Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Asp and its Role in Cleopatra's Suicide

A Symbolic Death Suitable for a Queen: An Analysis of Snake Symbolism in Cleopatra's Suicide Scene
by Cathy Schieffelin

An asp bite creates a particularly awkward, excruciating death. The asp venom causes blood poisoning and an intense burn at the site of the wound. This burning is quickly forgotten, however, as the bite victim fades into a state of giddiness accompanied by nausea and extreme thirst. Blood clots form as the skin becomes speckled with purple spots, and there is usually a considerable amount of swelling. The victim then goes into convulsions, vomiting, urinating, and defecating uncontrollably (Hughes-Hallet 106). This is not a death suitable for a Queen, let alone Queen Cleopatra. Nonetheless, writers throughout history have designated the asp to be Cleopatra's suicide weapon. Her death is described as either an ecstatic orgasm or a serene slip into eternal slumber. Analyzing her death with an eye for accuracy, we can see that it is highly unlikely that Cleopatra would have chosen to kill herself with an asp. "Asp" is an imprecise term, which referred to many various African vipers, all of which would have left her corpse looking less than beautiful. The death that Cleopatra is described to have experienced resembles the death caused by a cobra sting, not an asp bite. A cobra would have had to be at least four feet long to excrete enough venom to kill Cleopatra and her two maids (Hughes-Hallet 107). Since writers have taken liberties with their descriptions of Cleopatra's death scene, representing the asp in various ways, we should ask, "What does the snake symbolize in Cleopatra's suicide, and how does this representation affect the overall portrayal of the Queen and her suicide?"
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The snake has acted as a diverse symbol throughout history, representing immortality, evil, femininity, and masculinity. In the book Dream Animals, Marilyn Nissenson and Susan Jonas further reveal the awe that the snake has inspired throughout the centuries, "They [snakes] were believed to mediate between life and death, earth and sky, this world and the next" (19). The snake slithers through our subconscious, evoking varying associations. Cleopatra identified with the snake during her life, and it becomes even more highly symbolic in her death. By examining three movies (DeMille's Cleopatra, Mankiewicz's Cleopatra and the ABC version of Cleopatra) and two dramas (Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Mary Sidney's Tragedy of Antonie) different symbolic representations of the snake emerge along with contrasting depictions of the Queen of the Nile. These varying representations of the asp and slightly contrary portrayals of Cleopatra prove to us that we know very little about the enigmatic ancient Queen. Cleopatra is a product of myth.
Throughout history, the snake has been an especially diverse symbol, representing immortality, sin, protection, and femininity. In Animal Dreams, writer, James Hillman discusses the multiple symbolic functions of the snake. The snake has long been a symbol of immortality because it constantly renews itself and is reborn as it sheds its skin. In the shade, the lethargic snake looks dead, yet it comes back to life in the sun. From the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean basin, a coiled snake has come to represent the navel of the universe. Similarly, a snake swallowing its tail is a common symbol of eternity, an "endless cycle of life and death" (Nissenson and Jonas 20). Whereas the snake can represent immortality, it is also an omen of death. The snake is associated with death because of the toxic poison that it secretes (Hillman 25). This prophet of death has long been linked to original sin and evil because of its role as the betraying, seducing villain in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. In Genesis 3:1, the serpent is described as "more crafty than any other wild animals" (The Holy Bible 3) as it cruelly tempts the ignorant Eve into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Hence, the snake has been seen as partly responsible for the fall of man. Many critics of the bible have read the snake's interaction with Eve as kind of sympathetic relation to the original woman. Therefore, the snake is also a feminine symbol because of the strong bond that it shares with the earliest matriarch. Since the snake has such a strong association with woman, it also represents fertility. Snakes were often found beside wells and springs as a promise of life and fertility. The snake is also a contrary symbol of the negative mother because it wraps around, smothers, and swallows things whole. Whereas the snake is a feminine symbol, it is also an undeniably phallic symbol associated with man (Hillman 25). Vedic mythology describes a "cosmic serpent" as the creator of the universe that agitated and stirred the primal oceans (Nissenson and Jonas 20). The snake is more simply a phallic image because it has a long shafted body that stands erect with a stiffened head, secreting fluids from its tip (Hillman 25). We have seen that the snake represents many various, sometimes contrary, things. It seems only appropriate that this diversely symbolic animal would prove highly emblematic in the death of the enigmatic Cleopatra.
Although the snake is symbolic in Cleopatra's suicide scene, the Egyptian Queen constantly identified with snakes throughout her life also. The snake was the emblem of the royal house of Egypt and was the Egyptian goddess Isis' sacred animal. Cleopatra was even called the "viper of the Nile" as a result of her evil, serpentine nature and tendency to smother men. Nissenson and Jonas describe the inherent aversion that we have for snakes: "They inspire an atavistic hatred…They are mysterious, remote-the Other" (19). This depiction of the snake could easily be mistaken for a description of Cleopatra who was detested by Rome because of her exotic allure that destroyed Rome's two great leaders, Caesar and Antony. Cleopatra is the Queen of Snakes. She is like the original woman, Eve, whom patriarchal religions have condemned for her interaction with the evil snake. Nissenson and Jonas reveal the biases of these patriarchal religions-according to them, "demonic sexuality was the essence of Eve's female nature…women were dominated by their sexual desires. The phallic snake offered Eve what she most wanted" (51). We see that the snake gives Cleopatra, too, what she most wants, death, and in doing so, symbolizes her immortality, her sinful nature, and her maternity while adding a sexual charge to her suicide scene.
When we analyze Cleopatra's death scene in DeMille's film Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert, we cannot help but notice an explicitly sexual tone. The director focuses on the emasculation of Antony, the poisoning of him by the Egyptian snake. Antony is drawn to the overtly fertile, maternal, sexual Cleopatra. In this film, the sexual symbolism of the phallic snake is evoked. It is especially important that Cleopatra presses the asp to her breast, because this action expresses Cleopatra's maternal nature and explicit sexuality. Writer, Mary Hamer, describes the sexually charged moment of the prick: "When she [Cleopatra] puts it to her breast, her thrill of anguish is transposed into a piercing vibrato on the sound-track, as she sits with eyes closed and head thrown back, in an image of ecstatic intensity" (130). At this point, Cleopatra has attained a kind of sexual victory, revealing a lack of sexual restraint that she had never displayed in the film until then. Nineteenth century English poet and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne describes the sexual side of her suicide,
the subtle and sublime idea which transforms her death by the aspic's bite into a meeting of serpents which recognize and embrace, an encounter between the woman and the worm of the Nile, almost as though this match for death were a monstrous love-match…so closely do the snake and the queen of snakes caress and cling (qtd. in Hughes-Hallet 240).
Cleopatra forms a final sexual union with the serpent that she had identified with throughout her life. The scene is explicit, but it is not pornographic, for at the exact moment when the Romans bash the doors in, Cleopatra's body erects itself as if by some mysteriously foreign force--she is reborn as Isis, the ultimate mother figure.
In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra's suicide scene is still sexual, but the regal snake is transformed into the "worm." The clown scene preceding her momentous suicide scene is bawdy and explicitly sexual, an attempt to disparage and humanize the great Queen. Throughout the play, Shakespeare presents Cleopatra as the titanic goddess, in stark contrast to her pitifully human lover, Antony. Before her death, she attempts to unsex herself so that she may charge unflinchingly into death. She declares: "I have nothing/Of woman in me-now from head to foot/I am marble constant; now the fleeting moon/No planet is of mine" (Shakespeare 5.2.239-241). Cleopatra must rid herself of her femininity, which brands her as capricious and equivocal. The clown, however, reminds her that she is a woman who must obey her sexual desires as he lewdly wishes her "all the joy of the worm" (Shakespeare 5.2.259). Cleopatra struggles to remain stoic and retain her dignity in death, but the clown continues to make bawdy jokes and even refuses to leave the scene. The presence of the clown certainly humanizes Cleopatra, but upon his exit, she regains all the poise and nobility that has characterized her throughout the play. As she boldly declares, "I have/Immortal longings in me" (Shakespeare 5.2.279-280), we again see her as the monumental goddess. She initially applies one asp to her breast and then applies the other one to her arm. The snake, therefore, is still a sexual symbol, but this symbolically phallic image does not dominate her death scene. Cleopatra is also the mother as she asks her maids, "Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, that sucks the nurse asleep?" (Shakespeare 5.2.308-309). The main symbolic aspect of the snake that is evoked, though, is the theme of immortality. Cleopatra will remain forever as one of the greatest lovers that ever lived. She seems to shed her earthly skin so that she may be reborn to live eternally with Antony. In this representation of Cleopatra's suicide, the snake is an especially diverse symbol. The multiple layers of symbolism seem only appropriate since Shakespeare sought to portray Cleopatra as an enigmatic, titanic Queen.
In Mankiewicz's film version of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, the snake also represents immortality as Cleopatra prepares to rejoin Antony in eternity. In contrast to Shakespeare's Cleopatra, the Cleopatra played by Taylor is not a goddess. She is a noble but extravagant human. Unlike other representations of Cleopatra as the sinful temptress, this representation of Cleopatra is sympathetic; she genuinely loves her men. Death is "one last embrace" (Mankiewicz). Hence, to present Cleopatra as a dignified, yet defiant woman, the director incorporates the snake as a symbol of immortality. The camera angles are clever, since they never allow us to actually see the snake. We detect movement beneath the figs in the basket, but we never catch a glimpse of the slithering murderer. By not allowing us to see the snake, the director refuses to incorporate the snake as a phallic image, which would add an explicit, sexual nature to her death. In this scene, we again see Cleopatra figuratively shed her skin. She refers to life being like a dream: "How strangely awake I feel…as if living had been a dream. Someone else's dream…Now I will begin a dream of my own that will never end. Antony. Antony, wait!" (Mankiewicz). Cleopatra's death is a momentary slumber from which she will awake renewed, in the arms of her lover. The director prohibits us from seeing Cleopatra apply the asp to her breast, and instead, we see her eyes flutter as she falls into a peaceful, eternal slumber. The noble Cleopatra will be reunited with her love in the afterlife.
Whereas Mankiewicz forbids us from seeing the snake, Mary Sidney (in her Tragedy of Antonie) completely eliminates the snake from the suicide scene. Sidney paints Cleopatra as a noble, virtuous, Victorian woman with a wild streak, who is willing to take her life to join her dead "husband." The absence of the snake makes her death seemingly pure as Cleopatra suffers a lamentable death, passing away from grief. The tone is noticeably melodramatic as we see Cleopatra's poor heart break. "The sharpest torment in my heart I feel, /Is that I stay from thee, my heart, this while;/Die will I straight now, now straight will I die" (Sidney 42). We see that Cleopatra is eager to die and rejoin Antony. As in the previous examples that we have seen, Cleopatra strives for immortality. In this depiction of her death, we even see the gradual withdrawing of Cleopatra's soul from her body. Sidney shows us that Cleopatra's immortal soul will join Antony. She can see herself with an astonishing degree of objectivity, and, stepping outside of herself, she wails, "Die Cleopatra then! …No longer stay/From Antonie…Go join thy ghost with his and sob no more" (Sidney 41). This heightened objectivity is only possible in death as Cleopatra's soul gradually slips away from her mortal body. This ironic representation of Cleopatra's death shows us that the absence of the snake can still invoke a sense of immortality.
When we look at a modern film depiction of Cleopatra's suicide scene, the symbolism of the snake is over-the-top and laughable. In the ABC made for television film version of Cleopatra, the snake is digitally imposed to keep up with the technology of our times. This cobra erects itself and holds Cleopatra in a trance as it hisses and then lunges at her breast as she screams out, "Take me to Isis!"(Halmi). The snake becomes a ludicrous, overtly phallic symbol. Cleopatra does try to express a desire for immortality, but her plea to "take her to Isis" seems too falsely overdramatic. The director also intends to portray Cleopatra as an exemplary maternal figure who cares for the welfare of her son and the future of Egypt. In a pretentious, histrionic tone, she declares, "One night more and the son will be reborn and the waters of the Nile will rise and fall" (Halmi). By trying to pack so much symbolism into Cleopatra's death, the director fails to capture any valid symbolic aspects in her suicide. Because her death is so ridiculous, we are not able to take Cleopatra seriously. She is not an immortal mother figure-she is farcical.
This absurd made for TV movie was based on the novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, written by Margaret George, who portrays Cleopatra slightly more practically. George depicts Cleopatra's life and death with an air of stark realism. The death scene in this modern novel is strikingly different from the death scenes that we have analyzed thus far. The snake is much less symbolic, and the only sense that we gain of Cleopatra's immortality is from her conviction, "Isis will not fail me" (George 943). The starkly realistic descriptions of the scenery and the snake itself diminish any symbolism that could be invoked. The snake is not the asp that we have seen before, but a four-foot cobra. Cleopatra, in the first person, describes it as: "thick, cool, mostly dark with a lighter underside. Its tongue flicks out. It seems very docile" (George 944). This realistically "docile" cobra has no interest in killing Cleopatra; she must viciously slap its head to enrage it, thereby controlling her own destiny. Interestingly, although George portrays Cleopatra's suicide scene practically, she chooses to include a Romantic image of an asp on the cover of the book, slithering away in the first "A" of the name CLEOPATRA. This simple snake conjures up images of the original serpent that seduced Eve, the manifestation of all evil and sin. The snake also acts as a symbol of immortality, in contrast to the background of the cover, which shows Egyptian wall paintings, evoking a sense of timelessness. Although the novel refuses to portray the snake as a crucial symbol in Cleopatra's death, the cover of the novel ironically provides the symbolism that we have seen in the other representations of Cleopatra's death.
By examining various interpretations of Cleopatra's death scene and the diverse symbolism of the snake in the scenes, Cleopatra has emerged as a seemingly unfathomable Queen. Like the snake, she is the immortal lover who sheds her earthly skin. She is the fertile mother. She is the embodiment of sin and evil. She is overtly sexual. Shakespeare most accurately captures Cleopatra's multiple roles when he portrays her as the immortal goddess, the nurturing mother, and the sexual woman. Shakespeare cannot even do her justice though, for Cleopatra has become ultimately unknowable. She is the product of the numerous writers and artists who, entranced by her mysterious allure, have sought to justifiably portray her. By combining all of the various representations of Cleopatra's death, we do not gain a fuller understanding of the Queen; rather, we are confounded even more. We must acknowledge that Cleopatra is a product of the imaginations of the various artists throughout history who have "created" her. Artists and the public alike have been attracted to Cleopatra because she is so foreign, so Oriental--she presents no boundaries, giving our imagination free reign to mould her to our own desires. The riddle of Cleopatra is timeless.

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