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Why Cleopatra is no stranger to controversy: Unravelling the Egyptian queen's legacy both on screen and in history

With Gal Gadot billed to portray the ruler in a new biopic, we take a look at Cleopatra's whirlwind life and the women who have played her on screen

Elizabeth Taylor played the Egyptian queen in 1963's 'Cleopatra'. IMDb
Elizabeth Taylor played the Egyptian queen in 1963's 'Cleopatra'. IMDb

In the early hours of Sunday, Gal Gadot announced that she was set to play Cleopatra in a new film about the legendary Queen of the Nile.

The actress wrote on Twitter that she was teaming up with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis to bring Cleopatra to the big screen “in a way she’s never been seen before".

"To tell her story for the first time through women's eyes, both behind and in front of the camera," Gadot continued. "I love embarking on new journeys, I love the excitement of new projects, the thrill of bringing new stories to life. Cleopatra is a story I wanted to tell for a very long time."

The announcement was not entirely met with the enthusiasm the Justice League star may have been expecting.

A social media storm began brewing in the wake of the news, with some criticising the casting decision, saying it was not appropriate for Gadot – an Israeli actress of European descent – to play the Egyptian queen. To date, no Egyptian actress has played the role of the country's last Ptolemaic ruler in a blockbuster film.

One of the most scathing comments came from journalist Sameera Khan, who posted a tweet asking who in Hollywood thought “it would be a good idea to cast an Israeli actress as Cleopatra instead of a stunning Arab actress like Nadine Njeim?”

Others pointed out that, however, that though Cleopatra was born in Egypt, she was probably of Greek-Macedonian descent.

She may have had some Persian ancestry but scholars almost unanimously agree that she did not have a drop of Egyptian blood in her.

"Cleopatra VII was white – of Macedonian descent, as were all of the Ptolemy rulers, who lived in Egypt," Kathryn Bard, professor of archaeology and classical studies at Boston University, told Newsweek.

Cleopatra traced her family origins to Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who founded the Ptolemic Kingdom in Egypt in 305 BC after Alexander the Great’s conquest. Egypt, at the time, was loosely governed by the Persian Empire, which had control of the area since the decline of the Ancient Egyptian Empire in the late seventh century BC.

The Ptolemies went on to rule Egypt for nearly three centuries, making them the longest dynasty in ancient Egyptian history, and also the last. The dynasty came to a close with Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC. Then Octavian (who would later become Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor) took the opportunity to annex Egypt, effectively bringing the Ptolemic Kingdom to an end.

While Cleopatra did not have Egyptian ancestry, to say she was not Egyptian is another thing entirely.

Besides being born and raised in Egypt, the queen was one of the country's most powerful and intelligent rulers. She is also said to have been the only ruler of the house of Ptolemy to have learnt the language of ancient Egypt. She was proud of her country and did whatever she could to ensure its independence. Her reign brought Egypt two decades of security, stability and wealth. Egypt was also where Cleopatra died, taking her own life after it became clear that her and Mark Antony’s forces were defeated at the hands of Octavian’s army.

A legend with a complicated legacy

There have been many depictions of Cleopatra on screen, as well as on page and stage. And it is probably for this reason that her life has become so entwined with legend, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

For instance, modern-day historians don’t believe she committed suicide by allowing an Egyptian cobra to bite her. Instead, she is believed to have drunk some sort of poisonous cocktail, which most likely contained a lethal dose of opium or hemlock, according to German historian Christoph Schaefer.

Still, the facts of Cleopatra’s life are just as astounding as her legend.

Most of what we know of the Egyptian queen comes from the writings of Greco-Roman scholars, most notably Plutarch. But they all, almost unanimously, portray Cleopatra as an expert diplomat, who is said to have been able to speak nine languages. They show her to have been a perceptive negotiator with razor-sharp political acumen, who managed to have the two most powerful men of the world, at the time, wrapped around her little finger.

The strategies she resorted to ensure her place on the throne were no less amazing.

First, she fashioned herself as the living embodiment of the goddess Isis as a PR stunt to ensure favour with the masses. Then, after being dethroned by her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra snuck into the Alexandria palace, where Julius Caesar was staying during a visit, by hiding in a laundry sack (though a different iteration of the story suggests she was rolled into a rug).

She managed to plead her case to the Roman statesman and win an alliance with him, which later blossomed into a love affair. Finally, seeking to expand her power and secure the rights of her son, Caesarion, whom she is thought to have had with Caesar, Cleopatra went to visit Mark Antony to forge an alliance with him. Legend even says that to make sure she made an impression, Cleopatra doused the sails of her royal ship in perfume so that Antony could smell it before it arrived. Shakespeare wrote the sails were “so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them".

But Cleopatra’s life was also filled with betrayal, fratricide, sororicide and suicide, in a tale that would make Game of Thrones author George RR Martin blush. Her relationship with Mark Antony inspired myriad plays, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, circa 1607, to The Death of Cleopatra, written in 1927 by one of the greatest Arab poets and dramatists, Ahmed Shawqi. The famous couple also found a place in Dante Alighieri’s 14th century poem Inferno and in the 1972 opera Antoine et Cleopatre by French composer Emmanuel Bondeville.

A star of the screen

So is Gadot’s bill to become this generation’s representation of Cleopatra, as a woman with no Egyptian or Greek ties, culturally insensitive? Critics are divided. But her casting seems to echo a long tradition in Hollywood.

One of the earliest depictions of the Egyptian queen in cinema was in 1899, in a two-minute silent film by French illusionist and film director Georges Melies, who was also behind the classic A Trip to the Moon.

The film Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb – which is now believed to be lost – wasn’t so much about Cleopatra's life, but rather her mummy. The film followed a man’s attempts to resurrect Cleopatra, who was played by Melies’s wife, French actress Jehanne D'Alcy.

In 1908, a 10-minute film based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra was released. It was the first film to dramatise the ill-starred romance between the couple. The film stars Canadian-American stage and film actress Florence Lawrence, who is often referred to as the "first movie star" in the titular role.

Then came the 1912 silent historical drama Cleopatra, which portrays the queen and her love affairs through a series of opulently staged tableaux. The film is considered to be one of the first US full-length films, running for 100 minutes. US stage and film actress Helen Gardner took on the titular role, and produced the lion’s share of the film herself, even designing the costumes.

French actress Micheline Dax, meanwhile, lent her voice to 1968 animation Asterix and Cleopatra. The film follows popular cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix as they travel to Ancient Egypt to help the queen build a lavish new summer home.

British actress Vivien Leigh – who starred as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – also played Cleopatra in the 1945 film Caesar and Cleopatra. The film was adapted from the 1901 play by George Bernard Shaw, and shone a spotlight on the romance between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, with an ageing Caesar trying to mediate a feud between Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII.

The most recognisable portrayal of the Queen of the Nile was, arguably, by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963's Cleopatra. In a review for The Hollywood Reporter, James Powers wrote: “Miss Taylor is the supreme star of the screen. Her beauty has never been more radiant. Her shudder when she learns, inadvertently, of her son's death — and with it all her ambitions — is one of those inspirations that is unforgettable.”

Taylor’s performance in the film was so revered that it became the golden standard against which all subsequent portrayals of Cleopatra were judged – and there have been quite a few, from Italian actress Sophia Loren’s 1954 film Due Notti con Cleopatra to Chilean actress Leonor Varela’s take on the role in the 1999 film Cleopatra.

Still, there have been very few depictions of the Egyptian queen by actresses from the region. In fact, there appears to be only one. Syrian soap opera star Sulaf Fawakherji took the role in the 2010 Arabic TV series Cleopatra, which begins shortly before Caesar’s arrival to Egypt and continues until her death.

Gadot’s casting as the legendary queen has, no doubt, brought Cleopatra’s name to the centre of a controversy again. Even centuries after her reign, she continues to spark heated conversations, ensuring her legacy as one of the most powerful figures in history.

Updated: October 13, 2020 12:37 PM

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