Academic journal article Criticism

Binding the Void: The Erotics of Place in Antony and Cleopatra

Academic journal article Criticism

Binding the Void: The Erotics of Place in Antony and Cleopatra

Article excerpt

When Antony leaves for Rome in act 1 of Shakespeare's play, Cleopatra is left alone to indulge in a vision of him on his horse. She asks Charmian,

Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?

Or does he walk? Or is he on his horse?

О happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!

Do bravely, horse! For wot'st thou whom thou mov'st?

The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm

And burgonet of men. He's speaking now,

Or murmuring "Where's my serpent of old Nile?"

For so he calls me.


Two things stand out in Cleopatra's daydream: first, its unmistakable eroticism, and second, its preoccupation with Antony's whereabouts. Its eroticism lies in Cleopatra's desire not simply to observe Antony on his horse, but to become the "happy horse" he mounts, to "bear the weight of Antony" (1.5.20) herself.2 Where Cleopatra's fantasy is palpably erotic- perhaps sodomi tical or submissive or bestial or idolatrous-it is also manifestly plačiai. She would have it that she can both be Antony's place and place him-that is, fix him in time and space ("Ah, ha! You're caught!" [2.5.16], she later dreams). Cleopatra's playfulness competes with her longing; it becomes clear that erotic self-indulgence is contending with a compulsion to locate her lover. Her "Where think'st thou he is now?" is just one among many iterations of what we might call interrogative place deixis. At her entrance in 1.2, Cleopatra asks, "Saw you my lord?" and "Was he not here?" (1.2.79). "Where is he?" (1.3.1) are her first words in the following scene and then "See where he is" (1.3.2). Even in her dream, Cleopatra imputes to Antony an answering version of her recurring compulsion: "Where's my serpent of old Nile?" (1.5.25, emphasis mine). So compelling is the question of "where" for Cleopatra that she voices it in her fantasy of her lover's private murmurs.

Of all the murmurings that she could dream into the mouth of her "demi-Atlas" (22), Cleopatra's "where" confirms our readiness to charge love with the daunting task of anchoring or placing us in the world. Often conceptualized through spatial schemas, love can create a sense of place but can also produce a profound anxiety about displacement, or what Edward Casey calls "place-panic"-the fear of being without a place and consequently lost in the void of space. In Casey's philosophical history of place and space, he writes that "the prospect of a strict void, of an utter no-place, is felt to be intolerable. So intolerable, so undermining of personal or collective identity is this prospect, that practices of placefixing and place-filling are set in motion right away."3 The threat of a boundless, infinite void looms large for lovers whose affair is constantly figured as larger than life. The language of infinity, permeability, and excess is cued at every turn of Shakespeare's play, opening with the image of a "dotage" that "o'erflows the measure" (1.1.1-2). Perhaps this is why Cleopatra is concerned about boundaries from the very start, when she instructs Antony to specify precisely "how much" (1.1.14) and then "how far" (1.1.16) he loves her. She, in turn, will "set a bourn how far to be beloved" (1.1.16).4

In Cleopatra's language of limits and longing for boundaries, I find evidence of the play's larger investment in the erotics of placiality. In this essay, I explore the erotic implications of bounded place and of limitless space to show how the act of placing one's lover-both metaphorically and physically, in fantasy and in reality-is a primary source of eros in Antony and Cleopatra. I begin by exploring the erotics of place, as opposed to space. A close examination of the language of containment in Shakespeare's play reveals that the "bourn" of bounded place gets its erotic charge from the metaphor of sexual bondage, drawing as it does from the formal and temporal features of masochism. When Antony and Cleopatra emplace each other or become each other's place, they typically enfetter and embrace each other. …

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