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Cleopatra sleeping between the paws of a Sphinx. Caesar, wandering lonely in the desert night, comes upon the sphinx and speaks to it profoundly. Cleopatra wakes and, still unseen, replies. At first Caesar imagines the sphinx is speaking in a girlish voice, then, when Cleopatra appears, that he is experiencing a dream or, if he is awake, a touch of madness. She, not recognizing Caesar, thinks him a nice old man and tells him of her childish fear of Caesar and the Romans. Caesar urges bravery when she must face the conquerors, then escorts her to her palace.
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George Bernard Shaw
Caesar and Cleopatra
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign
This Edition first published in 2018
Copyright © 2018 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
An October night on the Syrian border of Egypt towards the end of the XXXIII Dynasty, in the year 706 by Roman computation, afterwards reckoned by Christian computation as 48 B.C. A great radiance of silver fire, the dawn of a moonlit night, is rising in the east. The stars and the cloudless sky are our own contemporaries, nineteen and a half centuries younger than we know them; but you would not guess that from their appearance. Below them are two notable drawbacks of civilization: a palace, and soldiers. The palace, an old, low, Syrian building of whitened mud, is not so ugly as Buckingham Palace; and the officers in the courtyard are more highly civilized than modern English officers: for example, they do not dig up the corpses of their dead enemies and mutilate them, as we dug up Cromwell and the Mahdi. They are in two groups: one intent on the gambling of their captain Belzanor, a warrior of fifty, who, with his spear on the ground beside his knee, is stooping to throw dice with a sly-looking young Persian recruit; the other gathered about a guardsman who has just finished telling a naughty story (still current in English barracks) at which they are laughing uproariously. They are about a dozen in number, all highly aristocratic young Egyptian guardsmen, handsomely equipped with weapons and armor, very unEnglish in point of not being ashamed of and uncomfortable in their professional dress; on the contrary, rather ostentatiously and arrogantly warlike, as valuing themselves on their military caste.
Belzanor is a typical veteran, tough and wilful; prompt, capable and crafty where brute force will serve; helpless and boyish when it will not: an effective sergeant, an incompetent general, a deplorable dictator. Would, if influentially connected, be employed in the two last capacities by a modern European State on the strength of his success in the first. Is rather to be pitied just now in view of the fact that Julius Caesar is invading his country. Not knowing this, is intent on his game with the Persian, whom, as a foreigner, he considers quite capable of cheating him.
His subalterns are mostly handsome young fellows whose interest in the game and the story symbolizes with tolerable completeness the main interests in life of which they are conscious. Their spears are leaning against the walls, or lying on the ground ready to their hands. The corner of the courtyard forms a triangle of which one side is the front of the palace, with a doorway, the other a wall with a gateway. The storytellers are on the palace side: the gamblers, on the gateway side. Close to the gateway, against the wall, is a stone block high enough to enable a Nubian sentinel, standing on it, to look over the wall. The yard is lighted by a torch stuck in the wall. As the laughter from the group round the storyteller dies away, the kneeling Persian, winning the throw, snatches up the stake from the ground.
BELZANOR. By Apis, Persian, thy gods are good to thee.
THE PERSIAN. Try yet again, O captain. Double or quits!
BELZANOR. No more. I am not in the vein.
THE SENTINEL (poising his javelin as he peers over the wall). Stand. Who goes there?
They all start, listening. A strange voice replies from without.
VOICE. The bearer of evil tidings.
BELZANOR (calling to the sentry). Pass him.
THE SENTINEL. (grounding his javelin). Draw near, O bearer of evil tidings.
BELZANOR (pocketing the dice and picking up his spear). Let us receive this man with honor. He bears evil tidings.
The guardsmen seize their spears and gather about the gate, leaving a way through for the new comer.
PERSIAN (rising from his knee). Are evil tidings, then, honorable?
BELZANOR. O barbarous Persian, hear my instruction. In Egypt the bearer of good tidings is sacrificed to the gods as a thank offering but no god will accept the blood of the messenger of evil. When we have good tidings, we are careful to send them in the mouth of the cheapest slave we can find. Evil tidings are borne by young noblemen who desire to bring themselves into notice. (They join the rest at the gate.)
THE SENTINEL. Pass, O young captain; and bow the head in the House of the Queen.
VOICE. Go anoint thy javelin with fat of swine, O Blackamoor; for before morning the Romans will make thee eat it to the very butt.
The owner of the voice, a fairhaired dandy, dressed in a different fashion to that affected by the guardsmen, but no less extravagantly, comes through the gateway laughing. He is somewhat battle-stained; and his left forearm, bandaged, comes through a torn sleeve. In his right hand he carries a Roman sword in its sheath. He swaggers down the courtyard, the Persian on his right, Belzanor on his left, and the guardsmen crowding down behind him.
BELZANOR. Who art thou that laughest in the House of Cleopatra the Queen, and in the teeth of Belzanor, the captain of her guard?
THE NEW COMER. I am Bel Affris, descended from the gods.
BELZANOR (ceremoniously). Hail, cousin!
ALL (except the Persian). Hail, cousin!
PERSIAN. All the Queen’s guards are descended from the gods, O stranger, save myself. I am Persian, and descended from many kings.
BEL AFFRIS (to the guardsmen). Hail, cousins! (To the Persian, condescendingly) Hail, mortal!
BELZANOR. You have been in battle, Bel Affris; and you are a soldier among soldiers. You will not let the Queen’s women have the first of your tidings.
BEL AFFRIS. I have no tidings, except that we shall have our throats cut presently, women, soldiers, and all.
PERSIAN (to Belzanor). I told you so.
THE SENTINEL (who has been listening). Woe, alas!
BEL AFFRIS (calling to him). Peace, peace, poor Ethiop: destiny is with the gods who painted thee black. (To Belzanor) What has this mortal (indicating the Persian) told you?
BELZANOR. He says that the Roman Julius Caesar, who has landed on our shores with a handful of followers, will make himself master of Egypt. He is afraid of the Roman soldiers. (The guardsmen laugh with boisterous scorn.) Peasants, brought up to scare crows and follow the plough. Sons of smiths and millers and tanners! And we nobles, consecrated to arms, descended from the gods!
PERSIAN. Belzanor: the gods are not always good to their poor relations.
BELZANOR (hotly, to the Persian). Man to man, are we worse than the slaves of Caesar?
BEL AFFRIS (stepping between them). Listen, cousin. Man to man, we Egyptians are as gods above the Romans.
THE GUARDSMEN (exultingly). Aha!
BEL AFFRIS. But this Caesar does not pit man against man: he throws a legion at you where you are weakest as he throws a stone from a catapult; and that legion is as a man with one head, a thousand arms, and no religion. I have fought against them; and I know.
BELZANOR (derisively). Were you frightened, cousin?
The guardsmen roar with laughter, their eyes sparkling at the wit of their captain.
BEL AFFRIS. No, cousin; but I was beaten. They were frightened (perhaps); but they scattered us like chaff.
The guardsmen, much damped, utter a growl of contemptuous disgust.
BELZANOR. Could you not die?
BEL AFFRIS. No: that was too easy to be worthy of a descendant of the gods. Besides, there was no time: all was over in a moment. The attack came just where we least expected it.
BELZANOR. That shows that the Romans are cowards.
BEL AFFRIS. They care nothing about cowardice, these Romans: they fight to win. The pride and honor of war are nothing to them.
PERSIAN. Tell us the tale of the battle. What befell?
THE GUARDSMEN (gathering eagerly round Bel Afris). Ay: the tale of the battle.
BEL AFFRIS. Know then, that I am a novice in the guard of the temple of Ra in Memphis, serving neither Cleopatra nor her brother Ptolemy, but only the high gods. We went a journey to inquire of Ptolemy why he had driven Cleopatra into Syria, and how we of Egypt should deal with the Roman Pompey, newly come to our shores after his defeat by Caesar at Pharsalia. What, think ye, did we learn? Even that Caesar is coming also in hot pursuit of his foe, and that Ptolemy has slain Pompey, whose severed head he holds in readiness to present to the conqueror. (Sensation among the guardsmen.) Nay, more: we found that Caesar is already come; for we had not made half a day’s journey on our way back when we came upon a city rabble flying from his legions, whose landing they had gone out to withstand.
BELZANOR. And ye, the temple guard! Did you not withstand these legions?
BEL AFFRIS. What man could, that we did. But there came the sound of a trumpet whose voice was as the cursing of a black mountain. Then saw we a moving wall of shields coming towards us. You know how the heart burns when you charge a fortified wall; but how if the fortified wall were to charge YOU?
THE PERSIAN (exulting in having told them so). Did I not say it?
BEL AFFRIS. When the wall came nigh, it changed into a line of men—common fellows enough, with helmets, leather tunics, and breastplates. Every man of them flung his javelin: the one that came my way drove through my shield as through a papyrus—lo there! (he points to the bandage on his left arm) and would have gone through my neck had I not stooped. They were charging at the double then, and were upon us with short swords almost as soon as their javelins. When a man is close to you with such a sword, you can do nothing with our weapons: they are all too long.
THE PERSIAN. What did you do?
BEL AFFRIS. Doubled my fist and smote my Roman on the sharpness of his jaw. He was but mortal after all: he lay down in a stupor; and I took his sword and laid it on. (Drawing the sword) Lo! a Roman sword with Roman blood on it!
THE GUARDSMEN (approvingly). Good! (They take the sword and hand it round, examining it curiously.)
THE PERSIAN. And your men?
BEL AFFRIS. Fled. Scattered like sheep.
BELZANOR (furiously). The cowardly slaves! Leaving the descendants of the gods to be butchered!
BEL AFFRIS (with acid coolness). The descendants of the gods did not stay to be butchered, cousin. The battle was not to the strong; but the race was to the swift. The Romans, who have no chariots, sent a cloud of horsemen in pursuit, and slew multitudes. Then our high priest’s captain rallied a dozen descendants of the gods and exhorted us to die fighting. I said to myself: surely it is safer to stand than to lose my breath and be stabbed in the back; so I joined our captain and stood. Then the Romans treated us with respect; for no man attacks a lion when the field is full of sheep, except for the pride and honor of war, of which these Romans know nothing. So we escaped with our lives; and I am come to warn you that you must open your gates to Caesar; for his advance guard is scarce an hour behind me; and not an Egyptian warrior is left standing between you and his legions.
THE SENTINEL. Woe, alas! (He throws down his javelin and flies into the palace.)
BELZANOR. Nail him to the door, quick! (The guardsmen rush for him with their spears; but he is too quick for them.) Now this news will run through the palace like fire through stubble.
BEL AFFRIS. What shall we do to save the women from the Romans?
BELZANOR. Why not kill them?
PERSIAN. Because we should have to pay blood money for some of them. Better let the Romans kill them: it is cheaper.
BELZANOR (awestruck at his brain power). O subtle one! O serpent!
BEL AFFRIS. But your Queen?
BELZANOR. True: we must carry off Cleopatra.
BEL AFFRIS. Will ye not await her command?
BELZANOR. Command! A girl of sixteen! Not we. At Memphis ye deem her a Queen: here we know better. I will take her on the crupper of my horse. When we soldiers have carried her out of Caesar’s reach, then the priests and the nurses and the rest of them can pretend she is a queen again, and put their commands into her mouth.
PERSIAN. Listen to me, Belzanor.
BELZANOR. Speak, O subtle beyond thy years.
THE PERSIAN. Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy is at war with her. Let us sell her to him.
THE GUARDSMEN. O subtle one! O serpent!
BELZANOR. We dare not. We are descended from the gods; but Cleopatra is descended from the river Nile; and the lands of our fathers will grow no grain if the Nile rises not to water them. Without our father’s gifts we should live the lives of dogs.
PERSIAN. It is true: the Queen’s guard cannot live on its pay. But hear me further, O ye kinsmen of Osiris.
THE GUARDSMEN. Speak, O subtle one. Hear the serpent begotten!
PERSIAN. Have I heretofore spoken truly to you of Caesar, when you thought I mocked you?
GUARDSMEN. Truly, truly.
BELZANOR (reluctantly admitting it). So Bel Affris says.
PERSIAN. Hear more of him, then. This Caesar is a great lover of women: he makes them his friends and counselors.
BELZANOR. Faugh! This rule of women will be the ruin of Egypt.
THE PERSIAN. Let it rather be the ruin of Rome! Caesar grows old now: he is past fifty and full of labors and battles. He is too old for the young women; and the old women are too wise to worship him.
BEL AFFRIS. Take heed, Persian. Caesar is by this time almost within earshot.
PERSIAN. Cleopatra is not yet a woman: neither is she wise. But she already troubles men’s wisdom.
BELZANOR. Ay: that is because she is descended from the river Nile and a black kitten of the sacred White Cat. What then?
PERSIAN. Why, sell her secretly to Ptolemy, and then offer ourselves to Caesar as volunteers to fight for the overthrow of her brother and the rescue of our Queen, the Great Granddaughter of the Nile.
THE GUARDSMEN. O serpent!
PERSIAN. He will listen to us if we come with her picture in our mouths. He will conquer and kill her brother, and reign in Egypt with Cleopatra for his Queen. And we shall be her guard.
GUARDSMEN. O subtlest of all the serpents! O admiration! O wisdom!
BEL AFFRIS. He will also have arrived before you have done talking, O word spinner.
BELZANOR. That is true. (An affrighted uproar in the palace interrupts him.) Quick: the flight has begun: guard the door. (They rush to the door and form a cordon before it with their spears. A mob of women-servants and nurses surges out. Those in front recoil from the spears, screaming to those behind to keep back. Belzanor’s voice dominates the disturbance as he shouts) Back there. In again, unprofitable cattle.
THE GUARDSMEN. Back, unprofitable cattle.
BELZANOR. Send us out Ftatateeta, the Queen’s chief nurse.
THE WOMEN (calling into the palace). Ftatateeta, Ftatateeta. Come, come. Speak to Belzanor.
A WOMAN. Oh, keep back. You are thrusting me on the spearheads.
A huge grim woman, her face covered with a network of tiny wrinkles, and her eyes old, large, and wise; sinewy handed, very tall, very strong; with the mouth of a bloodhound and the jaws of a bulldog, appears on the threshold. She is dressed like a person of consequence in the palace, and confronts the guardsmen insolently.
FTATATEETA. Make way for the Queen’s chief nurse.
BELZANOR. (with solemn arrogance). Ftatateeta: I am Belzanor, the captain of the Queen’s guard, descended from the gods.
FTATATEETA. (retorting his arrogance with interest). Belzanor: I am Ftatateeta, the Queen’s chief nurse; and your divine ancestors were proud to be painted on the wall in the pyramids of the kings whom my fathers served.
The women laugh triumphantly.
BELZANOR (with grim humor) Ftatateeta: daughter of a long-tongued, swivel-eyed chameleon, the Romans are at hand. (A cry of terror from the women: they would fly but for the spears.) Not even the descendants of the gods can resist them; for they have each man seven arms, each carrying seven spears. The blood in their veins is boiling quicksilver; and their wives become mothers in three hours, and are slain and eaten the next day.
A shudder of horror from the women. Ftatateeta, despising them and scorning the soldiers, pushes her way through the crowd and confronts the spear points undismayed.
FTATATEETA. Then fly and save yourselves, O cowardly sons of the cheap clay gods that are sold to fish porters; and leave us to shift for ourselves.
BELZANOR. Not until you have first done our bidding, O terror of manhood. Bring out Cleopatra the Queen to us and then go whither you will.
FTATATEETA (with a derisive laugh). Now I know why the gods have taken her out of our hands. (The guardsmen start and look at one another). Know, thou foolish soldier, that the Queen has been missing since an hour past sun down.
BELZANOR (furiously). Hag: you have hidden her to sell to Caesar or her brother. (He grasps her by the left wrist, and drags her, helped by a few of the guard, to the middle of the courtyard, where, as they fling her on her knees, he draws a murderous looking knife.) Where is she? Where is she? or—(He threatens to cut her throat.)
FTATATEETA (savagely). Touch me, dog; and the Nile will not rise on your fields for seven times seven years of famine.
BELZANOR (frightened, but desperate). I will sacrifice: I will pay. Or stay. (To the Persian) You, O subtle one: your father’s lands lie far from the Nile. Slay her.
PERSIAN (threatening her with his knife). Persia has but one god; yet he loves the blood of old women. Where is Cleopatra?
FTATATEETA. Persian: as Osiris lives, I do not know. I chide her for bringing evil days upon us by talking to the sacred cats of the priests, and carrying them in her arms. I told her she would be left alone here when the Romans came as a punishment for her disobedience. And now she is gone—run away—hidden. I speak the truth. I call Osiris to witness.
THE WOMEN (protesting officiously). She speaks the truth, Belzanor.
BELZANOR. You have frightened the child: she is hiding. Search—quick—into the palace—search every corner.
The guards, led by Belzanor, shoulder their way into the palace through the flying crowd of women, who escape through the courtyard gate.
FTATATEETA (screaming). Sacrilege! Men in the Queen’s chambers! Sa— (Her voice dies away as the Persian puts his knife to her throat.)
BEL AFFRIS (laying a hand on Ftatateeta’s left shoulder). Forbear her yet a moment, Persian. (To Ftatateeta, very significantly) Mother: your gods are asleep or away hunting; and the sword is at your throat. Bring us to where the Queen is hid, and you shall live.
FTATATEETA (contemptuously). Who shall stay the sword in the hand of a fool, if the high gods put it there? Listen to me, ye young men without understanding. Cleopatra fears me; but she fears the Romans more. There is but one power greater in her eyes than the wrath of the Queen’s nurse and the cruelty of Caesar; and that is the power of the Sphinx that sits in the desert watching the way to the sea. What she would have it know, she tells into the ears of the sacred cats; and on her birthday she sacrifices to it and decks it with poppies. Go ye therefore into the desert and seek Cleopatra in the shadow of the Sphinx; and on your heads see to it that no harm comes to her.
BEL AFFRIS (to the Persian). May we believe this, O subtle one?
PERSIAN. Which way come the Romans?
BEL AFFRIS. Over the desert, from the sea, by this very Sphinx.
PERSIAN (to Ftatateeta). O mother of guile! O aspic’s tongue! You have made up this tale so that we two may go into the desert and perish on the spears of the Romans. (Lifting his knife) Taste death.
FTATATEETA. Not from thee, baby. (She snatches his ankle from under him and flies stooping along the palace wall vanishing in the darkness within its precinct. Bel Affris roars with laughter as the Persian tumbles. The guardsmen rush out of the palace with Belzanor and a mob of fugitives, mostly carrying bundles.)
PERSIAN. Have you found Cleopatra?
BELZANOR. She is gone. We have searched every corner.
THE NUBIAN SENTINEL (appearing at the door of the palace). Woe! Alas! Fly, fly!
BELZANOR. What is the matter now?
THE NUBIAN SENTINEL. The sacred white cat has been stolen. Woe! Woe! (General panic. They all fly with cries of consternation. The torch is thrown down and extinguished in the rush. Darkness. The noise of the fugitives dies away. Dead silence. Suspense. Then the blackness and stillness breaks softly into silver mist and strange airs as the windswept harp of Memnon plays at the dawning of the moon. It rises full over the desert; and a vast horizon comes into relief, broken by a huge shape which soon reveals itself in the spreading radiance as a Sphinx pedestalled on the sands. The light still clears, until the upraised eyes of the image are distinguished looking straight forward and upward in infinite fearless vigil, and a mass of color between its great paws defines itself as a heap of red poppies on which a girl lies motionless, her silken vest heaving gently and regularly with the breathing of a dreamless sleeper, and her braided hair glittering in a shaft of moonlight like a bird’s wing.
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