Drink plenty of fluids: Antony and Cleopatra

I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

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I felt like the Queen of the Nile.

Recumbent on our peacock-green couch, propped up by our zebra-striped pillows, cooled by the rotating arcs of the floor fan, entertained by the Twitter feed on my laptop, and feted with snacks, I let myself enjoy Super Bowl 50.

That is, once I finally stopped fighting it, the decadent un-productivity of being sick.

I grabbed the roll of toilet paper, ripped off some squares, and honked some green stuff out of my red, chapped nose. I looked over to my wife, who was finishing up some additional items in the kitchen, and smiled. “Do you want Pear, Mango, or Guava?” she asked, referring to some special juices she bought me. “If you’re feeling a better in a little bit, you could even sip some beer.”

The opulence, the luxury!

***

I ended up reading most of The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra in one day, once my head cleared out enough for me to fix my eyes on early modern English.

I had been laid up over the weekend with a sinus infection, the first time I’ve been sick in over two years. I wasn’t sick sick, but enough to be out of commission for a few days. The last thing I felt like doing was cracking open some Shakespeare, though I repeatedly attempted it in foolish denial of my achey limbs and sore throat. Eventually, I gave in and binged decongestants, herbal tea, and a whole lot of Breaking Bad.

I have a hard time being sick. It’s not the discomfort or pain. It’s the idleness. I don’t know how Antony and Cleopatra did it.

***

“The beds in i’th’ East are soft,” as Antony says in Antony and Cleopatra (2.6.50). Antony’s remark, of course, is a sexually charged one, if you’re familiar with the play, as is much of the figuration of Egypt and Cleopatra in the play. Standing in stark contrast is staid, austere Rome, Octavius its designated driver.

Nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

I’m surprised the play didn’t knock the snot right out of me. It sledgehammers you with binaries. East. West. Egypt. Rome. Woman. Man. Vice. Virtue. Erotic. Stoic. Passion. Responsibility.  Private. Public. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack.  And the romance between Antony, triumvir ruling over the Eastern part of the Roman empire, and Cleopatra, the powerful and voluptuous Queen of Egypt, swings manically from pole to pole.

OK, I’ll try to make this summary quick. It’s after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Rome is ruled by a triumvirate: Lepidus, Octavius, and Antony. (We met the latter two in Julius Caesar). Lepidus governs Mediterranean Africa, Octavius Europe, and Antony Asia. Antony has been luxuriating with Cleopatra in Alexandria, Egypt, much to the chagrin of his counterparts and to the neglect of his duties. He is called back to Rome after his wife, Fulvia, who previously and futilely rose up against Octavius, dies, and because Sextus Pompey is threatening their rule. Cleopatra is not happy about him leaving. Back in Rome, Antony makes good with Caesar with a political marriage to his sister, Octavia. Cleopatra gets word. She is not happy about this. The triumvirs make a deal with Pompey and go out drinking (though responsible Caesar goes home early). Antony ends up ditching Octavia and returns to Alexandria, where the two put on some godlike ceremonies. Caesar and Lepidus end up breaking the truce with Pompey. Caesar turns on Lepidus – and Antony. It’s civil war. Antony shamefully loses the Battle of Actium when he ditches his fleet after following Cleopatra, who flees the scene abruptly and for seemingly no reason. Antony loses the next battle and takes it out on Cleopatra. She pretends to kill herself out of grief to re-win his affections. Hearing the news, he botches his own suicide but soon dies after he is presented to Cleopatra. Rather than be trophied in defeat in Rome, Cleopatra smuggles some asps in a fig basket and dies from “all the joy of the worm” (5.2.253). Racy.

Antony and Cleopatra is no doubt epic, dynamic, histrionic. You should read it – nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like a double suicide.

the_death_of_cleopatra_arthur
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur, 1892. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

***

During the Super Bowl Halftime Show, Beyoncé marched out in formation with her dancers – and over, as I think we were all thankful for, Coldplay. They were decked out as Black Panthers and performed the diva’s new song, “Formation,” a reclamation of her roots, her blackness, her femininity.  An anthemic ownership of her own power, as she closes the song: “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”

But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

I find compelling parallels between Queen Bey and the Queen of Egypt. Yes, many pop stars and movie stars have consciously styled themselves as Cleopatra over the years. I think many of these performances, though, tend to focus on Queen Cleopatra’s sexual power. But what really strikes me about the Beyoncé in “Formation” and the Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is their political power – and the way they intertwine sex and power.

Before the events of the play, Cleopatra had already bedded Julius Caesar. In the play, Cleopatra takes her fleet out to the sea in the Battle of Actium. She helps suit up Antony in his armor. She fakes her suicide in an attempt to cool an enraged Antony after he loses the second battle to Octavius. When she learns he wounded himself, she has him lifted up to her own monument for their final, parting kiss. She hides money when the victorious Octavius asks after her accounts. She feigns allegiance to him before, in that most erotic of suicides, the asp bites her breast, else Octavius decorates himself with her in his triumphal parade back in Rome:

…Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o’ tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels. Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’th posture of a whore. (5.2.210-17)

Yes, she kills herself to be eternally reunited with Antony, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that Cleopatra, the object of so much desire, will be the object of no empire. Throughout the play, Cleopatra indeed wields manly power, even to the point of emasculating the once-heroic Antony. As Octavius comments:

…From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he…(1.4.3-7)

Before he stabs himself – actually, before he asks his attendant, the aptly named Eros, to stab him, only to kill himself instead –  Antony cries: “She has robbed me of my sword!” Sword, manhood, eh, eh? And before she brings the phallic asp to her bosom, furthering the Elizabethan metaphor of dying as orgasm, she declares: “…I have nothing / Of woman in me” (5.2.234-5).

Now, in “Formation,” Beyoncé sings:

When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster, cause I slay
If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper, cause I slay
Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some J’s, let him shop up, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
I might get your song played on the radio station, cause I slay
You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay
I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making

The traditional gender identities are reversed. Further complicating it, “slay,” as many cultural critics note, references a now widespread idiom that originated in the African-American gay community for “to succeed.”

What’s more, though, is the water imagery in Antony and Cleopatra and Beyoncé’s “Formation” video that reinforces the gender fluidity the queens are playing with.

Formation screen shot.jpg
Screen shot from a scene in Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video.

In Beyoncé’s video, we see her straddling a police cruiser sinking under the waters of Katrina. She all dances in the bottom of an empty pool. In Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra learns Antony has married Octavia, she cries: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures / Turn all to serpents!” (2.5.78-9). This calls back Antony’s opening declaration of his love for Cleopatra when he is being called back to Rome: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall” (1.1.35-46).

Beyoncé has hot sauce in her bag…Cleopatra asps in her fig basket? OK, OK. I won’t belabor the comparisons, but I think they’re complex and compelling. As Enobarbus describes Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (2.2.240-41). Beyoncé, to be sure, presents us with an equally complex figuration of femininity in “Formation.”

***

These resonances – historic, cultural, feminine, black – are meaningful and very worthwhile. I connected with Antony and Cleopatra, though, on a smaller, more personal level. Two scenes, in particular, stick out for me.

The first is when Antony is out drinking with the guys after the triumvirate strikes a truce with Pompey and company. He’s describing Egypt to his dudes:

ANTONY [to CAESAR]. Thus do they, sir: they take the flow o’th’ Nile
By certain scales i’th’ pyramid. They know
By th’ height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison follow. The higher Nilus swells
The more it promises; as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
And shortly come to harvest.

LEPIDUS. You have strange serpents there?

ANTONY. Ay, Lepidus.

LEPIDUS. Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the operation of your son; so is your crocodile.

ANTONY. They are so. (2.7.16-27)

As always, there’s always much more under the surface of Shakespeare’s words, but as these most powerful of men party, it’s fun to imagine Antony sort of bragging about Egypt to his boys. Maybe even touting Alexandria as a way to try to justify to himself his problematic relationship with Cleopatra – his “lascivious wassails” (1.5.56) – that in no small part causes the whole mess of the play.

Meanwhile, Cleopatra asks her attendants to get a look at Octavia:

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–let him not, Charmian (2.6.112-16)
For all her power, she’s still insecure, still jealous.

Celebrities–they’re just like us!

And oh yeah, this is outrageous. One of Octavius’ men, Decretas, presents Antony’s sword to him:

…This is his sword.
I robbed his wound of it. Behold it stained
With most noble blood. (5.1.24-26).

But seriously, despite the epic scale of Antony and Cleopatra, despite the dizzying heights of their passion, Shakespeare still gives us some intimate glimpses into their private lives.

***

And this is where I, personally, register romance: on this smaller, more intimate plane.

Yes, for all of the themes of empire, politics, sex, power, and gender that attract my academic proclivities, I must remember one can still Antony and Cleopatra for its legendary romance. I can hear my wife asking, “Honey, would you botch your suicide for me?” Well, I’d definitely get a fever.

Being sick is rotten, no doubt, especially when you’re really sick. But when you’re, you know, moderately sick – feeling lousy enough to take a day off from work but not so ill you can’t watch an excessive, truly excessive amount of Netflix – it’s nice to be taken care of.

Gender roles are fluid in our abode. My wife’s the breadwinner. I tend to most of the chores: laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking. And I have a hard time relaxing, partially due to my own existential neuroses and partially to America’s own workaholic pathologies. I need to be reading something, writing something, creating something, cleaning something or else I feel I’m squandering the 80 good years we have here on earth.

So, when I am under the weather, it’s nice – nay, it’s lavish – to be tenderly ministered to: soup, Super Bowl, and my wife’s permission, nay, order, to do absolutely nothing. Let Rome in Tiber melt!

Author: John Kelly

I write about word origins buzzing in news and culture at mashedradish.com (@mashedradish). Last year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare and blogged about it at shakespeareconfidential.com (@bardconfidensh). You can also find my writing on Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Oxford Dictionaries, Nameberry, and Strong Language.

3 thoughts on “Drink plenty of fluids: Antony and Cleopatra

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