One major turning point in Antony and Cleopatra is when Antony explains to Cleopatra exactly what will happen if she ends up trying to make a deal with Caesar. Prior to this point, Cleopatra seems to think that either Antony will win, or she’ll be able to talk her way out of whatever situation she finds herself in. She is, after all, no stranger to negotiating with powerful men.
In Act IV, Scene 12, Antony lays out for Cleopatra exactly what will happen to her if she is captured by Caesar:
Vanish, or I shall give thee thy deserving,
And blemish Caesar’s triumph. Let him take thee,
And hoist thee up to the shouting plebeians:
Follow his chariot, like the greatest spot
Of all thy sex; most monster-like, be shown
For poor’st diminutives, for doits;
Up until this point, I don’t think anyone has told Cleopatra quite this clearly what happens to conquered enemies in Caesar’s Rome. He paints a real picture for her, and that image drives her decisions for the rest of the play.
Previously, Cleopatra has been in charge of staging her own theatrical mythos. She dresses herself as the goddess Isis. She plays at conquering Antony. She perpetuates her own legend at every possible turn. Faced with the possibility of losing control of her narrative–of being a prop in someone else’s theatrical display–she chooses death on her own terms. In losing, Cleopatra wins.
Katherine pointed out in rehearsal last night that the Egyptian concern with what happens to their bodies after death would make her horrified at the thought of being killed in the Roman street and having who-knows-what happen to her corpse. She’s an Egyptian, and even in death, her performance matters.
I was trying to describe the Roman triumph to the cast the other night, and I told them to look up this clip from HBO’s Rome, which I think is a very strong and historically-based depiction of what would happen in a general’s triumph.
Here’s a little background:
After completing a major military conquest, a general could apply to the Roman Senate to request a triumph. If granted, he’d have a tremendous parade, sometimes accompanied by feasts and games that stretched out for days.
The general would offer a sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter, in gratitude for the god’s support in his campaign. Then, costumed in a way that echoed depictions of the god (red face, purple and gold “toga picta,” laurel wreath, etc.), this general, something of a god-for-a day, would ride in a chariot drawn by four horses in a parade.
The spoils of his war would precede him in the parade: prisoners walking on foot, then their captured treasures, heaped on wagons, paintings or tableaux of the famous moments in the war. These tableaux are unfortunately not included in the clip from Rome, but add even more layers to Cleopatra’s metatheatrical comment:
the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore.
She’s referencing not only the boy who would have been saying these lines in Shakespeare’s theater, but also the actor who would have portrayed her in Caesar’s hypothetical triumph.
Rome’s senators and magistrates came next, then the general in his chariot. Behind him would march all of the returning soldiers, trumpets blaring, chanting and singing dirty songs about their general.
Often, at the end of the parade, a conquered enemy would be put to death in front of all the people. That is the fate of the conquered Gaul Vercingetorix in this clip, and Cleopatra’s if she’d been captured alive. Seeing this, it is no wonder that Cleopatra chose death rather than this humiliation.
As Antony says, her death tells Caesar: “I am conqueror of myself.”