Cleopatra is both an historical figure … and a legend; her name has endured throughout the ages, providing writers and artists with a rich source of stories and imagery that reflect not so much the historical Egyptian queen… but rather her power as a symbol to be reinvented by each passing generation.
Some of the latest reincarnations of Cleopatra have been on the cinema and TV screens of the twentieth century. Why does she remain such a powerful image even today and how have these representations of Cleopatra shaped our own ideas about who she was and how she behaved?
The first major Hollywood film to tell the Cleopatra story was as long ago as 1917 when she was played by an elaborately costumed Theda Bara against a backdrop of ancient Egyptian symbols and monuments.
Bara portrayed the queen with a threatening and ominous air. She was well known for playing roles in which she sexually manipulated and abandoned married men. The press dubbed her ‘the torpedo of domesticity’.
This image of an alluring, exotic sexual predator dominated Bara’s depiction of Cleopatra and was exploited by the studio with great gusto. The studio’s publicity machine presented her as a contemporary reincarnation of Cleopatra, born in the shadow of the sphinx and suckled on serpent venom.
The reality was that she was the daughter of a Jewish tailor from Cincinnati.
The 1917 Cleopatra reflected contemporary images of an imagined orient… a land that was thought of as exotic and alluring but also alien and threatening.
It also reflected the changing role of women and, in an age of increasing female liberation, it depicted powerful women as dangerous, sexual manipulators.
Cleopatra’s evolving image on screen is not just a vehicle for epic entertainment, but also a telling commentary on changing issues and attitudes.
By the time we get to 1934 and the Cecil B De Mille epic, there’s a completely different look and feel to her image. Claudette Colbert plays the queen as a nonchalant and...