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I. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, the Roman Empire had been divided among the triumvirs, Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus. Antony having summoned a vassal of his Eastern dominions-Cleopatra, queen of Egypt-to answer for her conduct in aiding Brutus and Cassius, is himself taken captive by her charms. He goes with her to Alexandria, where they give themselves over to the voluptuous life of her court. A messenger arrives to inform Antony of the death of his deserted wife Fulvia. Another messenger brings him word of an attack upon Italy by the maritime forces of Sextus Pompeius. Antony shakes off his amorous chains and hastens back to the seat of the empire.
II. Antony reaches Rome just in time to patch up serious differences with the other two triumvirs, to whom he explains the attack upon Italy as merely a feint on the part of his late wife Fulvia to recall him from Egypt. He renews alliance with the other triumvirs by marrying Octavia, the sister of Octavius. A treaty of peace is made between the triumvirate and Pompey.
III. Octavia, instead of serving as a bond to the friendship of Octavius and Antony, becomes a knot to strangle it; for Octavius soon breaks his peace with Pompey, defeats him in battle, and presently seizes Lepidus, whom he holds in prison. None now remains between Octavius and absolute dominion save Antony, who might have proved a strong rival had not the enticements of
Cleopatra lured him once more over sea, while his wife is on a mission of peace to Octavius, who, no doubt, is incensed because of the treatment his sister has received, but is also glad to have this pretext for attacking Antony. The hostile fleets engage near Actium, where the defection of Cleopatra's admiral gives the victory to Octavius. Antony seeks to make terms with the victor, and being unsuccessful, hurls defiance at him.
IV. The forces now encounter upon land, and Antony wins the first day's fight. But on the second day the Egyptian admiral yields Antony's fleet to the foe, and the desertion of other of Antony's forces leaves him defeated, disheartened, and dishonoured. In a stormy scene he upbraids Cleopatra with treachery, and soon after falls upon his sword. He dies in her presence, begging to lay his last kiss upon her lips.
V. Cleopatra, who, despite her duplicity, has been passionately engrossed with Antony and his fortunes, determines to follow him to speedy death. Her purpose is strengthened by the fact that Octavius makes her a hostage of war, and reserves her to grace his triumph. She flees to a monument, and there perishes by the bite of an asp secretly brought to her in a basket of figs. MCSPADDEN: Shakespearian Synopses.
The tragic interest evidently centres not in Cleopatra, but in the victim of her "strong toil of grace." In tracing the operation of her spell upon Antony, Shakespeare on the whole follows Plutarch's facts as far as they go; but he interprets and expands them in the light of his own finer psychology and humaner ethics. Some coarser and duller touches in both characters he effaces. The hoyden disappears in her; the vulgar debauchee, the sour misanthrope, and the gull, in him. In her most wilful and wan
ton moods she is still the queen; and Antony, revelling or raging, blindly rushing on his fate or desperately succumbing to it, is still the great-hearted man of genius. His subjection to Cleopatra is even more absolute in proportion as it acts through subtler and more complicated sources of attraction. It is just as fatal to his judgement and, for a moment, to his instinct of military honour. His fatuous decision to "fight at sea," and his unmanly flight in the train of Cleopatra and her fugitive galleys, seal his fate as surely in the play as in the history; and Shakespeare exposes them, through the mouth of Enobarbus, as incisively as Plutarch. But for Plutarch the whole relation of Antony to Cleopatra, and indeed of lovers in general, is typified in this fatuous oblivion of his better self. Antony's doings in the Parthian wars are wholly omitted; his long sojourn in Rome becomes a brief visit. Of his two wives, Fulvia is only heard of as a troublesome thorn in his flesh, and Octavia's "holy, cold, and still conversation" is denuded of charm for us as for Antony. He has an exquisite phrase for her stillness, as for everything else; but his marriage is purely diplomatic, even nominal, and it hardly needed the shrewdness of Enobarbus to foresee that "the band that seems to tie their friendship together will be the very strangler of their amity.' HERFORD: The Eversley Shakespeare.
I have not the slightest doubt that Shakspeare's Cleopatra is the real historical Cleopatra-the "Rare Egyptian"-individualized and placed before us. Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman's wit and woman's wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth,
her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous Eastern colouring of the character; all these contradictory elements has Shakspeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classified elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gypsy sorcery.
What better proof can we have of the individual truth of the character than the admission that Shakspeare's Cleopatra produces exactly the same effect on us that is recorded of the real Cleopatra? She dazzles our faculties, perplexes our judgement, bewilders and bewitches our fancy; from the beginning to the end of the drama, we are conscious of a kind of fascination against which our moral sense rebels, but from which there is no escape. The epithets applied to her perpetually by Antony and others confirm this impression: "enchanting queen!" "witch"-" spell ". great fairy"— cockatrice" 'serpent of old Nile "-" thou grave charm!" are only a few of them; and who does not know by heart the famous quotations in which this Egyptian Circe is described with all her infinite seductions?
To these traits we must add, that with all her violence, perverseness, egotism, and caprice, Cleopatra mingled a capability for warm affections and kindly feeling, or rather what we should call, in these days, a constitutional good-nature; and was lavishly generous to her favourites and dependents. These characteristics we find scattered through the play; they are not only faithfully rendered by Shakspeare, but he has made the finest use of them in his delineation of manners. Hence the occasional freedom of her women and her attendants, in the midst of their fears and flatteries, becomes most natural and consistent: hence, too, their devoted attachment and fidelity, proved even in death. But as illustrative of Cleopatra's disposition, perhaps the finest and most characteristic scene in the whole play is that in which the messenger arrives from Rome with the tidings of Antony's marriage with Octavia. She perceives at once with quickness that
all is not well, and she hastens to anticipate the worst, that she may have the pleasure of being disappointed. Her impatience to know what she fears to learn, the vivacity with which she gradually works herself up into a state of excitement, and at length into fury, is wrought out with a force of truth which makes us recoil. The pride and arrogance of the Egyptian queen, the blandishment of the woman, the unexpected but natural transitions of temper and feeling, the contest of various passions, and at length-when the wild hurricane has spent its furythe melting into tears, faintness, and languishment, are portrayed with the most astonishing power, and truth, and skill in feminine nature. More wonderful still is the splendour and force of colouring which is shed over this extraordinary scene. The mere idea of an angry woman beating her menial, presents something ridiculous or disgusting to the mind; in a queen or a tragedy heroine it is still more indecorous; yet this scene is as far as possible from the vulgar or the comic.
Shakspeare has shown profound judgement and feeling in adhering closely to the classical authorities; and to say that the language and sentiments worthily fill up the outline is the most magnificent praise that can be given. The magical play of fancy and the overpowering fascination of the character are kept up to the last: and when Cleopatra, on applying the asp, silences the lamentations of her women
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
these few words-the contrast between the tender beauty of the image and the horror of the situation-produce an effect more intensely mournful than all the ranting in the world. The generous devotion of her women adds the moral charm which alone was wanting: and when Octavius hurries in too late to save his victim, and exclaims, when gazing on her,—