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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA.
ALTHOUGH every body has a general acquaintance with the story of this play, we are less familiar with the play itself (which is never acted), than with the other plays of Shakspeare ; nor is there much reason of any sort for dwelling long upon it.
Like the others, it is taken from Plutarch,* who is followed with remarkable exactness. It opens at that point of history in which Antony was first at Alexandria with Cleopatra, by whose beauty and artifice he had been captivated, when he summoned her to meet him in Cilicia, while he was on his way to make war upon the Parthians. The passage in which her voyage is described is almost verbatim from Antony's biographer ;
* North’s Antony, p. 762.
“Enobarbus. The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd
throne, Burnt on the water ; the poop was beaten gold, Purple the sails, and so perfum'd, that The winds were love-sick with 'em ; 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. For her own person, It beggar'd all description : she did lie In her pavilion (cloth of gold, of tissue), O'er picturing that Venus, where we see The fancy out-work nature. On each side her Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, With many-coloured fans, whose wind did seem To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid, did. Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides, So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes And made their bends adornings : at the helm A seeming mermaid steers; the silken tackles Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands, That yarely frame the office. From the barge A strange invisible perfume hits the sense Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast Her people out upon her; and Antony, Enthron’d in market-place, did sit alone, Whistling to th' air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
I imitate former commentators, in placing near to this celebrated passage the equally noted description of the same voyage by Dryden, who puts it in the mouth of Antony himself :
“ Her galley down the silver Cydnus row'd, The tackling silk, the streamers waved with gold; The gentle winds were lodged in purple sails : Her nymphs, like Nereids, round her couch were
plac'd; Where she, another sea-born Venus, lay. She lay, and lent her cheek upon her hand, And cast a look so languishingly sweet, As if, secure of all beholders' hearts, Neglecting, she could take them : boys, like Cupids, Stood fanning, with their painted wings, the winds That play'd about her face; but if she smiled, A darting glory seem'd to blaze abroad, That man's desiring eyes were never wearied, But hung upon the object: to soft flutes The silver oars kept time, and while they play'd, The hearing gave new pleasure to the sight, And both to thought. 'Twas heav'n or somewhat
more : For she so charm'd all hearts, that gazing crowds
* Act ii. Sc. 2. See North, 763.
Stood panting on the shore, and wanted breath
In the first act of Shakspeare's play, the infatuated Antony has just heard of the proceedings of his wife, Fulvia, who had quarrelled and made war with Lepidus, and afterwards with Octavius Caesar; and he is told that Labienus (a Roman and follower of Brutus) had been victorious in Asia, at the head of a Parthian army. Immediately afterwards, Antony hears of Fulvia's death ; whereon he makes this remark;“ There's a great spirit gone! Thus did I desire it : What our contempts do often hurl from us, We wish it ours again ; the present pleasure, By revolution lowering, does become The opposite of itself; she's good, being gone; The hand could pluck her back that shov'd her on. I must from this enchanting queen break off ; Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know, My idleness doth hatch."
Plutarch describes the Queen of Egypt (now about twenty-nine years of age), as a woman more celebrated for her powers of conversation than even for her beauty ;
" Her beauty (as it is reported) was not so pass
* All for Love, Act iii. Sc. 1. Works, v. 361.
ing as unmatchable with other women, nor yet such as, upon present view, did enamour men with her ; but so sweet was her company and conversation, that a man could not possibly but be taken. And besides her beauty, the good grace she had to talk and discourse, her courteous nature that composed her words and deeds, was a spur that pricked to the quick. Furthermore, besides all these, her voice and words were marvellous pleasant, for her tongue was an instrument of music to divers sports and pastimes, the which she easily turned into any language that pleased her.”
Shakspeare has made good use of Plutarch's hint; and has well painted the fascinating queen, playing with the captivated conqueror, when the news from Rome summons him into Italy. He has just told her, very coldly, of his wife's death ;
“ Cleo. O most false love !
Ant. Quarrel no more, but be prepared to know