CLEOPATRA: A MIRROR TO THE PRESENT
But in her book, ‘Cleopatra, Queen Lover Legend’ Lucy Hughes-Hallet contends that every story written about her, and every picture painted of her, said more about the artist and the times they lived in than they did about the woman herself.
Cleopatra has been variously portrayed as virtuous suicide, inefficient housewife, exuberant lover, professional courtesan, scheming manipulator, and femme fatale. Was she Shakespeare’s cruel and lazy siren, Shaw’s man-eater or Taylor’s alluring beauty? Or does she rather, as Hughes suggests, only represent those aspects of the female that has most challenged each era since her death?
Cleopatra’s fiction was first formulated in her own lifetime by her enemies' propaganda. Its primary purpose was to discredit her lover Mark Antony. Antony’s rival, Augustus, claimed he had become so besotted with the Queen of Egypt that she had virtually emasculated him. He profited by denigrating Antony to his fellow Romans as a hedonist and a traitor, for in Rome - unlike in Egypt - women were considered inferior, lacking in virtue and intelligence.
And so Cleopatra became the dangerous feminine that can lure a helpless man from his duty to pursue the forbidden; and over the next two millennia she came to be the mirror in which each age saw its women.
In the fourteenth century, for example, Chaucer painted her as the very paragon of feminine virtue; the proof of her goodness being that she didn't wish to outlive her man. In an age when love-matches were rare and widowhood the only condition in which a woman could be truly independent, her great virtue, it seemed, was that she didn’t want to live longer than Anthony did.
But by the time of the Renaissance, with art and society dominated by themes of the sacred and the profane, Cleopatra’s bare breasts and the phallic asp became a dominant motif for many artists. The significance of her ritual suicide was overwhelmed by the imagined manner of it.
Later, as the American and French revolutions gripped eighteenth century Europe and North America, her story evolved into the clash between rival systems of government. Cleopatra and Antony represented the feudal nobility opposed to Octavius's centralising and modernising regime.
By colonial times she had transformed yet again, was depicted in gauzy harem pants and sparkly bra, like a dusky Lady Gaga, lolling indolently on a divan, representing a terminally decadent culture ripe for annexation by a benignly virgin western power.
In the Victorian era Cleopatra was reborn yet again as femme fatale, flouter of every convention, breacher of every taboo. To an increasingly rigid and regulated society, she was at once both evil and delightful, a powerful antidote to male sexual guilt.
The image persisted into 1930’s Hollywood. Cecil B de Mille offered the leading role in his movie about her to Claudette Colbert with the words: "How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?" By this time "wicked" had become a term of approbation - sexy, edgy, titillating. The wickedest woman in history? The real Cleopatra was politically astute, a genius at diplomacy and an brilliant administrator – but how can that ever stack up against a sparkly bra?
By the time of the notorious 1963 movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton the tragedy of her reign had devolved to history's best-ever holiday romance.
Hughes has made a very good point; Cleopatra is not as much a woman as an idea. Historians know what she did and what happened to her, but the interpretation of her history depends largely on the writer or artist and the times they live in.
But what was she really like?
Perhaps only Liz Taylor will ever know.
Colin Falconer's When We Were Gods - the story of Cleopatra, has just been re-released on Kindle for $5.99. His new novel Silk Road, will be published by Corvus Atlantic on October 1. To find out more, see http://www.colinfalconer.net and his blog: http://www.colinfalconer.net/the-man-with-the-past.html