Stroking

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water.” So begins Shakespeare’s greatest evocation of erotic arousal, Enobarbus’ celebrated account in Antony and Cleopatra of the way the Egyptian queen’s appearance on the river Cydnus first “pursed up” the heart of the Roman general. For Niklaus Largier it would come as no surprise that Shakespeare has Cleopatra’s seductive tableau include a playful, fleeting image of flagellation:

   The oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. (2.2.200–203)

Largier’s splendid, five-hundred-page In Praise of the Whip shows in stunning detail the rich history of such scenes, for the most part carefully crafted to captivate the beholder’s fantasy and to awaken the senses.

Brief as it is, Shakespeare’s image contains many of the elements that endlessly resurface in this history: blows delivered by whips or (as here) rods, the rhythmic keeping of time, the accompanying music, the mounting excitement that at once feeds upon and plays off against the steady repetition of the “strokes” (a word poised between blows and caresses), the ambiguous intertwining of pain and desire.

Shakespeare does not quite call the experience love. The cunning little word “as” in the phrase “As amorous of their strokes” calls attention to metaphor or imagination, the realm of “as if.” On the shifting sands of this realm, according to Largier, flagellation’s palace is built, and here too Shakespeare seems uncannily alert to a long history. Cleopatra’s appeal is linked far less to what she actually is—if one could ever determine that—than to the fantasies that she excites. What she offers has nothing to do with the attributes that Shakespeare and his contemporaries routinely associated with “normal” feminine allure: blond curls, fair, unblemished skin, the blush of youth, and a chaste, meek, and silent disposition. “Think on me,” she muses, figuring her dark complexion as the consequence of delicious sexual violence at the hands of the sun god, “That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black,/And wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.27–29). On her barge she creates an elaborate spectacle not so much for Antony’s eyes as for his fantasy to feast upon. The glimpse of the water agitated by the strokes is meant as an example for him to follow, a promise of the particular kind of pleasure that he will receive.

The “serpent of old Nile,” as Antony calls her, is the master-mistress of the scourge and the whip, time-honored aids to flagging sexual desire. “See where he is,” she instructs an attendant, “who’s with him, what he does.”

I did not send you. If you find him sad,

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

That I am sudden sick. (1.3.2–5)

The queen’s servant Charmian is mystified by what she calls this “method” and urges her mistress …

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