Cleopatra has consistently captured the imgination of generations. She is known as the last great queen of Egypt, and the very people who tried to destroy her created her legend. Cleopatra is known as a great seductress and deceiver of men. We see a seductress in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but not a deceiver of men. Cleopatra says to her handmaiden Charmian: “See where he is, who’s with him, what he does: / I did not send you. If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick” (1.3.2-5). We can see the seductress weaving her web in these lines, but the intent is a harder to understand. Cleopatra wants Antony to focus on, and deal with her feelings. Yet, is Shakespeare really portraying a calculated manipulation of Antony, or lover trying to keep her beloved by her side? Shakespeare’s play is about what people will do for love.
The love between Antony and his Cleopatra can be seen more clearly later in the play, when it is clear everything is lost:
Cleopatra. Know me not yet?
Antony. Cold-hearted toward me?
Cleopatra. Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source, and the first stone
Drop in my neck: as it determines, so
Dissolve my life! The next Caesarion smite,
Antony accuses Cleopatra of not loving him, and she claims that she loves him so much that she would sacrifice herself, her children, and even her people for him. Cleopatra’s speech is hyperbolic, but that doesn’t mean that the emotion behind it isn’t real. She has managed to raise Antony out of his despair, making him able to fight again. If she didn’t care for him she could achieve safety by abandoning Antony, and turning to Octavian.
Cleopatra says to Antony: “Noblest of men, woo’t die? / Hast no care of me? Shall I abide / In this dull world, which in thy absence is / No better than a sty?” (4.15.59-62). Cleopatra, in her last words to her dying lover appears selfish as she offers him not words of comfort, but instead worries about herself. With Antony’s death all hope of survival is lost. Shakespeare has Cleopatra call Antony the “Noblest of men” (4.15.59). These are words of highest praise to Romans who lived, and died for honor. Shakespeare doesn’t portrays Cleopatra as a lover saying goodbye to her beloved.
Plutarch’s Parallel Lives portrays Cleopatra as a deceiver of men. Plutarch says, “Plato speaks of four kinds of flattery, but Cleopatra knew a thousand. Whether Antony’s mood were serious or gay, she could always invent some fresh device to delight or charm him” (Antony, ch.29). In Plutarch Cleopatra uses “flattery” to “charm him” whereas Shakespeare shows us the range of her emotions (Antony, ch.29). In Plutarch’s version there is no sense of a lover holding onto her beloved. He sees only a cunning woman trying to entrap Antony. Plutarch makes it clear that he blames Antony’s fall solely on Cleopatra when he talks about Antony’s actions in battle against Parthia. “It was as if he were no longer the master of his own judgement, but rather under the influence of some drug or magic spell” (Antony, ch.37). From this quote, we see Cleopatra as a witch who has enchanted Antony and taken away his will. Being controlled by love was a common fear in Ancient Rome. This fear was one of the reasons their women were so tightly controlled. Plutarch’s talk of a “drug or magic spell” invokes fear of the East and foreign powers (Antony, ch.37).
It is in the preparation for the Battle of Actium that we see the depths to which Cleopatra could sink, according to Plutarch:
it was Cleopatra’s choice that the war should be decided at sea which finally prevailed. And yet the truth was that her thoughts were already turning towards flight and the real purpose of the battle order [was] to ensure her escape” (Antony, ch. 63).
Plutarch’s Cleopatra is a manipulator. She is a coward who cares more for her own safety than the winning of a key battle in the war which would decide the fate of the known world. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra would force a general who was undefeated on land to fight at sea so she could make a temporary escape from Octavian’s forces. Plutarch’s testimony is suspect as he views Octavian as the great liberator of his people, and his Life of Antony tells the tale as Octavian told it. With a less personal stake in the matter Shakespeare is able to retell the story of Antony and Cleopatra in a more sympathetic and perhaps more accurate light.