The Womanning of Cleopatra's Barge

Geoffrey Little


Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i' th' eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office.
(Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii)

The prolonged commentaries in Furness's Variorum edition on the lines emphasized include proposed emendations to almost every word, supporting speculation about whether the 'eyes' and 'bends' suggest the postures of the gentlewomen or the makingup of Oeopatra's eyes and eyebrows. Most recent editors follow Furness's conclusion in awarding the eyes to Oeopatra and the bends to her women, who thus remain in her line of sight in graceful postures, although some editors prefer the cosmetic option. (Some hedge their bets.) Neither reading appears convincing. The first strains the sense to 'in the view of her eyes' (even though she 'did lie/In her pavilion'). The second suggests the women are continually repairing the damage to the Queen's appearance (caused by the 'fans' of the 'pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids' who are either side of her?), and doing so during a royal progress in which she is nevertheless 'O'erpicturing ... Venus'. Both readings overlook the clear detail in Shakespeare's source in North's Plutarch, to which the text is generally close, and overlook too earlier scattered suggestions of nautical terminology which would be appropriate to the diction of the ironic soldier Enobarbus.

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