Updated: May 23
by Julia Walsh
Just the utterance of the name exudes something deep within us—a feeling of opulence, power, perfection… Cleopatra. Many of us have learned to hear this term and submit to mental shortcuts that conjure up beauty, strength, and femininity. Cleopatra.
I know this because I lived it. I can see the smartboard in my 5th-grade classroom now, and the four-by-two-foot goddess-like portrait projected on it, a painting of Cleopatra fixing her heavily lined amber eyes on mine. Mrs. Roberts, blonde and slightly awkward, stands next to it, introducing my class of eleven-year-olds to the “most powerful woman in history, the pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire” (as she is often falsely titled). Sitting there in the darkened room, I thought I gazed on a woman who was the definition of success, the model for all of our little-girl innocent wishes. My understanding of who this unworldly woman was has been shaped since my youth.
But something always felt off. I remember the way Mrs. Roberts basked in Cleopatra’s beauty. As we sat on the grimy rug, Mrs. Roberts told us that “men of the time said she was the most beautiful woman alive.” Was that jealousy in her voice? This theme continued throughout my education. In middle school, we were given a bit more context about ancient Egypt. In history, we learned of Macedonia and Alexander the Great; in English, Caesar and Antony. Cleopatra's world came alive for me, but as her reality was humanized, she was not. She remained an enigmatic figure, unquestionable in her reign, inextricable from her visual effect. Each time my classes slipped into her timeline, the description of her power was accompanied by a description of her appearance, her physical perfection, and her supremacy. Male teachers spoke about her with undertones of desire. I cringed, with no ability to put words to my discomfort. That is until last October when the character of Cleopatra became a crux of my intrigue once again.
Many of us have learned to hear this term and submit to mental shortcuts that conjure up beauty, strength, and femininity.
I know this because I lived it.
With only the guidance of a prompt from my Shakespeare course to research “other versions” of a Shakespearean character, I—almost thoughtlessly—selected Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra and unintentionally found myself in that complex place of desire and doubt once again. When I embarked upon the archives what I found was at least irritating, at most devastating. The Cleopatra I met in 5th grade was the same one I would be meeting many, many times over. I had a preconceived image of the character before I ever laid eyes on Shakespeare’s text, which can be said for most of us.
Antony and Cleopatra depicts the story of two rulers whose love for each other prevails over all. Shakespeare’s theatricalization of the affair between the two world powers paints a godlike image of Cleopatra in her manipulation of Antony, not unlike those I had experienced in grade school. Cleopatra, queen of the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire, is written as a cunning ruler who uses her sexuality and beauty to gain power over Marcus Antony of the Roman Republic. The characterization of Cleopatra as powerful and cunning has been favored by recent audiences desperate for a woman who fights the stereotypes. We go crazy for a powerful woman, a “girl boss” even… but I learned the figure of Cleopatra is more complicated than what we make of her. At what point does her myth of beauty and power become dangerous? Can a woman have power without also being in some way beautiful?
In November, as the first snowflakes fell over the Isthmus, I rode the elevator to the 9th floor of Memorial Library with a plan. Carefully selected sources waited in special collections, reserved under my name. I was going to find the versions of Cleopatra that were untangled from her physicality. I was eager to read of her mind, her intelligence and wit, all of the characteristics that truly make one powerful. My goal was to fight the narrative of her beauty earning her power, to prove the feminists right, that she was an icon we could all aspire to be.
CLEOPATRA IN INK
Before Shakespeare’s tragedy, Cleopatra was documented bibliographically. The earliest “factual accounts” of Cleopatra can be found in The Fifth Volume of Plutarch’s Lives, published in the 2nd century A.D.. Meant to be objective, these accounts claim that “no one could be compared” to Cleopatra, that her “tongue was more harmonious than perfect instruments.” Plutarch goes so far to say that if Plato had four forms of flattery, then “Cleopatra has thousands.” These descriptions were to be consumed as fact, yet they rely heavily on hyperbole. (It is worth noting that Shakespeare often turned to Plutarch’s Lives, one of the earliest bibliographic culminations, in the creation of his characters).
The extreme descriptions of Cleopatra continue in Argument of the Play of Cleopatra, where Victorien Sardou writes that “she is all things by turn and nothing long. All the graces and all the furies in the body of one woman.” Claiming that Cleopatra is both all and nothing divides her between the two extremes of being, removing humanity entirely from her. Sardou also notes that when people spoke of Cleopatra, they spoke only of “her beauty and her grace.” Later he claims she lived “with all the wisdom of the serpent and all the gentleness of the dove.” Cleopatra is qualified in terms of two symbols that generate contrasting images, but we are asked to imagine Cleopatra as embodying both, a near-impossible feat. These paradoxical descriptions paint Cleopatra to be an enigma, an image of perfection beyond the human tongue’s ability to put words to greatness.
This type of language permeated all descriptions of the queen I was able to find in the archive, with World Famous Women Being Phototypes of Female Heroism, Beauty, and Influence declaring Cleopatra as “the enthroned enchantress of the Earth, the most fascinating coquette that ever existed”—quite a description in a book entirely about powerful women. Cleopatra was and is constantly being named the most and best of any category, especially in comparison to other women. These descriptions, with the successes of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play and historical records, give us a very specific narrative: that a woman must be perfect to be powerful.
The Cleopatra that Shakespeare wrote into history in Antony and Cleopatra is a cumulation of the literature he was referencing. The way we think of the figure was not initiated by Shakespeare but rather by the accessibility of the narrative of beauty and power, which Shakespeare turned into theater. Throughout the play, Shakespeare explains Cleopatra as a goddess-like figure:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. (2.2.276-279)
This phrase echoes the superlative nature of the archival material, suggesting age has no effect on the woman, who does not “cloy” like other women. In the second act, Shakespeare compares Cleopatra to Venus, the goddess of love and very personification of sexuality and attraction, which brings the reader to see Cleopatra in the same light, as someone who outdoes “nature” itself.
In the play, the power that Cleopatra accrues is inseparable from the effect she bears on her peers. After Caesar details the reign of Cleopatra as the “absolute queen” of Egypt, Lower Seria, Cyprus, and Lydia (3.6.11), he attributes her power to the love Antony has for her, stating that “he hath given his empire up to a whore.” It is as if, to Caesar, Cleopatra would not have her status without the sexuality she used to woo Antony. This connection explains the unease I felt as a 5th grader when Cleopatra’s beauty was a part of her biography, the part that made her “the most” powerful. Caesar’s description takes this one step further, suggesting that not her beauty but her body has won her power. Refusing to use her name and instead classifying the queen as “a whore,” he reduces her to the acts her body has been involved in, nothing more.
DANGER IN HER BEAUTY
Leaving the archive, eyes heavy with antiquated ink and decomposing pages, I couldn’t help but feel as though I had failed. In my search for descriptions of Cleopatra that did not emphasize her otherness, her unworldliness, or her beauty, I found nothing but the same metaphors and exaggerations in different fonts. A woman who is not only more powerful than all others but more beautiful (and less human) too.
The persistence of this concept through time has led to Cleopatra being used as an archetype of the empowered woman. In the past, this type of narrative might have been crucial as a representation of an extremely successful woman. But today the continuation of Cleopatra’s superlative position may be doing more harm than good. As feminist columns praise the intellect and bravery of Cleopatra, they do not manage to untangle her feats from her sexuality and beauty. “The man couldn’t stand in front of her beauty, elegance, the sweetness of voice and her brains,” Shethepeople concludes in their article “Cleopatra: Badass Queen of History.” The very last detail given in this list is ‘her brains,’ as if they are an afterthought. Language like this perpetuates a narrative that, to be as successful as the queen was, one needs to be physically attractive. Furthermore, the exaggerated descriptions of Cleopatra paint her to be almost unreal. If we only recognize absolute feminine power when the woman in question is an exception to average womanhood, then what story are we perpetuating?
In the “Tragedy of Imagination” section of her seethingly critical collection of essays, The Edge of Impossibility; Tragic Forms in Literature, Joyce Carol Oates discusses Shakespeare taking on the role of historian in his portrayal of Cleopatra. She describes Antony and Cleopatra as “a constant refinement of brute reality into lyric suggestion.” This sort of bibliographic categorization of Shakespeare's fictional work gets to the core of the issue: people read the Cleopatra Shakespeare writes as real, internalizing her “lyrical” personification. This makes the stakes of his work extremely high. Oates writes that Shakespeare “balances hyperbole with comic suggestion” through the characterization of Cleopatra, noting that Cleopatra’s excessive (and unrealistic) womanhood is what makes her memorable in his tragedy. I agree. It is Cleopatra’s femininity that has been entwined in portrayals of her in history books, theatrical representations, and literary criticism that pushes those describing her to resort to her visual characteristics when talking of her reign. But what are women supposed to make of this reality? That they cannot reach a similar position without also being traditionally, extraordinarily beautiful?
Language like this perpetuates a narrative that, to be as successful as the queen was, one needs to be physically attractive. Furthermore, the exaggerated descriptions of Cleopatra paint her to be almost unreal. If we only recognize absolute feminine power when the woman in question is an exception to average womanhood, then what story are we perpetuating?
ILLUMINATING CLEOPATRA TODAY
Spending so much time with the ancient enchantress in the archives, I grew angry. Angry at the archives for not providing me with more, for not giving Cleopatra the humanity she deserved. I was angry with myself for slipping so easily into the trap of diminishing a fellow woman’s power. I felt, in some way, anti-feminist, my perspectives shifting in a way I wasn't comfortable with. I was viewing Cleopatra with contempt for the beauty she was depicted as holding. The rhetoric was winning. As someone who identifies as a woman, I felt discouraged by her deity-like, beauty-motivated success.
But it wasn't her fault: it was the individuals who immortalized her in writing. At this point, I had researched myself into a corner. I now knew exactly what caused my discomfort every time Cleopatra was described as someone to aspire to, but I was operating with the assumption that my experience was universal. Everything I found would mean nothing if Cleopatra’s story did not have a hold on society the way I had imagined.
Weeks after my venture into the archive I sat at a café, withering away over a paper, listening to the familiar voice of The Lumineers buzz in my AirPods. “I was Cleopatra,” the words were background noise at first, “I was young and an actress when you knelt by my mattress and asked for my hand…” My eyes shot up from my Mac. “But I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress..”
"No. way." I practically said the words out loud. I hadn’t deliberately listened to the song in years, but here it was making itself known to me just when I needed it. I listened to the words closely, abandoning the assignment I was working on. The lyrics gave me all the information I needed to reignite my passion for her narrative. I typed the song into my search bar, needing to visualize the syllables of the song, and discovered that I was, in no way, the only one who still recognized the god-like pedestal that the queen has been put on.
In 2016, The Lumineers released the album Cleopatra. The album follows the story of a woman falling in love but leaving in search of a more fulfilling future. In direct reference to the historical figure of Cleopatra with the lyrics, “Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around,” the album acknowledges the narrative of Cleopatra I found in Special Collections. Suddenly engrossed in the song and all its lore, I found an interview on YouTube where Wes Schultz, the lead singer/songwriter, explains the title of the album, saying, “it sort of embodies this idea, this isn’t this person’s name, this is this idea that when we are younger we feel, I think a lot of us, like we’re destined for something bigger than our small town or destined for greatness or something. … She was this thing, taller than the rafters, this force, she was Cleopatra.” This conception of Cleopatra as bigger than this world existed since before Shakespeare, in the work of Shakespeare, and today. She was this “thing,” this “force”—she was Cleopatra. Cleopatra in this context is unhuman, almost used as an adjective, verifying the argument I have laid out. Perhaps, though, this new use of her name is one that leaves more room for realism. We cannot rewrite decades of literature on the great woman—the world will think of Cleopatra what it will—but if we must enact her and her out-of-this-world persona as an inspiration, maybe we should take a note from the Lumineers. Anyone can be the force of the Cleopatra in this album leaving a bleak hometown.
I am not arguing that it is wrong to feel “destined for greatness or something” like Cleopatra. We can be inspired by her achievements. Maybe there is a place for dreaming big and shooting above the stars, as Shultz says. But one should not only be inspired to do so if they are traditionally beautiful. Understanding Cleopatra for what she was—a woman who worked for her role in history, not an unrealistic enchantress—is our responsibility if we want to stop perpetuating the narrative of beauty=access to power. We must instead imagine women’s power as feasible and normal, not something we only get if men are attracted to us. There is importance in questioning any figure described as perfect. If we want to empower women, we must make it abundantly clear that our success is not alien and inhuman.
I felt a sense of fulfillment in discovering this truth. Scrutinizing the descriptions of such a crucial figure gave me a power that I did not expect. I was writing my own understanding of her rather than being force-fed others, and maybe that’s the answer. We cannot change the way that others chose to construct historical figures, and we cannot decide which accounts we are exposed to, but we can decide how we react to them. In remaining critical, we have the power to challenge dominant myths and historical narratives—and Cleopatra is just one of many. In digesting the past with inquiry, we have opportunities to contextualize history in a more real sense, one that allows us to relate more intimately, thus maybe even be more inspired by success stories. Our scrutiny is our strength as consumers of information and art. Now, go be Cleopatra—and get this: it’s up to you to decide what that means.
This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.