'Joy of the Worm': Cleopatra's asp
On reading Antony and Cleopatra, it is perfectly true that Cleopatra without the snake is like Romeo without Juliet. The erotic associations with the wriggling phallic serpent and the beautiful lady’s breast inspired or titillated writers and artists for centuries. Michelangelo shows us Cleopatra wreathed in snakes whilst a Flemish engraving assimilates her into the character of Eve, naked in the garden - and holding something that looks like a glow-worm to her breast. But what was it like - this instrument of death - and could it have happened as the plays, books and paintings depict?
There was little, if any, forensic evidence found at the time of Cleopatra’s death and the snake was never found inside the monument, although some marks resembling its trail were found on the beach outside. Some people also say that she bore two faint, barely visible punctures on her arms. The snake is usually referred to as an ‘asp’ which refers to several different types of African viper. Cerastes Vipera is usually called ‘Cleopatra’s asp’. Three other types of viper also bear the name of asp, but it is unlikely that any of these was responsible for Cleopatra’s death. Viper venom poisons the blood, causing intense burning pain, making the victim feel giddy, nauseous and thirsty. The body becomes covered with ugly purple swellings and vomiting and incontinence can occur. This is hardly the elegant ending that the lady was seeking!
The cobra, however, secretes a nerve poison, which causes no tissue damage at the place of biting, and the victim bears no visible marks save for the twin punctures of the fangs. The death itself resembles a drowsy intoxication - the type of ending which we see in the play. However, the cobra, called Naja Haja, the sacred Uraeus, was not the dainty little creature of the paintings. To have produced enough poison to kill three people, the cobra would have to have been about six feet long, and the smallest Naja capable of killing a person is four feet long. A death scene with such an enormous ungainly instrument would have graced a comedy, not a tragedy!
However, it is perhaps possible that she did use a cobra - it was the favoured creature of the goddess Isis and was the emblem of royalty. To die by its bite was to attain immortal life. The Greeks called the sacred cobra basilisk, meaning ‘little king’; endorsing its connections with royalty. Because snakes cast off their skins, they can symbolise regeneration. Perhaps the last word should rest with Plutarch who said that the Egyptians compared the snake to ‘the planet of the sun, because it doth never age and wax old’.
How apt is this: for ‘age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’!
Mary Hanscomb (Chairman)
The terms ‘part’ and ‘role’ originate from the theatre practice of Shakespeare’s time. Then, an actor’s ‘part’ was exactly what the word suggests - a paper containing the actor’s ‘part’ of the whole play. Parts were then usually rolled round wooden sticks to facilitate use, and designated not the character to be played but the paper text containing the actor’s lines. An individual ‘part’ would include the full text of the actor’s lines plus his cue - usually just two or three words at the end of the preceding speech. The actor would not know in advance who would speak the cue or how long he would have to wait between cues.
Elizabethan theatrical practice is parodied to some extent in the Mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For instance, Flute has duly memorised his lines but rattles them all off at once, cues and all. Quince has urged his cast to have their parts learned by the next day. This may seem a tall order to us, but it was common practice in Shakespeare’s time. In addition, actors would probably have had only one group rehearsal before the first performance.
Concepts of Honour in Henry IV
In Medieval times, knighthood conferred on its aristocratic possessors both status and responsibility. Kings and nobles practised their knightly skills at tournaments as a preparation for war. Their vows of knighthood, sanctified by holy church, derived from the chivalric code of ethics which also encompassed courage, fealty to one’s feudal overlord, and loyalty to the Christian faith. It was an ethos inspired by popular myths like the Arthurian legends, as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain and Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte d’Arthur. That this influence was taken seriously can be seen from Edward III’s founding of the Order of the Garter, inspired by Arthur’s Round Table. Henry IV, of course, was a grandson of Edward III - as was Richard II.
One of the most pervasive concepts of Medieval knighthood was that of honour, with all its connotations of heroic deeds and chivalric behaviour. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, honour is viewed on many levels, from those who uphold it to those who openly mock and despise it.
In Part I, Henry Percy (Hotspur) is the personification of honour, the ideal knight against whom others are judged. The King for example wishes that Hotspur, the ‘theme of honour’s tongue’, was his son rather than Northumberland’s, instead of his own Prince Hal, bemoaning that ‘riot and dishonour stain the brow of my young Harry’ (I.I.80, 84-5). Hotspur is ‘gallant’ (I.I.52), the ‘king of honour’ (as described by former foe the Douglas) (IV.1.10). Hal too acknowledges the status of this ‘child of honour and renown’ … ‘this all-praised knight’ (III.139-140). But in this same speech Hal declares his intent to redeem himself in his father’s eyes in honourable combat with Hotspur: ‘The time will come/That I shall make this northern youth exchange/His glorious deeds for my indignities …’ (IV.3.144-6). He swears an oath to that effect, reaffirming his feudal duty to both God and feudal overlord. Hal’s ‘riot and disorder’ are but a façade; he ultimately proves he is as true a knight as Hotspur.
But is Hotspur really so ideal a knight? Is his honour really unblemished? In the play he enters into a rebellion against his king and overlord; but then that king did himself usurp the crown from his overlord, Richard II, assisted by Northumberland and Hotspur. Hotspur justifies revolt in terms that they may redeem their ‘banished honours’ and remove themselves ‘into the good thoughts of the world again’ (I.iii.181-2), thus regaining the honour lost in their support of Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, who himself ‘broke oath on oath and cannot be trusted’ (IV.iii.103).
The antithesis of honour and chivalry in both parts of Henry IV is Falstaff. He presides over his degenerate ‘court’ of rogues and ruffians, almost an inversion of the royal court. Hal knows both, crossing the line between them, concealing his true nature and intent until the time is right to assume his rightful status.
Falstaff is something of a surrogate father to Hal, a braggart knight with all the wit and vocabulary of honour but none of its truth. He boasts of high deeds and denounces cowardice, yet flees at the first sign of real combat. For him, honour is an empty word, a concept which has long since lost any meaning for him. He is the ultimate survivor, mocking the dead ‘flower of chivalry’, Hotspur, with a diatribe against honour:
‘Can honour set a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word ‘honour’? What is that ‘honour’? Air. A true reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yes, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.’ (Part I, V.I.131-140)
Falstaff is the embodiment of all that Hal must discard once he becomes king. On his father’s death, Hal rejects the amorality and dishonour of Falstaff’s rogue’s court for the highest honour of knighthood, the crown itself, to become the renowned soldier-king of Henry V.