The latest issue of the National Geographic magazine [July 2011] puts on its cover the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, whom Harold Bloom famously called the first celebrity in human civilization. The National Geographic story says that all efforts are on to locate the burial place of the queen and her beloved Roman paramour Mark Antony. The discovery will be as epoch-making as the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, argues the article.
Cleopatra was indeed a character worthy of deep study. Shakespeare’s play, Antony and Cleopatra, brings alive the “infinite variety” [Shakespeare’s memorable phrase] of that character. Antony and Cleopatra lived together for many years and the queen gave birth to three children of Antony’s including a pair of twins. But were the two great lovers or were they great sensualists?
Antony forgets himself and his duty as a ruler of the great Roman Empire when he leans on the bosom of Cleopatra who was not physically beautiful according to many sources. Cleopatra’s charms lay elsewhere. In the words of a Shakespearean character, “Other women / Cloy th’ appetites they feed; but she (Cleopatra) makes hungry / Where most she satisfies. For the vilest things / Become themselves in her.” Antony was only happy to let Rome melt in the Tiber for the sake of the queen whom the holy priests blessed when she was “riggish.”
Was it love or lust that welded Antony and Cleopatra together? Perhaps, it was a queer cocktail of both. Perhaps, lust dominated in that cocktail. Cleopatra’s behaviour when she was told about Antony’s death would make us think of her as “a low trickster” [David Daiches] who was only interested in saving what she was left with. Probably she would have desisted from committing suicide if the conquering Octavius Caesar would let her live a dignified life. Perhaps, she would have shared her body with Octavius too!
As David Daiches, literary critic, has pointed out, sensuality spills out of every utterance of Cleopatra’s even when she is going to die. The sensuality assumes ritualistic proportions when she puts the venomous asp to her breast. “Does thou not see my baby at my breast, / That sucks the nurse asleep?” is her question to her maid as the asp is putting her to eternal rest.
“The sensual life ends in a blaze of ritual pageantry; it has its own amoral nobility,” says Daiches.
Their overriding lustful passions destroyed both Antony and Cleopatra, the “amoral nobility” in their death notwithstanding. I am left wondering what would have happened to the history of Egypt [Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh] had Antony and Cleopatra conquered their passion and thrown their lust to the winds?
I am left amused by the thought what would be the history of our civilisation if our wealthiest persons conquer their lust for wealth and throw their riches to the wind – and achieve liberty?