Picks and Pans Review: Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions

updated 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Reading this book is a bit like taking a short, multidisciplinary graduate course. British journalist Lucy Hughes-Hallett combines art history, mythology, literary criticism and political science with a good dose of feminist theory to decipher the story of the fabled Egyptian girl-Queen.

Hughes-Hallett (who has been a writer for Vogue and a British TV critic) looks at Cleopatra as Queen, as lover (of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony), as mother (probably of Caesar's son) and, not incidentally, as icon. This "is a book about sex, monarchy, masochism, the ethics of suicide and the rhetoric of racism," says the introduction.

Whew! And most of us thought Cleopatra was just an earlier incarnation of Elizabeth Taylor.

The book begins with the basic Cleopatra story of a Princess who inherited the Egyptian throne as a teenager in 51 B.C., ruled over a troubled empire and fought a long war with Rome until her death, a probable suicide, in 30 B.C. That, says the author—who has combed thousands of pages and examined hundreds of paintings, films and artifacts—is about all we know for sure. The rest—her affairs, her great beauty, her debauchery—is the stuff of legend.

The author argues that the legend has been shaped by the mores of the centuries through which it evolved. To 17th-and 18th-century writers, used to ladies who knew their place, Cleopatra was a woman obsessed by affairs of the heart and uninterested in affairs of state. The 19th-century attitude was racist, viewing Cleopatra as a Middle Eastern temptress who wanted to overpower or taint Roman civilization.

In our century she has become a camp image—played in 1917 by the "surprisingly fat and blowsy for a fatal beauty" Theda Bara, in 1934 by Claudette Colbert and in 1963 by Taylor. How we have viewed Cleopatra, the author argues, amplifies how our societies have viewed women.

Hughes-Hallett's prose, however, often slips into dull, difficult-to-follow scholarese. Cleopatra remains a symbol; the author's style rarely brings her to life. One notable exception is the section on—surprise!—similarities between the 20th-century view of Cleopatra and the real-life extravagances of Elizabeth Taylor. The actress's wanton affair with the married Richard Burton dovetails with the image of a lusty Cleopatra seducing Caesar and Antony. Taylor-Burton's reckless spending matches Cleopatra's sybaritic tendency to bathe in asses' milk while her subjects went hungry. In other words, the author implies, we haven't come such a long way after all. (Harper & Row, $27.50)

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