You want to hear a dirty joke? You don’t have to go to a schoolyard, locker room, comedy club, or even a Republican presidential debate. No, simply go to your bookshelf, theater, laptop, or wherever you consume masterpieces of English drama and check out one of Shakespeare’s most tragic—and erotic—love stories, Antony and Cleopatra.
I read the play for the first time a few weeks back as part of my ongoing effort, as you may now be well familiar, to take on Shakespeare’s corpus this year 400 years after his death—and boy, is this some hot stuff. The play, no doubt, continues to reward viewers and readers with its complicated and sexualized construction of power and politics in the “infinite variety” (2.2.241) of its leading lady, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Further developing this theme, the play also rewards audiences with some of its strong language—here, centered on taboo topics of sex and genitalia.
One of the triumvirs of a tumescent empire, shall we say, Antony has been luxuriating in Alexandria with Cleopatra, much to the neglect of his responsibilities and Romanness—not to mention his wife, Fulvia, who he learns has suddenly died. Ever irreverent, Shakespeare takes immediate advantage of this sad occasion for some very naughty wordplay. (I do not recommend you invite Shakespeare to your grandmother’s funeral.)
Antony grieves the news (briefly) and determines to “from this enchanting queen break off” (1.2.117) by returning to Rome. Enter his friend and follower, Enobarbus, who doesn’t yet know of Fulvia’s death—only of Cleopatra’s, in an Elizabethan manner of speaking (1.2.119-131):
Enobarbus: What’s your pleasure sir?
Antony: I must with haste from hence.
Enobarbus: Why, then we kill all our women. We see how mortal an unkindness is to them; if they suffer our departure.
Antony: I must be gone.
Enobarbus: Under a compelling occasion let women die. It were pity to cast them away for nothing, though between them and a great cause they should be esteemed nothing. Cleopatra catching but the least noise of this dies instantly. I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment. I do think there is mettle in death, which commits some loving act upon her, she hath such a celerity in dying.
At this point, if we venture into the schoolroom, teachers of Shakespeare have an important choice to make for their pupils. They can let students think a histrionic Cleopatra will be abjectly heartbroken if Antony leaves, as our Modern English leads many of us to understand. Or they can blow their minds—as mine was once and yours, too, I trust, with this literary loss of virginity—and inform them that 16th- and 17th-century English poets frequently used die as slang for “to reach orgasm.” Better put, “to come.”
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first citation of this orgasmic die to the Bard himself, though quoting him in his 1600 comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. This play’s titular nothing, a word we also see Enobarbus use, also served as a slang (and astonishingly crass, to say the least) term for “vagina.”
Speaking of vaginas, Enobarbus continues with some more “cunning” banter, describing the stormlike wetness a godlike Cleopatra can rain down (1.2.132-37). Switching metaphorical gears, he consoles Antony, noting the “cut” and “case” of Fulvia is like an “old robe” that is “worn out,” and so he should put on his “members” the new petticoat of Cleopatra (1.2.150-53). Yup.
But for all Enobarbus’ misogynistic humor, Cleopatra may just get the last laugh, for Antony follows with, “The business she hath broached in the state/ Cannot endure my absence” (1.2.155-56). Just who’s wearing the pants—er, wielding the sword of empire—here?
OK, but why is death a reference to orgasms? It’s all about the humor—and I don’t mean dirty jokes. I am talking about the humors, fluids in the body once believed to govern human health and behavior. When we discuss humoral theory, we usually focus on four fluids and their influence on temperaments: blood (associated with a sanguine temperament), black bile (melancholic), yellow bile (choleric), and phlegm (phlegmatic). But Renaissance medicine also had ideas about some other fluids: When people reached orgasm, they drained out literally vital fluids, life-containing and limited in the body’s store, thereby shortening their lives with too much sex. (Other scholars have noted, conversely, that sex was also encouraged to release the toxic, melancholic fluids that built up from lovesickness.) French, of course, has the term la petite mort, though it came to refer to orgasms in the late 19th century, as far as the OED is concerned.
So, for Mark Antony, all this ejaculation is emasculation. And Cleopatra is not displaying some kind of emotional weakness: She’s wielding immense political power through her sexuality. But Cleopatra’s death in this scene is mere foreplay compared to the play’s, um, climax. Here, Shakespeare takes the sexual wordplay of death to a whole ‘nother level. I won’t go into the full plot here in all of its culminating sexlike battles, but, after Antony initially botches his own suicide (talk about erectile dysfunction), the Queen of the Nile famously responds with her own. A clown, a kind of country bumpkin, sneaks a phallic and Edenic serpent in a basket of figs, wishing her “all the joy of the worm” (5.2.253). Cleopatra brings the “pretty worm” (5.2.238) to her breast, and fulfilling her “immortal longings,” (5.2.272) gasps orgasmic last words to join her lover in the afterlife: “O Antony!” (5.2.303).
Religio-sexual suicide? Shakespeare must have kept his psychoanalyst pretty busy. Cleopatra doesn’t exactly die laughing from these dirty double entendres in the play’s denouement, but the Bard continues to prove he was a master of making words have multiple meanings—and orgasms.