The Seventeenth Annual
Bernice L. Fox Classics Lecture

Her Infinite Variety:
Cleopatra in Twentieth Century
American Popular Culture


Dr. Gregory Daugherty
Randolph-Macon College

About the Lecture

Whatever might have been the realities of her life, loves and ambitions, the image of Cleopatra has always been a source of fascination and/or repulsion. Between the Roman Eastern Whore of the Augustans (sequiturque (nefas!) Aegyptia coniunx) and the British Tragic Queen ("Age cannot wither her, nor custom dim her infinite variety." ) there must lie a real woman. But sometimes the image can be more instructive than the reality. Classicists and historians are of course concerned with the accurate reconstruction and interpretation of the past. Therefore we tend to focus on mistakes of fact and Foucalt/Lacan approach of Mary Hamer’s Signs of Cleopatra and the encyclopedic bewilderment and over dependence on secondary sources of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions. Rightly so, but they illustrate an aspect of the classics which we tend to ignore. Namely, how has the ancient world been interpreted by and for popular culture? The popular image of the ancient world has an enormous impact on contemporary perceptions of the value and values of our discipline. Since Mussolini, films have routinely depicted the Romans as Paleo-fascists and right wing oppressors. Rarely are the Romans presented in a positive light in American films, especially if there is a religious story line. As Peter O’Toole growls in Masada "Give us our due, man! We know how to kill!" And of course the Roman always has a British accent.

This talk intends to examine the image (or Sign) of Cleopatra VII as it is manifested in selected works of American ‘literature’, film and pop culture artifacts of the Twentieth Century. I want to show that these images of Cleopatra reflect not only reactions to developments in classical scholarship and to the excesses of the medieval and renaissance portraits, but are also reflections of changing attitudes toward women, sexuality and the exercise of power. Although a wildly popular subject in the Renaissance (especially in England), it is not surprising that the 19th century had had little use for Cleopatra, but with the waning of Victorian scruples romantics found audiences in Europe. The American contributions follow in this tradition of a vain, sensual and sexually manipulative Cleopatra. She is political and ambitious but prone to female frailties and vices. An extreme example of this would have been the man-eating killer queen of the lamentably lost silent "Cleopatra"

of Theda Bara. Well in the middle of the road of this tradition we find Cecil B. deMille’s 1934 epic "Cleopatra" featuring Claudette Colbert as a flapper with a huge inheritance. Cleopatra in pre war America was primarily a Sign for sexual license and enjoyment, and part of a general Egyptomania. This trend is also reflected in the popular music, pin-ups and advertizing of the period, especially the gorgeous Palmolive artwork in period magazines.

While the hallmark of the prewar Cleopatra was exemplified by a total disdain for historical accuracy, this changed drastically in the Forties. Pascal’s wartime film version of "Caesar and Cleopatra" with its scrupulous attention to visual accuracy overlaying a Shavian fantasy must have had an impact. Thornton Wilder in The Ides of March depicts a Cleopatra who is clever, efficient and plain, a sexual creature but one with a mind actively engaged in the public arena. These attempts at historicity and more significantly the recognition of the political side of Cleopatra finds its reflection in the most familiar of all the Cleopatra’s namely the Joseph L. Mankiewicz epic film of 1963 with Elizabeth Taylor in the tile role. The movie was terrible, outrageously expensive and a colossal flop at the box office, but it opened a floodgate of Cleopatriana: comic books, dolls, parodies, cheesecake, animation and of course, pornography. The excesses and tedium of this outpouring seems to have led to a lull in the seventies.

The last twenty years have seen a renewal of interest in the Tragic Queen. The eastern sex pot of Augustan propaganda has endured, but there have been several novels and films that have attempted to be more accurate and faithful to the sources while at the same time using her as a feminist icon or chauvinist punch line. Perhaps the most interesting trend has been her emergence as a symbol of black pride and afrocentrism. The number and diversity of the pop culture artifacts continues to amaze me. There is still no consistency in her portrayal or interpretation, but our own times still find that her story and image resonates and fascinates.

About the Lecturer / Photo of the Lecturer / About the Fox Lecture Series

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