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F. S. Boas

“ Cleopatra is among Shakspere's women what Falstaff is amongst his men. Both have the same infinite complexity of nature in which seemingly contradictory qualities are reconciled, and both the same paradoxical grandeur compounded out of all that is most morally worthless. Fascination radiates equally from either personality, and as Falstaff, when completely bankrupt in honour and fortune, is still the knight and the gentleman, so Cleopatra, guilty of the most detestable and squalid forms of misconduct, remains every inch a queen. In the Boar's Head Tavern and in the Palace at Alexandria a similar struggle is being waged: the venue is changed, and the weapons, but an identical principle is at stake. Falstaff had sought to defeat moral facts by the dazzling play of an inexhaustible humour; Cleopatra substitutes the no less dazzling play of an inexhaustible personal charm, wherein beauty, as Plutarch expressly states, was only a minor element. Perfect beauty could indeed scarcely be the portion of this ‘gipsy,’ with ‘Phœbus’ amorous ‘pinches black,’ but she has the more talismanic gifts of perennial youth and endless versatility of attraction. . . . Antony's names for her, ‘serpent of old Nile,’ and ‘great fairy,’ testify to a spell that seems wellnigh more than human. Yet its potency really springs from her unabashed revelation of a womanhood dowered with every captivating attribute save those which have a moral source. The Cleopatra of Shakspere, and indeed of Plutarch, anticipates a type of which the modern stage is often supposed to be the originator. This demi-mondaine born in the purple, with her hot and cold fits, her mingled restlessness and languor, her passion at once false and true, her lavishness and her avarice, her seductive wiles varied by outbursts of ferocity or coarseness—what essential aspect of courtesan-nature has the realism of today discovered which is not to be found in this wonderful picture? Fate provides for a unique manifestation of the myriad possibilities of Cleopatra's character when it throws Antony into her toils. In her youth she had been Cæsar's paramour, but to the conqueror and statesman this dalliance had been only an interlude amidst the serious work of war and government. Antony is of other mould, and is, in fact, as completely the masculine counterpart of Cleopatra as Benedick was of Beatrice. The emotional homage which in earlier days he had lavished on Cæsar is now poured forth yet more unreservedly at the feet of the Egyptian Queen. In her, Antony finds a being who satisfies the boundless craving of his richly endowed sensuous nature. Yet this passion, so mutually enthralling, so opulent of delight, is not, in any true sense, love. The souls of Antony and Cleopatra have never for one moment mingled. The gorgeous fabric of their bliss totters from hour to hour on an unstable foundation. Antony is always on the watch for treachery on the part of the ‘gipsy,’ and Cleopatra is ever fearful that her paramour will be drawn from her side by his bond as a husband, or his ambition as a ruler.

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