Shakespeare: Cleopatra and the "dark lady"

In Nuce: Cleopatra
 Cleopatra by Paul Avril

From the preface to Shakespeare's Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra by William J. Rolfe:
Cleopatra, by general consent of critics, is one of the most wonderful of all Shakespeare's feminine creations. As Campbell the poet observes, "[Shakespeare] paints her as if the gypsy herself had cast her spell over [Antony], and given her own witchcraft to his pencil."
There may be more in this than a figure of rhetoric. Courtenay, Gervinus, Massey, Ward, Furnivall, Dowden and others agree in the opinion that the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's Sonnets, "his own fickle, serpent-like, attractive mistress," may be to some extent portrayed in the Egyptian queen.
"May we dare," asks Dowden, "to conjecture that Cleopatra, queen and courtesan ... a 'lass unparalleled,' has some kinship through the imagination with the dark lady of the virginal?"
Mr. Thomas Tyler, in his book on the Sonnets (London, 1890), conjectures that the dark lady was Mary Fitton, maid of honor ... to Queen Elizabeth, and mistress of William Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke. From what we learn of her, she had "strong passions conjoined with an imperious, masterful will." Mr. Tyler adds: "The queenly commanding qualities of Mrs. Fitton are not to be mistaken. Her character, in its strength, resembles that of her royal mistress, who declared: 'I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England too.'" She could, as we learn from Mrs. Martin, "tuck up her clothes, take off her head-dress, and, attired in a large white cloak, march off, 'as though she had been a man,' to meet the Earl of Pembroke outside the court."
This reminds us of Cleopatra when Antony invites her to "wander through the streets" at night and "note the qualities of people." Compare the more detailed description of Plutarch: "Sometime also, when he (Antony) would go up and down the city disguised like a slave in the night, and would peer into poor men's windows and their shops, Cleopatra would also be in a chamber-maid's array, and amble up and down the streets with him."
 Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill?
Shakespeare asks the dark lady in the 150th Sonnet. This is like Antony's exclamation,
Fie, wrangling queen!
Whom every thing becomes;
and the declaration of Enobarbus:
For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
The Sonnets would furnish many another point of resemblance between the English and the Egyptian courtesan, if our present limits permitted us to follow out the comparison.
No critic has ever commented upon Cleopatra without quoting the passage we all know by heart:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety
and therein lay the main secret of her fascination. The wanton may have sensual charms and attractions in the highest degree, but men are soon sated with these, and tire of the charmer unless she have something of this versatility which continually offers fresh allurements and new forms of captivation.
Cleopatra had this rare gift of her sex in utmost perfection. It was the spell that had enthralled Pompey and Caesar even in what she called her "salad days"; for, as Plutarch says, "they knew her when she was but a young thing, and knew not then what the world meant."
We might wonder that now, at the mature age of thirty-nine, she could retain the powers of fascination that she possessed in the early bloom of womanhood; but, if she had lost any personal graces that time could take away, which is possible if not probable, the loss was more than made up by what she had learned from long experience in the art of love. That which was at first an instinct or impulse had indeed become an art with her, an art of marvelous complexity, of indescribable subtlety. She had carried it to a degree of refinement which a woman like Charmian, though by no means a novice in this feminine cunning, could hardly comprehend. Cleopatra knew how to attract by repulsion, to allure by antagonism, to lash a man into hotter love by taunts and jeers and sarcasms.

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