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Cleopatra's Life as Portrayed in Literature

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              Cleopatra became Queen of Egypt in 51 B.C. at the age of eighteen after the previous king, Auletes, died.  Throughout history, several writers have turned her life into art and depicted her in idealistic ways.  Although in William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, written around 1606, and Sara Fielding's Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, written in 1757, reveal that she utilizes her womanhood to the fullest extent in order to manipulate several elite men, Cleopatra has been portrayed as childish, naïve, and ignorant in Bernard Shaw’s play, Caesar and Cleopatra, which was written in 1928.   Though there are several sides to this complicated woman, these authors tend to focus on the two most prominent: the naïve Cleopatra and the sensuous Cleopatra.

The Exotic and Sensuous Woman

Shakespeare reveals Cleopatra as beautiful and exotic, and with the knowledge of how to use her beauty to command those in power.  Loyal friend to Antony, Enobarbus states that “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.  For the vilest things / Become themselves in her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish” (Shakespeare II.i.225-245).  This passage illustrates how beautiful Cleopatra is and how she is ageless and continues to provoke desire.  Cleopatra is obviously too beautiful to be categorized with other women because she would receive the blessing of a priest though she otherwise should not.  Cleopatra recognizes this power and uses it fully to her advantage in seducing Antony though he will never realize it (Gadeken 4).  Her theatrics and exaggeration provoke Antony several times to affirm how much he loves her and to vow to return to her each time he leaves for Rome.

Shakespeare’s representation of Cleopatra is that of an exotic, sensuous, conniving woman, which other characters tend to find threatening, which is shown when she is diminished by being called degrading names.  Cleopatra realizes this and uses great exaggeration in everything she does in order for the men around her to do as she wishes, though they do not always realize how she is manipulating them.  Queen Cleopatra proves to be strong in that she will not allow Julius Caesar to reduce her to the simple image of a whore when he conquers Egypt; she would rather take her own life than be degraded as a public spectacle (Shakespeare V.ii).

            In the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra, the queen is referred to as a “gipsy” by a Roman soldier, meaning that she is not someone to be respected and of noble standing; she is someone that they should look down on (Shakespeare I.i.10).  Throughout the play Cleopatra will be perceived as a threat to Rome, and Antony neglects his civic duties in order to live a life of pleasure with her.  The beginning of the play also reveals Cleopatra’s dramatic antics.  After hearing of Antony’s plans to depart to Rome, she talks of killing herself and then in a single moment faints and becomes well again (Shakespeare I.iii.64-76).  Cleopatra wants to be seen by the public as a passionate woman and therefore acts dramatically.

            In Sarah Fielding’s Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, written in 1757, Cleopatra is manipulative in that she plays on the common belief of the time, that women are weaker and frailer than men, in order to further take control of Antony:

The first moment it was Apparent that I saw him, I arose with an Air of such Alertness, to meet and welcome my Guest, that my Foot slipped, as it were by Accident, and I fell on my Knees.  Anthony flew to raise me; and as soon as it might be thought I could recover the Fright, which I affected to be in at my Fall, I thanked him, and said, I hoped this Accident, at our first Interview, was a good Omen, that by his Strength he would support a Woman’s Weakness, and defend a Queen who resigned herself to his Power (Gadeken 4).

This quotation further reveals Cleopatra as manipulative because she not only faints at the sight of her beloved, but also proclaims him as the stronger half of the relationship.  Cleopatra is obviously very self-aware in that she recognizes the power that she has over Antony as long as she declares how great he is in order to boost his ego.

            Not only are romanticism and sensuality revealed in Cleopatra’s actions, but also in Antony’s.  The fact that he keeps returning to Alexandia in order to partake in the pleasurable life that the Eastern world has to offer, and ends up commanding a battle against his native country, proves that Cleopatra is an alluring temptress that he cannot seem to abandon.  Though he often becomes angry with her, he is always quick to forgive and proclaim his love for her.  Antony becomes enraged with Cleopatra for commanding her ship to flee because the rest of his ships followed her and they ultimately lose the battle against Caesar (Shakespeare III.x).  Soon after, he brushes his defeat aside when he says that “All that is won and lost.  Give me a kiss; / Even this repays me” (Shakespeare III.xi.70-71).

The Naive Child

           In Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, Cleopatra is an uneducated teenage girl, and it is in her character's nature to act and speak childlike.  In the first act of the play where she first meets Caesar, though she does not know it is him, he asks her why she is not home in bed and her reply is “because the Romans are coming to eat us” (Shaw 23) which we, as her audience, deem ridiculous, but to her seems entirely appropriate.  Romans clearly do not eat Egyptians, but Cleopatra is nevertheless terrified of the possibility of being found by one. 

              Also in the first act when asked by a fellow soldier if they are to await Cleopatra’s command in battling with Rome, Belzanor, a soldier at the border of Egypt, replies, “Command!  A girl of sixteen!  Not we.  At Memphis ye deem her a Queen: here we know better” (Shaw 15).  This statement shows that those of lower status than Cleopatra in her society know her as a girl with the title of Queen, but does not command nor receive the respect she should have had considering she was the ruler of the civilization.   In Ancient Egypt the ruler of the country was supposed to be treated as if he or she were a god, but Cleopatra is nowhere near being considered a divine being in this play.  She is seen as a mere child with a crown.

            Prior to meeting Caesar, Cleopatra believes Romans are evil and does not command her civilization as a queen, but allows others to govern it for her, knowing no other way.  Once she meets with Caesar, he begins to teach her that she is the queen and must stop acting like a child in order to rule what is hers (Shaw 20-31).  In Shaw’s version of the story, Cleopatra seems to know nothing about governing a civilization, or, for that matter, of being an independent person..  She treats her nurse, Ftatateeta, as a mother.  Cleopatra obeys her as a child obeys a mother; she does not understand that she can give orders to her servants; and to prove herself as queen, she tries to beat a servant for the sole reason that she can (Shaw 27-30).  This does not present her as a powerful queen, but seems to further present her as a childish girl.

            Cleopatra is also jealous in the ways that children tend to be, which further shows her child-like tendencies.  In Act II of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy, is introduced as another heir to the throne and her future husband.  Caesar laughs at a remark made by the boy, so Cleopatra becomes jealous and plays word games with Caesar in order to derive from Caesar exactly what she wants to hear from him, that is, Caesar asking her not to leave his presence (Shaw 45-46).  Cleopatra will do whatever she must, including playing mind games, to get her way and feel appreciated.  This is typical behavior of a child who has a need to prove herself desirable and valuable, and knows exactly how to do so.

            Another way in which Cleopatra is immature is that she has no concept of tactfulness.  Caesar is self conscious about his baldness and so covers it with a wreath, and when Cleopatra offers to dress him for a speech he is going to make, she removes the wreath to place his helmet on his head (Shaw 54-55).  When she sees that he is bald, she laughs and shouts for all to hear that he has no hair (Shaw 55).  Had Cleopatra been mature, common sense would not have let her make such inappropriate remarks, and she would have just gone on dressing Caesar as she set out to do.  Also, logically she probably would have already noticed that he was bald since it was only a wreath covering his head had she been observant enough, and therefore, would not have been so outspoken.

            The most important event in Caesar and Cleopatra that shows naivety in Cleopatra is when she sends herself to the battlegrounds wrapped in a carpet so she can be with Caesar (Shaw 74-76).  She could easily be killed if Caesar fails to be victor of the battle, but she obviously does not think of this; otherwise she would stay behind and let Caesar return to her.  She does not even realize there is a possibility of danger until Caesar points it out to her, and then she begs him not to leave her although she knows he must command his army (Shaw 76-77).


            Whether Cleopatra is portrayed as a childish, naïve girl or a sensuous temptress, she is always dramatic and proves to be commanding in her actions.  She has a strong mind in that she understands what she must do or say to achieve what she wants.  In Shaw’s play, Caesar teaches her how to be the Queen of Egypt.  Shakespeare shows her ruling with the force of a queen, who expects others to do as they are told.  In the plays by Shakespeare and Fielding, she loves Antony, and knows exactly how to manipulate him so that he will always return to her.  Though her actions earn her the bitterness of those that are threatened by her, Cleopatra is strong of mind and heart with a great passion that is a threat to many, but gives her the boldness to rule her country.

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