My favorite lines in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra come at the very end of the play, in Act V, Scene 2, when Cleopatra is committing suicide by applying two poisonous snakes, or asps, to her breasts. I have included the words of her maid Charmian in the excerpt, although only...
My favorite lines in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra come at the very end of the play, in Act V, Scene 2, when Cleopatra is committing suicide by applying two poisonous snakes, or asps, to her breasts. I have included the words of her maid Charmian in the excerpt, although only the dying speech that Shakespeare has imagined for Cleopatra are germaine to my example.
To an asp, which she applies to her breast
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
O eastern star!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?
O, break! O, break!
As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,--
O Antony!--Nay, I will take thee too.
Applying another asp to her arm
What should I stay--
I especially like the metaphor about life being an intrinsicate or highly complicated and convoluted knot, like the famous Gordian Knot, and the notion of the asp being able to untie it with its fangs. The poison immediately starts to work, as can be seen in the fact that Cleopatra is losing touch with reality and is imagining that the asp is a baby sucking at her breast and gradually putting her to sleep as it relieves her of the burden of her breast milk.
Then Shakespeare shows a real stroke of his great poetic genius when he has her say, "Nay, I will take thee too." What she means by "Nay" is something like "Don't fret!" She is imagining that the other asp, which is undoubtedly raising up and weaving back and forth in the basket, is another hungry baby.
Cleopatra makes death seem gentle and easy. I like the way she looks for analogies to describe the sensations she is experiencing as she is slowly losing consciousness. She says death is as sweet as balm, as soft as air--and then when she looks for a word to go with "as gentle as," she thinks of Mark Antony, who must have been a gentle lover. It is when she thinks of Antony that she applies the other asp to her arm in order to expedite her death.
It is a nice touch that Cleopatra does not finish her dying sentence. She says, "What should I stay--" and Charmian finishes the sentence with, "In this vile world?"