Mary Hamer: How Cleopatra enchanted the world

From a talk given at the British Museum by an associate of Harvard's department of Afro-American studies

Share

I WANT to suggest how we have come, in Europe, to think not about Cleopatra but through her, to make use of the image of Cleopatra and of her name. I would like to take you with me through the looking glass, as it were, to find a way of seeing into the place Cleopatra occupies inside our heads.

I WANT to suggest how we have come, in Europe, to think not about Cleopatra but through her, to make use of the image of Cleopatra and of her name. I would like to take you with me through the looking glass, as it were, to find a way of seeing into the place Cleopatra occupies inside our heads.

We all have our own stake in Cleopatra. When the actress Frances de la Tour, who recently played Cleopatra on stage, opened the exhibition here in April, she closed her remarks by turning to the subject of her father. She spoke of his origin in Macedonia and of the pleasure it had given her to feel that in playing Cleopatra she was truly "strutting her stuff".

For myself, it was only when I visited Egypt for the first time, when I was gathering material for a book on the way Cleopatra has been represented, that I appreciated what the name of this queen meant for me personally. It was absolutely embarrassing, for I found that I could not contain myself: I could not stop telling everyone I met that "My father was in Cairo when I was born". The first time that we set eyes on each other, in the flesh, my father and I, he was still in uniform, just back from his wartime service in Egypt: Before that we had known each other only through images, through the baby photographs mailed out to him in Africa by my mother and through the studio portrait, which she used in order to teach me to say Daddy when I saw my father's face under the blue peaked cap of the RAF.

If I begin here, with these family stories, it is because I want to suggest to you that for Europeans the name of Cleopatra has come to act as a sort of mental trigger for a certain kind of thinking about men. The after-life of Cleopatra has been like a touchstone in the imagination of Europe.

A surprising number of women have themselves been ready to dress up as Cleopatra for a party or to be represented as Cleopatra in art: maybe part of the attraction lies in the enigmatic statement that this move allows. In the wake of the DeMille movie about Cleopatra in the early 1930s, women who were not aristocratic but who were enjoying the use of a little disposable income as they moved into the workforce were invited to kit themselves out with Cleopatra hair curlers.

Even in a little eating place by the Nile, it seems, Cleopatra stands for a lost heritage. The man who was bringing me my dinner had asked what I was doing in Egypt and I had replied that I was writing about Cleopatra. Hearing that he came alive: "Cleopatra was a very powerful woman," he told me. "Today women in Egypt have no power. You must write your book."

There is evidence of an unexpected continuity in Britain too. In the home, as the domestic objects, vases tile and figures that are on display can demonstrate, the story of Cleopatra, or perhaps more accurately the story of Antony and Cleopatra presides. But just as wielding a fan painted with the image of this couple boldly dares disapproving authority to do its worst, Staffordshire figures of Antony and Cleopatra have a charming insouciance. It is as though European imaginations kept trying to find another way of telling this story, one that would screen out the sense of tragedy. No example is more eloquent of this drive than these modest little ornaments, destined perhaps for the mantelpiece of a country rectory.

What was Cleopatra really like? Was she beautiful? To my shame I once used to dismiss these as dumb questions. Instead, today I see that our passion for Cleopatra is bound up with wanting to know, with our passion for knowing. In the papyrus from Berlin on which the handwriting of Cleopatra has recently been identified, we can at last satisfy that desire for a knowledge that is not abstract but rooted in the body. Knowledge of Cleopatra comes to us now in the trace of a human hand, in a line of ink drawn across the flat two-dimensional surface, a trace that takes the form of the Greek word ginesthoi: make it happen.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot