Friday, February 25, 2011

How Shakespeare steals

Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Nobel Greeks and Romans (description of Cleopatra):

“She was laid under a pavilion of cloth-of-gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.”

Shakespeare’s version of the same scene:

“…She did lie
In her Pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’er picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids,
With diverse coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.”
(Antony and Cleopatra, II, 2)

At first glance Shakespeare’s version seems very similar, all be it in verse form, but there are important differences, differences which affect the way Shakespeare invites us to see Cleopatra. For instance in North’s version Cleopatra is dressed like a portrait of Venus, however Shakespeare’s Cleopatra ‘o’er pictures’ (or outshines) the portraits of Venus which are themselves more beautiful than nature.

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is more beautiful even than a painting which is famed for being more beautiful than nature. Her boys too move from being dressed like Cupid in artwork to being simply ‘like’ cupid. Once again there is less sense of a painted picture in Shakespeare’s version, we are being offered something which transcends the achievements of art. Though one might argue that rather than being more naturally beautiful than art, Cleopatra’s appearance it is in fact a level of artistry that goes far beyond mere imitation or painting.

So Shakespeare builds on his source material, shaping it to offer new views of Cleopatra, and weaving into it a whole debate about nature, art and artistry. - Liz Woledge

And see how Shakespeare physicalizes his source, transforming abstractions into concrete images much more easy to visualize. The generic "pretty fair boys apparelled" becomes the more scenic and specific, "Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids," likewise "with little fans" becomes "diverse coloured fans" and the bland, "fanned wind upon her" becomes the dynamic, spectacular "whose wind did seem / To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, / And what they undid did.” Also, of course, Shakespeare changes and arguably improves the music of the original, often through alliteration, in this case enhancing and playing with the "s" "i" "w" and "d" sounds.

1 comment:

  1. ...the power of words and how they influence people...Shakespeare from Plutarch and many from Shakespeare...thanks for writing