Cleopatra: No more but e’en a woman…

A couple of days back, I noted on Cleopatra’s speeches in Antony and Cleopatra, talking a little about the relative lengths, and the fact that her longest speeches all come after the death of Antony in Act Four, Scene Fifteen.

Today, let’s look at the first and (tied for the) of those longest speeches…

Antony is dead. Cleopatra is devastated, so much so that she collapses and her attendants worry for their queen’s life as well. They wail, calling out her titles, until Charmian calms Iras. And Cleopatra says,

No more but e’en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares. It were for me
To throw my scepter at the injurious gods,
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol’n our jewel. All’s but naught.
Patience is sottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that’s mad. Then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death
Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women?
What, what, good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian?
My noble girls! Ah, women, women! Look,
Our lamp is spent; it’s out. Good sirs, take heart.
We’ll bury him; and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,
Let’s do’t after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away.
This case of that huge spirit now is cold.
Ah women, women! Come, we have no friend
But resolution and the briefest end.
  • IV.xv.77-95

The speech kicks off with the opening spondee (“No more”), denying those titles and saying she is but a woman, one who is slave to her own passions. That first line ends with a feminine ending (the unstressed syllable at the end). What often happens when an enjambed line (one with no punctuation at the end) has a feminine ending, is that the next line starts with a stressed syllable (either a trochee or spondee), in a kind of cross-line iamb. But not here. The second line starts with an iamb. The way I read the line, the next (the second) foot is the spondee (POOR PA – shun); it doesn’t have to be, but I see the rhyme of the first line’s “more” and this line’s “poor” needing emphasis, accenting this alliterative phrase, in much the same way as the repeated M-starting syllables over the next two lines (maids milks meanest) are stressed.

The third and fourth lines are regular blank verse, but they introduce something that will be repeated through this sentence, the eliding of “the injurious gods.” Left alone, the iambic stress would fall on “in” and the “ee” sound in “ious”: the INjurEEus GODS, which would sound freaKING aweFUL. No, instead, we get “th’inJURyus GODS,” with the vowel of “the” swallowed by “in” and the two syllable ending of “-ious” elided to the single syllable “yus.” This elision begins to push the pace of the speech, only to have the following line’s two consecutive spondees (THIS WORLD DID E -qual) slow her down again. Of course, the next line contains two more elisions, “stol’n” and the single syllable enunciation of “jew[e]l.” Now, some might argue that “jewel” should be two syllables here; after all, the line would scan normally. But by eliding “jewel” you enforce a caesura at the end of the sentence, a pause that I feel is earned and needed by a speaker who is so emotionally drained that she cannot regulate the pacing of her lines.

This is Cleopatra without a facade. And the pause seems to work, as the next few lines regulate their meter–there should not be a trochee to start the sentence “Then is” (“THEN is” would negate the question mark that finishes the sentence; “then IS” does not). The last line of that sentence gets a spondee (DARE COME) that allows the alliteration of “death dare” to gain focus.

It’s at this point in the speech that she turns her attention to the women: “How do you, women?” completes the line iambically and with a feminine ending. And here I think the following line could start with an accented first-syllable spondee. In fact, I’d argue that you have five spondees in that line:


/ / / / / / / / ~

What, what, good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian?

She needs to get their attention and this is how it’s done, emphasizing and stressing every (mono-)syllable.

She seems to succeed in getting their attention, as she’s able to return to flowing blank verse in the next line, and continues thusly to the end of the sentence midway through the next line. You almost get the feeling that speaking to them has given her the sense of an audience, and has made her the performer again. Finishing the line, however, are two spondees, with Cleopatra referring to her attendants as “good sirs.” She needs them now to “take heart,” and stressing each syllable (again, all monosyllabic words), she grabs their attention again…as she is about to give them the most painful order she has ever put upon them. Burying him is the easy part, and this line is iambic save for the feminine ending (“noble”).

What comes next is more difficult, as reflected in her broken rhythm:


~ / / ~ ~ / / ~ / ~

Let’s do’t after the high Roman fashion,
~ / / / ~ / ~

And make death proud to take us.

She’s suggesting suicide. As she calls it the “Roman fashion,” it seems like a culturally foreign solution for her and her women; it’s an uncomfortable subject (and thus, iamb trochee iamb trochee trochee). Once it’s out of her mouth, though, she’s free to return to blank verse.

But what is the response of Charmian and Iras?

I’ll argue that if their reaction is immediate and positive, and the line is purely, fully, iambic. However, if there is hesitation on their side, Cleopatra should elide “take us” to “take’s,” so as to enforce a caesura before “Come, away.”

The next line is the strangest in the speech: “This case of that huge spirit now is cold.” It has two separate spondees and it has a very bawdy reading available (into which we will plunge with greater depth, length, and force next month). She could be talking of Antony’s dead body growing cold, but it’s a pretty mundane point to be making this late in the speech. I’d lean into that bawdy reading–you know I would–but why does she feel the need for bawdy? To buttress her attendants’ spirits and resolve? To make light of the situation? Regardless, it seems clear that Cleopatra is back fully in performance mode.

She finishes the speech with a rhyming couplet, the first line of which is filled with possible spondaic stresses, the second perfect iambic pentameter. This couplet is the speech in microcosm: broken rhythm of a pounding heart, followed by calm resolve.

She’s ready for a quick (“briefest”) end.

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