An Analysis of the Character of Octavia
From Antony and Cleopatra Ed. Henry N. Hudson. Boston: Ginn & Co.
Octavia has furnishings enough for the heroine of a great tragedy; but she is not fitted to shine in the same sphere with Cleopatra, as her mild, steady, serene light would needs be paralyzed by the meteoric showers of the Egyptian enchantress. The Poet has hardly done justice to her sweet and solid qualities; and indeed, from the nature of the case, the more justice she had received, the more she would have suffered from the perilous brilliancy of her rival.
Yet he shows that he fully knew and felt her beauty and elevation of character, by the impression that others take of her. Her behaviour in the play is always dignified, discreet, and womanly; while her "holy, cold, and still conversation," the dreaded chastisements of her sober eye, her patience, modesty, and silent austerity of reproof, as these are reflected from the thoughts of those who have given themselves most cause to wish her other than she is, gain her something better than our admiration.
The Poet's good judgment in not bringing her and Cleopatra together is deservedly celebrated. But indeed there needed less of intellectual righteousness than he possessed, to see that such a woman as Octavia shines best in the modesty that keeps her from shining, especially when such an unholy splendour is by. Her best eulogy, considering the known qualities of her husband, is written in the anguish of jealousy which Cleopatra suffers on learning the fact of Antony's marriage; wherein, by the way, all the witching arts of the queenly siren are for the moment quenched in the natural feelings of the woman:
O Iras! Charmian! -- 'Tis no matter. --
Go to the fellow, good Alexas; bid him
Report the feature of Octavia, her years,
Her inclination; let him not leave out
The colour of her hair: bring me word, quickly. --
Let him for ever go: -- let him not, Charmian;
Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,
The other way's a Mars. Bid you Alexas
Bring me word how tall she is. Pity me, Charmian,
But do not speak to me. Lead me to my chamber.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra and Octavia are two contrasting characters who come from rivaling societies. The differences between the two women, in both appearance and manner, emphasizes the differing ideals of their respective civilizations. The Roman idea of Egypt is that it is a country of magic and unbridled passion, whereas their account of themselves is one of calm demeanor and rational thought. Both Cleopatra and Octavia seem to represent the ideals of the civilizations they belong to.
Cleopatra is a woman of incredible beauty, charisma and allure. At the beginning of the play, Enorbarbus acknowledges her appeal when he describes the moment when Antony first saw Cleopatra, coming down the Nile River in her barge:
For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilioncloth of gold, of tissue