Cleopatra: Age Cannot Wither Her
It is remarkable how Cleopatra’s story has remained relevant some two thousand years after her death. Her story was first told by Roman writers, such as Plutarch and Dio Cassius. Based on these written sources, Shakespeare wrote his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra in the seventeenth century. His words still resound with us today.
Then in the twentieth century a number of cinematic portrayals of Cleopatra came to the fore. Most famous is perhaps the 1963 film Cleopatra directed by directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the title roles. The passion and fame of the two lead performers challenged those of the characters which they played.
Shakespeare mentioned her “infinite variety” and in fact Cleopatra has gone through a myriad of transformations through the ages as different artists, writers and film directors. The Toronto Public Library has abundant materials on Shakespearean criticism and how Cleopatra was portrayed in the theatre and in film with all the spectacle and pageantry that implies.
Neither the Cleopatra of Shakespeare nor the Cleopatra of modern film can be considered the “real” Cleopatra, who remains cloaked in an aura of mystery and eroticism. How did she seduce the two most powerful men of her time, was it with her beauty or her cunning intellect? What was the role of her wealth and power in the equation? The great romance and drama between Cleopatra and Antony played out as a military and political struggle between East and West, the Orient and Europe, leading to the full establishment of the Roman Empire. Several books focus on this conflict.
Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek, a descendant of Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. But she was the ruler of Egypt and therefore had a Middle Eastern identity and was viewed as entirely foreign by the Romans. A number of books focus on Cleopatra’s role as Queen of Egypt.
As a Hellenistic queen, Cleopatra used her glamour and wealth, as well as her ruling power to became an evocative symbol of femininity. How this femininity plays out continues to be controversial. Is Cleopatra the seductress or temptress that leads men to their ruin, or is she the paragon of virtue who dies for love of her man? Biographies of Cleopatra all deal with her impact as a significant female role model.
The variability of Cleopatra’s story has led to fabrication, distortions and myths going well beyond the ancient sources. Different ages have emphasized different aspects of her story. For example, sex and wealth were emphasized in the Renaissance, as opposed to the flouting of moral virtue in the Victorian era. The attempt document the changing nature of Cleopatra continues to this day.
Want to learn more? Come to our book club discussion of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life on Friday February 7 from 2 to 3:30 pm in the Discussion Room, third floor, Toronto Reference Library. No registration is required. Everyone is welcome! We hope to see you there.