OK, Octavia appears in only four scenes in Antony and Cleopatra (Act Two, Scene Three; and Act Three, Scenes Two, Four and Six); she has but fourteen speeches. And she seems pretty innocuous.
But–and you had to know this was coming–something intrigues me…
Her first appearance begins with an interesting stage direction: “Enter Antony, Caesar, Octavia between them” (III.iii opening stage direction). That about sums up her situation, stuck between her new husband and her brother. At this point, it’s obvious that she’s been told she is to marry Antony (or even maybe is already married to him), and he says that he’s going to be away from her quite often. To this, she answers as one might expect an obedient wife to respond: “All which time // Before the gods my knee shall bow my prayers // To them for you” (II.iii.2-4). So, when he’s away, she will pray for him. Nice, enough. There follows a perfunctory farewell, and she’s gone.
Two appearances later, when they are both living in Athens, Antony is frustrated by the political and military actions of her brother Octavian, and he voices these frustrations to his wife. Her response is reminiscent of her first mention in that stage direction: “A more unhappy lady, // If this division chance, ne’er stood between, // Praying for both parts” (III.iv.12-14). She’s stuck in the middle. I find it interesting that the “Praying for both parts” is the start and end of that poetic line. It’s as if she’s waiting for Antony to say something, maybe–I don’t know–comfort her(?). When no such statement is offered, she continues the speech–which basically restates her thesis. When Antony says that he fears losing her respect through being powerless to react to Octavian’s moves (even saying, “Better I were not yours // Than yours so branchless” [23-24]) and asks that she “go between” (25) them, she responds that she will. Again, the good wife.
In the fourth and final appearance, she arrives in Rome (without an entourage, a point of contention for Octavian), to begin her reconciliation between husband and brother. That ends quickly with her brother telling her of Antony’s betrayal and flight to Alexandria. Her response, though, is interesting: “Ay me most wretched, // That have my heart parted betwixt two friends // That do afflict each other!” (III.vi.77-79). Instead of railing against a husband who had done her wrong, she laments that Antony and Octavian’s conflict has broken her heart. Even Octavian marvels at her “patience” (III.vi.99). Still, the good wife.
And we never see or hear from her again.
So with this, I might see her as merely the prototypical political good wife.
However, the more savvy of you (or those who’ve been reading the play along with me) may have noticed that I skipped her second appearance in Antony and Cleopatra.
In Act Three, Scene Two, the Second Triumvirate are going their separate ways–well, at least Antony is leaving Rome for Athens with Octavia (with Lepidus and Octavian bidding them farewell). Antony assures Octavian that he has nothing to worry about, nothing to “distrust” (III.ii.34), and we get some weird metrical pauses. Antony says, “We will here part” (III.ii.38), cutting his line short after just two metrical feet (and whether you have it trochee-spondee or spondee-spondee or or spondee-iamb or trochee-iamb or even [bizarrely spondee-trochee–because it sure as hell ain’t two iambs] doesn’t matter: it’s four syllables, just two feet). It’s as if he wants Octavian to complete the line in an antilabe, to join with him as a brother sharing the line.
But Octavian will have none of it, letting the pause hang before he speaks in three free-standing (and perfectly iambic) pentameter lines. To this Octavia exclaims, “My noble brother!” (III.ii.42). Again, a short line. Is she expecting her brother to respond, to share her line? If so, that doesn’t happen, either. Instead, Antony–after that two and a half-foot pause–comforts his crying wife (“April’s [showers–and yes, the phrase existed in Shakespeare’s day] in her eyes; it is love’s spring…Be cheerful” [III.ii.43,44]). To this, Octavia makes an unusual change of subject: “Sir, look well to my husband’s house; and –” (III.ii.45). After words of distrust and a calling-out of her brother, she asks that he look after Antony’s lands in Rome? Weird. And only here does Octavian complete the poetic line with “What, // Octavia?” (III.ii.45-6), crossing over to the next poetic line.
Is she giving her brother an order, and letting it hang in the air (with the “and”) until he answers? Or does he cut her off before she can say anything else?
Regardless, she picks up off his two-foot line fragment, completing the antilabe with “I’ll tell you in your ear” (III.ii.46). And she does. We don’t hear what she has to say, as Antony, Enobarbus, and Agrippa comment upon the effect this will have on Octavian (“Will Caesar weep?” [III.ii.51]). This over, Octavian speaks loudly enough for us to hear: “No, sweet Octavia, // You shall hear from me still; the time shall not // Outgo my thinking on you” (III.ii.59-61). He promises to write to her. (huh?) And her part of the scene is done; she’s silent from this point on.
What did she say in her brother’s ear?
Did she say she wanted to hear from her brother, and Octavian’s next line is the response? Maybe, but it seems weird that such an innocuous request for letters would come in such a private, whispered moment, especially after her more directive statement that preceded it.
Or is it something else? Did she reprimand Octavian for his behavior? Was his response a way of saving face in front of his soldiers and fellow triumvirs?
I don’t know. But I do know this: Octavian was the younger brother–by six years–of his sister Octavia. It would not surprise me if she did give him what my late father would call a “chewing out.” He may be one of the “triple pillar[s] of the world” (I.i.12), but he’s still her little brother.
For such a small character, just a fascinating bit of interpretation to be done by actor and director.