Egyptian Empress Cleopatra is not purely a historical figure, for her life has been much romanticized and made mythical in popular culture. Known for her seductive allure and great powers of will and conquest, she came to represent the empowered woman of historic times. In the two millennia since her demise, the aura around her has remained undiminished, as she continues to remain an iconic figure in popular cultural discourse. It is then apt to summarize her effect on culture thus: “Cleopatra keeps on changing, and will continue to do so until her name is forgotten, but the forces that shaped her life and which have shaped her legend–the forces of fear and fantasy and covert desire–are still at their lethal work in the world.” (Hughes-Hallett, 2006, p.70) The rest of this essay will provide evidence in support of this thesis.
What make Cleopatra’s influence on culture so strong are the remarkable facts of her life. Ascending the throne at a tender age of 17, she was forced to go into exile 3 years later. Languishing in exile in Arabia, she mustered all her resources in raising an army. The romantic side of her life has added to the allure of her legend. This includes “her enchantment of Caesar (smuggling herself into the royal palace, according to Plutarch, in a rolled-up sack) and her legendary appearance, dressed as Aphrodite in a gilded boat, before Mark Antony. Even Shakespeare’s febrile description of the spectacle — “So perfumed that/The winds were love-sick” — is based on contemporary accounts.” (Denny, 2001, p.40)
But her relevance to the contemporary world is not something immutable, as demonstrated by recent developments surrounding her legacy. As historians utilize forensic and other advanced research techniques to revise historical accounts, many unknown facts pertaining to iconic figures like Cleopatra have emerged. One such is the logical deduction by American scholar Martin Bernal (the most prominent of a long line of Afro-centrist classical historians). Bernal claims that most previous historians underestimated the culture of Egypt as they were unwilling to acknowledge that Greek, and by extension all European, civilization had its beginnings in Africa. But, thanks to Bernal, this Afro-centrist view became more acceptable – indeed more fashionable to articulate. The clearest manifestation of this change in public perception and acceptance of historical facts is witnessed in the British theatre scene.
“In the summer of 1991 two productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra were running in London. In each of them Cleopatra was played by a black actress: one of whom, Donna Croll of the Talawa Theatre Company, told a reporter ‘the fable of the white Cleopatra is just another way of bleaching out history’… Just as Cleopatra had previously been co-opted into playing a part in discussions about the ethics of suicide, the status of a wife and the comparative merits of aristocratic or autocratic government, so in the last years of the twentieth century she found herself at the centre of a debate about race relations.” (Hughes-Hallett, 2006, p.70)