last display, we can understand why Shakespeare inserted the “nobler token” in addition to the unconsidered trifles which she was quite ready to own she had reserved, and of which indeed in Shakespeare though not in Plutarch she had already made express mention as uninventoried.11 We can understand her consternation and resentment at the disclosure; for just as in regard to the “nobler token” she could not explain her real motives without ruining her plan. And we can admire her “cunning past man's thought” in turning the whole incident to account as proof that she was willing to live on sufferance as protégée of Caesar. No doubt this suggestion is open to the criticism that it is nowhere established by a direct statement; but that also applies to the most probable explanation of some other matters in the play. And meanwhile I think that it, better than the two previous theories [p. 436] we have discussed, satisfies the conditions, by conforming with the data of the play, the treatment of the sources, and the feelings of the reader. On the one hand it fully admits the reality of Cleopatra's fraud and of her indignation at Seleucus. On the other it removes the discrepancy between her dissimulation, and the loftiness of temper and readiness for death, which she now generally and but for the usual interpretation of this incident invariably displays. It tallies with what we may surmise from Shakespeare's other omissions and interpolations; and if it goes beyond Plutarch's account of Caesar's deception by Cleopatra, it does not contradict it, and therefore would not demand so full and definite a statement as a new story entirely different from the original. Be that as it may, there is at least no trace of hesitation or compliance in the Queen from the moment when she perceives that Octavius is merely “wording” her. Her self-respect is a stronger or, at any rate, a more conspicuous motive than her love. Antony, when he believed her false had said to her:
I have spoke already, and it is provided.
These words of wrath have lingered in her memory and she echoes them in his dying ears:
Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving,
And blemish Caesar's triumph. Let him take thee,
And hoist thee up to the shouting plebeians:
Follow his chariot, like the greatest spot
Of all thy sex; most monster-like be shown
For poor'st diminutives, for doits: and let
Patient Octavia plough thy visage up
With her prepared nails.
[p. 437] The loathsomeness of the prospect grows in her imagination, and compared with it the most loathsome fate is desirable. She tells Proculeius:
Not the imperious show
Of the full-fortuned Caesar ever shall
Be brooch'd with me; if knife, drugs, serpents have
Edge, sting, or operation, I am safe:
Your wife Octavia, with her modest eyes
And still conclusion, shall acquire no honour
Demuring upon me.
And now in the full realisation of the scene, she brings it home to her women:
Know, sir, that I
Will not wait pinion'd at your master's court;
Nor once be chastised with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up
And show me to the shouting varletry
Of censuring Rome? Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave unto me! rather on Nilus' mud
Lay me stark naked, and let the water-flies
Blow me into abhorring! rather make
My country's high pyramides my gibbet,
And hang me up in chains.
Such thoughts expel once for all her mutability and flightiness:Cle.
Now, Iras, what think'st thou?
Thou, an Egyptian puppet, shalt be shown
In Rome, as well as I: mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view; in their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded,
And forced to drink their vapour.
The gods forbid!
Nay, ‘tis most certain, Iras: saucy lictors
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers
Ballad us out of tune.
And the scene that follows with the banalities and trivialities of the clown who supplies the aspics among the figs, brings into relief the loneliness of a queenly nature and a great sorrow. Yet not merely the loneliness, but the potency as well. Who would have given the frivolous waiting-women [p. 438] of the earlier scenes credit for devotion and heroism? Yet inspired by her example they learn their lesson and are ready to die as nobly as she. Iras has spoken for them all:
My resolution's placed and I have nothing
Of woman in me: now from head to foot
I am marble constant; now the fleeting moon
No planet is of mine.
Now she brings the robe and crown Cleopatra wore at Cydnus, and then, like Eros, ushers the way. Charmian stays but to close the eyes and arrange the diadem of her dead mistress:
Finish, good lady; the bright day is done,
And we are for the dark.
Thereupon she too applies the asp and provokes its fang.
Downy windows, close;
And golden Phoebus never be beheld
Of eyes again so royal. Your crown's awry;
I'll mend it, and then play.
Even in the last solemn moment there is vanity, artifice, and voluptuousness in Cleopatra. She is careful of her looks, of her state, of her splendour, even in death; and doubtless would have smiled if she could have heard Caesar's tardy praise:
O, come apace, dispatch.
And she does not depart quite in the high Roman fashion. She has studied to make her passage easy, and has taken all measures that may enable her to liken the stroke of death to a lover's pinch and the biting of the asp to the suckling of a babe, and to say:
She looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.
None the less her exit in its serene grace and dignity is imperial, and deserves the praise of the dying Charmian and the reluctant Octavius. [p. 439]
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle.