By Kip Cranna
Shakespeare never knew Cleopatra, but his famous capsule description of her has resonated throughout the centuries: “Age cannot wither her, not custom stale her infinite variety.”
Who was she, and why has she fascinated us for more than two millennia? The question has to be considered in the light of the old maxim, supposedly first stated by Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors.”
The last of the Egyptian Pharaohs, Cleopatra represents one of history’s most intriguing and multi-faceted figures, but almost all we know about her comes from ancient writers whose viewpoint represented the vanquishing Roman Empire, which added Egypt to its domains after Cleopatra’s death. Imagine if our only available information about Joan of Arc came from her executioners. The admonition “consider the source” would loom large, as it must with Cleopatra. If truly objective accounts of her life had survived, the likelihood is that she would have come down to us as an even more capable, accomplished, brilliant, and alluring figure than she now seems.
Shakespeare’s main source for his play Antony and Cleopatra, the basis of John Adams’ new opera, was the Roman historian Plutarch, who wrote in the second century AD, long after the famous lovers Antony and Cleopatra died in 30 BC. Though impossible to judge the accuracy of historical accounts like Plutarch’s, here, in a nutshell, is what these sources tell us of the “back story,” i.e., Cleopatra’s life leading up to the events portrayed in Shakespeare’s dramatization.
She was Cleopatra VII, born in 69 BC of Macedonian Greek heritage, descended from Alexander the Great’s trusted general Ptolemy I, who founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt. She spoke nine languages, according to Plutarch, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Persian and Arabic, and she was the only Ptolemaic Pharoah who ever bothered to learn the language of her people, Egyptian. She ruled jointly with her brother--and husband--Ptolemy XIII. The Ptolemies tended to marry siblings to keep royal power within the family.
Civil strife broke out between these two, and the Roman general and soon-to-be dictator Julius Caesar attempted to reconcile the warring siblings. (Cleopatra supposedly smuggled herself in to meet him wrapped in a roll of bedding.) Ptolemy XIII was killed in battle, and Caesar placed Cleopatra on the throne with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. She and Caesar evidently hit it off well, although he was 30 years her senior, and she soon bore his son, Caesarion. She went to Rome with Caesar as his consort in 43 BC but managed to return safely to Egypt after his assassination.
She then consolidated her power, first having her brother Ptolemy XIV assassinated, then her sister Arsinoe. She named her young son Caesarion co-ruler as Ptolemy XV. With Caesar dead, Roman power was ultimately split between the Mark Antony and his younger rival Octavius (later known as Caesar Augustus), Julius Caesar’s adoptive son and heir. Antony was given charge of Rome’s Eastern Mediterranean possessions.
To solidify her relationship with Rome, Cleopatra went to meet Antony, famously sailing to Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey) in a spectacularly elaborate ship, dressed in the robes of the Egyptian Goddess Isis, and she entertained him royally. (Plutarch’s description of this event comes brilliantly alive in the speech Shakespeare gives to Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus, which in turn becomes a major aria in Adams’ opera.)
Antony thus became the second powerful Roman seduced by Cleopatra’s charms. He left behind his wife Fulvia and neglected his duties as a Roman leader to spend months reveling in Cleopatra’s company in Alexandria, which did nothing to improve his already fraught relationship with Octavius. This is the point in the story where both Shakespeare’s play and John Adams’ opera begin. Events from this point onward, including the ambitious Octavius’s ultimate military victory over Antony and Cleopatra, and their suicides, are detailed in the synopsis of the opera.
As for Cleopatra’s death at age 39 by supposedly allowing herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp (a type of cobra): Many modern historians doubt this legend, pointing out that Cleopatra had carefully studied the art of poisoning. Her death probably came not via the slow, agonizing effects of snake venom, but rather from a swift-acting and relatively painless potion. But the asp tale is very theatrical. Shakespeare used it, and so does John Adams.
The composer has described how he became drawn to his heroine: “Of all Shakespeare’s female roles, Cleopatra is the deepest and most psychologically textured. Her extraordinary human qualities are on display in the course of the play—her narcissism, her exceptional intelligence, her sexual allure, her ethical ambivalence, her military savvy, her bravery, her indomitable will and ultimately her genuine capacity to love.”
Cleopatra’s “endless variety” ensures that we will likely never tire of revisiting her story, whose truly accurate version we will probably never know. John Adams’ new opera will surely help us satisfy our ongoing fascination.
Clifford “Kip” Cranna is Dramaturg Emeritus of San Francisco Opera