If an imaginary spectrum were constructed and if Octavius Caesar were placed at one end of the spectrum, Antony would waver, swaying and shifting in the middle, and Cleopatra would be found at the other end of the spectrum. Not only is she queen of Egypt, she is the epitome of Egypt itself. She represents all those qualities that Octavius and the practical Romans have denied themselves — enjoyment, playfulness, sensuality, and passion. But like all the other major characters, Cleopatra is more than an allegory of personality traits. She is a full-dimensional, complex human being. In his portrayal of this woman, Shakespeare has taken the view of her as presented in countless legends and blended in many subtler features. She is no longer the one-dimensional, near-mythical queen of a mysterious and erotic country.
Cleopatra is a monarch, but we rarely see her performing any of the functions of one. She meets Antony, falls in love with him, and she appears to be totally devoted to pleasure and to finding fulfillment through her relationship with him. Her love for Antony becomes, ultimately, the most important thing in her life. But the strength of her passion is hidden by the superficial mannerisms which she uses to manipulate people, so that initially in the play, the impression that the audience has of her is simplistic — that is, it is consistent with the stereotype of the Egyptian harlot-queen. Later, Shakespeare transforms her into a complex, confused woman. Tragically, Cleopatra never realizes that the games which she plays to gain attention are often misinterpreted by Antony; yet it is clear that she is devoted to him — more than even he is to her, at first. Nor does she betray him at the end in order to bargain for her own life. One reason for her continual playacting with Antony is that she is basically an insecure woman. Initially, she would like Antony to marry her, but he is married to Fulvia. When Fulvia dies, Antony is almost immediately married to Octavius’s sister, Octavia, in order to cement a political truce recently formed between himself and his rival, Octavius Caesar. Cleopatra fears that if she were Antony’s wife, he would treat her in as cavalier a manner as he has his other women, for he willingly abandons them to spend time with her.
One important thing to note about Cleopatra throughout the play is her technique of subterfuge which she employs to get her way: all her ploys are part and parcel of the culture she lives in, the “mysterious East” which has long been symbolized for Westerners by indirection and pretense. Audiences don’t often realize this fact until the end of the play, but Cleopatra’s manner never affects her essential integrity. It is yet one more illusion in a country known for illusion and mystery to Shakespeare’s audience.