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

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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.

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