Cleopatra is a historical figure that has a frequent appearance in modern media. She is often associated with the tropes of power, beauty, and keen perception. This is one of the characteristics that are demonstrated in the 1972 film called Antony and Cleopatra. However, these descriptions may not be fully aligned with reality since the film is based on Shakespeare’s eponymous play. This leads to the question of to what extent does the original text describing Cleopatra aligns with modern perception and does the contemporary media portrayals carry a historical value of the original persona. This paper argues that there are few historically accurate details in the 1972 film when compared to historical records.
The movie from 1972 starts with the demonstration of Cleopatra’s role as a mistress of Antony when in fact their social standing was equal. She is seen as being obsessed with him, and this feeling is mutually shared in passionate love. The film also points to the care the great empress puts into the well-being of Antony. However, common to many film tropes, Cleopatra displays cliché characteristics of jealousy when she discovers her lover’s marriage to Octavia. She is overwhelmed with this feeling to the point of rage and fury, which causes her to hurt people. She has no hesitation in applying force if necessary and displays her cruel side. The incident of Antony’s marriage leads to the stalking behavior as the Queen of Egypt aims to discover the qualities of Octavia, which may put her superior in the eyes of her beloved. In the movie, the love between Marc Antony and Cleopatra is genuine and mutually shared. This could be seen in Antony’s battle on sea and his collision with Caesar. The tender yet passionate love between the two is popularized in the film. However, the film points out that above all else, the ruthless empress places her kingdom. She is shown as a person capable of benevolence towards her subject and kingdom, ruling with wisdom and care.
Even though the storyline of the film suggests clear features of both Marc Antony and Cleopatra, in reality, the text containing descriptions of these characters is highly elusive and contains little evidence to suggest the truth of the fiction. Moreover, since the film is based on the fictional interpretation created by the famous writer William Shakespeare, it is no doubt that highly dramatized aspects of the story remain fictional.
In historical records, some authors point to the high wits and wisdom of the Egyptian Queen, suggesting that she was well-educated and ambitious. This wisdom is suggested via her linguistic ability, such as her comprehension of nine languages and the authorship of several books (Sharma 387). Nevertheless, since the writers of biographic records tend to be affected by bias and emotional interpretation of certain events, it is impossible to ascertain in what ways Cleopatra was intelligent. Nevertheless, the book written by Burstein states that the empress was a “clear-headed, resourceful, and, above all ambitious young queen fully able to match wits with her rival” (11). Moreover, the author describes Cleopatra’s appearance, which regards her as average in her looks but having an extreme charm (Was Cleopatra Beautiful). The aspect of that charm is not detailed. However, it is said that this charm led her to gain success, while the historical record distinguishes her desirability and promiscuity as primary causes for her success.
Burstein points to the resourcefulness of the queen as she learned the ways to control and manipulate the masses via religion, sensuality, and music. The author indicates these characteristics as primary methods to push her political agenda (Burstein 12). The example that which author provides is the trade of Serapion for execution in return for the assassination of her sister and potential brother that served in the battle with Antony.
The relationship with Antony, which was dramatized as genuine in the film, seems to be inaccurate. There are indications that the empress desired to gain a political ally from this relationship and found herself another lover after receiving the necessary means from Antony. This point to her ambitious characteristic of manipulating men as her pawns. Historical records suggest that Cleopatra was not officially holding the reign over Egypt but rather via her influence on the king (Cleopatra). She was able to secure her position by appointing her son to the throne and becoming co-regent.
Some sources indicate that Cleopatra possessed both masculine and feminine qualities. She advanced her agenda via the display of certain traits depending on the situation. At the time, it was inconceivable that women had the necessary ability to partake in male-driven politics. She was breaking the boundaries of femininity but had to keep the appearance of a feminine leader.
Other traits of the popularized image of the dictator Cleopatra do not seem to be often displayed. It is difficult to understand how her mind functioned or accurately judge her level of intelligence as no clear indications are available (Goldsworthy). After spending years researching a topic, Goldsworthy argues that it is inherent to a biography that the author develops a strong and most emotional view about them. Nearly all contemporary authors who have written on the subject desire to adore and frequently even like Cleopatra. Some of this is a healthy response to Augustan sources’ ferocious hatred (Goldsworthy). Much has to do with her sexuality since, as we said at the outset, it is unusual to be able to analyze any woman from the Greco-Roman society in depth (Goldsworthy). However, these revelations instill doubt like Cleopatra’s characteristics.
Although Cleopatra was born in Egypt, she was not of Egyptian ethnicity. She descended from Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander the Great’s commander, and Macedonian Greece (Andrews). After Alexander’s demise in 323 B.C., Ptolemy took control of Egypt and began a nearly three-century-long dynasty of Greek-speaking kings (Andrews). Despite not being of Egyptian descent, Cleopatra adopted many of the country’s traditional practices and was the first Ptolemaic ancestor to master the language (Andrews). However, these aspects are not commonly mentioned or well-known by the public.
In conclusion, there is little evidence to distinguish various aspects of Cleopatra. Most of the media portrayals of the ruthless ruler incorporate her jealousy as the driving factor for her actions. However, the ruthlessness in the form of cruelty towards her siblings is often omitted. Similarly, her origin or ethnicity is a descendant of Macedonian ancestry. The film of 1972 is highly dramatized and fictional for the convenience and appeal of the audience. Nevertheless, the fact that it was based on the play may act as a deterrence from the desire to incorporate historically accurate facts. However, there is little to no historical value to the original portrayal of the famous figure.
Andrews, Evan. “10 Little-Known Facts about Cleopatra.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2015.
Burstein, Stanley Mayer. The Reign of Cleopatra. University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
“Cleopatra.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009.
Goldsworthy, Adrian. “The True Story of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.” NPR, NPR, 2010.
Sharma, Sneh Lata. “Revisiting Cleopatra through Feminist Lens.” Language in India 19.6 (2019).
“Was Cleopatra Beautiful?” The Beauty of Cleopatra.