The Serpent of Old Nile

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me. (5.2.283)

William Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra”

John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra, 1887

John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra, 1887


“I have not the slightest doubt that Shakspeare’s Cleopatra is the real historical Cleopatra — the “Rare Egyptian” — individualized and placed before us. Her mental accomplishments, her unequalled grace, her woman’s wit and woman’s wiles, her irresistible allurements, her starts of irregular grandeur, her bursts of ungovernable temper, her vivacity of imagination, her petulant caprice, her fickleness and her falsehood, her tenderness and her truth, her childish susceptibility to flattery, her magnificent spirit, her royal pride, the gorgeous Eastern colouring of the character; all these contradictory elements has Shakspeare seized, mingled them in their extremes, and fused them into one brilliant impersonation of classified elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gypsy sorcery.

What better proof can we have of the individual truth of the character than the admission that Shakspeare’s Cleopatra produces exactly the same effect on us that is recorded of the real Cleopatra? She dazzles our faculties, perplexes our judgement, bewilders and bewitches our fancy; from the beginning to the end of the drama, we are conscious of a kind of fascination against which our moral sense rebels, but from which there is no escape. The epithets applied to her perpetually by Antony and others confirm this impression: “enchanting queen!” — “witch” — “spell” — “great fairy” — “cockatrice” — “serpent of old Nile” — “thou gjave charm!” are only a few of them; and who does not know by heart the famous quotations in which this Egyptian Circe is described with all her infinite seductions?”

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 7. Ed. Evangeline Maria O’Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

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