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Cleopatra: Woman of Power
ABC-TV presents a new version of the life of Cleopatra
An article by Jone Johnson Lewis, Women's History Guide
Related Resources
Cleopatra Biographies
The World of Cleopatra
Cleopatra's Image: Film, TV, Music
Top Picks: Cleopatra-related gifts

In 1999, ABC-TV presented their version of the life of Cleopatra. The Discovery Channel re-aired their documentary on Cleopatra's life.

The ABC version of Cleopatra's life is not the first literary portrayal of the woman whose death ended the Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt. From Plutarch to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Theda Bara to Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra's story has fascinated held the western world's interest for two millennia.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley said of a 1997 production of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra,"

If Cleopatra were really alive today, of course, she would probably be on mood-stabilizing prescription drugs. Fortunately for us, such things didn't exist in either ancient Egypt or Elizabethan England.

Why the fascination?

Why the fascination? Is it because her exercise of power was unusual, because she was a woman? Is it because she is seen as a freak, an exception, a contrast to the "natural" state of women? Is it just the fascination that a "mere woman" was a key player at a crucial and fascinating time in Roman history?

Is it because her life highlights the different status of women in Egypt, compared to Rome and later western culture? Is it because Cleopatra's education and intelligence stand out, fostering admiration or fear?

Is it because her story is about love and sex? Is it because the dysfunctional family relationships (to use current jargon) are fascinating, no matter when and where they happen? Is it just the two-millennium-long version of obsession with celebrity gossip? (Plutarch's account, with its anecdotes of sensational incidents, reminds me very much of a People Magazine story.)

Is it because Cleopatra represents the struggle of a small nation to stand up to the larger forces of history, as Egypt fought, through its last Pharaoh, to both keep peace with Roman power and stay as independent as possible?

In emphasizing the exceptional case of the Greek-Macedonian ruler of an Egyptian kingdom, over the lives of ordinary women, do we misrepresent what women's lives were really like in ancient and classical times?

The image of Cleopatra, ruling through a combination of her calculated liaisons with Roman rulers and her own heritage, has been largely shaped by men writing and painting for male audiences. What does the fascination with Cleopatra tell us about how men have thought about women through these two thousand years?

I have no easy answers -- I don't think there are any easy answers. I do think that what an age thinks about Cleopatra has a lot to say about what that age thinks about women in power.

Cleopatra on the web

Don't miss the many resources on the web that present the life of Cleopatra, the Roman and Egyptian world in which she lived, and examples of the literary, artistic and film portrayals of the last Ptolemy to rule Egypt.

These links will also help you compare the historical "facts" of this latest portrayal. How did she gain the throne of Egypt? Was it so clear that Cleopatra's first son was the son of Julius Caesar? How long was she in Rome? How did she really first meet Mark Antony?

What do you think?

What do you think about the latest Cleopatra portrayal, from the perspective of women's history? Post your comments on the Women's History forum (you may need to register to use the forum).

Author: Jone Johnson Lewis.
Title: "Woman of Power,Cleopatra"
This URL: http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa052499.htm

Cleopatra Resources:
Her life; her world; her image in art, television, film and music; Cleopatra-related gifts

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