By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have / Immortal longings in me’: so begins Cleopatra’s final speech in Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. Her ‘immortal longings’ are her longings for immortality, her desire to leave behind the mortal world and enter the next.
Curiously, it isn’t clear whether the historical Cleopatra died after letting an asp, a venomous snake, bite her: her physician Olympos didn’t mention the cause of her death. As so often, the source of the asp-bite information is the biographer Plutarch, but Plutarch can’t always be relied on.
Indeed, even Plutarch himself doubted it, since after he mentioned the asp biting Cleopatra, he then implied that some sort of implement (oddly, of all things, an ancient cheese-grater) was used to introduce the venom into her body. Another historian, Cassius Dio, suggested that a needle had been used.
But Shakespeare runs with Plutarch’s suggestion (or one of his suggestions, anyway) that Cleopatra actually held an asp and allowed it to administer a deadly bite to her body. After all, it’s more dramatic – and it allows Shakespeare to write one of his greatest and most off-the-wall lines in the whole of his oeuvre: ‘I wish you joy o’th’worm.’ (These immortal lines are spoken by the Clown, directly before Cleopatra commands her servants, ‘Give me my robe, put on my crown …’)
At this point in the play, Mark Antony has died in Cleopatra’s arms and Octavius is marching to capture Cleopatra, planning to parade her through the streets to make an example of his conquest. Cleopatra has no intention of allowing this to happen. If she’s going down, she’s going down her way.
As is our habit here at Interesting Literature, let’s go through Cleopatra’s speech from Act 5 Scene 2 of Antony and Cleopatra, taking it section by section and summarising its meaning and analysing its language and imagery as we go.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Having ordered her attendants, Iras and Charmian, to hand her robe to her and put her crown on her head – she intends to die, as she has lived, a queen – Cleopatra expresses her longing for death so she may pass on to the afterlife. She observes that she will never again drink Egyptian wine. Mortal pleasures are finished for her now.
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
‘Yare’ is an old nautical word meaning ‘quick’: Cleopatra tells her servant Iras to hurry. Cleopatra imagines she can hear Mark Antony, her lover, calling to her from the afterlife, Antony having died in Cleopatra’s arms earlier in the play. She says she can see him (in her mind’s eye, presumably) stirring again in order to praise her noble act: i.e., her decision to end her life and join him.
She then imagines she can hear Antony mocking Caesar’s luck, which the gods give to men to balance out the anger they will later visit upon those same men. In other words, Octavius – who was indeed noted for being unusually fortunate – may be the conquering hero now, but Mark Antony has been there and done that, and knows that one’s luck doesn’t last forever. His didn’t. Cleopatra calls to Mark Antony, telling him she is coming to join him. Cleopatra hopes her courage (to take her own life) will prove her worthy of the title of Antony’s ‘wife’.
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
[Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies]
Of the four classical or Aristotelian elements, fire and air were the more spiritual elements. As John Wilders observes in his notes to the excellent Arden edition, “Antony and Cleopatra” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare), the ‘other elements’, earth and water, Cleopatra relinquishes back to the earth from which she came.
She instructs Iras and Charmian, her trusted attendants, to kiss her, experiencing the last bit of warmth from her lips (note this is the second time Cleopatra has referenced her lips in this speech, echoing the reference to wine passing her lips for the last time: a reminder of her sensual nature and her deep love for Antony). After she bids farewell to them with a kiss, Iras falls and dies – perhaps from the lethal effects of the poison on Cleopatra’s lips.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.
‘Lips’ again: now she is asking whether the venom from the ‘aspic’ (i.e., the asp) is on her lips and is responsible for Iras’ fall. Addressing her faithful attendant who now lies dead at her feet, she apostrophises the dead Iras: if you can part with nature (and life) so easily, then death is like a playful pinch from a lover: it hurts, but you still desire it. If you can part the world so easily, the world is not worth saying goodbye to: in other words, the afterlife is infinitely preferable. She is bracing herself for her own demise.
Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain; that I may say,
The gods themselves do weep!
Charmian entreats the thick cloud overhead to dissolve into rain, so that she might claim that the gods are weeping for Iras’ death.
This proves me base:
If she first meet the curlèd Antony,
He’ll make demand of her, and spend that kiss
Which is my heaven to have.
Cleopatra confesses to a ‘base’ or petty worry: that if Iras meets Antony in the afterlife before Cleopatra gets there, he’ll want Iras instead, and give her the kiss which she wants for herself.
Come, thou mortal wretch,
[To an asp, which she applies to her breast]
Cleopatra addresses the asp as ‘mortal’, not just in contrast to her own hope of immortality in the afterlife with Antony: she is using the word primarily to mean ‘deadly’, as in ‘mortal combat’.
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch. O, couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass
‘Knot intrinsicate’ means ‘intrinsic knot’ or ‘intricate knot’: ‘intrinsicate’ is used as an adjective. As Wilders notes, the image of the knot was often used to represent the force tying the soul to its body.
She calls upon the asp to use its sharp teeth to untie the knot linking Cleopatra to life. She tells it to get angry and bite her, ‘dispatching’ her to heaven. She wishes the snake could speak, so that it could mock Octavius for being thwarted (in his plan to take Cleopatra alive).
O eastern star!
Charmian addresses Venus, the planet which is visible in the east towards sunrise.
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?
Cleopatra likens the asp to a baby sucking at her breast, as if she were a wetnurse and the snake was a small child. It was an old idea that Cleopatra got the snake to bite her breast, although Plutarch (Shakespeare’s source for the play) states that she was bitten in the arm. The breast is, however, in keeping with the sensual tone of this scene.
O, break! O, break!
Charmian now calls upon her heart to break at the sadness of the scene.
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle, –
O Antony! – Nay, I will take thee too.
[Applying another asp to her arm]
Cleopatra decides that she may as well take another snake and goad that to bite her too. The poison is as sweet as balm, and as soft and gentle as the air. She thinks again of Antony, whom she hopes to be joining in the afterlife soon.
What should I stay –
Cleopatra’s dying words, as famous as Hamlet’s four-word ‘The rest is silence’, mean ‘Why should I stay’, of course. Whether she meant to say more and death takes over her suddenly, or whether these words constitute a final, complete (rhetorical) question), we cannot know. But the words neatly relate back to her talk of ‘Immortal longings’ at the beginning of her dying speech.