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English Department | University of Texas | Arlington

Preserving the Spirit of Antony and Cleopatra

Grace Beacham (University of Texas, Arlington)

In the history of humanity, the one we name God and those who enjoy spiritual powers demonstrate their strength through a creative breath, through the domination of winds, through the capacity of setting, or setting again, in motion that which was motionless, rigid, dead.– Luce Irigaray

In a world of mask-mandates and the Black Lives Matter movement’s rallying cry via George Floyd, “I can’t breathe,” rethinking breath as a more substantive component to personhood has become imperative. What our breath contains, with whom we share it, where it is allowed to exist…all of these comprise the “relentless materializing” of breath, as Carolyn Sale puts it, as a “process…of transformation.”[1] Operating under the view that being alive was as much a result of the health of the body’s systems as it was the sustaining power of some inside-outside force, the early modern consciousness of breath was inseparably aligned with a person’s spirit, the Latin word spiritus meaning breath, spirit, or wind. Analogous to the meteorological phenomenon, breath is an element in flux. Not only do the molecules that constitute breath constantly vary – the atmosphere of the present environment, the genes and germs of each individual’s spit – but breath is also always either coming or going. It inspires to change and animate a body, and it expires to disseminate particles and meaning into the world. Even when breath is “caught” and seemingly stays put, it remains that in-between component, the possibility hovering on the spectrum of hot and unstable, and cold and stagnant. Paradoxical, breath is a vapor the body inters that is always already made of the body, expelled of it. That the spirit and body are dual sides of the metaphorical coin that represents the self is a post-Enlightenment ontology distilled from a more wholistic picture of humanness that we are only recently reconciling (or re-disrupting) in critical medical humanities. By tracking medicinal receipts that relate to breathlessness, conditions of the lungs, and cough remedies from the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective, this essay maps out an early modern view of breath important to understanding and complicating Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra both semantically within the text and somatically between actors and audiences.[2] Additionally, recipes for perfumes and preservatives contain within them clues to a transmutable understanding of embodiment so that for the early modern, a person’s interior disposition and even morality inextricably and literally fleshed the physical body. I build on Carolyn Sale’s and Gail Kern Paster’s analyses of breath in Hamlet along with Jennifer Park’s exploration of Cleopatra’s “dynamic preservation” in order to argue for breath’s ability to connect, alter, and preserve the physical bodies of the characters, the critical situations on stage, and the 2015 Stratford Festival production of the play.[3] Applying this disruption of an interior/exterior dichotomy, I examine the treatment of breath as a preservative that particularly imbues the text of Antony and Cleopatra by a dynamic reincorporation of the phenomenon of the theater.

The “breathers” of Antony and Cleopatra appear in various states of fluidity – as the vapor of the mouth becomes that which the mouth reincorporates, so do the characters reckon with their own identities even as they create them. Antony represents the liminal quality of breath by “bestriding” the world from Rome to Egypt without ever fully settling on one. Other characters mark him with images of wetness and dryness: his infamous display of masculine survival, drinking “the stale of horses,” juxtaposes, for Octavian and Lepidus, the “dryness of his bones” despite surfeiting at Cleopatra’s table.[4] Later, Enobarbus ascertains Antony as a “leaky” vessel which his followers must leave to its sinking. Paster offers insight on the early modern representation of women as “leaky vessels” both through bodily emissions and through a supposed propensity to spout gossip and idle chatter.[5] In a Renaissance construction of gender, the distinguishing feature of women as having leaky bodies justified their place in the social hierarchy as weaker beings even as it signified an unjust system of perpetual childbearing and unequal cultural mores. To Shakespeare’s audiences with their preconceptions of women being the weaker, wetter vessels, bodily permeability was a given regardless of sex; being female, however, dictated the extent to which a person could prevail against porousness. The same preoccupation with moisture emitting existed with moisture entering through breath, as we see in the feminization of Antony throughout the play, his susceptibility to change based on either a Roman or an Egyptian setting. Antony’s whimsy and ethereality are what justify Enobarbus’s eventual abandonment of his general even as it affirms Antony’s fluidity in his successful passage from Rome and subsequent conquering of Egypt in terms of gender expectations. The treatment of Antony’s person as permeable, at times too dry and at other times too wet, depending on his environment or merely on who is telling the story, relegates to his breath the sentience of a character that is not-human, yet not-not-human. Oriented in this way, breath bears the power of personhood along with everything full personhood signified in the period, preserving characters like Antony, who ingests the taboo and the lavish to survive.

Antony himself attempts to conceptualize the air through the visual, yet ever-changing, moist bodies of “cloud[s]” like dragons and “vapour[s]” like bears or lions or “black vesper’s pageants” that disappear in a moment back into the atmosphere “as water is in water” (4.14.2-8; 11). As war commanders, Pompey, Caesar, and Antony, each have their turn waffling between land and sea, whether to risk both or “keep whole” (3.8.3). In the case of the former, Pompey for his part chooses to parley on a ship, the quintessential in-between place operating under the ambivalent “breath” of maritime law, but even then he laments Menas’ making him a co-conspirator in (and thus foiling) a plan to kill their enemies. In the case of Antony, his ultimate decision to fight at sea unravels as an effect of his own self-sabotaging vacillation, “But if we fail, / We then can do’t at land” (3.7.52-53). The breath of Octavian is concomitantly a fragile and exhaustible resource Maecenas warns him not to waste and “all-obeying,” dooming Cleopatra and her Egypt (4.1.9; 3.13.81). Octavia is another characterization of the in-between: even though Cleopatra’s messenger describes Octavia as more “a statue than a breather,” he speaks under duress (3.6.78). Parted “betwixt two friends” as a political bride, Octavia possesses a “holy, cold, and still conversation,” yet her “sighs…blow the fire up in Caesar” (2.6.122-28). The versatility of her breath gives her more agency than a chess piece of war. For all these characters breath is the ebb and flow of meaning that revives the characters from a stagnant dualism.

Cleopatra’s Perfume: Breath’s Preserving through Mythologizing

Imagined breaths pervade Antony and Cleopatra and become a means of preserving representation for characters who, though often misread by their atmospheric effects, define themselves via mastery of the air. While the self-inventing mythos of the air in relation to the earth, the heavy, or the concrete does exist in metaphor, I would argue that air, specifically living breath, functions concretely in the representation of these characters, especially in self-representation. Enobarbus describes Antony’s first encounter with Cleopatra on her barge twice with the olfactory account of its perfumed sails which had the dual-function of enticing the crowds to leave the marketplace and look at her, and of engendering the “love-sick”-ness of the wind itself, which, were it not for making a vacuum in nature, would also have “gone to gaze on Cleopatra” (2.2.204, 227). In their immateriality and unknown origin, wind and breath resist an early modern privileging of reification exemplified by an interchangeability of signifiers. Not only do terms like spirit, air, and ghost overlap in their semantic functions, but the concept of both wind and breath in Shakespeare’s time relied on both physical and affectual denouements to predicate representation. Because Enobarbus insists on linking Cleopatra’s mystique to examples of wind and air, perfume’s sensation for the physical body through smell, via the nose, becomes the thing in an epistemology of similitude seeking to represent a woman by her effects.[6] Wind and breath acting on the body through scent constitutes a framework for the Romans’ and Renaissance audiences’ understanding Cleopatra, how she acts on the body’s senses, in an attempt to “personify” her in a system of binary – cause and effect. Like a wind that “go[es] to gaze” and a breathlessness that “pours breath forth,” Enobarbus constructs the person Cleopatra by the vacuums or black holes she leaves in the “natural” or Roman world, of which she is not a part (2.2.227; 2.2.241). Underlying the visual coding of Cleopatra’s corollaries, though, is perfume’s characterization of Cleopatra through its spatiotemporal extension of her. Holly Dugan writes about perfume as “a distillate of material beauty” that “linked early modern English embodiment with an olfactory performance of self,” including, specifically, the signaling of Cleopatra’s allure.[7] Wind and breath are invisible; so too is the Cleopatra of 2.2 both for the bystanders on the shore until the barge nears, and for Enobarbus’s and Shakespeare’s audiences. Perfume’s materiality, the literal particles of the imagined object, offers an alternative, precedented even in biblical contexts, for what it meant to the early modern to know: a body’s interring the thing itself.

Early modern recipes for perfume derive many of their ingredients from Ancient Egypt, even thousands of years later, with aromatics like cassia, cinnamon, and myrrh; with fixatives like resin or storax; and with animal gland secretions like musk and civet.[8] Understandably, a prominent crossover of perfumes for cosmetic use and perfumes for embalming the deceased means that many of these receipts represent bodies both alive and dead. In the same way, we can read Shakespeare’s Cleopatra both as a modern character with her flaws and vanity and as a conglomerate type constructed from Shakespeare’s prior knowledge of the stock of many Cleopatras from antiquity. She is both a woman who uses her resources as agency to draw a desired response from those around her and a memorialized, deified vision who stands in as the European world’s token of a fetishized Egypt. Misreading her as stereotypical Cleopatra also works to implicate the audience in typifying her as a representative of her culture even as it draws their attention to the Romans doing the same. More than static mementos, set apart from the intersections of bodies, objects, or cultures, perfume and mummification receipts from the early modern period conceptualize preservation in the dynamic terms of expulsion and embedding. Many recipes for perfume necessarily included flowers like rose or jasmine.[9] In the Folger manuscript E.a.5 recipe for an “Excellent Ballme,” betony and selfheale are flowers with the ability, after soaking in oil the length of a summer, to “Expell[s] humors,” and when “put into the nose,” according to Francis Bacon, to purge “Flegme, and water from the Head.”[10] The idea of expulsion implicit in these manuscripts suggests that fragrance is a material substance interred in order to expunge, being an invisible, autonomous element with enough chemical, physical, or even spiritual unction to work in displacing whatever other invisible, autonomous element ails a person. The physical or material connotations of this displacement of spirits populate recipes in the imagery of practices such as betony (which has another purpose of aiding memory on page 188 of Folger manuscript V.a.452) being “thrust in the nostrel,” or in instructions from V.a.294, John Ward’s diaries for “The way to imbalme a dead bodie: In the first place let the Bodie bee emboweled; then thrust into the Cauities of itt…spices and powders…”[11] In the instance of mummification, displacing the moisture of a body is crucial for deferring putrefaction; in the instance of perfumery or medicine, at least in the early modern consciousness, displacing malevolent airs is also an essential, material, even forceful practice of preservation, reinforcing the idea that breath is a physical and active substance for Shakespeare, for his characters, and for his early modern audiences.

Figure 1: Anonymous. Medical Miscellany. Folio 122v. E.a.5. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons License.]

Meanwhile, Cleopatra, the exotic, objectified, and near-divine enigma of memory, supplants Enobarbus’s breath in his story of her taking breath away. In the same account of the perfumed barge, Enobarbus reimagines a performance by Cleopatra:

I saw her once

Hop forty paces through the public street

And, having lost her breath, she spoke and panted,

That she did make defect perfection,

And, breathless, pour breath forth (2.2.238-241).

Situated in a strand of stories meant to characterize the Egyptian queen, Enobarbus’s example centers on breath as the particular, material site of her supernatural mystique, as well as of a mid-line caesura that “pours” meaning into the predicate phrase. Cleopatra’s paradoxical reputation as being able to make even a defect perfection, to elicit, though breathless, the cheering breath of a crowd, precludes the frailty of humanity, not only captivating men like Enobarbus and Antony, but also exalting her persona to goddess-status. The men objectify her as a mysterious vapor, impossible to pin down; what they want is not even real, or at least the ephemeral qualities they lust for are only embodied in Cleopatra inasmuch as the subjective men project their own desire to be gods onto her. Throughout the play characters call Cleopatra by another name, Isis, the goddess who mothered all by breathing life into her dead husband, Osiris.[12] Cleopatra plays the role of the goddess upon Antony’s return to Egypt in Act 3, fanning the flames of Caesar’s wrath, commonplace as it was for Egyptian rulers to dress as deities. Cleopatra presents a threat to Caesar for the very same reason she incites the appetites of Antony, Enobarbus, and Agrippa who only vicariously catches wind of her reputation – her feminine elusion. Yet, for all this, Enobarbus, the self-appointed purveyor of Cleopatra, continues to reinscribe her myth, that he knows who she is, in his full belief that “her winds and waters” are not “sighs and tears” (3.2.153). But what if Cleopatra, like the wind itself as Irigaray famously posited, is unthinkable?[13]

Cleopatra’s perfume functions as the material re-interpolation of memory as well as a scent that transgresses the senses. Sally Templeman argues that for the early modern, the porous humoral body needed to be protected from the air itself because something as immaterial as smell might infect, corrupt, and even putrefy the various organs.[14] The incense rising from Cleopatra’s boat and disseminating through the crowds worked both psychologically and physiologically. On the one hand, the scent carried on the wind and inhaled in the breath changes the psychological perception of Cleopatra; on the other, the very real particles of smell comingled with real bodies and their chemical makeups, causing many to physically move and change locale. While Enobarbus chooses more ephemeral symbols to represent the spell Cleopatra has cast on the star-struck people and the personified cosmos, he blames Antony’s capture on the susceptibility of his bodily organs, the eyes and the heart. From Enobarbus’s many recollections and appraisals of Cleopatra, he has obviously paid her much heed since his first sighting, and keeping in mind the somewhat antiquated analysis of his character as a sort of mouthpiece for Shakespeare, we might surmise that a preoccupation with the sensation of Cleopatra originates outside the play.[15] Not only do the settings of Enobarbus’s accounts of Cleopatra take place before the action of the play, but the person of Cleopatra as a historical figure emerges in part from the early modern lore of ancient Egypt and in part as a construct of Shakespeare’s knowledge and imagination. Enobarbus’s/Shakespeare’s metadrama of Cleopatra is itself like a perfume, one that enters a room before a person and lingers after they are gone. The antithetical language of the lyric “perfumes” the text as a way to represent a body in its absence; however, in a reference to the heart that is symbolic even as it is mimetic, Enobarbus’s language indicates a both/and ontology of the body and passions when he claims that “hearts” and “tongues” “think” and “speak” (3.2.16-17). The parallel syntax of the line is either a case of a mixed metaphor or an actual representation of the early modern understanding of the body’s affects. That a tongue can speak is a literal statement of fact we use to idiomatic effect even today, but the tongue is only part of the story. We know our minds, diaphragms, breath, voices, teeth, and lips are also involved in speaking. For the early modern, the heart was both emblematic of and part of the physiological center of rationality. It stands to reason, then, that the analogous relationship of “heart” and “think” would also be literal, if partial, in Enobarbus’s estimation.

Although breathing Cleopatra’s perfume displaces the myth with self-representation, it also draws the physical body through seduction, specifically by olfactory-adjacent taste. The link between food and Cleopatra’s enigmatic self-creation lasts and outlasts the entire play, including her seduction of Antony. According to Shakespeare’s source text, Plutarch’s Lives, the purpose of Cleopatra’s display upon the barge was to mock Antony’s prior summons to meet with him.[16] Much of her relationship with Antony centered on similar competitions of feasting and lavishness, who could outdo the other in excess, but in Enobarbus’s recounting the stories – from Shakespeare’s knowledge of Plutarch’s writings, which hailed from Hellenistic histories, biographies, and oral tradition – which become a sort of chorus of the play, we begin to rethink which parts of Cleopatra’s mythos were self-made. For example, in dealing with Antony, Cleopatra employed an assortment of alimentary manipulation tactics in her romantic pursuits, from starving herself to poisoning herself, as a means of roundabout seduction, but also to engender her own myth. We can think about her hysterics or grandiosity concerning Antony as a long game of cat-and-mouse, one that he was more than happy to play knowing all along his lover was “cunning past man’s thought” (1.2.150). In the same way that Cleopatra’s scent displaces people and atmosphere through breath, it moves Antony both geographically and passionately. Thinking with his heart, he cannot resist the queen’s reversal of his invitation to dinner, presumably by the breath of the messenger Dellius, and upon laying eyes on her his heart feasts. Thus, through perfume’s breath, Cleopatra is the scent-become-sight-become-taste that transcends the boundaries of place, natural elements, and bodies.

An ingredient that appears in a perfume for washing gloves, Folger manuscript V.a.683, also links Cleopatra’s games of seduction to her self-preservation. Vitriol is a type of sulfuric acid with antimicrobial and corrosive properties, despite its supposed ability to “make the perfume last as long as the Gloves.”[17] Cleopatra likewise reincorporates the “other” that is both threatening and a means of safeguarding herself. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History tells the story of Cleopatra dissolving and ingesting a priceless pearl in order to best Antony in a show of extravagance.[18] To prove to him she could host a banquet amounting to ten million sesterces, Cleopatra served Antony a run-of-the-mill dinner, and when he asked how it was more lavish than any other, she dropped a priceless pearl, one of two earrings that had been passed down the Ptolemy line, into a glass of vinegar which promptly ate away at the treasure until it disappeared entirely. Cleopatra then drank the entire contents of the goblet, seemingly for the mere goal of winning a bet. Both vinegar and vitriol are acidic agents which humans may ingest moderately, but overconsumption – say, drinking a whole goblet – would produce adverse effects. We could read Cleopatra’s essentially poisoning herself as an example of our object of the play, the unreasonable female, acting on her passions. However, if we take a look at recipes for poison antidotes, such as Folger manuscript V.a.452, “A True receipt of Gascoigns Cordiall powder” by Thomas Sheppey, which catalogues similar ingredients and their prices at the apothecary, we get clues into Cleopatra’s self-preservation.[19] Along with mythical and semi-mythical elements like “Crabs eyes,” Bezoar” stone, and even, elsewhere, “Unicorn horn,” the recipe contains directions to powder, searce (sift), and drink “in a spoonful of Dragon water” something a little more familiar – pearls. All of these ingredients, the recipe suggests, may be used interchangeably. Crab’s eye, according to the OED, is “a round concretion, found in the stomach of the crayfish and some other crustacea.”[20] Also known mythically as philosopher’s stones, bezoar stones came from the stomachs of goats or humans, and, per John Ward, in Folger manuscript V.a.286, who heard it from New World missionary Josephus Acosta, “the simple Indians themselvs are very accurate in sophisticating” it.[21] Pearls, in the same way, ossify in the “stomachs” of oysters, the process itself a form of self-protection against foreign objects accidentally interred by mollusks. Each of these ingredients is a natural antidote that chiefly works to neutralize acids by its basic property as a calcium deposit. Another way of looking at Cleopatra’s spectacle that captivated audiences from Mark Antony to Pliny is the body’s reincorporation of its own creation being the antidote that preserves it from outside threats. Just as perfume entices and preserves that which absorbs it, Cleopatra makes her own myth by ingesting and by being ingested so that both her body and her fiction “last[s] long and decay[s] not”; even readers of the play today find it difficult to deconstruct her.[22] Agrippa’s response to the legends is apt: “Rare Egyptian!” (3.2.228).

Figure 2: Sheppey, Thomas, et al. A book of choice receipts collected from several famous authors a great part in monasteries and often experimented as to a great number of them. 134v. V.a.452. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons License.

Rare Lungs: Breath’s Preserving through Interruption

Beyond the imagined breaths of individual characters, I would also argue there is a situational “breath” in Antony and Cleopatra, both in the physical staging and in the text of the play. An odd positioning extends Antony’s death when Cleopatra commands he be hoisted up to her monument. Antony’s botched suicide becomes a suspended and suffering body that acts as a breather within the text, interrupting the scene, but it also gives Cleopatra a chance to postpone Antony’s dying breaths by preventing him from uttering his final words.


Give me some wine and let me speak a little –


No, let me speak, and let me rail so high…

Provoked by my offense –


One word, sweet queen…” (4.15.44-48).

Shakespeare uses the rare linguistic feature of interruption to heighten the drama and create tension in the climax of the play, but also to capitalize on an irony that has been building up across prior scenes. For example, in the case of Cleopatra’s fabricated last words when she fakes her death, Antony’s name is presumably “divided / Between her heart and lips,” like the final breath gets stuck in her throat, forever encapsulating Antony both literally in her body and symbolically as the source of her life (4.14.32-33). If we think about the reason she feigns suicide in the first place, to assuage his anger and prove to him the seriousness of her love despite a hard-and-fast military strategy that would seek to use him to her advantage the same as any other pawn, we uncover the selfish motives of such impassioned words. In this case, Cleopatra’s appeal to Antony’s sense of reckless, no-holds-barred love goes unrequited, as he receives her “death” and its sentiment with somber acceptance, much the same as he did Fulvia’s passing, at least at face-value. Antony takes an interior turn, simply stating, “The long day’s task is done / And we must sleep” (4.14.35-36). Not only does Antony absorb the shock of the message internally, but he further makes her death about him by seeking to end his life. However, in terms of a breath that is neither metaphoric nor mimetic, neither fully body nor fully spirit, but divided between two states, the declaration of love is also a sounding of her living and continual marking of Antony as a mythical person she creates after his death who “bestrides the ocean” and “crests the world” (5.2.81-82). Much like René Descartes’s idea about the moiety of the blood in being able to figuratively “leaven the whole lump” if one part of it retained too much heat, for example, Cleopatra’s retention of both Antony’s name in the fiction of her death and Antony’s person as an autonomous entity effectively “leavens” or empowers her version of events.[23] She continuously works to craft her own narrative, and also that of Antony, to whom “she render[s] life,” his “name so buried in her” (4.14.33-34). However, because Antony is unrecognizable to her apart from a vision as a power couple that encompasses the world, she misreads the situation and leaves him hanging, as we see later, both literally and figuratively. Her romanticized memorializing of Antony mimics the paradoxical imagery Enobarbus used to describe Cleopatra, yet it lacks the same effect of sharpening the appetite for his enigma or, for premature reaping, growing the bounty of his myth. Even when asked if her “dream” of Antony is believable, Dolabella, the first audience of the tale, replies bluntly and humorously, “no” (5.2.93). Ironically, Cleopatra’s actual last words, “What should I stay –” break off mid-sentence, juxtaposing Antony’s final utterance, a reclaiming of agency to give up his own spirit, or breath (5.2.311).

In the early modern consciousness of the body and the humours, without breath’s interruption of cooling the heart, the blood would remain in a gaseous state and infect the body’s affects. Prior to the Enlightenment when doctors and scientists began to dissect the human body with more precision, identifying all the miniscule subsystems and micro-physiology, the intersubjectivity of organs accounted for otherwise unspecified maladies of the body and spirit.[24] According to Descartes, “the flesh of the lung is so rare and so soft, and always so refreshed by the air of respiration,” that it has the power to “reconvert” “blood vapors” back into blood.[25] The “rarity” or capaciousness of the lungs meant that they were open and susceptible to infiltration, just as the tendency of the body’s systems to intersect with each other and with the external environment portended both real and imagined threats to a person. For example, in their treatment of the boundaries of the body’s systems and of the body itself in relation to the environment, many early modern medicinal recipes overlap in prescribing preventative and therapeutic measures for the lungs, the spleen, the liver, the stomach, and the heart. A recipe for the spleen may call for a cold compress to be applied in the general area of pain to alleviate overheated blood; it may promote the application of “the spleen of a dog hot” to the troubled part, a remedy evoking, to borrow Stacy Alaimo’s term, a “trans-corporeal” efficacy that may or may not have had scientific grounds, at least from a post-Enlightenment or logocentric ontology.[26] One might find ingredients like liverwort, lungwort, hart’s-tongue, sheep’s hearts, fox-lung, and spleenwort across receipts irrespective of the organ in question. That the morphology of these ingredients connotes a sort of transmutability of properties between plants, animals, and patients with language as the vehicle also supports a conception of permeability in regard to air, language, and the body. The discovery of the “wandering spleen” in the late nineteenth century indicates early modern medicine was on the right track: as recently as 2019 the phenomenon baffled the post-Enlightenment framework of the body in the case of a 70-year-old woman whose “hypermobile” spleen wandered into the thoracic cavity and created a “megacolon” that literally wasted her breath.[27] After the removal of the mass, her stomach distended into the empty space, once again blurring the boundaries of how we conceive of the organs consuming and expelling energy into the world. In the case of tuberculosis, also known as another “wasting” disease, consumption, or the body’s eating itself, the rare spaces of the lungs become abscessed with tubercles. Seventeenth-century English physician Richard Morton cited “predisposing causes ranging from blocked evacuations of any kind, morbid emotions, too many late nights, too much studying, overindulgence in meats and liquors.”[28] The lungs, he claimed, had a structural propensity to “suck in and retain the humours” in their “small Bladders and Vessels” and constant movement of breath.[29] Thus, the act of breathing, for the early modern consciousness and for Shakespeare’s characters, contained at once the sustaining force of life and the very threat of its ending. Cleopatra’s dramatic threat to end her own life vacillates like a respirating body to and fro between sustaining her and Antony’s myths, unraveling her agency in the situation, and propelling her lover toward his ultimate death.

An All-Obeying Breath: Preserving Antony and Cleopatra through Film

The performance of Antony and Cleopatra can be compared to breath in its self-awareness as a play that is both written into the fabric of the text and actualized by the breathing body of the stage. In 4.3 an emptying-out of the physical stage constitutes an interlude in the main action of the plot and materializes the metaphoric theme of liminal experience. An ambiguous music, probably the sound of Antony’s pre-battle feast, emerges in the night and frightens the soldiers on guard who can’t tell if it is “i’th’ air” or “Under the earth” (4.3.16-17). When they move positions to the four corners of the stage, the audience must attend to the invisible air that once contained visible characters, offering Shakespeare or any director the chance to “display” present-yet-unseen characters: the musicians beneath the stage whose performance, like the wind, seemingly has no origin or end. Antony and Cleopatra’s history of the ethereal continues to transform physical performance. Until 2015, audiences enjoyed the Stratford Shakespeare Festival by journeying to Ontario, Canada and sitting in one of the four theaters to watch a live performance. Now, under the leadership of artistic director Barry Arvich, people all over the world have a chance to see “Stratford on Film,” seven cinematic recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, with plans of completing fourteen of his works by 2025.[30] Despite the temptation to privilege a live, in-person viewing over an impermeable, screen-mediated experience, the Stratford performance melds film and theatre by directorial choices which create a spectacle that is at once an encapsulated event and a fluidly self-aware conglomerate of perspectives. When we judge the material record of a performance merely as a one-dimensional iteration, in what ways are we fetishizing the sensational, bodily closeness of theatre to the neglect of the suffering experienced by actual bodies, betraying our consumption as unaffected viewers? Using Jennifer Park’s theory of preservation as an incorporation of the “other” in order to transcend mortality and bodily limitations, this section argues that in “preserving” the performance of Antony and Cleopatra through film, the camera-as-a-breather operates in ways “both dynamic and organic” to complicate what otherwise could have been a narrow and contrived interpretation of the play.[31] The filmic capturing of breath exposes the ways in which the theatre-film genre binary is disrupted by the present and potential audiences.

Whereas multiple microphones capture the breaths of performers and their live audience, the camera is more selective in how it depicts breathers in the play. In 3.13 Cleopatra finally begins to reckon with the “conqu’ring hand” of Caesar and capitulates to him via messenger:

Tell him I am prompt

To lay my crown at’s feet, and there to kneel

Till from his all-obeying breath I hear

The doom of Egypt (3.13.79-82).

Whether or not she intends to go through with an outright surrender, she seems to believe, at least in this moment, that the fate of her life and her land belongs to Octavian. It is also at this precise moment that a sound of disbelief, or of disobedience, re-reads the scene when an unseen audience member coughs (1:26:24).[32] Yanna McIntosh, the actress playing Cleopatra, persists flawlessly as the shot zeroes in on her, but with multiple cameras, microphones, and crew members in charge of curating the film, the sound still, somehow, slips through. For the theater, a cough is both discrete and indiscrete – it is audience-, performance-, and individual-specific, yet it happens in all plays everywhere. For the production of this particular play, though, the videography captures the vision of the producers with close-ups of the actors and the backgrounds blacked out, while the microphone catches what just so happens to arise organically. The perfectly timed cough from a real and (un)absent person in the audience undermines the breath, the life and power, of the fictional and (un)absent character of Caesar, but the randomness of a physiological function of breath is precisely what makes the moment authentic and reminds us that real bodies exist in the play and in the audience, just as real bodies surmise the intentions of recipes, both culinary and medicinal. Because the production is a film, we must consider the cough, yet the cough itself signals a live performance. In the same way that Enobarbus creates the diegetic of Cleopatra’s mythos as if it arises from outside or before the text of the play, the visual representation of bodies in film, for Davina Quinlivan, contains within it the “possible presence of breath.”[33] However, because we have the visual picture of Cleopatra and an exclusively aural delivery of a cough outside the imagined world of the play, the moment is selectively permeable in the same way that at Shakespeare’s time the body was believed to inhale bad humours or evil spirits. A person could feasibly persist against “heavenes” or melancholy if he or she kept a clean, moist diet and lived in an ideal climate. For Robert Appelbaum, the science of the period “really expressed a symbolic relation of the subject to his or her sensations…to all the little world to which the body of the individual was thought to amount.”[34] That is why, when we examine recipes for cough medicines, from which the interrupting audience member perhaps could have benefitted, we see ingredients like watercress (still used in the treatment of asthma), fennel seeds, aniseeds, and “raysons of the sunne,” which evoke sensations of freshness and purity; aromatics like garlic and licorice for the “purging and opening” of passages; and the overall purposes of “opening the breast,” “enlargeing of the breath,” and to “Comfort all spirituall partes of a man.”[35] Some addendums further appeal to the ethos or the spiritual with near-invocations like the one in Folger manuscript W.a.111:

…the same lungs being wounded or perished it mightily helpeth it and comforteth, and suffereth not the bloud to putrifie…, the heart to be burnt, nor that melancholy or phlegm have the dominion above nature, and it expelleth the Rheum mightily, and profiteth the stomake marvellously, and conserveth youth in his own estate, and gendereth a good collour, and keepeth and conserveth the visage, & memory…[36]

Figure 3: Anonymous. Cookbook. 90v. W.a.111. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons License.

We might expect to see a passage like this in the Book of John (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”), but the presence of Christian rhetoric in a recipe indicates that in the imagined world of the Elizabethan body, the spirit of personhood dwelled inextricably, and a person’s breath was the place the soul might mix with the threatening external world (John 3.16).[37] In this film, the ephemeral breath does allow something to enter and mix with the interior world of the play, but rather than harm, I propose that it inhumes the play in a process of dynamic preservation as film. Something similar happens in 4.15 when Cleopatra holds a dying Antony in her monument: the rest of the stage succumbs to darkness as the camera hyper-focuses on the two; yet Antony’s microphone picks up Cleopatra’s breaths as he struggles to speak his final thoughts (2:14:20-2:15:05). Attending to their breath, we attend to their bodies as actors on a stage, and simultaneously to the meaning of the performance as a film. Just as Cleopatra interrupts Antony’s last words as a way to keep him alive and breathing, the filming of the play interrupts the performance in order to preserve it. The irony, so very dear to Shakespeare, will be the all-enduring byte that creates an awareness of the play and of the camera as a member of the audience, same as those on either side of the screen.

Cleopatra herself imagines breath as a claustrophobic force that can strip her of power. Thinking about the crowds of Caesar’s victory tour, she says, “In their thick breaths / Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded / And forced to drink their vapour” (5.2.210-12). Appelbaum writes that early modern medical authorities equated heavy foods like beef and red wine with “grossness and melancholy.”[38] He suggests that in the time period, beef in particular was charged with geographical and nationalistic prejudices. The English ate red meat and claimed that it imbued them with manliness and virility, and because it was a colder climate than, say, France or the Mediterranean where people consumed less red meat, the English physical constitution was better suited to its digestion. In reality, the human body requires a specific enzyme to digest proteins found in beef, and when a person stops eating beef, the body stops producing the enzyme. Still, the bias emerged, and something as innocuous as meat had become the instrument for moral and social embroilment. In Cleopatra’s declaration breath functions as the same sort of cocktail loaded with political nuance. She imagines the horde of Romans not only viewing her as a spectacle which is certainly what Octavian intended, but also pressing in on her with their embodiments – hoisting her up with “greasy aprons, rules, and hammers,” and with their material breaths. Where Cleopatra previously masqueraded as Aphrodite and Isis and even as Antony, she sees this parading self as an “Egyptian puppet” (5.2.207). Where she had surrounded herself with “pretty dimpled” enslaved young men who fanned the air and paradoxically caused her cheeks to flush even as they cooled them, she now imagines with abjection and revulsion the enslaved persons who will ironically encloud her with their airs to suffocate her (2.2.212). The biggest difference for Cleopatra, though, seems to be that the breath of the Romans is “rank of gross diet,” emphasizing a difference of cultures and fares that, rather than strengthening her as Antony’s feasting on foreign foods did for him, will destroy her. Now, Cleopatra’s preserving breath is a poisoning one. It is in believing her imagined narrative of the imminent force-drinking of breath that Cleopatra turns to more fatal measures of freedom, reincorporating her own breath in the ultimate self-removal of all agency – suicide.

By the time McIntosh speaks her broken final line, “What should I stay—?” and Cleopatra’s breath is supposedly stayed, the camera loses focus on her physical form lying in the monument and oscillates from her to Charmian (Sophia Walker) and back to McIntosh, creating a sort of breathing film (2:37:40). Charmian finishes Cleopatra’s thought with one of her own last breaths – “In this vile world?” – and continues mythologizing her mistress as “a lass unparalleled” and “golden Phoebus” (5.2.314-315). She attends to her physically as well by straightening her crown and defending her from the Roman guards. In these ways, the trauma of Cleopatra’s death is portrayed through what Quinlivan calls the “communality of breathing.”[39] The same intimacy between Cleopatra and her female attendants in sharing their physical breaths and metaphorical spirits through kissing also permeates Charmian’s prolonging Cleopatra’s life in extending and completing her final words and her persona through the lauding of her character. Thus, breath is a continuance of being, both literally and symbolically, just as the rising and falling of McIntosh’s chest in the remainder of the scene after Cleopatra dies signals life and personhood to a viewer who, after all, breathes the same air as that of McIntosh, and of Cleopatra herself.

Concluding Thoughts

Breath is not merely an anthropocentric instrument of the body, but that which works on its own accord through, to, and between bodies. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, most people have reimagined breath according to its materiality in presenting a threat to life and to relationships. Even in the midst of historic plagues and epidemics, I would argue, people did not regard breath as an agent of relational violence, even considering “bad” spirits or after the discovery of transmittable disease. Never before has a person’s value and identity turned so inward and interior, literally masked and constrained by a six-foot radius, as far as he or she can breathe. However, because of technology, people have also redefined the boundaries of social life with audio/visual “breathing bodies” that can transcend place, time, and even socioeconomic status. That means we must reimagine the ways we attend to breath intersectionally. Kimberly Anne Coles likewise argues for the early modern conception of race as an intersection of, among other factors, rank and nation.[40] Scientific discourse from the period suggests the blood and its humours, with their connection to the spirit and morality of a person, were responsible for complexion. Nobility made up the ruling class because their bloodlines literally and physiologically consisted of pure and well-balanced humours, which, as I discussed, were thought to be affected by the surrounding airs and spirits, the communal breath. A further application of Coles’s theory to Cleopatra reexamines her as a racialized character in terms of the legitimacy of her bloodline or status as a royal along with existing analyses of ancient-Roman/Elizabethan imperialism. During the era of Shakespeare’s play, Cleopatra represented a contested range of racial identity and heritage that can be traced through her final acts. The decision to end her life offered Cleopatra a shred of agency when faced with the psychophysiological humiliation as a war prize and token of exoticism; however, since she has proven to be “cunning past thought,” we must entertain another reason for her suicide: spurning the corruption of rank. Octavian’s terms would enable him to enshroud her as her “universal landlord,” the shroud or cloak at once symbolizing his swallowing up of her identity and the shroud of death, what would become her burial garment (3.13.76). The imagery of provision, security, and lifelong commitment, if not, too, the traditional mode of imperialism, opens up the alternative possibility of Cleopatra as a war bride. Antony likewise is as preoccupied with “the getting of a lawful race” by the “gems” (read, purest) of women with Roman bloodlines, as he is with his obsession over Cleopatra’s former lovers such as dead Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey; yet, for all his blustering, he has a man beaten for merely kissing her “white” (read, pure) hand (3.13.112-113; 3.13.143). Considering the textual undercurrents of bloodlines as they materialize and localize in the skin or countenance, we could read Cleopatra’s ultimate choice to end her life by the poisoning of her blood as a rejection of what she must see to be the miscegenation of humours implicit in a coupling with Octavian. Such a choice complicates a historical reading of Octavian’s and Antony’s respective claims of power through heritage.

In the same way, if we think about George Floyd’s death as the result of a racism not only predicated on nation and ethnicity, but also on rank and place, we must grapple with cultural ideals about which moral as well as phenotypical persons are entitled to freedom and to life. If an early modern marking of complexion, such as both the “tawny skin” and the “white hand” of Cleopatra, measured the immaterial humoral balance and moral caliber of a person, in what ways are we wrapping the same belief system with polarizing discussions of justification and a general rhetoric of blame? For, while Cleopatra, because of her status, possessed the agency of choosing in which manner to end her life, the decision was a negation in response to parameters determined by white masculine domination. Both she and Floyd had to live within this framework because of the threat they presented to Roman/English/American hegemony.

I interpret Irigaray’s treatise of breath, that in order “To cultivate the divine in herself, the woman…has to attend to her own breathing, her own breath,” as a philosophical prescription for the “othered” person to firmly grasp the material and immaterial objectivities of breath in order to pass, with breath, from “nature to grace.”[41] A person’s breath, because of its intersubjectivity with the elements for which I argued above disrupts the binary oppositions of language, including life and death. The paradoxical power of George Floyd’s dying breath, “I can’t breathe,” for example, much like Cleopatra’s, is in its ability to rise from his death and engender the life and breath of others. On the one hand, breath played an integral and fundamentally physical role in his murder: outside his body, Floyd’s breath evinced his body just as his body was both the locale of the officers’ crime and the embodiment of their guilt in devaluing him based on the color of his skin. Beyond that, the “perfume” of the refrain incited a visceral response, drawing crowds together to march for Black Lives Matter and thrusting the issue of racial inequality into the forefront of public consciousness. On the other hand, with his breath as the only defense against violence, George Floyd used the symbolic force of his words to communicate not only his own fear and the injustice of the situation, but also the injustice experienced by so many others. Hearers of his breaths are also always already complicit by being part of a culture that eats the “gross beef” of the news as entertainment because we are able to digest it because we eat of it often. So in a world where breath is both less and more “rare,” both contained and interiorized, and freed and publicized, we must use our breaths to create a new narrative – the preservation of our humanity. In the same way the communal breath of Shakespeare’s characters and audiences at once sustained their lives and threatened their existence, the communal breath of the marginalized in our society vacillates between the propulsion of agency and the pollution of inequality based on the winds and whims of those in power. Through movements such as BLM or Me Too, the disturbance of this control is a dynamic spirit, the “sighs and tears” of a respirating collective, who, like Floyd and Cleopatra, always seems to have another breath to give.




[1] See Carolyn Sale, “Eating Air, Feeling Smells: ‘Hamlet’s’ Theory of Performance,” Renaissance Drama 35 (2006): 145–68.

[2] For a broader look at breath in literature and cinema, see Naya Tsentourou, “Wasting Breath in Hamlet,” Reading Breath in Literature (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 39-57; Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Carla Mazzio, “The History of Air: Hamlet and the Trouble with Instruments,” South Central Review 26, no. 1, (2009): 153-96; Luce Irigaray, “The Age of Breath,” Key Writings (New York: Continuum, 2004), 165-70; Steven Connor, The Matter of Air: Science and Art of the Ethereal (London: Reaktion Books, 2010); Davina Quinlivan, The Place of Breath in Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012); Ian Garwood, “Breath and the Body of Voice in Cinema,” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 10, no. 2 (2016): 105-7; Alice Malpass, et al., “Disrupted Breath, Songlines of Breathlessness: An Interdisciplinary Response,” Medical Humanities 45, no. 3 (2019): 294; Sasha Engelmann, “Toward a Poetics of Air: Sequencing and Surfacing Breath,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40, no. 3 (2015): 430-44.

[3] Jennifer Park, “Discandying Cleopatra: Preserving Cleopatra’s Infinite Variety in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra,” Studies in Philology 113, no. 3 (2016): 597.

[4] I cite The Arden Shakespeare revised edition of Antony and Cleopatra, ed. R. Proudfoot, A. Thompson, D. S. Kastan, and H. Jenkins, (London: 2001); here, I.iv.63; 27. All subsequent references will be provided parenthetically in the text.

[5] Gail Kern Paster, “Leaky Vessels: The Incontinent Women of City Comedy,” Renaissance Drama 18, (1987): 43.

[6] For more on Gail Paster’s assertion of medical discourse of the early modern time period being a system of “similitude…an emblematic way of thinking,” see Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 27.

[7] Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 58-60.

[8] Robert J. Littman, and Jay Silverstein, Dora Goldsmith, Sean Coughlin, and Hamedy Mashaly, “Eau de Cleopatra: Mendesian Perfume and Tel Timai,” Near Eastern Archaeology 84, no. 3 (2021): 222.

[9] See Dugan’s chapter “Casting Selves: Rosewater, Casting Bottles, Court” for more information about the use of rose attar in early modern perfumery.

[10]  Anonymous, Medical miscellany [manuscript], E.a.5, Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1634, p. 122, https:/ Medical miscellany-manuscript–? qvq=q:betony&mi=4&trs=123; Francis Bacon, Sylua Syluarum: Or A Naturall Historie in Ten Centuries (London,1627),

[11] My emphases. See Thomas Sheppey, A book of choice receipt collected from several famous authors a great part in monasteries and often experimented as to a great number of them [manuscript], V.a.452, Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1675, ; see William Horman, Vulgaria (London, 1519); see also entry for “Betony, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online (updated March 2022),; John Ward, John Ward Diaries, Vol. 11, V.a.294, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1665-ca. 1672, pp. 4v-5r,

[12] Mary Naples, “Cleopatra: The Goddess,” Femmina Classica (2019), xi,

[13] For referencing Irigaray’s theory of breath both here and the epigraph, see Luce Irigaray, “The Age of Breath,” Key Writings (London: Continuum 2004), 165–70.

[14] Sally Templeman, “‘What’s this? Mutton?’: Food, Bodies, and Inn-Yard Performance Spaces in Early Shakespearean Drama,” Shakespeare Bulletin 31, no. 1 (2013): 82.

[15] See Henry N. Hudson’s commentary, Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with Introduction, and Notes Explanatory and Critical for Use in Schools and Families (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1909), 18-19.

[16] Quoted in Prudence J. Jones, Cleopatra: A Source Book (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006),102. References hereafter to Plutarch in text.

[17] Anonymous, Miscellaneous Receipts [manuscript], V.a.683, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1709-1727? p. 41,

[18] Jones, 106.

[19] Thomas Sheppey, A book of choice receipt collected from several famous authors a great part in monasteries and often experimented as to a great number of them [manuscript], V.a.452, Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1675, p. 134,

[20] See entry for “Crab’s-eye, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, September 2021,

[21] John Ward, Diary of John Ward, vol. 3, V.a.286, Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1652, p. 26v,–3?qvq=q:286%2026&mi=2&trs=59.

[22] Sheppey, 134.

[23] René Descartes, Treatise of Man (Boston: Harvard UP, 1972).

[24] Helen Bynum, Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015), 43.

[25] Descartes, 11.

[26] Sheppey, 324; Stacy Alaimo, “Thinking as the Stuff of the World,” O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies 1 (2014): 13.

[27] Jennie Han, and Darren Tonkin, and Peter Hewett, “Rare Case of Wandering Spleen Causing Intra-Thoracic Megacolon,” ANZ Journal of Surgery, 90.6 (2019): 1192,

[28] Quoted in Bynum, 47.

[29] Ibid., 48.

[30] Mark Kennedy, “Stratford Festival plans to film all Shakespeare’s plays,” Detroit Free Press (February 2015),

[31] Park, 599.

[32] Barry Avrich, director, Antony and Cleopatra. By William Shakespeare. Performances by

Yanna McIntosh and Sophia Walker, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, 2015.

[33] Davina Quinlivan, The Place of Breath in Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 94.

[34] Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections:

Literature, Culture, and Food Among the Early Moderns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 37.

[35] See Tuyelee Das, Samapika Nandy, and Abhijit Dey’s medical study “Asthma-Induced Inflammatory Responses and Reversal by Botanicals,” Medicinal Plants for Lung Diseases (Singapore: Springer, 2021): 103-25; See John De Feckenham, This book of sovereign medicines…, Folger manuscript V.b.129, pp. 40-41, Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1600,

[36] Anonymous. Cookbook [manuscript], W.a.111, Folger Shakespeare Library, ca. 1706, p. 90,

[37] Holy Bible. King James Version (Christian Art Publishers, 2016).

[38] Appelbaum, 3.

[39] Quinlivan, 124.

[40] See Kimberly Anne Coles, “Moral Constitution: Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Miriam and the Color of Blood,” Rethinking Feminism in Early Modern Studies (London: Routledge, 2016): 149-64.

[41] Irigaray, 165.