23. The Death of Cleopatra

One of the most famous scenes in the canon is the immortal description of Cleopatra’s suicide. This too, like the rest of the play, comes from North:

North’s Plutarch’s Lives (1580)Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607)
[H]er other woman called Charmian [stood]
half-dead and trembling, trimming the Diadem
which Cleopatra wore upon her head. One of the soldiers seeing her, angrily said unto her: “Is that well done, Charmian?” “Very well,” said she again, “And meet for a princessdescended from the race of so manynoblekings.” She said no more but fell down hard by the bed. (1009-10)
Guard: What work is here, Charmian? Is this well done?
Charmian: It is well done, and fitting for a princess Descended of so many royal kings. Ah, soldier!   (Charmian dies)…  
First Guard: This Charmian lived but now; she stood and spake.
I found her trimming up the diadem
On her dead mistress; tremblingly she stood,
And on the sudden dropped. (5.2.325-42)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz also reproduced the scene in his film version of Cleopatra, writing a close take off on the same lines.

In reality, Shakespeare was not borrowing from North’s chapter on Antony and Cleopatra, he was adapting North’s play, Antony and Cleopatra. But as we shall see, this last fact is irrelevant to the larger point that the extant version is so close to North’s original text in Plutarch‘s Lives that it is most reasonably described as a close adaptation of a work originally written by North.

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