Shakespeare used several sources for his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. The work which inspired his description of the Egyptian queen was The Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans by Mestrius Plutarch.
Plutarch emphasised Cleopatra’s barge and retinue, simply saying of the queen herself (in translation by Thomas North) that she was “apparelled and attired like the goddesse Venus.”
Shakespeare clearly liked the imagery Plutarch used and the picture he painted of Cleopatra lolling in luxury, looking like a goddess. But he turned Plutarch’s description into something altogether more poetic and Cleopatra into a woman radiating an overpowering ability to seduce. Cleopatra had of course already seduced Julius Caesar in 48 BC. He was 52 years old at the time and she was 22. She had a son by Caesar and their relationship lasted until Caesar was betrayed and assassinated.
After Caesar’s death, Antony summoned Cleopatra to meet him in Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey). Cleopatra set sail from Egypt – in her own good time – and arrived in style to meet him.
Shakespeare described Cleopatra’s sexual power over men by saying she was a woman who “makes hungry, Where most she satisfies.”
Here is the speech by Antony’s friend Enobarbus, describing Cleopatra’s arrival on the river Cydnus:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne
Burned 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 beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
with divers-coloured 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’ 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. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.
From Antony and Cleopatra, Act ll,Scene ll. William Shakespeare.