Shakespeare `wrapped’ his heroines in words that only the Bard could cherry-pick from an ocean of expressions.
The greatest tribute that man has ever paid to a woman’s beauty are the two sentences that Shakespeare made Enobarbus say about Cleopatra, in “Anthony and Cleopatra”
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: Other women cloy
The appetites they feed but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies”
The expression “infinite variety” is a justifiably deserving hyperbole in describing the Egyptian queen. The sexual connotations of the expression and the use of the word “appetite” in the context of describing a woman’s beauty, are too obvious to need any elaboration. A curious aspect of “Anthony and Cleopatra” is the fact that Shakespeare refers to her beauty and charm at two other places in the Play. Thus, for example Anthony says in another part of the play
Fie, wrangling Queen!
Whom everything becomes — to chide, to laugh,
To weep, whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!”
meaning that Cleopatra oozes sexual charm whether she is laughing, or weeping or scolding, i.e whatever the emotion that defines her expression- there is no feminine expression that can rob the beauty of her face, which like Helen’s can launch a thousand ships, or more appropriately a million horses, in the context of Roman history.
At yet another place in the same Play, Charmian, the handmaiden of Cleopatra on seeing her die, says
” Now boast thee, Death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparalleled”.
Now I am inclined to believe that in order to paint a picture of Cleopatra as someone who has an essential girlish charm, Shakespeare has deliberately chosen the word “lass” which conjures up the image of an impish English girl or young woman or a Scottish girl even though he is describing a mature woman and that too an Egyptian Queen!
Read Part 1 Here; No Doubts About Shakespeare’s Authorship Part 1
Read Part 2 Here; No Doubts About Shakespeare’s Authorship Part 2
Read Part 3 Here; No Doubts About Shakespeare’s Authorship Part 3
In Sanskrit and Greek drama, playwrights followed a certain convention while describing feminine beauty — a liberal use of simile, hyperbole and metaphor giving a detailed account of almost every organ of the body. In Sanskrit drama, women were classified into four categories, and only the most beautiful belonged to the first type, the ‘Padmini’, whose face was like the moon, eyes like the lotus, hair like dark clouds, breasts like a particular fruit or species of bird, an almost non-existent waist, a deep navel, so on and so forth.
While such a description was titillating a situation arose in which the heroines of all the ‘shringara prabhandas’ (erotic epics) from Satyabhama to Damayanti possessed these attributes. One can understand the emphasis on beauty while describing, Damayanti (wife of Nala Maharajah) or Shakuntala, the heroine of Kalidasa’s great drama, but one wonders why poets used the same standard similes, even while describing Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, or Saraswathi the Goddess of learning! They would have us believe that all these women had exactly similar features and organs irrespective of their roles prescribed in the Epics.
What was worse, in some cases, they applied these very same similes to describe even their handmaidens! While it is not unlikely that a particular handmaiden could have been beautiful, one cannot help wondering whether it is necessary or even appropriate to give the same kind of detailed description of anatomical attributes and beautiful facial features in respect of all the women of our epics and mythological stories, whether they were heroines or handmaidens!
This is exactly where Shakespeare is different. Just a touch of literary flourish, marked by subtlety, produced a greater effect than whole stanzas devoted to a description of various organs and features. The result — a procession of beautiful women — Viola, Rosalind, Juliet, Miranda, Portia, Imogene and Katherine just to mention a few, each having her own individual beauty quite different from the others.
Read Part 4 Here; No Doubts About Shakespeare’s Authorship Part 4
Read Part 5 Here; Shakespeare And The Oxford Theory
Read Part 6 Here; No Doubts About Shakespeare’s Authorship Part 6
Read Part 7 Here; Shakespeare – A Citizen Of the World
Viola, in Twelfth Night best illustrates Shakespeare’s approach. Though Viola has come to the Duke to convince him about Sylvia’s love for him, her own description of herself to the Duke, who believes she is a boy cannot be rivaled, for subtlety.
“She never told her love
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek.
That word “damask” gives Viola’s cheek that hint of silk or satin, and grayish red in tint with connotations of soft rose petals — in a manner the great Dutch colourists Rembrandt and Vermeer could not have. Viola who is dressed like her twin brother also mischievously tells the Duke”
“I am all the daughters in my father’s house, and all the brothers too”
confusing him by giving him a very subtle hint of her true identity. According to the famous Shakespearean scholar Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, this sentence alone serves as a definition of great poetry.
Two other examples that readily come to my mind are Othello’s description of Desdemona’s skin as being “smooth as monumental alabaster” and Bassanio’s description of Portia’s hair in “The Merchant of Venice”:
“her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece”
The description of Rosalind in “As You Like It” gives a portrait which combines girlish charm, playfulness, mischief and feminine power. Rosalind is the quintessential English girl who even makes it easy for Orlando to court her.
Celia reads Orlando’s love poem to Rosalind
“Therefore heaven nature charged
That one body should be filled
With all graces wide-enlarged:
Nature presently distilled
Helen’s cheek, but not her heart,
Atalanta’s better part,
Sad Lucretia’s modesty.
Thus Rosalind of many parts
By heavenly synod was devised”–
this portrait of Rosalind’s beauty and virtues has no parallel.
Who else but Shakespeare could make Romeo say about Juliet?
“Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven
Having some business, do entreat her eyes,
To twinkle in their spheres, till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,. . .
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand!
That I might touch the cheek!”
Or make Romeo say in grief:
“O my love my wife
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty
Thou art not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there”
“Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour
Could anyone else match Iachimo’s description of Imogene, in Cymbeline?
‘Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus: the flame o’ the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure laced
With blue of heaven’s own tinct.
or even better still
“On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip”
or the magnificent manner in which Henry V, who is in love with Katherine, the French princess,
“You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate:
There is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French Council, and they should soon persuade Harry of England than a general petition of monarchs”
No other poet can ever pay a tribute to a woman’s beauty, compressing in a few words or sentences, the quips and cranks and wanton wiles that enmesh the masculine heart, as in the case of Rosalind, Viola or Juliet or the “infinite variety” that can change the course of history, as in the case of Cleopatra.