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 lovesick 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.
. . .
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. For vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
(Act 2, scene 2, lines 226–38, 276–81)

In one of the most famous passages from the play, Enobarbus describes to a group of Romans how Antony and Cleopatra first met. But before describing their meeting, he offers an extraordinary description of Cleopatra herself, floating down the Cydnus River on her gilded barge. For a man who often expresses skepticism about Cleopatra and about Antony’s love for her, Enobarbus’s description reveals clear admiration for her and for the spell she casts. So irresistible is Cleopatra that that even the wind can’t help but fall for her. Indeed, Enobarbus describes the air as being “lovesick” with the “perfumed” and “purple” sails. The beating of the silver oars likewise conjures the quickened heartbeat of passion. As for Cleopatra’s physical appearance, Enobarbus’s powers of description fail entirely. All he can do is note that she is so lovely that she outshines the goddess of love herself. Indeed, Cleopatra “o’erpictur[es] . . . Venus.”

If a skeptic like Enobarbus can end up being so smitten by Cleopatra, then it’s no surprise that Antony should have fallen for her almost immediately. And, in falling for Cleopatra, Antony also succumbed to the intoxicating power of Egypt, which she further represents. In the second part of the quotation reproduced above, Enobarbus summarizes Cleopatra as an ageless figure who cannot easily be pinned down or reduced to a single definition. And just as she herself is “infinite” in her “variety,” she gives rise to insatiable desires in others. Even “holy priests,” who might otherwise object to her unbridled sexuality, gladly agree to “bless her.” These aspects of Cleopatra speak to what makes her symbolic of Egypt itself, a land that stands timeless in the imagination. Furthermore, Egypt is a place of grand appetites. In addition to being a great cultural center, its enormous fertility and agricultural productivity has also made it well known as the breadbasket of the ancient world. Cleopatra, in all her beauty and excess, is Egypt incarnate.