“The most wicked woman in history”

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In 1990 Lucy Hughes-Hallett published a book called Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions. A NYT review by Michiko Kakatani is available here. On August 19th of this year she published an article in the Guardian about Cleopatra called “The most wicked woman in history.” Below is an excerpt:

Cleopatra – the last queen of Egypt; one of the most formidable enemies Rome ever faced; the woman whose two husbands, both of whom were also her brothers, died in their teens (one in battle against her, the other possibly murdered on her orders); the lover who thereafter chose her own partners with an eye not only to pleasure, but also to the augmentation of her own power. She appears on the Glyndebourne stage this summer, portrayed by Danielle de Niese, in an unfamiliar character: that of a sweet helpless girl desperately in need of a male protector. Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare (libretto by Nicola Haym) introduces a surprising vision of Cleopatra. She is recognisably linked to the Cleopatra of Dryden’s All for Love, a fluttery creature who describes herself as a “silly, harmless household dove”. But she bears almost no resemblance to the more familiar Shakespearean “serpent of old Nile” currently to be seen at the Globe, where Frances Barber plays up her violence, forcing the unwelcome messenger’s hand down on to a brazier full of hot coals, and at Stratford, where Harriet Walter endows her with fierce intelligence and sorrowful majesty.

All legends have a tendency to mutate, to be reshaped in each successive era according to the prejudices and preoccupations of those who retell the tale. But Cleopatra’s is more than usually protean. It was first formulated in her own lifetime by her enemies’ propaganda. Its primary purpose was to discredit her lover Mark Antony.

Cleopatra and Antony had formed a partnership that was as much a political alliance between two mutually useful potentates as it was a love affair. But the story, as Roman poets and historians tell it, was that Antony had become so besotted with the queen of Egypt that he was willing to give up his chance of ruling Rome in order to enjoy the pleasures of her bed. So Antony, the canny politician and commander with empire-building ambitions to rival Alexander’s, was reinvented as a degenerate hedonist and a traitor to Rome. As a by-product of that successful exercise in news manipulation, Cleopatra was cast as the woman for whose love’s sake the world would be well lost.

Cleopatra – the gratification of every conceivable desire – has been repeatedly reimagined by writers, artists and film-makers in accordance with desires of their own. She was one of the most powerful women in the ancient world, and she was defined by the Romans and their heirs as the foreigner – at once the menacing stranger and the temptress, offering the chance of escape from the tedious limitations of one’s own known world. So sexual and racial politics have shaped the variations on her story, transforming her from serpent to dove and back again to suit her public’s yearnings and fears.

Via Rox Populi.

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