Scene One. Alexandria. Caesar's camp. Decretas brings Antony's bloody sword to Caesar. Octavius weeps, and his men seem touched. Octavius says that fate seemed to make them foes, and he mourns the loss of his old comrade-in-arms. An Egyptian arrives. Cleopatra is waiting to know what Caesar intends. Octavius assures the Egyptian that he will be generous, and the Egyptian returns to Cleopatra. Octavius decides to send Proculeius to Cleopatra. He orders Proculeius to keep her alive, no matter what. He plans to have her paraded in Rome at his triumphal procession. Then he invites all into his tent, where he will show them how reluctantly he was led into the war.
Scene Two. Alexandria. The monument. Cleopatra reflects that Caesar is merely Fortune's knave, a pawn of destiny. Proculeius arrives, and Cleopatra asks him to tell Caesar that she must beg for Egypt to be kept for her heirs. She also says she is ready to meet Caesar face to face. Proculeius is merely stalling: his men sneak up behind the Queen and take her prisoner, and when she attempts to stab herself he disarms her. Cleopatra proclaims that she would rather die than be displayed before Rome. Dolabella arrives, relieving Proculeius. He is kind to Cleopatra, and listens as she describes her dream of Antony, a vision of Antony far greater than any real mortal could be. Dolabella expresses sympathy for her grief. She asks him if Caesar means to parade her in triumph, and Dolabella tells her the truth: "Madam, he will. I know't" (5.2.110).
Caesar arrives. He warns her that if she commits suicide, he will kill her children. Cleopatra lays an inventory of her treasure before him, but the secret reserve kept for herself is revealed by her treacherous servant, Seleucus. Cleopatra is enraged by her servant's treachery, and dismisses him. Caesar treats her with extreme courtesy throughout their meeting.
When he and his train leave, Cleopatra says his kind words are tricks meant to keep her from proper action. She sends Charmian off on a secret errand. Dolabella returns, and tells her that she has three days before Caesar will take her and her children out of Egypt. He leaves. Cleopatra regales Iras with horror stories of what they will all have to endure in Rome, held up before the ridicule of the Roman mob. When Charmian returns, the queen has Charmian and Iras go to fetch her best attire. A clown brings a basket, in which is an asp [a poisonous snake, called an "aspic" by Shakespeare]. The clown leaves, and Cleopatra gives her final speech. She kisses the maids goodbye, and Iras falls dead. Cleopatra holds the asp to her breast, and receives the bite. She applies another asp to her arm. She dies. Charmian sets her queen's crown straight. When guards rush in, Charmian applies an asp to herself. Dolabella returns, followed shortly afterward by Caesar. Octavius cannot help but admire her end. He announces that she will be buried with Antony. He and his men will attend the funeral, and return to Rome.
Antony is dead; the whole of Act Five is reserved for Cleopatra. Her decision to kill herself wavers, and probably she would not follow her lover to death if given other options, but Caesar's intentions driver her to it.
Octavius weeps to hear of Antony's death, showing a more human side, but never is it suggested that humanity could stand in the way of his ambition. His speech of sorrow for his old friend does not negate the fact that he denied Antony the chance to live on, stripped of power, as a private citizen. Octavius, also, is capable of theatricality, but his performances all serve a political purpose. He probably feels genuine sorrow for Antony, but that does not mean he is not conscious of the performance he's giving for his men. Agrippa echoes Enobarbus: "And strange it is / That nature must compel us to lament / Our most persisted deeds" (5.1.28-30). Agrippa seems convinced of the tears' sincerity. As he sees it, Octavius' tears come because of human "nature," but one cannot help but remember the lines in their first incarnation, also the first time Agrippa heard them: "What willingly he [Antony] did confound [destroyed] he wailed" (3.2.58). Enobarbus does not speculate about the true cause of the tears. He is too cynical to ascribe them to nature, and one misses his insight now.
The sincerity of Octavius' action is brought under further scrutiny when he asks the men around him to come to his tent, to see documents showing how unwillingly he went to war. As Shakespeare depicts it, Octavius was the instigator of the war with Antony. His decisions were ruthless and all to a purpose. Such a man can inspire awe and respect, but not love.
The theme of loyalty can be explored in the final fates of many of the characters. Different kinds and degrees of loyalty, and loyalty's consequences, make an excellent paper topic. Charmian and Iras remain loyal unto death, but Seleucus betrays his mistress now that her Fortune is fallen. Caesar's men are loyal, but then again he is the winner. And Dolabella's loyalty to his master is not complete. Enchanted by the unfortunate queen, he betrays his master's wishes. Antony remains loyal to Cleopatra, despite everything, but his last words concern his own honor. Cleopatra remains loyal to her own individuality.
Cleopatra's musings about Octavius return us to the theme of fate and historical necessity. She argues to herself that in some ways Octavius is not the true agent of events: "Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave / A minister of her will" (5.2.3-4). Her own final actions are not exactly in defiance of Fate, but somehow apart from it. She will make sure that despite the change of Fortune, no fundamental compromise is made to her identity. Though the world will be Roman, she will remain Cleopatra.
She does not stick to the fourth act-closing resolution of suicide, until she knows what Caesar intends for her. Her withholding of an honest inventory of her riches suggests she had planned to survive. At the same time, she has made preparations for suicide: looking on her corpse, Caesar says that her doctors warned that "She hath pursued conclusions [experiments] infinite / Of easy ways to die" (5.2.354-5). But Dolabella's warning is enough to stiffen her resolve. Not even the threat against her children can give her pause. On this point, Shakespeare omits an important part of Plutarch, where Cleopatra's attempt at self-starvation ended because Caesar threatened her children. Shakespeare has changed Plutarch to suit his own portrait of her, in line with the omission of any on-stage presence for Cleopatra's children.
Her last speech is a show-stopper, including the memorable "I am fire, and air; my other elements / I give to baser life" (5.2.289-90). When the dismayed guards discover Cleopatra dead, Charmian's last words are taken straight from Plutarch: "It is well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings" (5.2.326-7).
As a tactician, she rates poorly. She is often kind to her servants, but she also bullies them. She has aspects of a tyrant. She destroys her lover's prospects, and having done so, wavers in following him to the grave for love's sake. But Cleopatra remains one of Shakespeare's most charismatic creations. Her power is such that Dolabella betrays his master's intentions, to save this foreign queen from humiliation. Her ladies-in-waiting willingly follow her to death. Charmian sees her as forever young, and despite her middle-aged status refers to her as "lass" (5.2.316) and "princess" (5.2.326). Antony, who casts aside other women easily, forgives her again and again for her excesses. She is a complicated, self-dramatizing, difficult character. But even the victorious Caesar is forced to admire her and all her wiles when he sees her dead body: ". . . she looks like sleep / As she would catch another Antony / In her strong toil of grace" (5.2.345-7).
Octavius will become Augustus, the great ruler of the Roman Empire. But Cleopatra's assessment is partially true. Octavius is known in history as the agent of Rome's transformation into Empire, but no great plays have been written about him. The poet's natural subject is Cleopatra. Because Cleopatra captures the imagination of writers like Shakespeare, her name has ultimately become even more famous than that of her conqueror.