Give her a snake

Mary Beard

  • Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
    Bloomsbury, 338 pp, £16.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0093 2

In 1951 Lady Diana Cooper turned up at a ball in the Palazzo Labia in Venice dressed as Cleopatra. The choice of costume was perhaps predictable. On the walls of that Palazzo is Tiepolo’s painting of an outrageously haughty Cleopatra, attended by her male servants. And it was this fresco, copied faithfully (apart from its exposed breasts) down to the last jewel, that provided the model for Cooper’s outfit. Throughout the evening, we are told, she enjoyed the joke of posing in front of her ‘original’. But, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett explains, this was more than a fleeting game of fancy dress. Cooper was apparently so taken with Cecil Beaton’s photograph of herself in the guise of Cleopatra that she decided to use it in her passport. Yet it was not quite as simple as that. For who could forget the end of Cleopatra’s story and the trail of destruction that her sway – over the world and particularly over men – was said to have brought with it? Even Cooper could not escape the paradox Hughes-Hallett so neatly exposes: that the myth of Cleopatra may offer women an image of power, but at the cost of implicating them in the misogynistic fantasies of patriarchy. For women, ‘Cleopatra’ is a trap.

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