Mortals though we be, only the most morbid of us think of our last breath and how we’ll face it. I’ll tell you something–I hope I can face it as bravely and nobly as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. After her beloved Antony dies (of a self-inflicted wound, a la Romeo and Juliet), Cleopatra decides to follow Antony. She doesn’t have to die–Caesar offers a life of sorts, but it’d be a diminished existence. And so Cleopatra calls for her robe and crown, and thus poisoned with an Asp, embraces the afterlife:
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.
—Antony and Cleopatra, Act V Scene ii
Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra in the latter part of his career, after the great tragedies of Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, after his female characters had become stronger, multifaceted, fully-fleshed humans. Shakespeare was at the height of his powers, and dared to do whatever he wished. Apparently he wished to create this powerful woman. Astonishing, considering the culture Shakespeare lived and wrote in, where women were considered not only inferior, but property.
Revel in the beauty of Cleopatra’s acts and words: After calling for her robe and crown, she kisses her servants Charmain and Iras to death, since the venom of an asp drips from her lips. As the fangs of the asp take her to death, she likens it to love: “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch.”
The image comes from the 1945 film Caesar and Cleopatra, with the ethereal Vivien Leigh as the immortal Queen.