Between the characters of Octavia and Cleopatra there exists a "moral contrast" (Bree 110) -a conflict of Roman ideals and Cleopatra's foreignness. Throughout the tradition of Cleopatra, authors, including Plutarch, Shakespeare, Dryden, and Fielding, as well as filmmakers such as Mankiewicz, have separated Cleopatra from Rome and Octavia because of her combination of political power and sexuality: "The notion of Cleopatra that we have inherited identifies her primarily as being the adversary, the Other. Her otherness is twofold. She is an Oriental, and she is a woman…" (Hughes-Hallett 4). If Cleopatra represents the 'Other', then Octavia exemplifies Rome itself. She embodies all of the characteristics of a proper Roman wife: beauty, grace, wisdom, and above all obedience to her husband. Octavia is Antony's celebrated wife throughout the literature although their relationship is dispassionate, while Cleopatra's "otherness" prevents her from attaining the respectable title of Antony's wife despite their love. Octavia acts as a character foil for Cleopatra, highlighting Cleopatra's foreign nature and her sexuality, which the Romans find unattractive and unacceptable in the character of a woman.
Plutarch: The Life of Marcus Antonius
I begin my study of the comparison of Cleopatra and Octavia with Plutarch's The Life of Marcus Antonius, a so-called "historical text." Although Plutarch's writing is perhaps our most trusted source on Cleopatra, his "factual" manuscript is by no means unbiased. Plutarch, as we will see with Shakespeare, Mankiewicz, Dryden, and Fielding in the ensuing pages, presents Cleopatra as the opposite of Octavia. While Octavia represents the Roman ideal of a woman, Cleopatra is a self-seeking Egyptian who seduces Antony and blinds him from his Roman duties.
Plutarch views Cleopatra as a purely negative influence over Antony: "if any spark of goodness or hope of rising were left in him, Cleopatra quenched it straight and made it worse than before" (332). To exercise this negative influence, Plutarch believes that Cleopatra holds special, mysterious charms and magic by which she seduces Antony. "Cleopatra has brought him beside himself by her charms and amorous poisons" (344). The Romans, including Plutarch, refuse to believe that Antony would turn against them unless he was under a spell of sorts and therefore Cleopatra must hold a mystical power over him. Associating magic or special charms with Egyptian woman is a common misconception held by the Romans, and Cleopatra suffers because of their prejudice. Plutarch portrays Cleopatra as a type of a witch who lures Antony away from Rome and seduces him to carry out her desires.
Plutarch's Octavia is in every way the ideal Roman woman and wife. She obeys Antony's decisions and does not control him or influence him in any way. Whereas Cleopatra represents a negative influence on Antony, Octavia has a purely positive impact on his character. Plutarch celebrates...