David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 5

— 1.5 —

In Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, and the eunuch Mardian were speaking.

Cleopatra said, “Charmian!”


Cleopatra yawned from boredom and said, “Give me mandragora — a narcotic — to drink.”

“Why, madam?”

“So that I might sleep out this great gap of time during which my Antony is away.”

“You think about him too much,” Charmian said.

“That is treason!” Cleopatra said.

“Madam, I trust that it is not so.”

Cleopatra called, “Eunuch! Mardian!”

“What’s your Highness’ pleasure?” Mardian asked.

“Not now to hear you sing. I take no pleasure in anything a eunuch has. It is well for you that, having been castrated, your thoughts do not fly forth from Egypt as mine do when I think about Antony. Do you have desires?”

“Yes, gracious madam.”


“Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing but what indeed is chaste, yet I have strong desires, and I think about what Venus did with Mars.”

Venus, goddess of sexual desire, had an affair with Mars, god of war.

Cleopatra said, “Oh, Charmian, where do you think Mark Antony is now? Does he stand, or is he sitting? Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse? Oh, happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!”

Cleopatra was thinking that she would like to bear the weight of Antony and be ridden by him in bed.

“Do splendidly, horse! Do you know who is riding you? He is half-Atlas of this Earth; he and Octavius Caesar rule the Earth the way that the Titan Atlas holds up the sky. He is the supporting arm and protective helmet of men. He’s speaking now, or murmuring, ‘Where’s my serpent of old Nile?’ For that is what he calls me. Now I feed myself with most delicious poison. I am thinking about something I cannot at this moment have.

“Think about me, Antony, who am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black, and wrinkled deep with time. The Sun-god Phoebus Apollo tans me and darkens my skin the way that pinches cause bruises to darken skin, and as I grow older, I acquire wrinkles.

“Julius Caesar with the broad forehead, when you were here above the ground, I was a morsel — a delightful dish — for a monarch, and great Gnaeus Pompey used to stand and anchor his aspect — that is, stare — at my face until he died while looking at that for which he lived.”

Gnaeus Pompey was one of the sons of Pompey the Great and the older brother of Sextus Pompey.

Cleopatra’s words had an additional sexual meaning. Part of Gnaeus Pompey used to stand up and be anchored in Cleopatra until he “died” — that is, achieved an orgasm.

Returning from Mark Antony, Alexas entered the room.

He said, “Sovereign of Egypt, hail!”

“How much are you unlike Mark Antony!” Cleopatra said. “Yet, because you have come from him, the great medicine has gilded you with its tincture.”

The “great medicine” was the philosopher’s stone, which was supposed to turn metals of little monetary value into gold and which was supposed to cure disease and prolong life. By associating with Antony, Alexas had acquired a golden tint, according to Cleopatra.

She asked him, “How goes it with my splendid Mark Antony?”

“The last thing he did, dear Queen,” Alexas said, “was to kiss — the last of many doubled kisses — this pearl from the orient. His speech sticks in my heart.”

“My ear must pluck it from your heart,” Cleopatra said.

“‘Good friend,’ said he, ‘say, the firm Roman to the great Queen of Egypt sends this treasure from an oyster. At the Queen’s foot, to mend the petty gift, I will add Kingdoms to her opulent throne. Tell her that all the East shall call her mistress.’ So he nodded, and soberly did mount a hungry-for-battle steed that neighed so loudly that what I would have spoken was drowned out by the beast.”

“Was Antony somber or merry?”

“He was similar to the time of the year between the extremes of hot and cold; he was neither somber nor merry.”

“Oh, he has a well-divided disposition! Take notice, good Charmian, it is just like the man, but take notice of him. He was not somber because that would negatively affect the troops who take their mood from his, and for the benefit of those troops he wishes to shine. He was not merry, which seemed to tell them that he remembered his joy that remained in Egypt. Instead, his mood was in between somber and merry — oh, Heavenly mixture! Whether he is somber or merry, either is becoming to him.”

She then asked Alexas, “Did you meet my messengers?”

“Yes, madam, I met twenty different messengers. Why do you send so many so quickly?”

“Whoever is born on that day I forget to send a letter to Antony shall die a beggar. Only an event that will cause devastation for many future years can make me forget to write Antony.”

She then requested, “Bring me ink and paper, Charmian.”

Then she said, “You are welcome here, my good Alexas.”

Then she asked, “Charmian, did I ever love Julius Caesar the way that I love Mark Antony?”

“Oh, that splendid Julius Caesar!”

“Be choked if you say another such emphatic sentence! Say, instead, the splendid Antony.”

“The valiant Julius Caesar!” Charmian said.

“By Isis, I will give you bloody teeth, if you compare again my man of men with Julius Caesar.”

“By your most gracious pardon, I am singing Julius Caesar’s praises exactly as you used to sing them.”

“I said those things when I was in my salad days, back when I was green in judgment, and cold in blood and sexually immature. But, come, let’s go; get me ink and paper. Antony shall have from me every day a different greeting, or I’ll unpeople Egypt. I will send Antony a letter each day until Egypt has no more people to carry my letters.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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