The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1748 Thursday, 12 July 2001
From: Stephen Dobbin <
Date: Thursday, 12 Jul 2001 13:58:28 +0100 (BST)
Subject: Squeaking Cleopatras
Two thoughts on squeaking Cleopatras:
Firstly, as has been pointed out, the number of potential breathing
opportunities in a speech is always going to be more than the number of
breaths taken, which makes any analysis of supposed breathing patterns
problematic, to say the least.
We might also want to assume that boy actors, especially those with a
background as choristers, would learn some proficiency in breath
control. So how great would we expect the difference in breath control
between boy and man to be, and to what extent would we expect a
playwright to take this into consideration in his writing?
Perhaps a little bit of inter-disciplinary research can help here. Is
there any evidence in the choral writing of Tallis, Byrd, etc. to show
that the breath control of boy sopranos was a significant factor in
composition? Over to the music department!
Secondly, what kind of irony is Shakespeare indulging in with the
'squeaking Cleopatras' line? Many of us who have seen Julius Caesar on
stage must have experienced a certain frisson at the lines
How many Ages hence
Shall this our lofty Scene be acted ouer,
In State vnborne, and Accents yet vnknowne?
as we experience the extraordinarily complex ironies of partaking in the
exact ceremony that Brutus is anticipating.
But the ironies a contemporary audience would draw from
the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, ...
... I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore.
would differ enormously depending on whether they were watching (a) a
boy actor giving a (presumably) very moving portrayal of Cleoptatra or
(b) a fully grown actor playing the role.
(a)seems to draw on the same ironies as the Caesar quote. (b) seems to
require a more contemporary reference or jibe, for example to (some
other author's?) Cleopatra played by a less than successful boy actor.
Which of these would seem most appropriate to the specific mood of the
scene? And are there any arguments to support (b)?
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