There once was a playwright named Will
Whose spelling was practically Nil.
Whether Shaksper or Shakspere
Or Shakspe or Shakespeare,
Sweet Will paid his bill with a Quill.
In Antony and Cleopatra, as they confront the army of Antony and Octavian, Brutus says to Cassius:
They say that he was good,
but I don’t know.
I never left this town in all my life.
It was he came back to me.
What he left behind I cannot say.
He could talk.
Oh Lord, could he be sweet.
No sweeter man drew breath,
that I am sure. Young he was,
and quiet, when we met.
Handfasted in the spring of ’82,
Wed by winter, child inside,
Susanna, then the twins,
then he was gone.
And so it was,
twenty year with letters,
only words, words and words
to live on, words to dream on,
and I did, each night
hid safe beneath me in
our second best bed.
I was reading Plutarch's description of Cleopatra's barge this morning, which reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Shakespeare. So, in honor of the Bard's birthday, I thought I would contrast them.
First, Plutarch, from the Life of Antony:
She received several letters, both from Antony and from his friends, to summon her, but she took no account of these orders; and at last, as if in mockery of them, she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight.
Now Shakespeare, from Antony and Cleopatra:
Enobarbus: I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; 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’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Agrippa: O, rare for Antony.
Enobarbus: Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
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,
Enthroned i’ th’ marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’ air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.
Agrippa: Rare Egyptian!
Enobarbus: Upon her landing, Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper. She replied
It should be better he became her guest;
Which she entreated. Our courteous Antony,
Whom ne’er the word of “No” woman heard speak,
Being barbered ten times o’er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary, pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.
Agrippa: Royal wench!
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed;
He plowed her, and she cropped.
Enobarbus: I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, pow’r breathe forth.
Maecenas: Now Antony must leave her utterly.
Enobarbus: Never; He will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.