Another Perspective

In High Roman Fashion

A Shakespearean gloss on the death of Deborah Jean Palfrey.

By 5.7.08

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The night before Deborah Jean Palfrey took a length of nylon rope and stepped into her mother's garden shed in a trailer park in Florida to hang herself, I went to see a production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington. Among that play's memorable lines, you will remember, are those of Cleopatra's resolution on the death of Antony who, having been defeated in battle by Octavius Caesar, falls on his own sword rather than allow himself to fall into the hands of his enemy. "We'll bury him," says Cleopatra to her maid-servants,

and then, what's brave, what's noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us.

The rest of the story is well known, and the magnificence of the Shakespearean language continues with her to the end, through
Show me, my women, like a queen; go fetch
My best attires. I am again for Cydnus
To meet Mark Antony...

To
Give me my robe; put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me...

To
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desir'd...

To
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?

There may at first sight seem to be but little similarity between "the high Roman fashion" and the squalid death of "the D.C. Madam," dangling from a rafter in a down-market "retirement community." She had spoken on more than one occasion of being so unwilling to go back to prison -- as she was certain to do after her sentencing, scheduled for July 24 -- that she would sooner die, and this was simply her way of making good on her word. But of course Cleopatra was in a similar plight. It was not prison that she feared but what we might call the low Roman fashion of parading those who had been defeated in battle before the Roman mob in order to affirm the "triumph" of their conqueror.
Mechanic slaves
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view. In their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded,
And forc'd to drink their vapor...Saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets, and scald rhymers
Ballad's out a' tune. The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels: Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I'th'posture of a whore.

What she fears is humiliation, and it does not seem too far-fetched to me to suppose that that is what Miss Palfrey feared as well. Doubtless, life in prison would have been hellish for her, but far from the least of its horrors would have been the opportunity her presence there would have given the media to continue behaving towards her not much differently than Cleopatra imagines the Roman crowd behaving towards her here. Suddenly, they have been silenced -- or all except for a few like Monica Hesse who writes in the Washington Post of the "Madam's" suicide: "Why do we feel so sad?"

As usual with the media it's all about them.

I don't suppose there is much to be said for a life lived as Miss Palfrey's seems to have been, and we could have done without knowing anywhere near so much about it as we do. But I would like to think that, at the end at least, there was a certain dignity in her refusal to be the media's plaything any longer. As Caesar says of Cleopatra:

Bravest at the last,
She levell'd at our purposes, and being royal
Took her own way.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator's movie and culture critic. His new book, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, has just been published by Encounter Books.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.