Ever since the publication in 1579 of Parallel Lives, Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115), Cleopatra has been one of the great romantic figures of English literature. To be sure, Dante had briefly glimpsed her, “tossed on the blast,” in Hell’s Circle of the Lustful in his Inferno (c. 1320), but he had hurried on to give the famous story of Paolo and Francesca. It remained for William Shakespeare, in Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623), to make her immortal as “the serpent of old Nile,” the epitome of the eternal and irresistible female. Even the neoclassic John Dryden, in 1678, still found her the archetype of an all-consuming passion, for whose sake Antony held “the world well lost.”
As for Caesar, his imprint has been upon the European mind since 44 b.c.e. To Dante—who saw him in Limbo as “Caesar armed, with the falcon eyes”—he is the founder of the Roman empire, and his murder is so terrible an example of treachery to lords and benefactors that Cassius and Brutus, his assassins, are placed with Judas in the jaws of Satan in the lowest pit of Hell. To Shakespeare, he is a man who in spite of arrogance and a thinly disguised ambition for absolute power actually bestrode “the narrow world like a Colossus.” These are the figures of world history and world legend whom George Bernard Shaw chose to bring together in a comedy.
So strongly has Shakespeare stamped his interpretation of Cleopatra on Western literary consciousness that Shaw’s heroine inflicts a distinct shock when audiences meet a girl of sixteen, on a moonlit October night, crouched between the paws of the Sphinx in the desert where she has fled to escape the invading Romans. She is the typical schoolgirl: high-strung, giggly, impulsive, terrified of her nurse, ready to believe that Romans have trunks, tusks, tails, and seven arms, each carrying a hundred arrows. She has the instinctive cruelty of a child; after encountering Caesar—whom she does not recognize and who forces her nurse to cringe at her feet—she is eager to beat the nurse and can talk gleefully of poisoning slaves and cutting off her brother’s head. Shaw has set his plot at the moment in history when Egypt is divided. Ptolemy Dionysus has driven Cleopatra from Alexandria, and while the two foes—Ptolemy represented by Pothinus and Cleopatra by Ftatateeta—are at swords’ points, Egypt is ready to fall into the conqueror’s hand. It...
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