Cleopatra’s loss of control in act 2, scene 5 shows not only her tempestuous nature but also the true extent of her feelings for Antony. The scene begins with the Queen fondly recalling experiences with Antony. She had out-drunk him, dressed him up in her clothes and worn his sword, with which he had won the battle of Philippi. Her daydreaming and the sudden interruption that follows set up an antithesis between her fantasizing and the harsh reality of what has just happened. A messenger arrives and Cleopatra immediately fears the worst, asking if her lover is dead.
Her emotions swing wildly as she first says that such news would kill her, then says that she will give gold and offer her hand for the messenger to kiss if he reports that Antony is alive. Her volatile emotions are shown in her response to the messenger’s reassurance that Antony is alive. The messenger tries to give his news but Cleopatra is caught up in her own fears. She declares the messenger’s face looks too ‘tart’ to report good news, and then says that if the news is bad he should come ‘like a fury’.
Again he tries to deliver his report, and again Cleopatra unleashes a torrent of threats and promises of reward, one moment seeming about to strike him, the next promising to set him in ‘a shower of gold’ and give him rich pearls. The messenger delivers his news in small snippets- that Antony is well, and friendlier with Caesar than before. Despite the happy reception of each of these pieces of news, the messenger is aware he must get to his main point that will undoubtedly provoke the Queen’s ungovernable wrath once more.
Two short lines create a fantastic moment of suspense- the messenger attempts to push on to the bad news that Antony has married Octavia with the words ‘but yet, madam’, to which Cleopatra replies ‘I do not like but yet. ‘ The audience savours the anticipation of the fury that is about to descend on this hapless messenger. The Queen embroiders on her distaste for ‘But yet’, gives a quick recap of what she has gathered so far and finally demands the messenger should make all clear. Shakespeare strings out the suspense a little longer, leading up to the messenger’s admission that Antony is bound to Octavia ‘for the best turn i’th’bed’.
The long, drawn out delivery of this information has a cataclysmic effect on Cleopatra: ‘The most infectious pestilence upon thee! ‘ A hectic scene unfolds, with Cleopatra striking and throwing abuse at the messenger, threatening to tear out his eyes and ‘unhair’ his head. She seizes him and drags him around by the hair, still shrieking dire threats, such as ‘thou shalt be whipped with wire, and stewed in brine. ‘ The messenger’s all too reasonable reply, still addressing her as ‘gracious madam’, stands in marked contrast to Cleopatra’s inflamed language. But she is still completely possessed by her ever-changing emotions.
She promises to make the messenger the ruler of a province if only he will say it is not so. Having once again confirmed that Antony is married, she draws a knife and threatens to kill him, but he fortunately escapes, leaving Charmian to reason with her. She reminds her that the messenger is innocent, but even her friend comes under the same ‘hairdryer treatment’, the Queen stating that ‘some innocents scape not the thunderbolt. ‘ Her mood does gradually calm, yet struggling to control her temper once more upon the return of the messenger she explodes ‘the gods confound thee.
‘ She finally accepts the reality that she has lost her lover, and lets fly a searing curse upon her own country, showing the sheer magnitude of her rage: ‘so half my Egypt were submerged and made a cistern for scaled snakes! ‘ The Queen comments on how ugly the messenger appears to her, and twice demands to have him confirm that Antony is married. She at last dismisses him with a wish that he be ruined by the news he has brought. Her passionate hysteria subsides, but she continues to display the self-obsessed, capricious aspects of her personality, praising her old love, Julius Caesar, above Antony.
Her controlling nature is also shown when she sends Alexas to question the messenger about Octavia’s looks, age and temperament, wanting to know everything about the rival whom she thinks has stolen Antony from her, meticulously adding a final detail, ‘let him not leave out the colour of her hair. ‘ Her violent mood swings return as she wishes Antony gone forever, then immediately revokes it. In a striking antithetical image to round of the scene, the Queen says that ‘he (Antony) be painted one way like a Gorgon, the other way’s a Mars. ‘ The opposition of ‘Gorgon’ and ‘Mars’ symbolizes Cleopatra’s character just as much as Antony’s.
The complexities of her character emerge again in the parting command she delivers, that Alexas also find out just how tall Octavia is, the wish to know another seemingly trivial detail just one small part of Cleopatra’s infinite variety. What can be gathered about Cleopatra in this one scene is almost as much as the rest of the first two acts. Just before the messenger appears on stage Cleopatra could be perceived as genuinely in love, or at least showing signs of being so, wistfully reminiscing about good times she has had with Antony.
By the end of the scene, the audience could be forgiven for forgetting about this brief display of affection; Cleopatra has been through a frenzied, violent rage, attacking an innocent messenger and (in performance) raising her voice to one of her closest friends. We have already seen signs of her high intelligence (and abuse thereof), manipulation and self absorbed nature in the scenes leading up to the end of act 2, all in all moulding a character who thus far has been shown to be brilliant in so many ways, yet equally terrifying.