How The Portrayal Of Cleopatra Has Changed Over Time To Reflect Changes In Society
The 1963 film was the largest, most expensive of its time, to the point that it almost bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox. The scene whereby Cleopatra enters Rome alone cost over one million dollars to make. Fox wanted to express the lavishness, the excessive luxury of the Egyptian Queen.
Taylor’s Cleopatra was a stateswoman with great intellect. She used her wiles to bridge the gap in equality between men and women; a reflection of the women’s movement of the 1960s. This was a period of time when the role of women was largely that of housewives and mothers who were viewed as second-class citizens. By the 1990s she fights her own battles and is viewed as equal to any man, echoing the growing equality of the sexes in society. As in films and television shows before and after this; the themes of power, luxury, sexuality and extravagance remain key to her story.
Other issues of the 1960s are echoed in the film, when Cleopatra asks Caesar to take up the mantle of Alexander the Great, to form ‘one nation..’ This speech resonates with those of John F Kennedy and Martin Luthor King Jr. This type of major political parallel has not been struck again in later renditions of Cleopatra.
Modern depictions of Cleopatra, from Xena Warrior Princess, to the television series Rome, have all the main themes prevalent but the role of sexuality has changed, becoming a more deliberate political tool. In the 1963 film, Cleopatra loved Mark Anthony and emotion backed the politics of her actions; whereas in later renditions, all emotion is removed and sexuality is purely a weapon: one which has become more manipulative with each version of the story.
In the 2005 series Rome, Cleopatra decides to have a child with Caesar as a means of cementing her power. In his absence, she takes one of his soldiers to bed and the resulting child is passed off as Caesar’s. This level of calculation would not have been thought of in the 1963 film. This version of Cleopatra is viewed by a more informed society and as such tries to portray her as accurately as possible. As well as drawing on the luxury of the 1963 version, it also brings in more elements of exaggerated sexuality.
Another change since the 1963 film has been that of ethnicity. In the past, Cleopatra was always played by an Anglo-American. During the ‘60s actors were almost exclusively Caucasian but today audiences accept and indeed expect more honesty in the portrayal of ethnic characters. As a result, Cleopatra is portrayed more ethnically, reflecting views that she was possibly part African.
While time passes and the portrayals of Cleopatra evolve, we are left wondering how accurate any of them are. Society’s views on the role of women, sexuality and ethnicity have left their impact on how she is portrayed to remain relevant with the expectations of the audience.
Moohan, E (ed) (2008) The Arts Past and Present AA100 Reputations, Open University
DVD Video ‘Cleopatra’, (2009) The Arts Past and Present AA100 Reputations, Open University