David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, Scene 5

— 2.5 —

In a room of Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras, and Alexas were speaking. Some attendants were also present.

Cleopatra, who was moody because she was thinking of the absent Mark Antony, ordered, “Give me some music; music is the moody food of us who engage in love.”

The attendants called for music.

Mardian the eunuch entered the room. As a eunuch who had been trained to sing, he had a high but strong voice.

“No, no music,” Cleopatra said. “Let’s play billiards. Come, Charmian.”

“My arm is sore,” Charmian said. “You had better play with Mardian.”

“A woman can play with a eunuch as well as she can play with a woman,” Cleopatra replied.

She asked Mardian, “Come, you’ll play with me, sir?”

“As well as I can, madam.”

Both Cleopatra and Mardian were giving the word “play” a sexual meaning.

Cleopatra said, “And when good will is shown, though it comes too short, the actor may plead pardon.”

Again, some words had sexual meanings. “Will” included the meaning “sexual desire.” “Come” included the meaning “orgasm.” “Short” included a reference to the size of Mardian’s penis. He had been castrated and lost his testicles. He may also have been emasculated and lost his penis.

Cleopatra said, “I’ll not play billiards now. Give me my fishing rod; we’ll go to the river. There, while music plays in the distance for me, I will catch tawny-finned fishes; my bent hook shall pierce their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up, I’ll think each of them is an Antony, and say, ‘Ah, ha! you’re caught.’”

Charmian said, “It was funny when you and Antony wagered over who could catch the most fish. You sent a diver into the water to attach a dead, dried, salted fish to Antony’s hook, which he fervently drew up.”

“That was a funny and good time — one of many we had. I would laugh at him until he lost his patience, and that night I would laugh with him until he regained his patience, and the next morning, before it had reached nine o’clock, I would drink with him until he went to his bed, and then I would put my clothing on him, while I wore the sword he used at the Battle of Philippi where he defeated Brutus and Cassius.”

A messenger entered the room.

“I see that you have come from Italy,” Cleopatra said to him. “Stuff your fruitful tidings in my ears that for a long time have been barren of news.”

“Madam, madam —” the messenger began.

Sensing that the messenger had bad news for her, Cleopatra interrupted, “— Antony is dead! If you say so, villain, you will kill your mistress, but you will receive gold if you tell me that he is well and free, and here you will be able to kiss my bluest veins — a hand that Kings have kissed, and have trembled while kissing.”

“First, madam, he is well,” the messenger said.

“Why, there’s more gold for you,” Cleopatra said, “but, sirrah, note that we are accustomed to say that the dead are well. If that is what you mean, the gold I give you I will melt and pour down your ill-uttering throat.”

“Good madam, listen to me,” the messenger replied.

“Well, go on, I will listen,” Cleopatra said. “But there’s no goodness in your face. If you are going to tell me that Antony is free and healthy — you have an oddly sour face to trumpet such good tidings! And if Antony is not well, you should come like a Fury crowned with snakes, not like a normal man.”

“Will it please you to listen to me?” the messenger asked.

“I have a mind to strike you before you speak,” Cleopatra replied. “Yet if you say that Antony lives, is well, and is either friends with Caesar or not captive to him, I’ll set you in a shower of gold, and rain rich pearls upon you.”

“Madam, he’s well.”

“Well said.”

“And friends with Caesar.”

“You are an honest man.”

“Caesar and he are greater friends than ever.”

“I will make you a rich man.”

“But yet, madam —” the messenger said.

Cleopatra said, “I do not like ‘But yet.’ It takes away from all the good things I previously heard. Damn ‘But yet’! ‘But yet’ is like a jailer who brings forth some monstrous malefactor. Please, friend, pour into my ear all the information you have, the good and bad together: He’s friends with Caesar, he is in a state of health, you say; and you say that he is free.”

“Free, madam! No. I made no such report. He’s bound unto Octavia.”

“For what good turn?”

“For the best turn in the bed.”

The messenger had used the word “bound” to mean “married,” but Cleopatra understood the word to mean “indebted.”

“I am pale, Charmian,” Cleopatra said.

The messenger said, “Madam, he’s married to Octavia, the sister of Octavius Caesar.”

“May you contract the most infectious pestilential disease!”

She hit the messenger and knocked him to the floor.

“Good madam, control yourself,” the messenger said.

“What did you say to me!” Cleopatra shouted. “Get out of here!”

She hit him again and said, “You are a horrible villain! Get out, or I’ll kick your eyes like balls before me; I’ll pull out all your hair.”

She grabbed his hair and dragged him on the floor while saying, “You shall be whipped with wire, and stewed in a salty brine. Your wounds shall sting in an acidic brine used for pickling.”

“Gracious madam,” the messenger said, “I who am bringing you the news did not make the match between Antony and Octavia.”

“If you say that Antony and Octavia are not married, I will give you a province and make your fortune. The blow that I have already given to you shall make up for your moving me to anger, and I will reward you with whatever gift in addition thy modesty can beg.”

“He’s married, madam,” the messenger said, telling her the truth rather than what she wanted to hear.

“Rogue, you have lived too long,” Cleopatra said as she drew a knife.

“I’ll run away,” the messenger said, looking at the knife. “What do you mean by this, madam? I have done nothing wrong.”

He ran from the room and Cleopatra’s presence.

“Good madam, keep control of yourself,” Charmian said. “The man is innocent.”

“Some innocents do not escape the thunderbolt,” Cleopatra said. “Let Egypt melt into the Nile River! Let kindly creatures all turn into serpents! Call the slave back here again. Although I am mad, I will not bite him. Call him back here.”

“He is afraid to come back,” Charmian said.

“I will not hurt him,” Cleopatra said.

Charmian exited the room.

Cleopatra looked at her hands and said, “These hands lack nobility because they strike at a man who is lower in status than I am, especially since I myself am the cause of my being so upset. If I did not love Antony so much, I would not be so upset.”

Charmian and the messenger came back into the room.

Cleopatra said to the messenger, “Come here, sir. Although it is honest to do so, it is never good to bring bad news. You should give a host of tongues to a gracious message; but let ill tidings tell themselves to the person whom the bad tidings hurt.”

“I have done my duty,” the messenger replied.

“Is he married?” Cleopatra asked. “I cannot hate you worse than I already do, if you again say, ‘Yes.’”

“He’s married, madam.”

“May the gods damn you! Do you still say that Antony is married?”

“Should I lie, madam?”

“Oh, I wish you did lie even if half of my Egypt were submerged and made a cistern for scaly snakes! Go, and leave here. Even if you had the face of the very handsome Narcissus, to me you would appear to be very ugly. Is Antony married?”

“I crave your Highness’ pardon,” the messenger said.

“Is he married?”

“Take no offense against a person who does not wish to offend you,” the messenger said. “To punish me for what you make me do seems very unfair. Antony is married to Octavia.”

“It’s a shame that Antony’s fault should make a knave of you,” Cleopatra said. “You did not commit the act that you are sure that Antony committed. Get out of here. The ‘merchandise’ that you have brought from Rome is all too expensive for me. May you be unable to sell it, and in this way may you go bankrupt.”

The messenger exited.

Charmian said to Cleopatra, “Your good Highness, have patience.”

“In praising Mark Antony, I have dispraised Julius Caesar,” Cleopatra said.

“Many times, madam.”

“I have paid the price for it now,” Cleopatra said. “Lead me from hence. I am ready to faint. Oh, Iras! Charmian! It does not matter.”

She ordered, “Go to the messenger, good Alexas. Have him report on the face and figure of Octavia, how old she is, and her personality and character. Don’t let him leave out the color of her hair. Come quickly to me and tell me what he says.”

Alexas exited.

“Let Antony go out of my life forever — no, let him not go forever. Charmian, although Antony is painted one way like a Gorgon with snakes for hair, painted the other way he is like Mars, the god of war.”

She ordered Mardian the eunuch, “Go and tell Alexas to bring me word of how tall Octavia is.”

She added, “Pity me, Charmian, but do not speak to me. Lead me to my chamber.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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