The Barge Speech from Antony and Cleopatra

Near the end of Antony and Cleopatra 2.2, Enobarbus delivers a speech describing Cleopatra on her barge. The speech closely parallels Shakespeare’s primary source for the play: Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In fact, critics often describe the speech as “just” a blank-verse version of North’s translation. But Shakespeare’s language does a lot more than add rhythm to his source.

(A fuller exerpt from North’s translation appears in The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, pages 186–87.)


North’s Translation of Plutarch’s Lives Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.201-28
… her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sales of purple The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that
The winds were love-sick with them.
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and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, oboes, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge.                                              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.
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And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, appareled and attired like the goddess Venus, commonly drawn in picture;                               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.
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and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys appareled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.                                              On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colored fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
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Her Ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were appareled 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, Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’th’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.
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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.                                         From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.
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Some of them followed the barge all alongst the river’s side: others also ran out of the city to see her coming in. So that in the end, there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her, that Antonius was left post alone in the market place, in his Imperial seat to give audience …                                         The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony
Enthroned i’th’marketplace, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.
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Page Last Updated: 28 August 2015