Cleopatra's Birthday

There’s nothing like a gif of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra to cheer a person up. Covered in gold and jewels, loaded up to the eyebrow in glitter, and working that iconic eyeliner, Taylor’s Cleopatra epitomises the glamour of excess. With her legendary beauty, her love of expensive jewellery, and her passionate love life, Taylor herself draws parallels with the Egyptian Queen. The historical Cleopatra is also famous for excess and luxury. In a competition to see who could serve the most expensive feast, Cleopatra famously swallowed a priceless pearl to win the bet. She used to bathe in asses' milk and liked to paint her nipples with gold leaf. I doubt even Kim Kardashian could beat that for an expensive beauty treatment. Her sexual allure caused men to throw away empires to be with her, and her politics were as murderously ruthless as her beauty was famous. The Egyptian Queen is the original femme fatale. Alongside all the routine sibling murdering she did to gain power, Cleopatra is suspected of betraying the lovers over whom she seemed to have so much power. She is demonised in Roman poetry for luring Antony to his downfall, and characterised, in an implicitly racist manner, as an erotic, dangerous, foreigner. Cleopatra was famous long before Shakespeare got his hands on her, yet the “infinite variety” of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra has come to epitomize the myth. She is constantly changing and all things at once. Love her or hate her, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is larger than life, mythical and contradictory: “she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies”.
Not quite Taylor-esque!
The infinitely various and colossal legend of Cleopatra makes it hard to think of her as a person. Then, this morning, The British Museum tweeted that, on this day, in 30 AD, the last Ptolemy Pharaoh, Cleopatra, died. The tweet was accompanied by “a rare portrait from her lifetime”. This portrait takes the form of a coin and probably looks as much like Cleopatra as the only pound coin in my purse looks like Queen Elizabeth II, yet it is still an exciting glimpse into history. Cleopatra was not a myth, she was a woman. This thought reminded me of one of my favourite moments in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, in which, despite the magnificent meta-theatricality of his creation, Shakespeare reminds his audience that Cleopatra was just a flesh and blood human.

In the midst of high drama, epic love, betrayal, the loss of an empire, and various other things that tend not to happen in your usual working week, Cleopatra says something pretty mundane: “It is my birth-day”. This moment occurs in Act III scene 13 when the famous lovers have just been defeated by Caesar in a sea battle. The humiliation of defeat is compounded because they were winning, until Antony disastrously follows Cleopatra in fleeing the battle field. Caesar has offered Cleopatra clemency if she betrays her lover and, meanwhile, the distraught Antony is unravelling; he has a messenger whipped and is throwing vicious accusations of guilt around left, right, and centre. Their playful tiffs and wrangles from earlier in the play are transformed into violent, desperate, high-stakes disputes. Yet again, Antony is convinced that Cleopatra has betrayed him, and violently berates her. “Not know me yet?” she asks. Cleopatra has appealed to their shared history, and has asked Antony to trust her. Heart-breakingly, she learns that he does not as Antony rages on, unconvinced by this simple appeal.  It is not sincerity, but theatre, that eventually persuades him. With apocalyptic rhetoric and hyperbole, Cleopatra manages to convince him of her loyalty:
Ah, dear, if I be so, 
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail, 
And poison it in the source; and the first stone 
Drop in my neck: as it determines, so 
Dissolve my life! The next Caesarion smite!
Till by degrees the memory of my womb, 
Together with my brave Egyptians all, 
By the discandying of this pelleted storm, 
Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile 
Have buried them for prey!
Cleopatra has to, rhetorically, offer her own life, that of her children, and her people, before Antony will believe her. She has to imagine her children’s bodies “graveless” and being consumed by “the flies and gnats of Nile” before he will trust her. Ironically, in fact, by refusing Caesar and siding with Antony against her own interests, Cleopatra has ensured that “the memory of her womb” will indeed be wiped out at Caesar’s command. Finally, Antony composes himself and his violent rage is placated. With a glib “I am satisfied” he rallies. He claims he will defy fate, face Caesar again, and win. Antony suggests a last night of feasting for old time’s sake: “Let's have one other gaudy night” he commands and calls for wine and for his captains. The story of Antony and Cleopatra is well known, as is its end, so the audience recognises this as a poignant moment, a vain-glorious final-hurrah. It is at this point that Cleopatra replies,
It is my birth-day:
I had thought to have held it poor: but, since my lord
Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.
It seems strange to think of this theatrical, larger-than-life figure, who is legendary both in and out of Shakespeare’s play, saying something so ordinary. The normality of this little speech undercuts the high octane bombast of the rest of the scene, and reminds the audience that, as well as players on the world stage, Antony and Cleopatra were people. Cleopatra is an historical figure with more cultural baggage than Elizabeth Taylor took actual baggage on a skiing holiday, yet Shakespeare’s writing can cut through all this and represent her humanity just as well as it refashions her myth. This mundane touch, “my birth-day”, makes Cleopatra seem human, and therefore so much more vulnerable than all her grandiloquent protestations of woe put together.

I may need to look at an Elizabeth Taylor gif to cheer up!

Gif from


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