a poem for the indescribable

Hello my dear friends!

I hope you are doing alright; and if you’re not, I hope you can find something to look forward to.

A slightly longer post for you today to chew upon through the week. This is a famous passage from Shakespeare – certainly one of my all-time favourites. It’s from Antony and Cleopatra, which tells the story of the Roman general Mark Antony’s affair with the Egyptian queen and his subsequent ‘defection’ from Rome. At least, that’s how his rival and ally Octavian – who defeated Antony to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor – told the story.

But let’s not get bogged down in the history of the late Roman Republic (AS MUCH AS I WOULD LOVE TO). All you need to know to start reading this passage is: Mark Antony has just returned to Rome following a long trip to Egypt, where he met and began an affair with Cleopatra. Octavian, who is called Caesar in the play, is furious that Antony has spent so long neglecting his Roman duties. Octavian is also shocked at the power Cleopatra seems to hold over Antony, at his total submission to her and the luxury she represents – in his memory, Antony was a hardy military man not shy of drinking horse urine to survive.

In this passage, Enobarbus – who accompanied Antony on his trip – goes some way in explaining this apparent transformation. He has been asked by a couple of other Roman politicians, Agrippa and Maecenas, to describe Cleopatra. What follows is a stunning portrait of female sexuality, of Eastern luxury, of human infatuation.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act II Scene 2, lines 195-245 – William Shakespeare

Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

Agrippa: O, rare for Antony.

Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ th’ marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’ air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.

Agrippa: Rare Egyptian!

Enobarbus: Upon her landing, Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper. She replied
It should be better he became her guest;
Which she entreated. Our courteous Antony,
Whom ne’er the word of “No” woman heard speak,
Being barbered ten times o’er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary, pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.

Agrippa: Royal wench!
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed;
He plowed her, and she cropped.

Enobarbus: I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, pow’r breathe forth.

Maecenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.

Enobarbus: Never; He will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.

◊◊◊

Enobarbus here attempts to do what all poets do – to put into words what is really indescribable, what ‘beggar’d all description’. His view is, of course, a highly partial one. It is rooted in the politics and norms of the Renaissance in Europe. For one thing, it provides a typical Western view of the East: as a place of luxury, moral laxity, and excess. It’s also a more sophisticated version of what Trump might call ‘locker-room talk’: some men sitting around discussing female sexuality.

However, for all that, it’s remarkably fresh and unusual. Enobarbus’ Cleopatra does not seem to me like a sexual object. Her attraction goes beyond the physical, even beyond words. In our modern Capitalistic culture, we are assailed with such a sanitised and homogenous view of female sexuality: you are not a sexually attractive woman unless you are skinny, and hairless, and smooth, and airbrushed, and – essentially – unreal. To read something like this, which describes Cleopatra’s sexuality in such different terms, feels revolutionary. Age cannot wither her.

Feminism has certainly made important and momentous steps since Shakespeare’s day. But in terms of body image, I think we are in a much more dangerous and regressive place than we were three or four centuries ago. A much more dangerous place than we were even 10 years ago.

If you’re interested in reading more about how female bodily insecurity is a function of Capitalism and the patriarchy, try Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Susie Orbach’s Fat Is A Feminist Issue!

Happy International Women’s Day for yesterday, my people.

All my love,

Tanvi

P.S. If you’d like more help understanding Shakespeare’s language, any good print edition will have loads of notes explaining the meaning of particular words and references

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