This article first appeared in the show programme for the RSC's 2006 production of Antony and Cleopatra. Download article (PDF 172KB) »
Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author or Cleopatra (Pimlico) and Heroes: Saviours, traitors and supermen (Perennial). Lucy Hughes-Hallett on the queen known for her 'infinite variety'.
Shakespeare's Cleopatra is consistent only in her inconsistency. She is a woman as changeable as water: now jealous nag, now regal diplomat; now magnanimous lover, now self-serving schemer. There is a reason for this. Shakespeare followed his source, Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony, so closely that had the two of them been British authors of our era, the playwright would probably have been facing charges of plagiarism. And Plutarch's account is based on two mutually contradictory historical traditions.
Writing 200 years after Cleopatra's death, Plutarch found traces of the way her own people had seen her (he read, for instance, the memoirs of her doctor). 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.
Plutarch lets these two Cleopatras lie side by side, their opposed natures unreconciled, in his text: Shakespeare synthesises them to create the entrancingly unpredictable Queen, whose infinite variety custom cannot stale. But to understand the allure of Cleopatra's story it's necessary to separate them out again.
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. So he and his supporters spread the story of Antony, besotted with Cleopatra, allowing himself to become the helpless plaything of an unscrupulous alien monarch. So Antony was discredited and Octavius could claim to be Rome's protector against an alien threat. When he declared war, the enemy named was not Antony, the popular and charismatic Roman general, but Cleopatra, Egypt's Queen.
It worked. It was said at the time, reports Plutarch, that: 'The Romans were fighting this war against Mardian the eunuch, Iras, who was Cleopatra's hairdresser, and Charmian, her waiting-woman, since it was they who were mainly responsible for the direction of affairs'. Antony had ceased to count for anything. He was no longer a true Roman: 'He has discarded all the august titles of his native land,' wrote Dio Cassius, 'and become a cymbal player from Canopus'.
He was no longer a true man: 'It is impossible for anyone who indulges in a life of royal luxury and coddles himself like a woman to have a manly thought or do a manly deed'. He had become a foreigner: he had become a kind of woman. In other words (Roman racism and sexism intersecting in ways still all too familiar today) he had become a nobody.
This prodigiously successful propaganda campaign, though, had an unforeseen side-effect. The story of Antony, the fool for love, was credible only if his beloved was as great-hearted as he had been, a dazzling beauty, a fascinating personality and a sexual enchantress. Inadvertently, and for entirely hostile reasons, Cleopatra's enemies had created for her the persona of the woman for whom the world would be well lost.
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. Mediaeval 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 dramatised her power.
Plutarch, and Shakespeare after him, compares her appearance when she arrived to meet Antony at Tarsus with that of Venus. In fact she would have been dressed, as Queens of Egypt were for all ceremonial occasions, in the guise of Isis, whose earthly representative she was. Her robe would have been like the one Isis wears in a vision described by Apuleius: 'Part glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven border of flowers and fruit swaying in the breeze'. She would have had a fringed black silk mantle embroidered with stars and moon in gold and silver thread, and on her head she would have worn Isis's distinctive crown.
This wasn't just self-adornment for the purpose of seduction ('Rare for Antony!' as Shakespeare's Agrippa salaciously exclaims). Cleopatra was making her entrance in a manner which emphasised both her secular authority and her sacred majesty. To a Roman, Isis was just another name for the goddess of love, but to an Egyptian she was the law-giver, the creator. 'I divided the Earth from the Heaven,' she proclaims in a Hellenistic hymn. 'I showed the paths of the stars... Fate hearkens to me.'
Other such spectacles followed. There was the solemn ceremony, to which Shakespeare's Octavius angrily alludes, when Cleopatra and Antony, seated on golden thrones on a dais erected in Alexandria's main square, named their children the rulers of a projected new empire of the east. But the most impressive of all the tableaux Cleopatra staged was that of her own suicide.
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 emphasised by the fact that the snake that killed her was Isis's sacred creature.
Contemporary reliefs show priestesses of Isis with serpents twining around their arms, and the crown Cleopatra wore was surmounted by cobras holding up a moon. In Egyptian iconography, the snake - which sloughs its skin only to appear revitalised - is the symbol of everlasting life. In her closely guarded monument, physically exhausted and surrounded by enemies, Cleopatra not only planned her own death with resolute coolness, she made of it a spectacle defiantly expressive of her divine status and her claim to immortality.
What the real Cleopatra was like we will never know. 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. But her legend has proved perennially fascinating precisely because those two imaginary figures - irreconcilable as they may be - are present the image of her which has come down to us, and to which Shakespeare gave such shimmeringly ambiguous life.