Aphrodite katadyomene: Dryden's Celopatra on the Cydnos


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

The traditional full-scale comparison of All for Love and Antony and Cleopatra has rightly fallen out of fashion as, over the past thirty years, sympathetic studies have revealed Dryden's play as an autonomous, finely wrought work with a richness, coherence, and purpose that are entirely its own.I Nevertheless, there is one short passage in which Dryden quite overtly and elaborately invites comparison with his great predecessorwhen, almost at the center of his play, he follows Plutarch and Shakespeare in relating Cleopatra's grandiose self-deification on the Cydnos. Critics have usually. seen Dryden's version as a mere rewriting of Shakespeare's, whether for better or worse, and no recent critic has found Dryden's account suitable for detailed analysis.2 Yet it will amply repay close examination. And, if we read it carefully, we will find in it something vastly more enterprising than the run-of-the-mill Restoration paraphrase of Shakespeare, with its neutralization of bold metaphors and sprucing up of untidy syntax.3 For what Dryden accomplishes is a studied and intricate inversion of Shakespeare's account, appropriate to his own unique conception of Cleopatra --as a passive victim, misrepresented and finally destroyed by the visions of superhuman evil or superhuman eroticism that she incongruously inspires in those who surround her. Whereas Shakespeare's Cleopatra controls and dominates her fellows with her mercurial and triumphant histrionics, Dryden's helpless, ingenuous heroine is increasingly enveloped in the hyperbolic roles projected on to her by the idealizing or debasing imaginations of her lovers and enemies, her character and very existence successively obliterated as the Romans magnify a mundane, bewildered woman into the creative or malignant divinity of a "Venus" or a "Syren."4 In his characters' conflicting visions of Celopatra, Dryden evokes the two most conflicting traditional judgments of the human imagination on a woman who, in his account, longs to flee from the gaze of art and history into the obsecure, tranquil domesticity of a "household Dove" (IV.92).5 And, in his version of the Cydnos pageant, he measures his Cleopatra against Shakespeare's, a blank puppet against a consummate and inveterate actress:


Enobarbus. The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold; Purple the sails, and so perfumed that The winds were love-sick 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. For her own person, It beggar'd all description: she did lie In her pavilion--cloth of gold, of tissue- 0' er-picturing that Venus where we see The fancy outwork nature. On each side her, Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, And what they undid did .... Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides, So many mermaids, tended her i' the eyes, And made their bends adornings. At the helm A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle Swell with the toudhes of those flower-soft hands, That yarely frame the office. From the barge A strange invisible perfume hits the sense Of the adjacent wqarfs. The city cast Her people out upon her; and Antony, Enthron'd i' the market-place, did sit alone, Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy, Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too, And made a gap in nature. (II.ii.191-218)6


Antony. Her Gally down the Silver Cydnos row'd, The Tackling Silk, the Streamers wav'd with Gold, The gentle Winds were lodg'd in Purple sails: Her Nymphs, like Nereids, round her Couch, were plac'd; Where she, another Sea-born Venus, lay. Dollabella. No more: I would not hear it. Antony. O, you must! She lay, and leant her cheek upon her hand, And cast a look so languishingly sweet, As if, secure of all beholders hearts, Neglecting she could take 'em: Boys, like Cupids, Stood fanning, with their painted wings, the winds That plaid about her face: but if she smil'd, A darting glory seem'd to blaze abroad: That men's desring eyes were never weary'd; But hung upon the object: to soft Flutes The Silver Oars kept time; and while they plaid, The hearing gave new pleasure to the sight; And both to thought: 'twas Heav'n, or somewhat more; For she so charm'd all hearts, that gazing crowds Stood panting on the shore, and wanted breath To give their welcome voice. (IIl.162-82)

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