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History is a set of lies agreed upon
– Napoleon Bonaparte
The ultimate seductress, The Egyptian mate, The deadly monster, The whore of antiquity – these were the unforgiving axioms commonly associated with Cleopatra VII, last of the Ptolemaic monarchs. From the moment she had passed, the queen was vilified by ancient writers as a means of propaganda and entertainment, attacked and victimized so that moralists, historians and entertainers alike were enabled the opportunity to achieve their personal and cultural purposes for their respective contextual audience. However, after thousands of years of vilification, Cleopatra VII had her personality reconstructed, becoming a symbol for second wave feminism, and representing all that her ancient writers despised, yet unintentionally made her out to be. But this revival of her character begs many questions regarding the myths surrounding her personality including their influences, and how they had been changed and molded in accordance to the purposes and views of the respective period?
From the period of her untimely death, and to that of contemporary times, there have been copious representations of Cleopatra VII. Despite contrasting influences and greatly varying content, almost all accounts subconsciously agree with one another, unintentionally concluding that the queen was an intelligent, ambitious and powerfully driven woman. Although her relationship with Mark Antony was hugely popular at the time, and to an extent, still is, moralists, historians and entertainers alike constantly questioned her ‘validity’ within it. With this in mind, in his biographical series, Parallel lives, Plutarch identifies the demise of Antony: his relationship with Cleopatra. Throughout the biography, the ancient moralist spares no expense in explaining Antony’s subsequent lacking ‘vir’: “coming to her hands tame and broken … entirely obedient to the commands of a mistress” and “dressing … in servants disguise”. However, these claims regarding Cleopatra, and her “corrupt” approaches must be carefully analyzed in accordance with Plutarch’s context and purpose; an ancient Greco Roman society where women were viewed inferior to men, and to teach a lesson on the moral failings of great man, or as he himself puts it, to look at “the virtues of these great men [which] serve me as a mirror in which I may see how to adjust and make more handsome my own life”. Despite these contextual influences, a defined objective purpose, and an aim to “delight and edify the reader” through Cleopatra, a carefully constructed character whom Jennifer Sheridan Moss believes is in the ‘biography’ simply to “serve a narrative purpose” , the queen is still presented as a powerful, ambitious, and intelligent woman through her immense control over Antony, encouraging him to push “the war … in order to pass the winter with her”. Unintentionally, this interpretation became the foundation of all debates for future historians, begging questions surrounding the extent of Cleopatra’s influence, and how ‘devious’ this resulting power, and how she obtained it, necessarily was.
Subsequently, the queen was symbolized as Antony’s downfall, victimized for her “seductive” personality as a means of entertainment, and to a certain extent, propaganda. With this in mind, English play writer, William Shakespeare, similar to the majority of other historians and entertainers, relied on Plutarch’s Life of Antony to construct his own interpretation of the queen, further ‘falsifying’ her character throughout his prestigious play: The tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra . In addition to the Christianity having a strong presence in England, and a common exposure to the ancient writer’s people of his age and family wealth would’ve received whilst undergoing education during the renaissance period, renowned Shakespeare scholar, Dolora G. Cunningham believes this influence from Plutarch was interpreted within the Christian framework. This is made evident by the “’anachronisms’ [which she believes] have been frequently remarked throughout the play” , meaning Shakespeare was thus highly influenced by Christianity whilst constructing the play and its characters. In extension, Shakespeare’s construction of Cleopatra was highly influenced by his English renaissance context, resulting in her exaggerated flaws. Former president of the Shakespeare Association of America, professor Coppelia Kahn mentions in her book Man’s Estate that “In relation to Renaissance England, Rome was as much of a cultural parent as a cultural other”, evident throughout Shakespeare’s plays, and especially that of Antony and Cleopatra, constantly referring to roman ideals: the construct of masculinity. This construct, and how Cleopatra puts it in ruins, is frequently made apparent throughout the play, from Phillo’s opening speech in which he states “The triple pillar of the world, transformed into a strumpet’s fool”, to Antony using the power of Cleopatra’s sexuality, calling for Scarus to kiss her “favoring hand” as a means to increase his sense of power with his fellow men. Coupling this Roman value of manhood on Cleopatra’s character is Elizabeth 1’s contextual presence, unintentionally encouraging Shakespeare to portray Cleopatra as everything she wasn’t: “an exotic and sexual creature”.
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