Antony and Cleopatra — Act Five: Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?

Previously on Antony and Cleopatra: Act One of the play begins with a doting Antony and a manipulative Cleopatra. Newly widowed, Antony decides to return to Rome and reconcile with Octavian Caesar and assist in the war against Pompey. In Act Two, the obvious tension and conflict between Octavian and Antony is only soothed by Antony’s marriage to Octavian’s sister Octavia, news of which brings much consternation to Cleopatra. Pompey accepts the truce offered, and the generals feast and all seems peaceful…for the moment. In Act Three, however, that peace is quickly destroyed: Octavian and Lepidus attack, defeat and kill Pompey. In turn, Antony returns to Cleopatra, marries her, and decides to meet Octavian’s superior navy with the Egyptian fleet. Antony is faced not only with defeat, but the defection of some of his troops. In Act Four, we see the lead-up to the battle of Actium, as well as its disastrous fallout, including the death of Enobarbus, Eros, and Antony. And with Octavian waiting in the wings, Cleopatra is ready to meet her maker as well.

After acts of five, seven, thirteen, and fifteen scenes, Act Five has a measly two scenes. But that last one, the culmination of the Antony and Cleopatra, is the longest in the play by far. So let’s dive in, shall we?

Act Five, Scene One takes us to Octavian’s camp where he sends Dolabella to Antony to try to convince him to surrender. Upon his exit, Octavian learns by one of Antony’s attendants of Antony’s death. His response–given all that has come before–is surprisingly laudatory:

The breaking of so great a thing should make
A greater crack. The round world
Should have shook lions into civil streets
And citizens to their dens.
  • V.i.14-17

I find it particularly interesting that Octavian says that Antony’s death should have caused lions to roam the streets, as that’s what is reported the night before Julius Caesar died. Octavian’s lieutenants also praise their now dead adversary.

A messenger from Cleopatra arrives to say that she is waiting at the monument, ready to learn what Octavian plans to do with her. Octavian tells the messenger to say that she can relax, as he will send word of how “kindly” (V.i.58) he will treat her. Octavian tells his own messenger, Proculeius (the one man Antony told Cleopatra she could trust), however, to rush to her to make sure she does not kill herself, as he foresees “her life in Rome // Would be eternal in [his] triumph” (V.i.65-6).

The final scene of the play takes us to Cleopatra, who receives Proculeius–delivering Octavian’s message…and bringing in Roman soldiers to seize Cleopatra. Well, I guess Antony must have meant some other Proculeius…because this one, not so trustworthy. He disarms the queen when she attempts to stab herself. Dolabella, the one who was supposed to discuss surrender with Antony, arrives and tells Proculeius that he will guard the queen, and that Proculeius can return to Octavian, who has called for him. Upon Proculeius’ exit, Dolabella asks if she knows of him; she doesn’t, and as he attempts to talk to her, she (like to Antony in Act One) interrupts him constantly. When Dolabella does speak, he is able to tell her that she will be led in triumph by Octavian.

Before he can say anything else, Octavian arrives. He tells her not to try to commit suicide, else he will “put [her] children // To that destruction which [he]’ll guard [her] from” (V.ii.132-3). In other words: Kill yourself, and I’ll kill your kids. As a kind of submission, Cleopatra gives Octavian a scroll with an inventory of all she owns, and she sends him off with her treasurer who can explain all that’s in the document. And this gets Octavian and his entourage out of the room.

Alone with the queen, Dolabella tells her that her time is short, and that she should “make…best use of this” (V.ii.204); with that cryptic statement–and with that statement, one has to wonder if Antony had meant to say that it was Dolabella she could trust rather than Proculeius–he exits. She foresees her and her Antony being mocked later, and when Charmian says that she will kill herself first, Cleopatra agrees. She sends her attendants off to get her finest robes.

In the meantime, a guard brings in a visitor, “a rural fellow… [who] brings [her] figs” (V.ii.234,236). She calls him forth then excuses the guard. She questions this rural fellow–who in my text (and remember that, as always, I’m using the Pelican Shakespeare edition), is referred to as “clown.” She asks if the fig basket contains “the pretty worm of Nilus there, // That kills and pains not” (V.ii.244-5). Figs? I don’t think so, more like asps. Now I suppose this role of “clown” is somewhat comic, as his discussion of the snake could be read bawdily, but at this point in the play, I’m not sure we’re going for laughs.

Regardless, he leaves the basket behind, and her attendants return. They dress their queen, who kisses them goodbye–in one case, very literally: Iras falls and dies (presumably of a broken spirit, like Enobarbus). Cleopatra applies asp to her breast, and another to her arm, and as she dies, she calls out for her Antony.

The guards return, saying “Caesar hath sent–” but “Too slow a messenger” (both V.ii.321), Charmian interrupts (so maybe we are going for laughs). She quickly uses a third asp to kill herself.

Octavian returns to find the carnage, and he is left–again–to laud the dead, calling for Cleopatra to be buried with Antony: “No grave upon the earth shall clip in it // A pair so famous” (V.ii.358-9).

And with that, he calls for the funeral.

And the play ends.

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