‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne’: so begins perhaps the most famous speech from William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The words are uttered by Domitius Enobarbus, a follower of Mark Antony, in Act 2 Scene 2, as he describes the appearance of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, when Mark Antony first saw her and fell in love with her as she rode her barge down the river Cydnus.
However, much of Enobarbus’ ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne’ speech follows quite closely the account given by Plutarch, the Greek biographer and author. But we’ll come to that; first, let’s address the meaning of Enobarbus’ speech. So let’s go through what he says, offering an analysis of his meaning and summarising the content of his speech.
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,
Enobarbus begins his speech by telling his companions, Agrippa and Maecenas, that Cleopatra’s barge was like a throne made of gold as it moved through the water, burning on the water (thanks to the burning sun’s reflection of the barge cast on the water’s surface). The poop deck (i.e., the rear deck) of the boat was coated with gold, and the sails were purple. They smelled so sweetly (‘perfumed’ should be spoken with three syllables to keep the metre of the line: ‘per-FU-med’) that the wind, as it made the sails flutter, fell in love with them.
The oars of Cleopatra’s boat were silver, with the oarsmen rowing in time to music provided by flutes. The oars, cutting through the water, seemed to make the water’s waves speed up, as if getting excited by lust (‘strokes’, under pressure from ‘amorous’, means not just the beat of the oars but also ‘romantic caresses’, as John Wilders observes in his notes to the excellent edition of the play, “Antony and Cleopatra” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare)).
It beggared 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-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Enobarbus tells them that any attempt to describe Cleopatra’s own appearance would be poor in comparison with the real thing (this appears to be the origins of the phrase ‘beggars all description’). Nevertheless, he has a go. She lay in the pavilion made of fine material interwoven with gold (a sort of gossamer tent, if you will, on the barge), looking like an artist’s depiction of the Roman goddess of love, Venus, where the ‘fancy’ or imaginative work of the artist outdoes the reality (or ‘nature’). In other words, she looked like a work of art, not a mortal woman (or even a goddess – she looked like an artist’s idealised painting of a goddess!).
On either side of her were pretty-looking boys with dimpled cheeks, looking like the Roman god Cupid (often depicted as a baby boy or cherub). Along with the previous mention of Venus, and words like ‘lovesick’, Enobarbus’ description doesn’t just convey how beautiful and grand Cleopatra looked, but tries to put across how Mark Antony could have fallen in love with her instantly.
These boys carried fans of different colours (‘divers-coloured’, i.e., of diverse colours), which were wafted in front of Cleopatra’s face to cool her down; but they only seemed to enhance her beauty and make her cheeks glow more radiantly, so what they were intended to do (cool her down) only succeeded in doing the opposite (i.e., making her ‘hotter’, if you will – that is, more attractive). Okay, so Shakespeare, much less Enobarbus in the Roman Empire, wouldn’t have used ‘hot’ to mean ‘sexy’, but the idea of beauty as a radiant glow was known to him.
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,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
Enobarbus goes on, after Agrippa has responded to this description (‘O, rare for Antony!’), to describe Cleopatra’s ladies-in-waiting, who were like Nereids (sea nymphs) or mermaids, waiting upon her in her presence (‘i’ the eyes’ means roughly ‘in her sight’, meaning she watched them as they tended to her every need).
As they moved gracefully to attend to their queen, their movements further adorned the scene. Even the woman steering the barge seems like a mermaid, and the rigging and sails (made of silk) swells in the wind, which caresses them like tender hands that nimbly (‘yarely’ is a nautical term meaning ‘nimbly’) carry out their task.
You’ll noticed that Enobarbus has shifted from the past tense (describing an event that happened a while ago: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne’) to the present tense (‘A seeming mermaid steers’). It’s as if Agrippa and Maecenas (and we, as audience members) are suddenly transported back there, and we’re sharing that moment with Mark Antony, when he first saw Cleopatra.
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,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.
John Wilders points out in his notes to “Antony and Cleopatra” (Arden Shakespeare.Third Series) (The Arden Shakespeare) that ‘invisible’ is surely unnecessary, since all perfumes are invisible: smelt not seen, except when in the bottle. But he remarks that the adjective somehow adds to the ‘impression of the magical’; we might add that it shows Enobarbus’ inability to put into accurate words everything that was seen (or smelt) that day, because it ‘beggared all description’.
All the people of the city came out to see Cleopatra, and Antony, waiting in the marketplace, was alone. If it wasn’t for the fact that doing so would have caused a vacuum in nature, the very air would have rushed with the city folk to catch sight of Cleopatra. (Nature, as the old phrase has it, abhors a vacuum.)
Upon her landing, Antony sent to her,
Invited her to supper: she replied,
It should be better he became her guest;
Which she entreated: our courteous Antony,
Whom ne’er the word of ‘No’ woman heard speak,
Being barber’d ten times o’er, goes to the feast,
And for his ordinary pays his heart
For what his eyes eat only.
Agrippa responds by describing Cleopatra as a ‘Rare Egyptian!’, and then Enobarbus launches back into his description of what happened between Cleopatra and Mark Antony (note how he’s recovered himself a little now and is describing things in the past tense again).
When she landed, Antony sent an invitation for her to come to supper with him. She replied by saying that it would be better if he were her guest rather than she his. Our courteous Antony, who has never said ‘no’ to any woman, spends an inordinate amount of time at the barber’s making sure he looks nice, and then goes to the feast. For supper, he paid with his heart even though it was only his eyes that were satisfied (from gazing on Cleopatra’s beauty).
Agrippa then responds to Enobarbus:
She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed.
He ploughed her, and she cropped.
In other words: this royal woman with her seductive charms persuaded Julius Caesar to go to bed with her (‘his sword’ has a bawdy secondary meaning here), and she fell pregnant with his child. This woman clearly has powers over men if she can make both Caesar and Antony fall for her.
I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted,
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, pour breath forth.
Enobarbus says that he saw her once hop forty feet down the street. When she stopped, she was so out of breath that she was panting as she spoke. But she made even that weakness seem a mark of perfection, and even in her breathlessness she seemed to manage to pour forth breath. (Note how often in Enobarbus’ description Cleopatra seemed to be or do something: the word ‘seem’ keeps coming back in his speech. She seems to make the impossible possible, such is the power and beauty emanating from her. But things which seem to be something they clearly aren’t are also things that should put us on our guard, since they may be apt to deceive us.)
Now Antony must leave her utterly.
But Enobarbus responds:
Never; he will not:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
But Enobarbus replies that Mark Antony will never leave Cleopatra. In one of the most famous lines from the whole play, he says that age cannot wither her, and her charms are so endlessly varied that she never grows boring to Antony. We have analysed this section of the play in more detail here.
Enobarbus goes on to say that other women turn men off them eventually, the more familiar they become to the men who find them attractive. But Cleopatra is different: she makes men want her even more, the more they see of her. Even her worst traits are become endearing when they are found in such a woman. When she is wanton or promiscuous (the meaning of ‘riggish’, not to be confused with the quite different word ‘priggish’), even the holy priests (who are usually against wantonness) bless her.
Enobarbus’ ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne’ would be taken up by a much later poet, the twentieth-century modernist poet T. S. Eliot, in the opening lines from ‘A Game of Chess’, the second section of his The Waste Land. But Eliot altered ‘barge’ to ‘Chair’, and made Cleopatra an ordinary twentieth-century upper-class woman coping with the fallout from the First World War.
But Shakespeare himself was alluding to, or rather reworking, a prose passage from the classical writer Plutarch. This is what Plutarch writes in his Life of Marcus Antonius XXVI – or rather, what Thomas North, Plutarch’s English translator, writes in his 1579 translation, the one Shakespeare must have read:
Therefore when she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made so light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, 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 flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled 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 which there came a wonderful passing sweet savour of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people.
We have placed in bold those sections of Plutarch which we also find in Enobarbus’ lines. But Shakespeare added poetry to Plutarch’s more matter-of-fact description, such as when he takes the idea of the boys fanning Cleopatra’s face and invents the conceit that the fans make her glow brighter even as they cool her down. This is what helped to make Enobarbus’ lines so famous: Shakespeare took the glorious pomp of Plutarch’s account and made it into vivid and memorable imagery that conveyed just how, precisely, Mark Antony came to fall so deeply in love.
Image: by Eslam17, via Wikimedia Commons.