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This project explores the interpretations of Cleopatra, the representation of her likeness throughout history, and what she has meant as an icon of feminine power. Please browse the images and articles below brought to you by the Department of Diversity, Equity and Community.
Representations of Cleopatra throughout history.
Marble Bust, Margaret Foley, 1876
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Paul William Garber and Philip C. Garber in honor of Sarah R. Garber modeled ca. 1871, carved 1876
Drawing, Albert Fourié, 1915
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Republic of France 1915
English Medallion, year unknown
Dr. Lloyd E. and Vivian S. Hawes
Print, Oda Mayumi, 1978
Gift of The Tolman Collection of Tokyo 1978
French Print, artist and year unknown
National Museum of American History
Print, François-Nicolas Chifflart, 1860
Bequest of Erskine Hewitt ca. 1860
Sculpture ("The Death of Cleopatra"), Edmonia Lewis, 1876
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois carved 1876
Film Poster, "Cleopatra", 1963
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
By Hannah Dworkin
What comes to mind when you imagine “Cleopatra”? A sultry Elizabeth Taylor using her feminine wiles to manipulate the leaders of Rome? A strategic genius who ruled over Egypt with an iron fist? Now imagine Marc Antoni in this context. Was he a man duped by the overwhelming power of a seductress, or did he see an alliance with a powerful monarch who would aid him in defeating his enemies? We may never find an exact historical record of their relationship, but our interpretation of Cleopatra throughout the ages is a fascinating view into our culture and gender biases.
As noted by numerous feminist historians, depictions of women in the arts have long reflected society's anxieties of the feminine. To ease this fear of female power, Western art forms, including opera, have placed female characters within one of four controllable archetypes: The Ingenue, The Temptress, The Mother, and The Crone. Cleopatra falls clearly as a temptress in our interpretations of her life. She uses her power to destroy Antony’s family structure, and, like Carmen (another famous seductress), Cleopatra meets the tragic end she “deserves”.
Stacy Schiff said it best in her 2010 article Rehabilitating Cleopatra:
“She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one. She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as of fantasy. Her power was immediately misrepresented because—for one man's historical purposes—she needed to have reduced another to abject slavery.” (Schiff)
The irony of this interpretation that Cleopatra was a temptress is that it assumes that it also negates Marc Antony’s agency to make his own strategic decisions. While Cleopatra is relegated to the two-dimensional role of villain, Mark Antony is assumed weak, unable to control his desire even when The Roman Empire is at stake.
Cleopatra is by no means the only woman in history and art to be pigeonholed into this two-dimensional archetype. Elizabeth Taylor herself was accused of seducing Eddie Fisher from then-wife Debbie Reynolds (who many would classify as an ingenue), and she was the recipient of international scorn while Fisher’s reputation was left untarnished. In fact, it was seen as very risky to cast her in the 1963 movie.
My own experience as a young singer is reflective of how our modern interpretations of the feminine in opera have not changed. My well-meaning teachers began training me for ingenue roles after considering my young age, slight frame, and overall appearance. My characters were innocent, naïve, and easily manipulated by the male characters. As often happens, life reflects art, and I was expected to embody that persona in and outside of rehearsals.
Despite this history, there are signs of change. Opera companies are discussing sexism and the patriarchy in the context of their season planning and directing female identifying characters in new and innovative ways. Composers like Sussanah Self are creating work that will focus on female characters whose lives are not dominated by their gender. Her goal, as well as many others, is to write characters that pass the Bechdel test developed by Alison Bechdel. This test evaluates works of art by measuring the percentage of time female identifying characters discuss their romantic relationships with men against how much they discuss other topics of substance.
It is worth noting that this discussion still operates withing the confines of gender as a binary rather than a spectrum. It is encouraging that there are discussions within the operatic community about redefining gender completely throughout the art form, but that is a discussion for another article.
As opera makers, performers, and audience members, the question remains, “What is our responsibility to changing the narrative and depictions of women in our artform?” The solution is not an easy one. It begins in several places. Opera companies, conservatories and young artist programs need to engage in a deep evaluation of who is represented in opera, how classic operas can be reinterpreted, and more female identifying artists need to be at the table for these discussions.
There is also an opportunity for audience members and donors. When you watch operas, you may want to consider how empowering the roles given to women are. If there is a disconnect between what you see as uplifting, make your voice heard through letters, emails, and in person meetings. You may also want to donate funds to your favorite opera company specifically allocated to the inclusion of more female voices and characters with more agency. These donations do not have to be large to send a message.
Most importantly, we all must look within and consider what biases we may be bringing into a work of art and into our daily lives. The work is arduous, but it is imperative to the next generation of artists and attendees.
Hannah Dworkin is the Education Development Manager in San Francisco Opera's Diversity, Equity and Community Department.