OK, so what does a director do when she has a historical character whose persona is so ingrained in the public imagination that no matter what the actual history says, the average audience member brings to the performance an image that creates (and sometimes overpowers) what she finds on stage. The classic example is the historical Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the hatchet-job Willy Shakes did in Richard III. A king known for legal reform that helped the common man, the historical Richard suffered from scoliosis but did not appear deformed. Shakespeare’s Richard, however, is a hunchbacked, withered-armed, limping personification of evil. And that dictates the kind of Richard we continue to get on stage.
Why do I bring this up?
We face the same problem in this play with the distaff half of Antony and Cleopatra.
When the average person thinks of Cleopatra, he thinks of the a beauty, a sexually predatory seductress of the world’s most powerful men, a woman with such sensual allure that no one can resist. She’s Egyptian, maybe north African, possibly even black. She is a force of nature.
I mean, Shakespeare gives us a woman unafraid of sex (or at least talking about it…but more on that next month). He gives us a woman of at least some dark complexion (“tawny front” [I.i.6], “gypsy” [I.i.10], “am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black” [I.v.28]). And Mark Antony definitely suffers a dismal case of “dotage” (I.i.1), a bad case of lovin’ Cleopatra.
But just like the perceived Richard, this is not the real story.
First, she wasn’t Egyptian. Her family line, a long line of Ptolemies, came from the original, Ptolemy I, who started out as a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, but ended up the king of Egypt. And since the male Ptolemies usually married their sisters, it was a pretty purely Greek bloodline. Thus, Cleopatra (VII) was most likely more Mediterranean in appearance, not African.
Secondly, she might not (probably not) have been a beauty. The contemporary images of her–and these are from Egyptian coins, which did not have the highest quality in graphical detail or aesthetics–are not beautiful. Hooked nose, sharp chin.
Thirdly, if physical beauty was not what attracted the world’s most powerful men, then her sexuality, or her reputation for seduction, is probably overstated. Or at least physical seduction. But charm, charisma, flat-out brilliance? These can be just as seductive, maybe more so. But physicality maybe did play a part. She was a fertile little fox. She was able to bear to Caesar his only son, Caesarion; Caesar’s other “son”–Augustus, formerly known as Octavian (yes, our Octavian)–was adopted. She also bore Mark Antony two sons, Alexander (who had a twin sister) and Ptolemy Philadelphus.
History doesn’t mesh with the legend.
So what does a director do with a problem like Cleo?
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (based on a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson)
[Post-Script Note: Mark Antony did have another son, also named Mark Antony, by Fulvia. It was this son that our Mark Antony named as his heir in Roman law. Which may have been a mistake (at least for the son). Why? Because after ol’ Mark Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, Octavian captured lil’ Mark Antony, who was 17 at the time–two years younger than Octavian was when Julius Caesar was assassinated–and in an attempt to tie up loose ends, Octavian had the young man executed.]