Friday, August 27, 2010

Serpents, Or Why Cleopatra Rocked

Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman as Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra

Is there any little girl who doesn't love or is fascinated by Cleopatra? Kids also tend to be fascinated by Egyptian history and the Egyptian contribution to storytelling and art. I was such a kid. I remember seeing a tour of Egyptian artifacts when I was about 8 or so. I was hooked! What a world, especially for a cat lover. I mean being buried in a pyramid with your cats? Awesome.

I've got a series of books of classical figures from Pheonix Press, all published between the 60's and 80's and they are a little old-fashioned but really substantial reading. I have the one on Cleopatra, on The Valley of the Kings,, on Catherine The Great, Lucretia Borgia. They are just wonderful reads. But my favourite book on Cleopatra is Shakespeare's play. I came to it rather late in all my Shakespeare play reading. I had read about half of his plays before I got interested in reading Antony and Cleopatra and it then, and now, became my very favourite play of his. I also was given a copy of the outrageous movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton a few years ago and enjoy it quite a bit. As a matter of fact, it was on tv a couple weeks ago and Stagg and I landed up having it on. It's actually a little boring for a story and a little long...but my god, the sets, costumes and casting are incredible and keep my attention each time I watch it.

Helen Mirren at 18 in her career making debut as Cleopatra. A goddess is born!

Shakespeare's play is so very interesting. Almost every other line can give a reader a day, a month (a lifetime!) worth of contemplation. I promise. Especially fun is to have a group read, of which i am in the middle of one right now. We are following our custom of reading one Act per week and posting our thoughts when we feel like it. A lot of fun and I learn something every time I read this play, especially from hearing other people's responses. One strange conversation catches me and it is between Lepidus and Antony one night when they are partying their brains out. They begin to jibe one another and there is a feeling of suppressed anger. It's a bit like following a celebrity feud, and in many ways when Shakespeare wrote about royalty he was feeding into this urge of the public to follow famous people's triumphs, follies and spectacles as we do today with our tabloids. The three most powerful men in the world at the time of this play setting were Caesar, Lepidus and Antony, so it's a little like a verbal scuttle between say an U.S. President, a Chinese Prime Minister and a French President. Here is this strange conversation...


[To OCTAVIUS CAESAR:] Thus do they, sir: they take
the flow o' the Nile
By certain scales i' the pyramid; they know,
By the height, the lowness, or the mean, if dearth
Or foison follow: the higher Nilus swells,
The more it promises: as it ebbs, the seedsman
Upon the slime and ooze scatters his grain,
And shortly comes to harvest.


You've strange serpents there.


Ay, Lepidus.


Your serpent of Egypt is bred now of your mud by the
operation of your sun: so is your crocodile.


They are so.



What manner o' thing is your crocodile?


It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad
as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is,
and moves with its own organs: it lives by that
which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of
it, it transmigrates.


What colour is it of?


Of it own colour too.


'Tis a strange serpent.


'Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.


Will this description satisfy him?

What a strange conversation for these 3 most powerful men in the world to be discussing. What can they mean? Antony's reply is a kind of a nonsensical or riddled answer. I often am reminded of the story of the 3 blind men and the elephant in how the 3 men Lepidus, Antony and Ceasar are comparing their crocodiles...comparing their own perceptions of the real world.

"The "serpent ", the "mud " ( of the Nile), and the " crocodile" which Lepidus mentions, are also alchemical terms, and so they could be seen as something more than just allusions to Egypt. Both the mud and the water of the Nile possessed mystical properties according to the Philosophers. In some treatises the black mud of the Nile was seen as the prima materia or undifferentiated matter out of which the miraculous Stone was formed. In others the Stone>Philosopher's Stone was reported to be found in the "streamings of the Nile".

Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, an Egyptian god figure stands on a sea of crocodiles above. This sculpture had medicinal purposes in Egyptian magic rites and was considered healing.

In Egyptian times and stories often a snake and a serpent are considered as the same animal/family. A crocodile was called a "serpent of the Nile." In the conversation between Lepidus and Antony, Lepidus refers to "your crocodile". The crocodile was seen as born from the mud and sun in Egptian mythology and as a metaphor for their alchemy. Lepidus uses the word "your" to Antony because he is not wooed or initiated to Egyptian beliefs, but Antony is. In alchemy, philosophers and initiates use the word "our" as comaraderie and mutual understanding as the elements are intrinsic to the group practices and metaphors. Lepidus is drunk and braying at Antony, dismissing his new religion/love, and Antony answers in riddles of alchemy. Antony has not only fallen in love with Cleopatra but she has initiated him into the beliefs and mythology of Egyptian magic.

The motif of the crocodile in Egyptian mythology was that it was born of the mud. This relates to life coming from mud or clay. In alchemy it is easy to think of the practice as people only trying to get gold from plain or lesser material, like lead, or mud. But this motif can also apply to human spirit. Are we a clay that can be molded? Are we set in stone? or can we change and transform? Can we change from a lesser mineral to a more precious mineral? Carl Jung saw alchemy as a Western proto-psychology dedicated to the achievement of individuation. In his interpretation, alchemy was the vessel by which Gnosticism survived its various purges into the Renaissance,

When Shakespeare uses the country "Egypt" in the play, he is also using it interchangably with Cleopatra. She represents and is the land of Egypt. She is called Egypt literally in the play by characters. Cleopatra was a bit of a a media savant, much like we think of Madonna or Paris Hilton today. She learned the Egyptian language and adopted the religions and promoted her self as Isis reincarnated and she dressed in the same clothes as Isis. The people hailed her as "the New Goddess" and they worshipped her as as Isis. "I am Isis, Mistress of Every Land...taught by Hermes...I made with my brother Osiris an end to the Eating of Men...I broke down the governments of tyrants...Hail Egypt that has nourished me."

Scholars are divided about the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra. On one extreme the couple is seen as self-serving and power mad for their own selfish gains, using each other. On the other extreme and in popular belief they are seen as one of the greatest love affairs.

Shakespeare introduces us to the Supercouple with all their stereotypes. Cleopatra seems high-strung, demanding, needy and whiny. Outsiders comment on her old-age. Antony is stoic until he is bantering with Cleopatra and then we see how deeply smitten and in love he is with her. Shakespeare uses the sun, gold, warmth, exotica, and innuendo-ridden language to seduce us into seeing cleopatra as more complex and one step ahead of all the men in her life. He writes her as the at-first-blush ultimate sex-bimbo and then reels us in by allowing us to see the transformation and love from Antony's point of view. The key to understanding Cleopatra is by understanding the transformation and love of Antony for her. By seeing his character we see how profound Cleopatra's persona and base character really is.


If it be love indeed, tell me how much.


There's beggary in the love that can be reckon'd


I'll set a bourn how far to be beloved.


Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

The crocodile Antony speaks of in riddles is Cleopatra and Egypt and the serpent...which in turn are a goddess, an initiation into the magic of Egypt and it's beliefs which stand opposed to Roman beliefs radically. The crocodile is the snake that is born from clay and mud on it's own trajectory by the sun, at one with the sun. The result is a human that is more than a rote player in history, more than a stagnant piece of clay, but a feeling thinking emotional and sensual human, fully rounded. Shakespeare believed that Egypt was the original home of alchemy because of Hermes and the Emerald Tablet. Contrast that idea with what Cleopatra says of Caesar "take that kingdom, and enfranchise that". These mysteries of Egypt were not intangible. Through sexual love Egypt magic/Cleopatra transformed Antony from a man of action and soldier for Empire-building to a whole human. Something that the materialistic, reason-heavy Roman worldview did not give Antony.

And last, for the moment, if we consider the relevance of the serpent/crocodile in Egyptian beliefs...maybe Cleopatra using a snake to die isn't so very sad. Maybe it's like her baby and soul. She holds it to her breast, a transformative animal, and they fall asleep and wake to immortality.

Related Links:

1) Horus and Magical Stella at Wiki
2) Alchemical References In Antony And Cleopatra


Furtheron said...

I wonder what really really went on in that most famous of love triangles... intriguing

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