Sunday 10 October 2010

Saint Paul, Cleopatra, Shakespeare and Alliteration

As a little follow up to my previous post on Saint Paul. Saint Paul was born in Tarsus early in the first century. When he popped out into the world there would still have been people in the city who remembered the visit made by Cleopatra in 41 BC. Though, unlike Saint Paul, they would not realise that it was BC.

Cleopatra had been summoned there by Mark Antony who wanted her to support his war against the Parthians who kept winning wars by unsportingly shooting arrows in retreat. These were Parthian shots.

Anyway, the river Cydnus ran through Tarsus and Cleopatra insisted that she meet Antony by boat. Plutarch describes the meeting thus in Thomas North's translation of 1579:

...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.

Sound familiar? It damned well should do, dear reader. Here's something from c. 1605.

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.

It's always great to watch Shakespeare at work, and the thing to notice here is how he cuts and elaborates on the basis of alliteration. The word barge is in the original, and Shakespeare adds that it was burnished and that it burned and that its gold was beaten. The poop and purple are in the original, so Shakespeare invents the idea that the sails were perfumed. Shakespeare picks the flute from among all Plutarch's instruments and then makes the water follow faster.

You see the method?

As I keep saying, Shakespeare was all technique.

The Inky Fool realised he was on the wrong ferry

N.B. Readers of immemorial antiquity will remember that I have blogged about this passage before.


  1. Great post. I've done this with some students at school, comparing the North version with Shakespeare's. They love the fact that Shakespeare pinched all his stories from someone else.

  2. yeah nice but whats the pic about