MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

All Joy of the Worm

Cleopatra Bitten by the Asp, Guido Reni

Cleopatra Bitten by the Asp, Guido Reni

“I wish you all joy of the worm,” says the Clown bearing a fatal asp just before the final climax of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. What a strange scene – a clown, with all his Shakespearean-fool punnery, malapropisms, and word games.

And there’s no equivalent of the Bard’s source, Plutarch. What to make of the tone, the odd insistence on the image of the “worm”?

Richard F. Whalen deciphers evidence for the theory that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford: “‘worm’ in French is ‘ver’ — and, of course, the Earl of Oxford’s family name was de Vere.”

Others perceive Masonic symbolism.

In her biography of a few years ago, Stacy Shiff reminds us of Cleopatra’s own identification with an asp:

Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. (Menander’s fourth-century adage — ‘A man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp’ — was still copied out by schoolchildren hundreds of years after her death.

But what of the Clown’s phallic punning?

From the ending of Ted Hughes’s poem Cleopatra to the Asp:

Drink me, now, whole, with coiled Egypt’s past
Then from my delta swim
Like a fish toward Rome.

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