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Would you know how she captured Antony at their first meeting? She went to meet him at Tarsus :
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails and so perfumed that The winds were love-sick 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 beggared 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 diverse-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 tackle Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands.
And so forth. In short, she carried Antony off to her palace in Egypt, where she confounded his senses with such a succession of never-ending pleasures that he completely abandoned to her both his heart and
his fate. When they went to fish, she would have divers under water, to affix the trout to his hook. She would put her “tires and mantles” on him and gird on herself “his sword Philippan". A thousand diversions she could invent; and, as his passion rose, she could meet it with its equal, or with arts of hesitancy and coyness which only inflamed it the more. Her sole object was to keep him beside her in Egypt, and as far as possible from Rome, where his duties lay. When he leaves her, she is distracted with passion and sends a score of letters after him every day; when she hears of his marriage to Octavia, she is mad with rage and jealousy, till she is informed that her rival is small in stature, plain in appearance and cold in disposition-in short, one whom she has no fear of outdazzling Her anticipations prove too correct; for Antony soon returns to Circe's pen.
There is not in Cleopatra a single noble thought. She squanders the resources of Egypt and loves to have her messages carried by kings; yet at a pinch she can stoop to lying and even theft in moneymatters. When the ring of fate closes about Antony, and his fall is inevitable, she deserts him and entertains designs on the heart of his conqueror, the cool Octavius. Yet at the last moment—and here is Shakspeare's wonderful knowledge of human nature -she discovers that her love is far deeper than she has been aware; and she is actually at the same
moment both betraying Antony and loving him so passionately as to be able to die with him. Of such contradictions is the heart of woman capable.
There are few passages in all literature so impressive as those closing scenes in which, turning away from her traitorous bargaining for her own life, she at last realises what is the real state of her heart, and learns that she is
No more but e'en a woman, and! commanded
And does the meanest chares. All the greatness of Antony comes back on her; and she declares that, he being gone, “there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon”.
The officers of Octavius, who intend to adorn his triumph by exhibiting her to the gaze of Rome, have hemmed her in; but she eludes their vigilance and gets a number of asps conveyed into the tower in which she is confined, by a countryman carrying a basket of grapes. That is a wonderful scene, when she tells her women to array her once more in all the splendour of her royal robes and, thus attired, applies the reptile to her breast, bidding it be angry and dispatch, and with its sharp teeth the “knot intrinsicate of life untie". The murderous bite she declares to be "as sweet as balm, as soft as air”; and, smiling in reply to a pitying exclamation of her attendant, she says:
That sucks the nurse asleep? When all is over, the waiting-woman adjusts on the dead queen's head the crown, which has fallen a little awry, and then, applying to her own breast another of the reptiles, follows her mistress into the unknown.
1 Heine, who knew this kind of woman too well, has a chapter on Cleopatra, in his Shakspeare's Maidens and Women, which makes the reader shiver with its realism and unearthly cleverness.