which is an extract from Plutarch’s Lives What can this text tell us about Cleopatra’s reputation: Arts and Humanities: Reputations Assignment, UOC, UK

University University Of Cambridge (UOC)
Subject Arts and Humanities: Reputations


Option 1 Cleopatra

Read the text below, which is an extract from Plutarch’s Lives. What can this text tell us about Cleopatra’s reputation?

It is said that the asp was brought in with the figs, hidden under the leaves, just as Cleopatra had commanded, so that the creature would alight on her body without her knowledge. But they say she saw it as she picked up some of the figs and she said, ‘So there it is, then’ and offered her bare arm to its bite. Others say that the asp was kept enclosed in a pitcher and that Cleopatra excited and provoked it with a golden distaff until it struck and fastened itself to her arm. No one knows the truth: it is also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, which she kept hidden in her hair. There was, however, no sign of a rash on her body or any other indication of poison. Also, no snake was found in the mausoleum, although they say some tracks could be seen leading from there to the sea on the side that faced that direction and where the windows were. And some claim to have seen two light and indistinct pricks on Cleopatra’s arm.

The changing faces of Cleopatra

In Chapter 1 we explored how the historical figure of Cleopatra was viewed very differently in Roman and medieval Arabic cultures.

The reputations of historical figures change across time and cultures, and responds to the interests and anxieties of each society and each passing generation as they encounter the past. In this way, the past is never something that we just passively encounter. History shapes us, but we can also have a hand in shaping history. As we use the past to think about ourselves and our own attitudes and beliefs, we become involved in a process of interrogation that works two ways – the past speaks to us but we also speak back.

Dialogues between the past and present result in the reputations of historical figures being continually formed and reformed. As the present changes and evolves (and it always does), new audiences bring fresh concerns to the past. As they do this, the way that they see the past and figures from it, such as Cleopatra, also changes. Changing audiences see different things; they find validation in the past and challenge in the new ways, according to the pressing questions that they bring with them from their own lives and experiences of the world.

In this next section of the unit, we are going to look at some images of Cleopatra from film and TV during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and consider how and why her depiction has changed over this period of time.

You are now going to watch two short videos: ‘Cleopatra in Hollywood’ and ‘Cleopatra on TV’. These films explore the image of Cleopatra, first on the ‘big screen’, through three Hollywood films of the twentieth century, and then on the ‘small screen’ through TV productions at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. During the films you will encounter a number of still images and video clips with an audio commentary on their significance.


In the 1917 film, the image of Cleopatra is very much taken from the Roman sources that emphasise her threatening and disruptive sexuality. The scantiness and exotic nature of her attire serves to portray her as both foreign and alluring, whilst her glare outwards at the viewer stresses the menace that she poses.In contrast, the 1934 Cleopatra is much more relaxed and even downright cheery. She prefers the chic sophistication of art-deco styled ensembles. This is a Cleopatra who seems to be all smiles and more flirtatious than ominous.

The 1963 Cleopatra retains the glamour of her predecessors but adds a note of both steely statesmanship and idealistic fervour.

These three visions of Cleopatra from various moments in the twentieth century have their roots in the different ages that created them. In 1917, Egypt, and Cleopatra along with it, could still be projected as a place of exotic mystery, but the unfamiliar could also be dangerous. The allure of the unknown enticed the unwary. The 1917 Cleopatra represents the threat of exotic and intoxicating female sexuality in a world where women

were just beginning to enter the workplace in greater numbers and were protesting for the right to vote.

The actress who played Cleopatra in the 1934 film, Claudette Colbert, was well known for playing the lead in romantic comedies. As noted on the short film, the 1934 film was reviewed as ‘a romantic comedy in fancy dress’. In other words, the Cleopatra story was reworked to suit the popular film conventions and actors of the day. Also, by 1934 conservative elements in the US were already beginning to see films as a threat to the morality of the nation. In these circumstances, the past could be a useful escape route for filmmakers wishing to avoid censorship. A light could be shone on the poor morality of the past, rather than encouraged in the present. In this scenario, Cleopatra could be used as a useful parable of what happened to a woman who flirted with two married men.

In the 1963 film, we see a Cleopatra who is more serious than her 1934 incarnation but less threatening than her 1917 one. The statesmanship that she displays is linked to a growing place for female leaders and politicians in the contemporary world. The passion she displays in her speech to Julius Caesar at the tomb of Alexander the Great is indebted to the political rhetoric of figures like John F. Kennedy and the soaring optimism and idealism of Martin Luther King Jr.

4.3 The reputation of Cleopatra

As we have seen during our study of this unit, Cleopatra is both a historical figure and a legend; her name has endured throughout the ages, providing writers, artists and filmmakers 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.

Although it is easy to think of the past as simply a set of objective facts to uncover, it is not quite that simple. For one thing, when you are looking at ancient history there are simply far fewer ‘facts’ around. Ancient history is made up of more holes than substance; far more has disappeared than remains. Moreover, the facts themselves are less important than their interpretation and how they can be put together to create a reputation. As you have seen, the Roman historians and their Arabic counterparts took the events of Cleopatra’s life and told different stories.

The changes in reputation that we can see taking place in the Roman and Arabic tales about Cleopatra did not stop with them. Their tales informed how later times and cultures viewed Cleopatra and, in doing so, became only part of the story. Reputation is a process of continual flux and refinement, because it is always dependent on what an individual reader or viewer, as a member of a wider cultural and temporal moment, brings to this experience. The terms under which the past and the present collide are always moving under our feet. This is why the Cleopatras of the actresses Theda Bara, Elizabeth Taylor and Leonor Varela are so contrasting. Each is a snapshot of what happens when a past reputation is reconfigured in the cauldron of a present moment.

The many faces of Cleopatra show how we modify our perceptions of the past to suit contemporary issues, lifestyles and fantasies. Each era has recreated Cleopatra in its own image; therefore, history can be seen as a continual source of reflection not just about the past, but also about ourselves, how we live, and the way we see the world around us

Option 3 Elizabeth I

Look closely at the painting reproduced below and read carefully the caption and the notes in the box.

What does this painting tell us about Elizabeth I’s reputations?

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