William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 2 (Conclusion)

— 5.2 —

Cleopatra, Charmian, and Iras were in a room in Cleopatra’s monument.

Cleopatra said, “My desolation begins to make a better life. It is paltry to be Caesar; he is not Fortune, but only Fortune’s servant: a minister of her will.”

She added, “It is great to do that thing that ends all other deeds. That thing stops accidents and changes from happening, that thing sleeps, and that thing never again tastes food from the earth — food that feeds both the beggar’s nurse and Caesar’s nurse.”

Proculeius arrived.

Proculeius said, “Caesar sends greetings to the Queen of Egypt, and he asks you to think about what fair requests you want to have him grant you.”

“What’s your name?” Cleopatra asked.

“My name is Proculeius.”

“Antony told me about you. He told me to trust you, but I have little risk of being deceived, since I will not trust anyone. If your master wants a Queen to be his beggar, you must tell him that majesty, to keep up appearances, must beg for no less than a Kingdom. If he will give me conquered Egypt so I can give it to my son, he gives me so much of what is my own that I will kneel to him with thanks.”

“Be of good cheer,” Proculeius said. “You’ve fallen into a Princely hand. Fear nothing. Give your fate freely to my lord, who is so full of grace that it flows over onto all who are in need. Let me report to him that you are willingly dependent on him and you shall find that he is a conqueror who will ask you how he can be kind to those who kneel before him and ask him for grace.”

“Please tell him that I am a vassal to his good fortune, and I send to him the greatness that he has earned. Each hour I learn how to be obedient, and I would gladly meet with him.”

“This I’ll report, dear lady,” Proculeius replied. “Have comfort because I know that your plight is pitied by him who caused it.”

Gallus and some Roman soldiers entered the room.

Gallus said, “You see how easily Cleopatra may be surprised and captured.”

He said to the soldiers, “Guard her until Caesar comes.”

“Royal Queen!” Iras said.

“Oh, Cleopatra!” Charmian said. “You have been captured, Queen.”

“Be quick, quick, my good hands,” Cleopatra said, drawing a dagger and intending to kill herself.

“Stop, worthy lady, stop,” Proculeius said, taking the dagger forcefully away from her. “Don’t do yourself such wrong. In this you are rescued, not betrayed.”

“Rescued from death?” Cleopatra said. “Rescued from the thing that keeps our dogs from suffering a lingering illness?”

“Cleopatra,” Proculeius said, “do not abuse my master’s bounty by killing yourself. Let the world see Caesar displaying his nobleness and generosity to you. If you die, he will not be able to display those qualities to you.”

“Where are you, Death?” Cleopatra asked. “Come here, come! Come, come, and take a Queen who is worth many babes and beggars — your easiest conquests!”

“Control yourself, lady,” Proculeius said.

“Sir, I will eat no food,” Cleopatra said. “I will not drink, sir. If idle talk will once be necessary, I will not talk. I will not sleep, either. This mortal house — my body — I’ll ruin, no matter what Caesar does to try to stop me. Know, sir, that I will not wait, bound, at your master’s court, nor ever be chastised by the sober eye of dull Octavia. Shall they hoist me up in a triumphal procession and display me to the shouting commoners of censuring Rome? I prefer that a ditch in Egypt be my gentle grave! I prefer to lie stark naked on the mud of the Nile River and let the water-flies lay their eggs in or on my skin, causing my body to swell up and become abhorrent! I prefer to make my country’s high obelisks my gibbet, where I will be hanged up in chains!”

“Your thoughts of horror go way beyond anything that Caesar shall give you cause to think,” Proculeius said.

Dolabella entered the room and said, “Proculeius, your master, Caesar, knows what you have done, and he has sent for you. As for the Queen, I will guard her.”

“This is good, Dolabella,” Proculeius said. “Be gentle to her.”

Proculeius said to Cleopatra, “I will tell Caesar whatever message you want to give him, if you want me to serve as your messenger.”

“Tell him that I want to die.”

Proculeius and the Roman soldiers exited, leaving behind Dolabella, Cleopatra, Charmian, and Iras.

“Most noble Empress, have you heard of me?” Dolabella asked.

“I cannot tell.”

“I am sure that you know about me.”

“It does not matter, sir, what I have heard or known,” Cleopatra replied. “You laugh when boys or women tell their dreams — isn’t that your custom?”

“I don’t understand, madam,” Dolabella replied.

“I dreamed that an Emperor Antony existed,” Cleopatra said. “Oh, I wish that I could sleep another such sleep, so that I might see another such man!”

“If it might please you —” Dolabella began.

Cleopatra interrupted, “His face was like the Heavens; and in his face were a Sun and a Moon, which kept their course, and lighted the little O — the Earth.”

“Most sovereign creature —” Dolabella began.

Cleopatra continued: “His legs bestrode the ocean. His reared arm dominated the world. His voice had the properties of all the tuned spheres, and he sounded like the music of the spheres when he talked to friends, but when he meant to make the world quail and shake, his voice was like rattling thunder. As for his bounty, it had no winter; his bounty was like an autumn with a bountiful harvest — autumn is the season of plenty. His delights were dolphin-like; they showed his back above the element they lived in — he was like a dolphin whose enjoyment of the sea it lives in causes it to swim energetically and raise its back above the surface of the sea. Among his servants were Kings and Princes. Realms and islands were like coins that dropped from his pocket.”

“Cleopatra!” Dolabella said.

“Do you think there was, or might be, such a man as this man I dreamed about?”

“Gentle madam, no.”

“You lie, and the gods hear you lie,” Cleopatra said. “But, if there is, or ever were, a man such as he, his greatness would be too much to dream about. Nature lacks the material to create strange forms that can compete with those made by our imagination. Yet, if Nature could make an image of an Antony, it would be Nature’s masterpiece and it would surpass imagination — it would quite surpass imaginary beings.”

“Listen to me, good madam,” Dolabella said. “Your loss is like yourself — great — and you bear it appropriately for its greatness. I wish that I might never achieve the success I pursue unless I feel, in empathy for your grief, a grief that smites my very heart at its root.”

“I thank you, sir,” Cleopatra said. “Do you know what Caesar means to do with me?”

“I am loath to tell you what I wish you knew,” Dolabella said.

“Please tell me, sir.”

“Although Caesar is honorable —”

“— he’ll lead me, then, in triumph?”

“Madam, he will,” Dolabella said. “I know he will.”

The sound of a trumpet was heard, and Octavius Caesar, Gallus, Proculeius, Maecenas, and other followers of Caesar entered the room.

“Which is the Queen of Egypt?” Caesar asked.

Dolabella said to Cleopatra, “This is the Emperor, madam.”

This was a way for Dolabella to show respect to Cleopatra. Caesar had stated that he did not know which woman was Cleopatra. Dolabella had therefore pretended that Cleopatra did not know this man is Caesar.

Cleopatra knelt before Caesar.

“Arise, you shall not kneel,” Caesar said. “Please, rise; rise, Queen of Egypt.”

“Sir, the gods will have it thus,” Cleopatra replied. “I must obey my master and my lord.”

She stood up.

“Think no hard thoughts,” Caesar said to her. “The record of those injuries you did to us, although they are written as scars in our flesh, we shall remember as injuries done by accident and chance.”

“Sole ruler of the world,” Cleopatra said. “I cannot state my own case so well as to make it clear and innocent, but I do confess that I have the frailties that often have previously shamed women.”

Caesar said, using the royal plural, “Cleopatra, know that we will forgive rather than punish if you do what we ask of you. Our intentions towards you are most gentle, and you shall find it to your benefit to conform with our will, but if you seek to give me a reason to be cruel by your taking Antony’s course and committing suicide, you shall bereave yourself of my good intentions, and bring destruction to your children — destruction from which I’ll guard them if you will rely on me. I’ll take my leave.”

Caesar wanted to leave, but Cleopatra kept talking.

“You may take your leave — and do whatever you want — throughout the world,” Cleopatra said. “The world is yours; and we are your signs of conquest. We are like the shields of enemy warriors that you hang in whatever place you please.”

The word “hang” referred both to the shields and to the enemy warriors.

She handed him a document and said, “Here, my good lord.”

“You shall advise me in everything that concerns Cleopatra,” Caesar said to her.

“This document is a list of the money, plate, and jewels that I possess. It is exactly valued, except that it does not list petty things. Where’s Seleucus?”

He entered the room and said, “Here I am, madam.”

“This is my treasurer,” Cleopatra said to Caesar. “Let him testify, my lord, upon his peril, that I have reserved nothing for myself. Speak the truth, Seleucus.”

“Madam,” he said to Cleopatra, “I would rather seal my lips, than, to my peril, speak that which is not true.”

“What have I kept back for myself? What of value does not appear in this list?” Cleopatra asked.

“Enough to purchase what appears on that list.”

Caesar was amused. He also felt that this was a sign that Cleopatra wished to continue to live.

“Don’t blush, Cleopatra,” he said. “I approve of your wisdom in holding back some valuables for yourself.”

“See, Caesar!” Cleopatra complained. “See how pomp is followed! My followers will now be yours; and, if we should change positions, your followers would be mine. The ingratitude of this Seleucus makes me completely wild.”

She said to Seleucus, “Oh, slave. You can be no more trusted than a love who’s hired — a prostitute! What, are you fleeing from me? You have reason to flee from me, I promise you, but I’ll scratch your eyes even if they have wings to flee from me, you slave, you soulless villain, you dog! You are an exceptionally base man!”

“Good Queen, let us entreat you —” Caesar began.

Cleopatra interrupted, “Oh, Caesar, what a wounding shame is this. You condescended to visit me here, you gave the honor of your lordliness to me, one who is so meek, and my own envious servant increased the sum of my disgraces. Let us say, good Caesar, that I have reserved some feminine trifles, unimportant toys, things of such dignity as we give to everyday friends; and let us say that a few nobler tokens I have kept off the list of my possessions so that I can give them to your wife, Livia, and to Octavia to induce them to help me. Let us say these things. Does it follow that a servant of my own household must reveal to you my actions? The gods! I have already fallen so far, and this causes me to fall further.”

She said to Seleucus, “Please, go away from here. If you don’t, I shall show the cinders of my spirits through the ashes of my fortune. Despite my misfortunes, I still have a little spirit left. If you were a man, you would have had mercy on me.”

“Leave us, Seleucus,” Caesar ordered.

Seleucus exited.

“People need to realize that we, the greatest, are thought, mistakenly, to be responsible for things that other people do, and, when we fall in fortune, we answer for that. Therefore, people should feel pity for us when other people, such as Seleucus, try to get credit at the expense of the good names of the greatest.”

“Cleopatra, neither what you have reserved for yourself, nor what you have acknowledged in your list of possessions, will be part of our spoils of war. These possessions still belong to you; do with them whatever you wish. Believe that I, Caesar, am not a merchant who will haggle with you about the things that merchants sell. Therefore, be cheerful. Do not let gloomy thoughts imprison you. No, dear Queen; we intend to treat you as you yourself shall advise us. Eat, and sleep. We care for you and pity you very much, and we remain your friend, and so, adieu.”

“My master, and my lord!” Cleopatra said.

“I am neither,” Caesar replied. “Adieu.”

Octavius Caesar, Gallus, Proculeius, Maecenas, Dolabella, and the other followers of Caesar exited, leaving behind Cleopatra, Charmian, and Iras.

“Caesar words me, girls, he words me,” Cleopatra said. “He is saying these things so that I will not be noble to myself and commit suicide.”

She said, “Listen, Charmian,” and whispered in her ear.

“End your life, good lady,” Iras said. “The bright day is done, and we are going into the dark.”

“Hurry once more,” Cleopatra said to Charmian. “I have given my orders already, and what I need has been acquired. Run this errand quickly.”

“Madam, I will,” Charmian said.

Dolabella came back into the room and asked, “Where is the Queen?”

“There she is, sir,” Charmian said, pointing to Cleopatra, and then she exited.

“Dolabella!” Cleopatra said.

“As I promised you,” Dolabella said, “something that my respect for you made me do, I have found out the information you wanted. Caesar intends to journey through Syria, and within three days he will send you and your children ahead of him. Make the best use you can of this information. I have done what you wanted and what I promised to do.”

“Dolabella, I shall remain your debtor,” Cleopatra said.

“I am your servant,” Dolabella replied. “Adieu, good Queen; I must attend on Caesar.”

“Farewell, and thanks.”

Dolabella exited.

“Now, Iras,” Cleopatra said. “What do you think? You, as if you were an Egyptian puppet, shall be shown in a triumphal procession in Rome, as well as I. Rude workmen with greasy aprons, rulers, and hammers shall lift us up so that we can be seen. Their thick breaths, which stink because of their poor diet, will make clouds around us, and we will be forced to breathe the vapor inside us.”

“The gods forbid!” Iras said.

“This is most certain to occur, Iras,” Cleopatra said. “Lecherous bailiffs will grab at us as if we were prostitutes; and scabby rhymers will ballad us out of tune. The quick-witted comedians will perform us in impromptu plays and present our Alexandrian revels; they will act the role of Antony as if he were a drunken alcoholic, and I shall see some squeaking boy act the role of the great Cleopatra as if she were a whore.”

“Oh, the good gods!” Iras said.

“These things are sure to happen,” Cleopatra said.

“I’ll never see them because I am sure that my fingernails are stronger than my eyes.”

“Why, that’s the way to foil their scheming plans, and to conquer their most absurd intentions,” Cleopatra said.

Charmian entered the room.

“Charmian!” Cleopatra said. “My women, make me look like a Queen. Go and fetch my best clothing. I am once again — metaphorically — going to the Cydnus River to meet Mark Antony. Iras, go and fetch my clothing.”

Iras exited.

“Now, noble Charmian,” Cleopatra said, “we’ll get things over and done with, indeed. And, when you have done this chore, I’ll give you leave to play until Doomsday — the Day of Judgment.”

Using the royal plural, she said, “Bring to us our crown and all that goes with it.”

Hearing something, she asked, “What is that noise?”

A guard entered the room and said, “A rural fellow who will not be kept from your Highness’ presence insists on seeing you. He brings you figs.”

“Let him come in,” Cleopatra said.

The guard exited to carry out the request.

“How poor an instrument may do a noble deed!” Cleopatra said. “He brings me liberty. My resolution’s fixed, and I have nothing of woman in me — I am not weak. Now from head to foot I am as unchanging as marble; now the fleeting and changing Moon is no planet of mine.”

The guard entered the room, leading a farmer who carried a basket.

“This is the man,” the guard said.

“Go, and leave him here,” Cleopatra said.

The guard exited.

“Have you the pretty snake of the Nile there, the snake that kills without causing pain?” Cleopatra asked.

The pretty snake of the Nile was an asp. Its poison caused the victim to feel sleepy and then die.

“Yes, I have it,” the farmer said, “but I would not be the party who should desire you to touch it, for its bite is immortal; those who die of it seldom or never recover.”

The farmer often misused words. He had said “immortal,” but he had meant “mortal.”

“Do you remember anyone who has died from its bite?”

“Very many, both men and women,” the farmer replied. “I heard about one of them no longer ago than yesterday. She was a very honest woman, but somewhat given to lie, as a woman should not do, except in the way of honesty.”

The farmer’s words had an additional meaning. “Lie” could be understood as “lie with a man,” and “honest” could meant “chaste,” so the farmer was saying, “She was a very honest woman, but somewhat given to lie with a man, as a woman should not do, except with her husband.”

The farmer continued: “I heard how she died of the snake’s bite and what pain she felt; truly, she made a very good report concerning the snake, but he who will believe all that women say shall never be saved by half that women do, but this is most fallible, this snake’s an odd snake.”

The farmer had misused another word. He had said “fallible,” but he had meant “infallible.”

“Go now,” Cleopatra said. “Farewell.”

“I hope that you will satisfied with the snake,” the farmer replied.

He set down his basket but did not leave.

“Farewell,” Cleopatra said.

“You must know something,” the farmer said. “You must understand that the snake will do what a snake does — it will bite.”

“Yes, yes,” Cleopatra said. “Farewell.”

“Know that the snake is not to be trusted except in the keeping of people who know how to deal with snakes because, indeed, there is no goodness in a snake.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Cleopatra said. “I will be careful.”

“Very good. Give it nothing to eat, please, because it is not worth the feeding.”

“Will it eat me?” Cleopatra asked. She wanted the snake to bite her.

“You must not think I am so simple that I don’t know the Devil himself will not eat a woman,” the farmer said. “I know that a woman is a dish for the gods, if the Devil does not dress her for the table. But, truly, these same whoreson Devils do the gods great harm when it comes to women; for out of every ten women that the gods make, the Devils mar five.”

“Well, leave now,” Cleopatra said. “Farewell.”

“Yes, indeed,” the farmer said. “I hope that you are pleased with the snake.”

The farmer exited as Iras returned, carrying Cleopatra’s royal robe, crown, and other items.

“Give me my robe, and put my crown on me,” Cleopatra said. “I have longings in me to be immortal. I shall never again drink the wine of Egypt.”

Charmian and Iras began to dress her.

“Smartly, smartly, good Iras; be quick,” Cleopatra said. “I think I hear Antony calling me. I see him rouse himself to praise my noble act. I hear him mock the luck of Caesar, which the gods give men to excuse their wrath to come. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make fortunate. Husband, I am coming. Let my courage prove that I deserve the title of Antony’s wife! I am fire and air; my other elements — earth and water — I give to baser life. Are you done dressing me? Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips. Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, farewell for a long time.”

Cleopatra kissed both of them, and Iras dropped dead from grief.

Cleopatra said, “Have I the poison of the asp on my lips? Have you fallen? If you and Nature can so gently part, the stroke of death is like a lover’s pinch, which hurts, and which is desired. Do you lie still? If you vanish like this from the earth, you tell the world it is not worth saying farewell to.”

Charmian said, “Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain, so that I may say that the gods themselves are weeping!”

“This thought I have proves that I am base,” Cleopatra said. “If Iras meets Antony with his curled hair before I do, he will demand a kiss from her and spend that kiss that is my Heaven to have.”

She withdrew an asp from the basket and held it to her breast and said, “Come, you mortal wretch, with your sharp teeth immediately untie this intricate knot of life. You poor venomous fool, be angry and dispatch me. Oh, I wish that you could speak so that I could hear you call great Caesar a politically outmaneuvered ass!”

By killing herself, Cleopatra was frustrating Octavius Caesar’s plans to force her to be in his triumphal procession in Rome.

“Oh, Eastern star!” Charmian said. She was calling Cleopatra Venus.

“Silence! Silence!” Cleopatra said. “Do you not see my baby at my breast, sucking the nurse so that she will fall asleep?”

“Oh, my heart, break!” Charmian said.

“As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle — oh, Antony!” Cleopatra said.

She took another snake from the basket and held it to her arm, saying, “I will take you, too. Why should I stay —”

Cleopatra died.

Charmian finished the sentence for her: “— in this vile world? So, fare you well. Now, Death, boast. In your possession lies an unparalleled lass.”

She closed Cleopatra’s eyelids and said, “Soft eyes, close. Golden Phoebus — the Sun — will never be beheld again by eyes so royal! Your crown’s awry. I’ll straighten it, and then play.”

Some guards rushed into the room.

The first guard said, “Where is the Queen?”

“Speak softly,” Charmian replied. “Don’t wake her.”

The first guard said, “Caesar has sent —”

Charmian finished the sentence: “— too slow a messenger.”

She held an asp to her arm and said, “Oh, Death. Come quickly; hurry! I partly feel you.”

The first guard called, “Come here! All’s not well! Caesar’s been fooled.”

The second guard said, “Dolabella was sent here from Caesar; call him.”

“What deed is this!” the first guard said. “Charmian, is this well done?”

“It is well done,” she replied, “and this deed is fitting for a Princess descended from so many royal Kings. Ah, soldier!”

Charmian died.

Dolabella came into the room and asked, “What is going on here?”

The second guard replied, “Everyone is dead.”

Dolabella said, “Caesar, your suspicions have come true in this room. You yourself are coming to see performed the dreaded act that you so sought to stop.”

Outside the room came cries: “Make way for Caesar! Make a path for Caesar!”

Octavius Caesar and others entered the room.

Dolabella said to Caesar, “Oh, sir, you are too accurate an augur; that which you feared would happen has happened.”

“Bravest at the end, Cleopatra guessed at our purposes, and, being royal, she took her own way,” Caesar said. “How did they die? I do not see them bleed.”

“Who was the last person to be with them?” Dolabella asked.

“A simple farmer, who brought her figs,” the first guard said. He pointed and added, “This was his basket.”

“They were poisoned, then,” Caesar said.

“Oh, Caesar,” the first guard said. “Charmian was alive just now; she stood and spoke. I found her straightening the diadem on her dead mistress. Tremblingly, Charmian stood and then suddenly dropped to the floor.”

“Women are weak, but these women were noble,” Caesar said. “If they had swallowed poison, we would know it because their bodies would be swollen, but Cleopatra looks like she is sleeping. She looks as if she would catch another Antony in her strong net of grace.”

Dolabella said, “Here, on her breast, there are small holes and a trickling of blood. The same is true of her arm.”

“This is an asp’s trail,” the first guard said, “and these fig-leaves have slime upon them, such as the asp leaves in the caves of the Nile.”

“Most probably Cleopatra died from the asp’s bite,” Caesar said, “for her physician tells me she had pursued innumerable experiments to find easy ways to die. Pick up her bed; and carry her dead women servants from the monument. She shall be buried by her Antony. No grave upon the earth shall embrace in it a pair of lovers as famous as these two. Tragic catastrophes such as these distress those who cause them; and their story is no less in pity than is the glory of the man who caused them to be lamented. Our army shall in solemn show attend this funeral, and then we shall go to Rome. Dolabella, ensure that this great ceremony is conducted with dignified splendor.”

THE END

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

This entry was posted in Books, Retellings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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