Blog Week 10: Cleopatra

"The Suicides of Antony and Cleopatra," from Giovanni Boccaccio, De casibus illustrium virorum et feminarum. c. 1480. London, British Library.

Now that you’ve read a number of ancient sources on Cleopatra as well as some modern scholarship on her life and person, you likely have a different perception of this iconic figure.  The way in which modern individuals, groups and societies view and represent Cleopatra says more about them than it does about her.  Reflect upon why more recent assessments and depictions of Cleopatra take the shape they do (and by more recent, I mean the last few hundred years, as opposed to antiquity).  You can find numerous examples of images of Cleopatra through the ages here: Week 10 Cleopatra.  Feel free to also search contemporary media in the form of images, articles, commentary, etc. to see the variety of ‘takes’ on the identity and character of Cleopatra.  To this end, you might check out the recent brouhaha about the rumored Cleopatra movie starring Angelina Jolie:

due 10 pm, Wednesday March 23


7 responses to “Blog Week 10: Cleopatra

  • Ena Dekanic

    As Walker and Ashton contend, “It could be said of the last queen of Egypt that every age gets the Cleopatra it deserves” (13). Shohat echoes this sentiment, likewise claiming, “Each age, one might say, has its own Cleopatra, to the point that one can study the thoughts and discourses of an epoch through its Cleopatra fantasies” (127). I agree with Shohat’s argument, that recent assessments and depictions of Cleopatra take shape the way they do because Cleopatra “allegorizes highly charged issues having to do with sexuality, gender, race, and nation” (127). A Google image search of “Cleopatra” yields more than two million results, replete with a wide array of drastically different images, each portrait of Cleopatra constructed for its own unique purposes. From antiquity onward, the enduring fascination with the alluring, captivating figure of Cleopatra has led to her cooptation as a “metaphorical site,” as Shohat puts it, for a variety of agendas.

    As Walker and Ashton discuss, early western European art portrayed Cleopatra as a white-skinned European princess. Portraits show Cleopatra, dressed in contemporary clothing, either banqueting with Antony or committing suicide. According to Walker and Ashton, the emphasis on these two scenes highlighted for the Renaissance audience the “exemplary nature” of Cleopatra’s “moral journey,” canonized by Shakespeare and Dryden (21). Later, nineteenth-century incarnations of Cleopatra focused on the poisoning of her slaves and her role as a sensual enchantress in order to appeal to the orientalist tastes of a sexually repressed Victorian society. In yet another manifestation, as both articles discuss, Cleopatra has also been implemented as a symbol of Egyptian nationalism.

    Clearly, “each age and each culture seems to project its own Cleopatra, visualizing her in a new way,” as Shohat asserts (138). The intrigue and mystery surrounding Cleopatra even in her own time translates easily into her usurpation by different interest groups, a phenomenon which is particularly evident in the Eurocentrism vs. Afrocentrism debate. The article about Angelina Jolie’s casting as “the African queen Cleopatra” sheds light on important aspects of the dispute. The debate over Cleopatra’s racial identity is not concerned with exposing any historical truth, but only seeks to further a certain agenda. (Ironically, as Shohat notes, “the contemporary dichotomous discussions of Cleopatra’s identity” actually reproduce the racist colonial discourse that they initially sought to dispel.) Though scholars remain unable to confirm Cleopatra’s true historical identity, the article brushes over this reality, instead unequivocally claiming, “While experts can’t say with certainty what Cleopatra looked like, physically speaking, Jolie certainly doesn’t fit with the features historians now know she inhabited.” As we have seen, modern interpretations of Cleopatra have little to do with Cleopatra herself and much more to do with the goals and agendas of various groups throughout history who claim Cleopatra for their cause.

  • Lili Dodderidge

    When referencing the queen of Egypt, most ancient texts characterize Cleopatra as seductive, captivating, stimulating—her beauty and power overwhelmed and frustrated the Romans, ultimately causing the ruin of their invincible Caesar, yet undeniably fascinated this society. Since antiquity, interpretations of this seductiveness have flooded contemporary art and media. A review from the 1999 TV special, Cleopatra, from New York Magazine ( summarizes this cornucopia of perspectives quite aptly:

    “We invent the Cleo we think we need, just like Boccaccio, Dante, Pushkin, Keats, and Cecil B. Demille…In the Middle Ages, Cleo was said to have killed herself for the love of a man, like Dido or Thisbe. In the Renaissance, when sexual passion was a disease like madness, she menaced the social order. The Reformation needed a Bad Girl; the Romantics, a dominatrix.”

    Modern portrayals of Cleopatra take on a propagandistic task, revealing the morals and priorities of the societies and eras in which they exist.

    Take, for example, Chaucer. This poet of the Middle Ages characterized Cleopatra as “one of Cupid’s saints,” and framed her as a devoted wife and loving woman. This depiction of the queen would reveal to contemporary readers of Chaucer’s “Legend of Good Women” that the ideal woman is one who completely gives herself to her man, emphasizing the submissive yet loving female ideal of this time.

    The Renaissance period produced numerous depictions of Cleopatra’s death, portraying the dying queen as very sensual and voluptuous. Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s painting from 1796 presents one option for imagining Cleopatra’s suicide. Pale skinned, healthily fleshy, and bare-chested, Cleopatra reclines on a couch, wrapped in a beautifully bright red garment. She is only surrounded by two female servants, also poisoned. No man stands by her side. In a time in which celibacy was valued and sexuality was kept quiet, perhaps this Renaissance painting is revealing Cleopatra’s death as a lesson in sexual promiscuity—sexual prowess and seductiveness only results in a vulnerable position and a lonely ruin.

    Today, images of Cleopatra immediately reflect the modern American obsession with sex. The iconic portrayal of the Egyptian queen by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s set the stage for this association. Recognized for her sexual nature, renowned beauty, and established presence in Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor was a seductive, intriguing, powerful idol in modern film; this persona made her a suggestive and relative fit for the Hollywood interpretation of Cleopatra. As the American obsession with the idea that “sex sells” only increased throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Cleopatra’s sexualization continued in modern media reflections on the queen. The 2007 computer game still photo, seen in the PowerPoint on this website, creates an image of Cleopatra that is heavily (and disproportionately) endowed in the breasts, and scantily clothed. Her face also wears a tantalizing, seducing expression, yet it is one that inspires a knowledge that she is a force to be reckoned with. These sorts of images reveal the heavy emphasis that modern society places on sex, vamping what was already seen as a beautiful seducer into a hot, sexual icon for every age.

    I believe that the images of Cleopatra that have emerged over the past few hundred years reflect the evolution of mankind. The Egyptian queen was largely a mystery—we have no real understanding of who exactly this woman was. As time has progressed, people of every age have used Cleopatra as a foundation for sending messages to its communities, evolving not only the society, but also the history of Cleopatra.

  • Brendan Dorsey

    To me, the most striking element of Cleopatra’s ever-changing image is the persistence of her image at all. She may have been an effective ruler, and she was probably very charismatic, but the fact of the matter is that Egypt’s decline as a major power was finally completed under Cleopatra’s rule. It is rare for the last monarch of a state, the person most responsible for the demise of that state, to be celebrated or remembered as much as Cleopatra. But we can find the reason why in the fact that her image, though continually evolving, has been present and popular in Western culture for centuries, even thousands of years after her death. This sounds like a circular argument, and is a roundabout way of getting to the question at hand, but the point is that she was a marvel to her contemporaries (even if some of the sources portray her in a negative light, they still present her as something of a wonder), and more importantly she embodies the coming together of many widely disparate, even opposing, elements of human identity. She was a woman, but a powerful ruler who had enormous influence over the greatest male rulers of her day (except Octavian, apparently). She was Greek, but also Egyptian, Western and Oriental at once. She was well-noted for her abilities, but led her kingdom to its doom. She had charm and sexual allure, but was also a formidable head of state. She was a wily politician, but bold to the point of recklessness and excess. These and all her other dualities help to make her the intriguing figure she is, but they also give a tremendous range of options to those shaping or portraying her image. My impression from the pieces we’ve read and the images on the Power Point presentation is that the Cleopatra as a character has been so magnified that she can be presented as almost anything to almost anyone, depending on what the artist wants to portray and what the audience wants to see. This more than anything explains why her image is such a constant and why it changes so much from instance to instance and over time. She is a blank slate, but better; her story and her character are familiar, popular, and easily recognizable. There are few subjects an artist can use that offer as wide an array of presentations (from the busty computer game figure to Mazzuoli’s tragic sculpture to Cabanel’s heartless, almost sadistic, rendering of the Cleopatra the Poisoner) and yet remain identifiable as part of the intended audience’s culture and history. Thus Cleopatra’s image is almost self-perpetuating. She is a common enough theme to be familiar, even after centuries of cultural change, and she offers a unique vehicle to explore the fundamental issues of ethnicity, gender, power, sex, love, all the important elements of human identity.

  • Sarah Murphy

    As Walker and Ashton state in their article, people throughout the ages in different societies have used “the last queen of Egypt to mirror their sexual desires, and their social and political aspirations, along with their fears” (26). The majority of ancient sources on Cleopatra accessible to people of the previous centuries were from the ancient Romans; as a result, people in the 15th-19th centuries only had the Roman portrayal of Cleopatra to characterize and influence their own rendering. The work by Stephanoff portrays Cleopatra as a luxurious seductress; her clothing and the rich colors of the painting show her to be ostentatious and over-indulgent. Her posture in this painting, as well as Antony’s response, show the queen as someone fully aware of the great power of her sexuality. While ancient sources available to Europeans also portray Cleopatra as both a lavish spender and a wild sexual force, this painting does not have the same negative tone prevalent in the ancient sources. Yes, Cleopatra has expensive goods and has power over Antony, but this portrayal emphasizes the connection of the two lovers. The viewer recognizes their shared affection; this emotion was absent from ancient Roman sources because it would have made the two figures more sympathetic. The story of Antony and Cleopatra is romanticized by this painting, perhaps because the figures are not relevant to the politics of the time.
    Perhaps it is because the more modern depicter of Cleopatra is removed from the political situation, but modern representations of the queen fail to portray her as having any kind of actual political power. Instead, many images from the slideshow focus on her physical appearance, including many representations in which Cleopatra is partially or fully nude. These artists are focusing solely on her renowned charm and attractiveness, instead of considering other aspects of her personality. For viewers even in the 20th and 21st centuries, Cleopatra is a combination of the exotic and the erotic; costume choices in movies and the series “Rome” emphasize her foreignness through her clothing and her sexuality through her makeup and body language. These representations are a far cry from the busts and reliefs of the 1st century BC. As with many people from ancient Roman and Greek times, Cleopatra has become more than a historical figure; she has become a character, able to be manipulated and idealized.

  • Danny Rivera

    Regardless of the time period, the concept of a female ruler is impressive. Yes, there have been several instances of female rule throughout history, but not a single account of a female’s reign as ruler is free of some comment akin to “despite her being female”–I do not mean to say women aren’t capable of ruling, it just seems that her status as a women is inextricable from her rule in a way that being a male is not inextricable from being a ruler, it’s just kind of accepted. So when a figure such as Cleopatra is made available the public, she becomes a personality to be consumed and appropriated because she represents the unique made normal: for all of her exoticism, she was the head of state, and therefore, her way was right.
    As we have learned and discussed already, all art is a representation of the time in which it was produced and I really believe depictions of Cleopatra are no different. One of the most enduring images of Cleopatra is from William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”. In a time when the exotic was put on display in the town for all to see and to marvel at, Cleopatra was put front and center on the stage, an exotic queen of the east for all to see. Caesar, Antony, and the rest of the Roman legion are not only fascinated by her, but Egypt. They spend time their enamored with the culture and its treasures, the largest being Cleopatra herself. She represented the antithesis of the Western woman, even a ruler like Queen Elizabeth would have been. She was exotic, sensual, and free-spirited, but also a shrewd political thinker and ruler: she used her sexuality to rule, unlike Elizabeth who did her best to subdue her femininity, especially in art. Cleopatra represented a paradox for Shakespeare’s audience: she was Antony’s love, and there was great poetics and drama in that, but she was also from the East, unknown, unchecked, and, in a way, untamed.
    A recent production of William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”–without words, mind you–depicted Cleopatra as all these things, but, as you can see in the trailer (which follows) she’s hardly represented as an appropriated Western queen. The actress playing her is Eastern European (Georgian, to be specific), and portrays Cleopatra as someone caught in between love and power, struggling to balance her sexuality and her strength. She is a woman with gifts, that also can be seen as curses. (Here’s the trailer:

    Elizabeth Taylor (whose death today seems oddly resonant to this topic of conversation) portrayed Cleopatra in the way that seemed most appropriate to her: as a sexual being. The casting of Taylor as Cleopatra seemed a no-brainer: take an icon of sexuality and power (Taylor broke records with her paycheck for Cleopatra), and have her play an icon of sexuality and power. Taylor’s beauty made her seem unattainable to many, and she seemed appropriate for the legend of Cleopatra.

    The point is, even today, no matter how progressive we may think we are, a strong-minded female ruler still has a certain degree of novelty to it–she is seen as an inspiration because she is so rare, so she is glorified. Women as rulers, effective and powerful though they may have been, do not have the long-standing history of ruling as men do, so their presence on the throne is still seen as something of a new development. Combine that with the idea of an “exotic” queen, and you get a figure upon whom you can place any of your personality traits and appropriate for yourself. From a Western standpoint throughout history, “exotic” was almost synonymous with “unknown”, so Cleopatra, both exotic and a ruler, could really be anything you want her to be.

  • Danielle Lee

    I grew up imagining Cleopatra the way Elizabeth Taylor (May she rest in peace) played her in Antony and Cleopatra. She was a fierce woman with some intense eye makeup and really black and interestingly shaped hair. But I also remember hearing the phrase by the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” In the end, the only thing any of us can be sure of is that she was this larger-than-life character who cannot be defined or confined to one particular image.

    As has been mentioned and discussed by scholars and fellow classmates, Cleopatra’s image has indeed transformed rather drastically throughout the ages. Even in the more modern eras, the range of the different images of the Egyptian queen ranges quite a bit. The Medieval and early Renaissance depicted Cleopatra in a completely European and ‘civilized’ manner. She dressed in the European style and sat at long banquet tables as was the customs of the times. Then more recently in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a shift towards the representation of Cleopatra as an Egyptian queen—emphasis on the Egyptian. Artists portrayed her in ‘authentic’ ancient Egyptian garb and setting with the extended eye makeup to boot. Despite this return to an Egyptian Cleopatra, the famed queen continued to be painted as and played by white female figures. That part always made me wonder that the artists would go so far as to insisting on Cleopatra’s ancient Egyptian origins but stopped short of making her truly African. Though, it is true, that Cleopatra’s lineage was not truly African; it could be possible that the use of a Caucasian woman in traditional Egyptian dress was just the contrast needed to emphasize the duality of her identity.

    More recently, however, there has been a shift towards depicting Cleopatra as both traditionally Egyptian as well as African as can be seen in the still from the game Civilizations as well as the book cover. To an extent, the casting of Angelina Jolie to play Cleopatra is a part of this trend. It seems that there is further emphasis on being authentic all the way—not to mention the greater acceptance and recognition of African beauty.

    Not until recently, the standard of beauty for Europe as well as the United States had been the white woman. During the time of the Renaissance and arguably even during the time of Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra, black women were not necessarily seen as the standard of beauty. Therefore, it wouldn’t have made sense (socially) that an African Cleopatra could seduce the Roman Caesar or Antony who was accustomed to the ‘higher taste’ of white women. As the remnants of that mindset fade, the influx of images of Cleopatra as African becomes more acceptable and palatable to the audience.

    Though the history of racial stereotypes may seem an injustice against the character of the famed Queen Cleopatra, I don’t think it does her much harm at all. As Jones noted, we cannot truly know what Cleopatra looked like. All we have are the records of her conduct and her life which, from what I read, can be described as nothing other than extraordinary. Her conscious ability to captivate the heart of Caesar, in itself, indicates that she was a beauty (of sorts) as well as a force of personality and character. Therefore, as long as we continue to abide by those standards (though they be slightly altered from the standards of her day), the increasing span of Cleopatra images continues to attest to her own greatness of mind and body.

  • Ryan Day

    Cleopatra’s image could be likened to that of Alexander in that both seem to be idealized representations of influential figures. That said, the reasons behind the images are probably fairly similar as well. Both of these figures were extremely influential, and probably deified, so it would be unbefitting of their greatness to have an image of either of them seem unattractive. Yet it would be equally inappropriate to create an image that is so attractive and idealized that it would be unrecognizable.

    This means that, probably only the most distinctive features of Cleopatra would be present in these images. This leaves us with little to extrapolate from the images other than the fact that she looks as if she may be of African descent as opposed to purely Greek descent. She has curly black hair and full lips, which leads me to believe that she is at least partially African. More than this, its hard to tell where the reality of Cleopatra’s appearance ends and the idealization begins.

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