Writers & Company

Cleopatra beyond the myth: Francine Prose revisits the life of Egypt's legendary queen

The American novelist, essayist and biographer spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about revisiting the life and legacy of one of the most famous female rulers in history.
An older white woman with slightly greying dark hair, purple-framed glasses, a blue and white blouse and black jeans sits on a wooden bench in a garden.
Francine Prose is an American novelist, essayist and biographer. (Frances Denny)
A blue book cover with the word Cleopatra in gold letters.

This story contains discussion of suicide.

Since ancient times, Cleopatra has been viewed as a glamorous Egyptian queen who used her seductive charms to entrance the great Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

On stage and screen, she's been portrayed by high-wattage stars: Theda Bara, Colette Colbert, Vivien Leigh and, most famously, Elizabeth Taylor. From the golden barge to the death-delivering viper hidden in a basket of figs — tales of Cleopatra live on in the popular imagination.

In her new book, Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth, novelist, essayist and biographer Francine Prose challenges the distorted image. Going back to classical sources, she examines the many ways in which the highly intelligent and resourceful queen has been misrepresented as a sexy manipulator. 

Prose spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from upstate New York.

A powerful woman

"Cleopatra was, for starters, a powerful woman. And she was a powerful woman who went up against the Roman Empire and who kept her country together for 20 years — holding out against the Roman Empire.

"So as we still know now, nothing attracts as much ire and antipathy as a powerful woman.

Nothing attracts as much ire and antipathy as a powerful woman.

"There was so much justification of the Greco-Roman Empire and the world of Greece and Rome as opposed to Egypt. All the Orientalist paintings portray Cleopatra as this kind of witchy, seductive eastern queen.

"Unfortunately, the perception of Cleopatra through subsequent eras remained the same. It was tweaked from century to century, but essentially they all saw a woman who was not European and who was more powerful than I think all the male commentators thought that any woman should be."

The head of a statue depicting Cleopatra is displayed as part of an exhibition entitled "the myth of Cleopatra" at the Pinacotheque in Paris. ( ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP via Getty Images)

Stealing the spotlight

"We don't know what she looked like, and the only document that we have that's signed in her hand was a tax receipt from one of Mark Antony's men. So that's pretty much it.

"Our main source is Plutarch, who was writing 200 years after her death, and he apparently had some primary sources. He knew someone who knew someone who worked in the kitchen and so forth. So he was much closer to the original than we are, but we're completely dependent on these later commentators.

"In fact, there's no Plutarch's Life of Cleopatra. There's no anybody's life of Cleopatra for hundreds of years. She appears in his life of Mark Antony. She's introduced as a kind of subsidiary figure and then, as the saying goes, she hijacks the life of Antony and takes it over because she was so fascinating."

Circa 40 BC, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, rides a boat down the River Nile. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A changing perception

"We do know that she spoke probably nine languages, that she was extremely intelligent. She had to be extremely intelligent to do what she did and to accomplish what she did.

"She was a diplomat; she was an architect; she was a city planner; she was multilingual; she was certainly an excellent strategist. She had four children. So she really accomplished a lot. She wasn't the wanton Egyptian queen that's been portrayed in the centuries that followed.

"The fact that she was an Egyptian queen, that she was supposedly extraordinarily beautiful and that she was very much a part of the politics of the Roman Empire — all those things are interesting. She's also been celebrated as an object of fascination for some of the wrong reasons as a figure of mystery, and this Orientalist fantasy. 

"There's that extraordinary painting of her trying out poisons on the condemned prisoners so she'll find the perfect poison to use on herself for her suicide. And there are all these these poor guys just writhing in agony and she's stretched out on the couch not even watching it happen.

"So there's also this kind of 'evil queen out of Snow White' myth that's been associated with her that I think has continued to fuel the interest." 

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor star as Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the 1963 film Cleopatra. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Under her spell

"Plutarch talks about her charms and her spells and this is continued all the way through. I talk about their various representations in our history because there was a legend that one of the ways that she bewitched Mark Antony was to dissolve a pearl in a glass of wine. That was supposedly an aphrodisiac, which made him unable to think clearly.

"Scientists have proven that a pearl is not soluble in a glass of wine. So this could not have happened. But that didn't stop visual artists all the way through the Renaissance and subsequent years from painting and doing woodcuts and so forth of this evil, magical, witchy seductress using her charms on Mark Antony.

"Because how else could she possibly have seduced him into doing her bidding?"

Circa 30 BC, Cleopatra clutching an asp to her breast, which will then bite her, thus taking her own life. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One-dimensional depictions

"Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is a strange play. I think it's one of the least psychologically revealing plays because it's considered to be a tragedy, but really it's a history play and the action keeps switching back and forth from Rome to to Egypt and so forth. So she just seems like this sort of alternately shrewish, lovestruck, manipulative character.

I would like to see someone give her credit for who she was and what she did and what she accomplished and not just seeing her as sort of the plaything of two powerful men.

"You never really ever get a sense again of who she was as the Queen of Egypt and of what she was capable of. Her intelligence and her power and her ingenuity and her various talents certainly do not come through in Shakespeare's version.

"But he does give her that incredibly beautiful, moving speech.

"I would like to see someone give her credit for who she was and what she did and what she accomplished and not just seeing her as sort of the plaything of two powerful men, which has so often been the case in how she's been represented." 

Francine Prose's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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