The adjective “great” signifies the power of her sexuality, which has now enthralled two leaders of the Roman Empire, yet there is also an implicit criticism of her emasculating effect as her partners turn from their duty and tarnish their great military reputations. There is also a smutty and gratuitous element in the reference to her previous sexual relationship, with intercourse being compared to “ploughing”; here we see the underlying belief in female subjugation to the man as the one who actively penetrates.
At the end of the extract Enobarbus makes clear his belief that Antony will never sacrifice his relationship with Cleopatra for his marriage to Octavia, indeed could not as Cleopatra is full of “infinite variety” and will always awaken desire. He talks of her capricious nature as alluring rather than repulsive and refers to the sexual appetite she whets by using imagery connected to sumptuous foods: “she makes hungry Where most she satisfies”
The list of virtues present in Octavia, which Maecenas clearly thinks it expedient to remind the others of, are antithetical to the qualities Cleopatra possesses. This only serves to highlight her dullness and lack of vivacity coming so closely after the lyrical account of Cleopatra’s charms. The scene is now set for the disintegration of the triumvirate caused by the libido and infidelity of a man ensnared by the power of a dominant female sexuality. The thing that comes through most strongly from this passage is the cunning and artifice of Cleopatra’s carefully staged meeting with Antony.
She has gone to extreme measures to flaunt her wealth and beauty in front of her people and the entourage from Rome. Enobarbus refers to her: “O’erpicturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature” Here Shakespeare reveals Cleopatra’s vanity and implies the elaborate costume and make up she affected for her role. The artificial is said to outshine the work of nature, which is intended as a compliment but reveals Cleopatra’s reliance on her sexual allure and beauty to keep her in her powerful position, straddling the domains of Egypt and Rome.
Her reliance on her sexuality, which will clearly wane with age, perhaps explains the strength of her jealousy against the younger Octavia, and even her test of Antony’s loyalty during the battle with Octavius, which has such tragic consequences for his own honour and pride. Self-doubt and the ageing process could be seen at the heart of the tragic downfall of both protagonists, and in the excessively sumptuous river journey the audience see how hard Cleopatra has worked for her status.