Anna: On the queen known for her infinity

Hughes, Lucy, About Cleopatra: On the Queen known for her infinity, 2006, Web, 4 July 2016
Another significant character of Shakespeare’s plays is Cleopatra. She is consistent only in her inconsistency. She is a woman as changeable as water. Writing 200 years after Cleopatra’s death, Plutarch found traces of the way her own people had seen her. He did justice to her reputation as a linguist and scholar. He acknowledged her courage and the efficiency of her rule. He recorded fragments of the self-glorifying vision which she and her aides had adroitly cultivated, that of wise mother of her people, the incarnation of the goddess Isis here on earth.
But in his Roman sources, Plutarch found a very different Cleopatra, a depraved sensualist, a woman defined by her foreignness to Rome, whose nature and career seemed to confirm every prejudice Romans might hold against both foreigners and women – that they were sly and cowardly, that they were frivolous to the core, interested only in hairdressing and parties, and that they had sneaky, insidious ways of ensnaring a virile Roman hero and drawing him down to their own level.
The image of Cleopatra as irresistible temptress was elaborated by her enemies. It suited Octavius that the Romans should believe that his chief rival for power in Rome, Antony, was totally unfit to rule them, and that the conflict which reached its climax at Actium was not just another phase of the civil wars of which the Roman people were so heartily tired, but one fought against an aggressive foreign power.
Thanks to that persona, Cleopatra has remained for over two millennia as the quintessential object of desire, and she has been repeatedly re-imagined in accordance with changing fashions in desirability. Medieval poets hymned her sweet docility and her devotion to her man. Renaissance painters depicted her as a blue-eyed blond (she was a famous beauty, and beauties, in northern Europe at the time, were fair). Orientalists re-imagined her as a dusky houri. Romantics from Pushkin onward cast her as a femme fatale and entertained masochistic fantasies of her thrilling cruelty. ‘She is the most complete woman ever to have existed,’ wrote Theophile Gautier in 1845, ‘whom dreamers find always at the end of their dreams.’
But Cleopatra is not only the figment of others’ imaginations. She was herself a skilled manipulator of her own image. In Plutarch’s version of her story, and in Shakespeare’s re-interpretation of it, it is possible to glimpse some of the ways in which she presented herself to her subjects. Using costume and gesture, spectacle and ritual, she dramatized her power.
There are dozens of more or less pornographic paintings, dating from the 1st Century onward, of the death of Cleopatra in which the Queen, naked or nearly so, applies the asp to her bare breast. In fact all the ancient historians agree that, as Shakespeare correctly shows, she didn’t undress, but dressed for death. And the ‘royal robes’ she calls for would have been the paraphernalia which identified her as a goddess, an identification which was dramatically emphasized by the fact that the snake that killed her was Isis’s sacred creature. We well never know what the real Cleopatra was like. She certainly wasn’t the libertine of the Roman imagination, she was probably celibate for the majority of her adult life. Nor was she an omnipotent deity – her defeat and death are proof enough of that.


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