Octavian: last man standing

Like I said a couple of days back, in a sense, Antony and Cleopatra is a continuation of the tale begun in Julius Caesar. Not a true sequel, mind you–as it shares neither protagonist nor central conflict. But we do have three characters that span both plays. Over the course of a few entries, let’s take a look at the changes in characterizations between the two plays.

Let’s take a look at ol’ (er, make that young) Octavian, shall we?

In Julius Caesar, we meet Octavian in the same scene as Lepidus, Act Four, Scene One. When Antony kicks off the discussion of the possible killing of political enemies, it’s Octavian’s first line in the play to get down to specifics, as he says to Lepidus, “Your brother too must die. Consent you, Lepidus?” (Caesar IV.i.2). If Antony is the political theorist, with general concepts, its is Octavian who is the political executor. Such executors must needs be cautious, maybe even a little paranoid, and Octavian fits that bill as well: “We are at the stake, // And bayed about with many enemies” (Caesar IV.i.48-9).

In his appearances in Act Five, we see the burgeoning conflict between Octavian and Antony. Octavian questions Antony’s military plans despite being only 21 (and 20 years Anthony’s junior). He has to be pushed to follow Antony’s tactics, and he promises that while he’ll follow those directions now, he will argue in the future: “I do not cross you, but I will do so” (Caesar V.i.20).

From a military perspective, Octavian is no match for Antony, and the younger triumvir’s army suffers “overthrow” (Caesar V.ii.5) by Brutus’. But from a political point of view, Octavian reigns. In a tragedy, it’s customary for the new head of state (or his representative) to speak the final speech of the play. In the final scene, Antony gives a perfectly good summation and praise of Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all” (Caesar V.v.67). Octavian, however, gets the (literal) last word, again challenging Antony.

All of this is perfect setup for the continued strife between the two in Antony and Cleopatra. But something has changed in Octavian: while satisfied by referring to himself in the first person in Julius Caesar (“my tent” [Caesar V.v.77]), he now uses the third person (“Caesar” [Antony I.iv.3]).

Octavian complains about Antony to Lepidus, using condescending and righteous language: “Antony, // Leave thy lascivious wassails” (Antony I.iv.55-6). When the Octavian and Antony meet, it is obvious that the conflict continues, with even a matter as simple as order of sitting or speaking becomes a contest.

When meeting with Pompey–both in parley and feast–however, it seems that Octavian tries to speak as little as possible, strategically, politicly (talk less, smile more). And Octavian pretty much closes first:

What would you more?—Pompey, goodnight.— Good brother,
Let me request you off. Our graver business
Frowns at this levity.—Gentle lords, let’s part.
You see we have burnt our cheeks. Strong Enobarb
Is weaker than the wine, and mine own tongue
Splits what it speaks. The wild disguise hath almost
Anticked us all. What needs more words?
  • Antony II.vii.118-124

When he and Lepidus defeat Pompey, Octavian takes the politically savvy and expeditious course: he gets rid of Lepidus, all under the excuse of “Lepidus was grown too cruel” (Antony III.vi.32). In one fell swoop, the empire went from a four-way split to a two-way (with Antony’s share not growing).

Later, after Octavian’s defeat of Antony at Actium, we see Octavian’s political acumen. He refuses to hear Antony’s requests, and will only give Cleopatra an audience if she “from Egypt drive[s] her all-disgraced friend // Or take his life there” (Antony III.xii.22-3). He has power and he know how to wield it. One way is to return to Rome and parade Cleopatra “in [his] triumph” (Antony V.ii.66). The other way is what he used at the end of Julius Caesar–speaking over the dead. He does so to Antony’s sword, “lament[ing] // With tears as sovereign as the blood of hearts…my brother, my competitor” (Antony V.i.40-2). My brother? More like O, brother. But it’s what the role of last-man-standing calls for. And he does it again at the end of the play over Cleopatra’s body, “Bravest at the last…being royal” (Antony V.ii.334, 335).

His final words, a rhymed couplet delivered to Dolabella, is a command.

The command of a leader, the last man standing.