Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, August 25, 2014

Time for a Laugh--Bring in the Eunuchs

Yanna McIntosh and Geraint Wyn Davies
in Antony and Cleopatra, Stratford Festival


Noun--1. a castrated man, especially one formerly employed by Oriental rulers as a harem guard or palace official.

1350-1400; Middle English eunuk < Latin eunūchus < Greek eunoûchoseunuch, chamberlain, equivalent to eune-, stem of eunḗ bed, place of sleeping + -ochos keeping (akin to échein to hold

Shakespeare was wise enough (most of the time) to include a little comedy with his tragedies. And so we have the grave-diggers in Hamlet, Roderigo in Othello (things don't work out well for him!), the Porter in Macbeth, and on and on.

I'd not seen Antony and Cleopatra in a few years, and when I saw it on Sunday last, I was surprised during a scene when Cleopatra's eunuch (Mardian) comes in for a little good-natured (?) ribbing in a couple of places.

In 1.5, Mardian, entering, says to Cleopatra, "What is your highness' pleasure?" And she replies "I take no pleasure / In aught an eunuch has." (Chortle, chortle.) A little more of an exchange. Then Cleopatra asks him, "Hast thou affections?"

MARDIAN:  Yes, gracious madam


MARDIAN: Not in deed, madam; for I can do nothing ...
Yet I have fierce affections ....

And later, in 2.5, we get this. Charmian, Cleopatra's principal attendant, says her arm is sore; she cannot play.

My arm is sore; best play with Mardian.

As well a woman with an eunuch play'd
As with a woman. Come, you'll play with me, sir?

As well as I can, madam.

And when good will is show'd, though't come too short,
The actor may plead pardon

Here, we even get a reference to something "short"; hmmmm, wonder what that is?

The eunuch has been a comic figure throughout the history of drama and literature--and film. Check out this "eunuch test" devised by Mel Brooks (via YouTube). And the Broadway hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which opens with the rousing song "Comedy Tonight") features a comic pair of eunuchs. And on and on. Oh, and they're also often sneaky, knavish types. (Fans of Game of Thrones know about the duplicitous eunuch Varys--see below.)

Anyway, we've all laughed and shuddered at eunuchs--and we all know the close kinship between laughter and shuddering. The best comedians and writers of comedy (like Shakespeare) have always danced upon that frail line that separates the two.

And on Sunday last, watching the eunuch scenes in Antony and Cleopatra, the audience laughed heartily at the lines I've quoted above--and at the stage business the director had added (some was very naughty, as you might imagine!).

I sort of laughed, too, out of habit, I suppose. For I'd already realized that I was the subject of the humor, the secondary target of the comedy. Because, you see, since my first injection about a year ago of Lupron--a drug that retards the progress of my advancing prostate cancer--I have been a eunuch. A chemical one. But very much the brother of Mardian, if not Varys.

TO BE CONTINUED (unfortunately) ...

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