Antony and Cleopatra: a lil’ more Cleo

Over the last week or so, I’ve been taking a look at the distaff half of Antony and Cleopatra. First, with the length of her speeches, then her longest speech.

Today, let’s say good-bye with her last speech…just three poetic lines.

As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle—
O Antony!—Nay, I will take thee too.
[Applies another asp to her arm.]
What should I stay—
[Dies.]
  • V.ii.311-313

The first line seems to be a continuation of her previous speech, in which she spoke about the “baby at [her] breast” (V.ii.309). It is, of course, not a baby, but rather the poisonous asp that she had put to her breast to kill her. We had learned earlier that the asp “kills and pains not” (V.ii.245), and in the first line of the speech, she overstates the lack of pain–sweet, soft, gentle.

She interrupts herself, though, with the interjection, “O Antony!” She takes another asp to her arm, describing it as a kind of stage direction.

And then we get her dying words:

What should I stay—

She never completes the thought. But what does it mean?

I’ve been grappling with this for hours (literally). I’ve started explications. Erased explications. Started anew. Was frustrated by the sentence structure.

Is she asking if she should stay a “what”? “Stay”… remain? stop? defend against?

And what is this “what”? I mean, if there was a comma after that “What,” that might lend us some idea…but I’ve checked all the digital folios…none has a comma.

I’m giving up. (I’m tired…but what if this is the key to her character?)

Any ideas?

Comment?