Sexuality and Sexual Desire in Antony and Cleopatra
Sexuality is a prominent underlying theme in many of William Shakespeare’s plays. In Antony and Cleopatra, one can see several relationships between the sexual references within the play, and the history of sexuality during England’s Early Modern Period. As Lawrence Stone explains, “Romantic love and sexual intrigue was certainly the subject of much poetry of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and of many of Shakespeare’s plays” (103). Additionally, when speaking of Shakespeare, Eric Partridge states, “He was no mere ‘instinctive’ sensualist, but an intellectual voluptuary and a thinker keenly, shrewdly, penetrating, sympathetically probing into sex, its mysteries, its mechanism, its exercise and expertise, and into its influence on life and character” (7). Throughout Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare provides various references to the sexual norms of England during his time; however, a lot of of Antony and Cleopatra’s actions are contradictory to the customs of society. Initially, Antony and Cleopatra can be seen as a story of two powerful lovers kept apart by the trials and tribulations of war, although looking further into the play, one can identify that it is a story of the strong sexual tension between the lovers Antony and Cleopatra.
In Early Modern England, sexual intercourse was not intended to be an activity used for pleasure, but instead was meant simply for reproduction. As explained in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, “Lust was an admitted fact and marriage provided a legitimate outlet for it, but the purpose of marital sex was procreation and the expression of mutual affection, not sensual pleasure” (Stone 644). It was important that women maintained their chastity until marriage, at which time they could take part in the act of sex. As Stone states, “The idea that female honor depended upon a reputation for premarital chastity and marital fidelity was one which most effectively internalized in the middling ranks of society” (504). He continues to explain that women were even warned by magazines how important it was to remain a virgin and not succumb to the seduction of their future spouse before the wedding (504). By engaging in premarital sex, a woman would be considered to have “damaged her value on the marriage market” (544). Although virginity was such a prized possession during this time, Shakespeare did not enforce this value in Antony and Cleopatra.
Antony and Cleopatra diverges from the norm of preserving chastity because the reader learns that Cleopatra is more experienced in love and sex. In act III, scene 13, Antony states:
In this passage, the reader learns that Cleopatra was previously married to Caesar, who has passed away, and has also had relations with Pompey. The reader sees that, “Cleopatra is definitely not a young, virginal heroine; rather, she is a witty, clever, and highly mannered woman, tempting Antony with her histrionic artifice” (Charney 91). One would consider that Cleopatra is promiscuous since she is now having relations with Antony, but this course of action was not unusual of this time period in England. Amy Froide explains, “Early modern England was a patriarchal society in which contemporaries thought of women in terms of their familial roles: as daughter, wife, mother, and widow. … Widows had a public and independent place within the patriarchal society; single women did not” (237). The reader can see that this is why Shakespeare has portrayed Cleopatra as such a powerful woman. As Stone states, “It was generally assumed that young widows, suddenly deprived of a regular sexual satisfaction by the loss of a husband, were likely to be driven by lust in their search for a replacement” (281). He continues to explain, “Suitors of widows were expected to make aggressive sexual advances, unlike suitors of virgins, who in upper-class circles were virtually untouchable before marriage” (281). Cleopatra was not acting against social norms by having many sexual partners, but instead was simply in search of sexual satisfaction. By realizing this, one can see the relationship between Shakespeare’s knowledge of love and lust in England, and how he has introduced that knowledge to Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra.
One must become familiar with Shakespeare’s sexual references throughout the play in order to truly understand the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra. Stanley Cavell states, “ Antony’s story is of love from beginning to end. …Cleopatra’s story is of contest and legitimacy from beginning to end. Antony’s problem in its outer face is to combine desire (he sometimes calls it pleasure) and honor; but its inner face is to relate desire and marriage…” (23). Throughout the play, Antony is fighting between being a man and going to war or taking pleasure in Cleopatra, while Cleopatra is playing hard to get with Antony, just making him desire her more. It is a battle of “love versus honor” (Charney 85). Shakespeare uses many examples to demonstrate Cleopatra’s exotic sexuality which makes Antony so attracted to her. As Enobarbus states in act II, scene two:
In this passage, Enobarbus is explaining that no matter what Cleopatra does, she is extremely desired by Antony. The word custom in the first line can be defined as “sexual intercourse as a habit or an unquestioned custom,” explaining that Cleopatra’s intense sexuality will never grow old, she will always have an “infinite variety” of partners (Partridge 98). Also, the words “appetites,” “feed,” “hungry” and “satisfies” are all sexual references. Her description shows that “She doesn’t ‘cloy’ the appetite like other women,” meaning that she can satisfy men more than any other woman can (Charney 91). The fact that Cleopatra “makes hungry where she most satisfies” shows that men, especially Antony, cannot get enough of her—they keep coming back for more. In addition, as Maurice Charney explains, “Riggish means wanton or horny, another strongly sexual word, but we should beware of those ‘vilest things’ that realize their apotheosis in Cleopatra. She is a strange mixture of opposites” (91). Cleopatra is so erotically desired even the priests condone her “when she is riggish.” Cleopatra is a temptress, and the audience of this play is meant to be intrigued by her character, just as Antony is.
In addition, Antony also makes many statements in reference to the sexual relationship between him and Cleopatra. For example, Antony states, “You’ll heat my blood. No more” (1.3.80). As Charney explains, “Semen was thought to be carried in the blood, and ‘blood’ was a general synonym for sexual desire” (43). Therefore, Antony’s statement to Cleopatra means that she will no longer “get him excited” (Charney 43). Later in the play when discussing war with Cleopatra, Antony states, “I shall return once more to kiss these lips, I will appear in blood” (3.13.177-178). In this line, Antony could be stating that he will return from war bloody because of the killing that he has done, but one could also consider that he will return to kiss her and make love to her. Both of these examples demonstrate Antony’s sexual relationship with Cleopatra.
Finally, perhaps the most climactic events of the play are the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. Because death was also a reference to sexual intercourse, this play portrays the deaths of the two characters as a unity of their sexual drives for each other. Charney states, “The long death scene is an erotic, domestic, and aesthetic fulfillment for [Cleopatra]. It is not tragic at all, but has the kind of marvelous, awesome longing we associate with romance” (96). For example, when Antony is brought to Cleopatra’s chamber after he stabs himself, Cleopatra exclaims, “Oh, come, come, come!” which is a reference to an orgasm (4.15.38). Antony then states, “I am dying, Egypt, dying” (4.15.43). As Partridge explains, to die also means, “To experience a sexual orgasm” (101). Antony’s death is very erotic, but perhaps not as sexual as Cleopatra’s.
When Cleopatra decides to kill herself, she does it in a very seductive way, allowing poisonous asps to bite her. She states, “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts, and is desired” (5.2.295-296). In Charney’s words, “Death is represented in erotic terms” (96). Additionally, Cavell states, “Here is a further interpretation of the orgasm as dying, the common nobleness, conceivably a redemption, of mortality” (33). Also, Cleopatra makes another reference to the orgasmic effect of death for when she states, “Husband, I come!” (5.2.287). The audience is led to see that the deaths of the two characters are not tragedies because Antony and Cleopatra are finally able to blissfully commence their love. Their death is almost like a marriage for they will now be together forever. When Cleopatra says, “Dost thou not see my baby at my breast, that sucks the nurse asleep?” she is referring to the asp which is injecting its poison in order to kill her so that she can be with Antony (5.2.309-310). Charney explains, “The asp is represented as a love child” a creation derived from their love for one another (96). The play ends with the resolution of the sexual tension between Antony and Cleopatra.
One can see that Antony and Cleopatra is a story about the love of two people and the sexual desire that they have for one another. Although the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra make this play a tragedy, the two lovers are able to be together in a sensual way—their ‘deaths’ serving as a union between the two. As Charney states, “…true love seems only achievable in death…the lovers (especially Cleopatra) reach an ecstatic climax in their separation from the vile world. This is definitely a romantic idea” (211). By understanding Shakespeare’s language and the concept of sexual desire in early modern England, one can truly understand the underlying love and sexual tension between Antony and Cleopatra, and can gain a better understanding of this play. The immense desire between Antony and Cleopatra may have been controversial when Shakespeare wrote the play; however, by understanding that Cleopatra is an experienced, exotic woman, one is able to acknowledge her sexual nature. It is through Shakespeare’s language that the audience is able to discover the sexuality and desire throughout the play.
Bevington, David, ed. The Necessary Shakespeare. United States: Pearson Education, 2005.
Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Charney, Maurice. Shakespeare on Love and Lust. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Froide, Amy. “Marital Status as a Category of Difference: Singlewomen and Widows in
Early Modern England.” Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800. Eds.
Judith Bennett and Amy Froide. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956.
Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. New York:
Harper and Row, 1977.