Antony and Cleopatra: Leaving Bawdy-ville [EXPLICIT]


A couple of days back, I took a look at the bawdy-ful opening act of Antony and Cleopatra. It wasn’t really vulgar, but it was dirty.

Let’s take a look at the rest of the play… (the more clean-minded of you are excused)

In Act Two, Scene One’s meeting between Pompey and Menas, Pompey doesn’t have high regards for either Cleopatra, whom he calls “salt” (II.i.21), meaning “lewd” or “lascivious” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 230), a woman who can use witchcraft, beauty and lust (II.i.22), or “the ne’er lust-wearied” (II.i.38) Antony who is currently in “the lap of Egypt’s widow” (II.i.37).

If Cleopatra is a less than positive figure for Pompey and his followers, she’s in no better stead with Octavian and his: in the next scene, Agrippa says of her, “She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; // He plowed her, and she cropped” (II.ii.237-38). While the first line of that could be a simple statement of Caesar putting his weapon to rest, the second line cannot be read chastely–Caesar plowed her (put a blade to her soil and planted a seed), and she bore fruit (gave birth). The same disdain is shown by with Enobarbus, who states,

Age cannot wither [Cleopatra], nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
  • II.ii.245-50

The first sentence here (the first line and a half) seem pretty straightforward: age cannot affect Cleopatra, nor can rules of propriety (custom) rein in her larger-than-life persona. That’s probably it. However (and you knew there’d be a “however”), it’s interesting the words Shakespeare chooses here, words that in other grammatical uses take on a more sexual bent. “Custom” could also mean “sexual intercourse as a habit” (Bawdy, 114), and “stale” was another word for prostitute; Shakespeare’s audience would have heard these words and understood their “other” meanings. The next sentence is most likely sexual: most women, Enobarbus says, when they satisfy a man, satisfies him to gratification, maybe even beyond (“cloy, v.1.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press), but Cleopatra, when she satisfies a man’s carnal appetites, only makes him hornier. And how does she do this? The vilest things (acts? desires?) are made into their perfect (dare I say Platonic?) ideal in Cleopatra, so much so that priests bless her when she is lewd (riggish).

In Act Two, Scene Five, Cleopatra recalls her times with Antony,

I laughed him out of patience; and that night
I laughed him into patience; and next morn,
Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed,
Then put my tires and mantles on him, whilst
I wore his sword Philippan.
  • II.v.19-23

I’m not sure, but that whole patience thing just feels sexual to me (of course, it does), and even if that isn’t the case, the next drunken morning when he’s wearing her clothes (“tires and mantles”) and she’s wearing the sword he used when he defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi–that feels like sexual role playing (or in this case, cosplaying?). Either that, or she’s pranking him like frat boys drawing dicks on their passed-out brothers’s faces.

And then we go through a long dry patch with no sex (pun intended).

When we get back to bawdy, it’s definitely not fun-bawdy, but angry-bawdy. In Act Three, Scene Thirteen, Antony returns to see Octavian’s messenger Thidias kissing Cleopatra’s hand, and Antony loses his ever-lovin’ mind. He says,

I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar’s trencher; nay, you were a fragment
Of Gneius Pompey’s, besides what hotter hours,
Unregistered in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously picked out. For I am sure,
Though you can guess what temperance should be,
You know not what it is.
  • III.xiii.116-122

He calls her a morsel, something to be consumed sexually by Caesar. He calls her “a piece” (fragment) for Pompey the Great. He ponders other lovers she’s had (her “hotter hours…luxuriously picked out”) that he doesn’t know about (“unregistered in vulgar fame”). He says that she might be able to guess at what chastity is, she does not know it herself. He is sure that he’s been cuckolded, and thus wants to run with the bulls on Basan (“O that I were // Upon that hill of Basan to outroar // The horned herd!” [III.xiii.126-8]).

Soon enough, however, Cleopatra convinces him of her love and loyalty, and he calls for a “gaudy” (III.xiii.183) night together. “Come on, my queen,” Antony tells her, “There’s sap in’t yet” (III.xiii.192). Sure, that might mean life coursing through his veins–or come in his cock.

The next bawdy bit I didn’t even consider until the other day when discussing Cleopatra’s longest speech in the play–her statement of resolve and purpose after Antony’s death in Act Four, Scene Fifteen. Near the end of the speech, after she has told her attendants what they’re going to do (commit suicide), she seems to drop into double entendre: “Come, away. // This case of that huge spirit now is cold” (IV.xv.92-3). The completely clean-minded would say this means, “Let’s go. The body that once held Antony’s great spirit is cold.” Only we need to remember that “case” also connote pussy, and “spirit” could also refer to “semen” (Bawdy, 243), so that should could be saying, “My pussy, that once held the great come of Antony, is now cold.” And for Cleopatra that would mean she has nothing else to live for, and it’s time to die. But why would she do this, you ask? Maybe to make her attendants laugh, to break the brutal tension of the moment. Hard to believe? No. Especially given she leads up to this line with “make death proud to take us. Come, away” (V.ii.92). Death=orgasm. Take=sexually. Come=orgasm. It could work; and if not for a modern audience, Shakespeare’s would have absolutely heard it.

The final bit of bawdy is awkwardly placed just before her suicide. The “Clown” who comes to deliver the fig basket (and remember from our Act One bawdy-fest what figs resembled) that carried the asps (hmmmm, phallic snakes in a basket that usually carries testicle-like fruit?), discusses the “worm” (V.ii.256) and the “very honest woman, but something given to lie, as a woman should not do but in the way of honesty–how she died of the biting of it” (V.ii.252-255). His language is filled with bawdy references: “honesty” (sexual chastity), “lie” (have sex), “worm” (phallic, no doubt). It doesn’t take too dirty a mind to see how this could be played dirtily.

But it feels even more inappropriately placed than Cleopatra’s bit of bawdy in the Act Four speech.

Is this awkwardness Shakespeare’s way of saying that sexuality–so much a part of the appeal of Egypt (and her queen)–no longer fits in this world (or in this play)?

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