Summary and Analysis
Act V: Scene 2
Back at her monument in Alexandria, Cleopatra and her attendants plan their immediate future. She does not intend to be taken alive by Caesar, however seemingly kind his intentions. Proculeius enters, and she remembers that Antony told her earlier that this man could be trusted. He asks what she would request from Caesar, and Cleopatra responds that she would like "conquered Egypt" for her son. Proculeius tells her not to worry, but to submit herself to Caesar and that she will be taken care of. Suddenly, however, soldiers enter and seize Cleopatra. She attempts to stab herself with a dagger but is disarmed. She vows, however, that she will die, somehow, before she will permit herself to be taken alive to Rome. She asks what Caesar plans to do with her and is told that she will be led as a captive into Rome.
Caesar and his party enter, and Caesar tells Cleopatra that if she does not resist him, she will be treated well; otherwise, he will have to use the same degree of force which he used against Antony. Cleopatra then gives Caesar a list of all her property, and she asks Seleucus, her treasurer, to affirm that the list is complete. He cannot swear to it, however, and states that it is not complete. Cleopatra admits to Caesar that she kept back a few "trifles," then turns on Seleucus, virtually accusing him of deception. He flees, and Caesar generously ignores this incident and tells Cleopatra to keep whatever she would like. He asks her not to consider herself a prisoner (although, in fact, she is one), and he leaves.
Cleopatra tells her ladies Iras and Charmian that Caesar's promises of friendship are empty; she whispers to Charmian to make preparations for her death according to their plan. An officer of Caesar, Dolabella, enters and tells Cleopatra that Caesar intends to send her and her children to Rome. He then takes his leave, and Cleopatra comments to Iras what their reception in Rome is likely to be like. There, she predicts, they will be dragged through town like whores, and amateur actors will put on cheap plays portraying Antony as a drunk and portraying her as a harlot.
When Charmian enters, Cleopatra tells her attendants to fetch her best clothing so that she may be properly dressed to meet Antony. A guard enters and tells Cleopatra that some "rural fellow" has arrived with a basket of figs for her; she tells him to permit the man to enter. The peasant enters, carrying a covered basket that contains poisonous asps. Cleopatra asks him about the nature of the "worm of Nilus," meaning the asp, and he tells her how dangerous it is. He warns her to be careful in handling it. It is not clear whether or not he realizes how she intends to use it, but as he leaves, he says, "I wish you all joy of the worm," a heavily ironic statement.
Iras enters with Cleopatra's robe and crown, and Cleopatra puts them on and makes her farewells. She kisses Iras and Charmian, and Iras falls dead, unexplainably, at her feet.
Cleopatra and Charmian are both grieved at Iras's death, but Cleopatra resolutely places an asp upon her breast. Charmian protests, but it is too late. The Egyptian queen lets another asp bite her arm, and she dies, saying that soon she will be with Antony.
A guard enters, and Charmian tells him not to wake Cleopatra. He says that Caesar has sent a message, but she interrupts and says that Caesar sent "too slow a messenger." Charmian then kills herself with an asp.
By this time, the guards call for Dolabella. He enters and confirms that what Caesar feared has happened. Caesar enters then and discovers that Cleopatra and her women are dead. While it frustrates his purposes, he respects her integrity, perhaps for the first time in the play.
Bravest at the last!
She levell'd at our purposes, and, being royal,
Took her own way. (339-41)
They are all puzzled as to the cause of her death until they discover the asp bites. Caesar again is impressed with her devotion and integrity, and he vows to see her buried in a fitting manner:
Take up her bed,
And bear her women from the monument.
She shall be buried by her Antony.
No grave upon earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. (359-63)
In this final scene, Cleopatra meets with Caesar's representatives and cleverly feigns that she is interested in continuing her life; she attempts to negotiate with the Romans and even offers Caesar a list of her property (with the exception of certain secret items that she would need; it is possible, of course, that Seleucus was privy to this plan in order to make Cleopatra's act all the more convincing). Realistically, of course, if we can believe Cleopatra, she has no need to retain any of her property, for ostensibly she plans to commit suicide, like Antony. What we see in her final actions, then, is her characteristic manner of facing difficult situations. Of necessity, Cleopatra schemes and playacts one last time; thus, by her very coyness, her childish quality becomes, ironically, the means by which she maintains her loyalty to Antony. What was once a game for her now becomes a weapon and enables her to prolong her life long enough to defy Caesar himself.
Caesar is the military victor, but the final scene suggests that he is ultimately no victor. He lacks something of the larger-than-life humanity of Antony and Cleopatra. Yet Shakespeare does not falsely idealize the lovers either. Their faults are visible to the end, but they do not overshadow the lovers' honor. If there is any ultimate character flaw in this play, it is one that all three of the main figures possess: lack of proportion. Caesar single-mindedly pursues power and, as a result, he seems too often to be merely a cold and calculating person. Antony and Cleopatra exalt love above their responsibilities; their respective realms, as a result, suffer. Cleopatra is particularly self-indulgent, preferring to play games with Antony while war develops almost at her doorstep. Antony, in contrast to both Cleopatra and Caesar, is never consistently a Roman nor an Egyptian. His vacillation about his duty and about his love ultimately results in his downfall.