The Queen Of Egypt

It was on this day, so they say, in 30 B.C., that Cleopatra killed herself by suffering the bite of a snake.  What few actual details history records of her life are collected for us in Stacy Schiff’s recent biography of the queen, but there will always be speculation and mystery surrounding everything she supposedly did and felt.  In this regard, Shakespeare’s depiction of her from the words of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra is as good as anybody’s at rendering some idea of what she was probably like:

“I will tell you.
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, 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 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. ” (II.ii.914-929)

A wonderful picture, that.  And a wonderful play, too:  full of pomp and history, to be sure, but also full of Shakespeare’s reflections on love in all of its forms, on power, on the burdens of age, and on the bittersweet bonds of life itself.

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