Antony and Cleopatra: Sources

When it comes to Antony and Cleopatra and the concept of sources, we can look back on what Shakespeare’s sources were for the predecessor (of sorts), Julius Caesar.

In other words, cue Plutarch, and his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. That work by the Greek historian had been translated into French by writer Jacques Amyot in the early 1560’s. Thomas North then translated it into English, with his first edition appearing in the late 1570’s. Shakespeare has dipped into North’s translations before…and he does it again here.

Shakespeare uses (of course) “Life of Marc Antony,” which while giving a historical account of Marc Antony, also provides some additional characters and much of the description that ends up in the play. The greatest example, and the one most often cited is Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s barge (which we noted in yesterday’s discussion of Act Two):

The barge she sat in, like a burnished 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 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 divers-color’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
  • II.ii.201-215 (emphasis mine)

Which is quite similar to Plutarch’s text (or at least Dryden’s–not North’s–translation):

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.
  • (again, emphasis mine)

As in Julius Caesar, ol’ Willy Shakes is more than willing to plunder the ol’ Plutarch to tell his tale.

More to follow…