Send in the Clown

Did you ever watch the death scene in Romeo and Juliet and think to yourself, what this scene really needs is a clown? Apparently Shakespeare did, since he added one when the re-wrote the scene.

No, I don’t have a newly discovered manuscript of R&J.  What I’ve been reading is the text of Antony and Cleopatra. You see, in that play, Shakespeare recycles the plot points from the ending of Romeo and Juliet: Juliet/Cleopatra is believed to be dead, Romeo/Mark Antony kills himself, Juliet/Cleopatra sees dead lover, kills herself. Only this time, Shakespeare added a clown.

Right before Cleopatra commits suicide, a character announced as “a rustic”, but referred to in the script as “Clown” comes in with a basket of asps and makes a bunch of lewd jokes, including “the pretty worm that kills and pains not.” (Recall that le petit mort – the little death, meant orgasm, and we all know what the little worm is.) He tells us that a woman who “died” gives “a very good report o’ the worm”, i.e., she liked it. When he enters, the snakes are in a basket of figs, giving us an image of vulval and phallic symbols intermixed. Pretty lively for a suicide scene!

I really wonder how seriously audiences of the time took the character of Cleopatra anyway.  Throughout the play she basically acts like a schoolgirl with Bieber fever, and in fact, she would have been played by a 14-year-old boy. Shakespeare even makes a theatrical in-joke about that in the final act. Cleopatra is griping about how history will treat her, claiming she’ll be called a whore (Shakespeare does so about half a dozen times), that Mark Antony will be portrayed as a drunkard (Shakespeare has several scenes of him indulging himself), and that she’ll be acted on the stage by a “squeaking boy” (which is exactly how female roles were performed on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage). There’s no question that the reference to the boy would have been a laugh line.

Considering Shakespeare’s England had been ruled very successfully by Queen Elizabeth for decades and the historic Cleopatra was a player on the world stage, you’d think he would be a bit kinder in his portrayal of a female queen, but Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is a goose, or rather, “a noodle”. In Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, there’s an exchange between Thomasina, the young heroine of the play, and Septimus, her tutor that goes like this:

Thomasina: I hate Cleopatra!
Septimus: You hate her? Why?
Thomasina: Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love – I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex. It only need a Roman general to drop anchor outside the window and away goes the empire like a christening mug into a pawn shop … instead, the Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy…

An Egyptian noodle is pretty much what Shakespeare gives us, too.


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