24. The Poetic Description of Cleopatra’s Barge on the River Cydnus

Before many Shakespeareans had learned that the Roman plays actually came straight from North, some would occasionally highlight some of North’s passages in these works as among their favorite, writing long essays on how they demonstrate the playwright’s genius.

For example, in an early-twentieth-century series of reviews in Harpers’ Monthly Magazine, the critic James Douglas explained why he believed that the description of Cleopatra’s voyage up the Cydnus to be among the most beautiful in the Shakespeare canon. “What the soliloquy on death is to Hamlet,” Douglas wrote, “the picture of Cleopatra’s barge is to Antony and Cleopatra.”  But as shown below North was the one who had originally written most of it.

North’s Plutarch’s LivesAntony & Cleopatra
The poop whereof was of gold,
the sails of purple, and the oars of silver,
which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of the flutes For the person of herself:
she was laid under a
pavilion of cloth-of-gold of tissue… attired like the Goddess Venus, commonly drawn in picture ….
On either hand of her,
pretty fair boys appareled as …Cupid, with little fans in their hands
Her ladies and gentlewomen… like the nymphs, Nereides, which are the mermaids of the waters, and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful, passing sweet savor of perfumes that perfumed the wharf’s side pestered with innumerable
multitudes of people… others also ran
out of the city to see her that Antonius was left post
alone in the market place, in his Imperial seat
When Cleopatra landed, Antonius sent to
invite her to supper … she sent him word again,
he should do better rather to come and sup with her (981-2).  
The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails…/The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke                            For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilioncloth-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-colored fans
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her …            At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers. The silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands, … 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’ the market-place, did sit alone …
Upon her landing, Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper: she replied,
It should be better he became her guest

As Douglas wrote, the passage “proves that even our supreme poet was not merely a man of genius, but that he was also a very cunning and deliberate artificer,” who consciously employed certain poetic techniques to add music to the beauty of the images. “The alliteration is flagrant,” Douglas wrote, “ poop ” with its doubled “ p’s,” closely followed by the doubled “p’s” in “purple.” He also stressed the “part played in the musical scheme by the sibilant… the doubled “s” in “sails”… in “oars” and in “silver.” It is muted and masked by “t” in “stroke,” and in “flutes” it is a prolonged whisper.”

But this is in North’s original – as is much of what else Douglas complimented. In fact, North’s lines “the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of the flutes” contain more uses of “s,” including in “sound of the music,” than do the corresponding lines in the tragedy.

Notice also North implements the same technique throughout the passage. At its end, he again reuses this same alliteration later employed by the playwright, and especially focuses on the letters s and p;  “passing sweet savor of perfumes that perfumed the wharf’s side pestered with innumerable multitudes of people.” When we check Amyot’s French version that North was translating,[1] we can confirm that with these lines and others, North was consciously imbuing the passage with alliteration, adding and modifying words for the sake of this device. [As shown, North also added the image of mermaids to the passage which is not found in Amyot.]

In other words, North’s passage appears to be a first draft of transforming the original description of Cleopatra on her barge into poetry. In the tragedy, we find the final draft. Once again, the playwright uses this same technique of alliteration to begin the passage, adding new language to the first four lines before sticking mostly with North’s first draft.

 The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
 Burn'd on the water: the 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…  

Notice the repetition of b’s and r’s in the first two lines (barge, burnish’d, burn’d, beaten). Also, the dramatist has taken the perfumed from the last part of North’s passage and inserted it here, also adding winds and love-sick. This extends the alliteration of p’s and s’s. In other words, the playwright has continued with the same exact type of poetic modifications that North had originally employed in the translation. The play passage in fact seems like its North’s final draft. And again, this is because Shakespeare wasn’t working from North’s chapter on Antony and Cleopatra, he was adapting North’s play, Antony and Cleopatra.  

Other Shakespeareans, like J. H. Moffatt, have also recognized that much of the credit for the poetic elements in the passage belong not to the playwright but to North’s translation. Shortly after Douglas’s piece, he published a response titled “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” pointing out that the language that so moved Douglas was not Shakespeare’s but North’s. Quoting Moffatt:

One fourth of [Douglas’] article is devoted to the word-music of ‘the purple patch’ description of Cleopatra’s meeting Antony on the river Cydnus. Mr. Douglas talks for three columns of the wonderful combinations of ‘liquids’ and ‘open vowels’ and so on; but he does not mention the fact that the passage is taken from North’s Plutarch with very little change. If he had considered the entire description, he would have found it almost word for word in Plutarch….

Shakespeare changed the word-music of prose into the word-music of poetry but he did not originate the music nor create the picture.

James Hugh Moffatt, Honor to whom Honor is due,” Modern Language Notes (1909), 24(7), p. 224.

More recently, in 2006, A.N. Wilson discusses this same problem with Antony and Cleopatra:

The music of that play’s language still has this effect upon me. And yet, of course, as the notes in our Cambridge Shakespeare informed us, this celebrated description of Cleopatra on her barge was taken more or less verbatim from North’s translation of Plutarch.

So what turned me to gooseflesh? The Shakespearean music? Or the words and images written by Sir Thomas North, which are verbally very, very close to Shakespeare? Or Plutarch himself? It occurred to me towards the end of last week that if Sir Thomas North, or his estate, had employed a good lawyer, they might have taken Shakespeare to the cleaners for plagiarism.

A. N. Wilson, “Trying to Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes,” The Daily Telegraph, 2006, May 8th, 19.

[1] Amyot’s version reads: “merveilleusement doulces et souefves odeurs de parfums qui remplissoyent deçà et delà les rives toutes couvertes du monde innumerable” which Google Translate renders: “marvelously sweet and breathy perfumes, which filled the shores, all covered, with the innumerable world, above and beyond.” Notice there is only one p and after shores no “s” sound. Compare that to the extensive alliteration in North’s translation  “passing sweet savor of perfumes that perfumed the wharf’s side pestered with innumerable multitudes of people.” This is clearly deliberate. Also, North has substituted mermaids for Amyot’s “qui sont les fees de eaux.” See Jacques Amyot, trans., Ouvres de Plutarque, Traduites du Grec, par Jacques Amyot, Tome Septeime (Paris: Jean-Francois Bastien, 1784), 149.

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