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An Analysis of the Character of Octavius

From Antony and Cleopatra Ed. Henry N. Hudson. Boston: Ginn & Co.

Octavius, who for more than forty years after the battle of Actium was the acknowledged master of the Roman world, is probably the most intricate and inscrutable character in history. In his plenitude of political astuteness, he seems to have understood, better than any other man we read of, that his true strength was to hold still, and let his adversaries rot themselves with motion.

The later historians, as Merivale and Smith, find that the one principle which gave aim and unity to his earlier life, and reconciled all his seeming contradictions of behaviour, was a fixed resolution to avenge the slaughter of his mighty uncle and adoptive father, whose mantle had fallen upon him, and who, as he believed, would from his seat among the gods hold the aegis of Providence over him.

Be this as it may, at different times he acted in the opposite extremes of cruelty and clemency; yet not, for so it appears, because he was either cruel or clement at heart, but from an insight, or from an instinct, it is uncertain which, of the largest and deepest policy. Under a cold, polished, reserved, and dignified exterior, he concealed a soul of indomitable energy, and a tenacity of purpose which no vicissitudes could shake.

His state of mind at the close of life is thus described by Merivale: "He had made peace with himself, to whom alone he felt himself responsible; neither God nor man, in his view, had any claim upon him. The nations had not proclaimed him a deity in vain; he had seemed to himself to grow up to the full proportions they ascribed to him." In this shape, be it observed, we have the old age of one who, a cool, shrewd, subtle youth of nineteen, had suffered neither interest nor vanity to warp his judgment, nor any roving imaginations to hinder the accomplishment of his purposes.

Schlegel and others have justly observed that the great fame and fortune of Augustus did not prevent Shakespeare from seeing through him, and understanding his character rightly; yet he managed the representation so adroitly as not to offend the prevalent opinion of the time, which, dazzled by the man's astonishing success, rated him much above his true measure.

The Poet sets him forth as a dry, passionless, elastic diplomatist: there is not a generous thought comes from him, except in reference to his sister; and even then there is something ambiguous about it; it seems more than half born of the occasion he has to use her for his self-ends. But then, as he has no keen tastes nor kindling enthusiasms, so he is free from all illusions.

He is just the man for the full-souled Antony to think of with scorn, even while the dread of his better stars holds him to a constrained and studied respect. His artful tackings and shiftings, to keep the ship of State, freighted as it is with the treasure of his own ascendency, before the gale of fortune, make a fine contrast to the frank and forthright lustihood of Antony, bold and free alike in his sinnings and his self-accusings.

Octavius is indeed plentifully endowed with prudence, foresight, and moderation; which, if not themselves virtues, naturally infer, as their root and basis, the cardinal virtue of self-control: and the cunning of the delineation lies partly in that the reader is left to derive them from this source, if he be so disposed; while it is nevertheless easy to see that the Poet regards them as springing not so much from self control, as from the want of any hearty impulses to be controlled.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. Henry N. Hudson. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1909. Shakespeare Online. 8 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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