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.

The real hero of the story of Cleopatra is, of course, the snake. Hughes-Hallett (in a rare lapse from her commitment to treat Cleopatra as ‘myth’ rather than ‘history’) has a long discussion on the identity of the reptile concerned. She concludes that it was most likely a cobra (or possibly two) that delivered the fatal bite – not the traditional asp or viper, whose venom apparently causes a disfiguring and undignified end, quite incompatible with all the stories of Cleopatra’s death. But, whatever the species involved, more is at stake than the snake’s inadvertent heroism in ridding the world of a dangerous queen. In the mythography of Cleopatra, from Antiquity to the present day, the snake is not just the means of her death. It is also her defining feature, her emblem. If you want to understand Cleopatra, her power and her danger, you must first understand her snake.

Paintings and visual images show the emblematic quality of Cleopatra’s snake most clearly. It is not that she always appears clutching an ‘asp’ to her bosom. From 15th-century manuscript illuminators to Angelica Kauffmann and Alma-Tadema, European painters have chosen to portray her in a strikingly wide range of contexts and poses: Cleopatra meets Julius Caesar; Cleopatra’s banquet; Cleopatra dissolves her pearls in a cup of vinegar; Cleopatra mourns in front of Antony’s tomb. But despite this variety, one thing suffices in any painting to identify a woman as Cleopatra: her snake. There is no need for the normal signs of Egypt, no need for pyramids, hieroglyphs or symbols of Isis. You can take any Renaissance lady, leave her uncompromisingly in her Renaissance clothes in an entirely Renaissance setting, but give her a snake and she becomes Cleopatra. Much the same is true for the average bimbo of a Carry on film. It is not the heroine’s Egyptian-style gold bra and G-string that tells us that this time we’re watching Antony and Cleo, nor, for that matter, is it Sid James’s unnecessarily accurate Roman armour. The crucial clue is that little pet snake.

The image of Cleopatra overlaps in part with the image of the Gorgon Medusa. So at least it seemed to Michelangelo, who pushed the emblematic link between Cleopatra and the snake to its obvious logical conclusion. In his famous drawing (apparently the inspiration for much of Swinburne’s writing on Cleopatra) the snake not only clings to her breast: it so intertwines with the ribbons and tresses of her hair that it is hard to be sure exactly where snake ends and hair begins. Cleopatra here is the snake-locked Gorgon. And it is not by chance that she is shown with her gaze so resolutely directed away from the viewer. For, as with Medusa, if we were to catch her eye we would instantly be turned to stone. In a crucial sense – and in a way Hughes-Hallett does not appear to have realised – the myth of Cleopatra and her destructive power is bound up with the complex significance of the Gorgon.

Gorgons, both in Antiquity and later, come in two main types, represented in two quite distinct ways. First there is the repulsive monster with writhing snakes instead of hair, deadly eyes, enormous gaping mouth, sometimes a beard. When she is done to death, she ends up as a trophy on the goddess Athena’s breastplate – her head staring out to strike terror into Athena’s enemies. The other type seems completely different. Although we know that she has the same deadly qualities as the first, her appearance is enticing, alluring, even beautiful. It is only at second glance (a glance that may, of course, prove deadly) that her long flowing locks are seen for what they are – squirming snakes.

What is the relationship between these two different images of the Gorgon? It has often been thought that their connection is minimal. The second type of Gorgon has been seen simply as the product of a romantic vision that is – paradoxically – prepared to use even a monster as a peg on which to hang an image of physical charm and beauty. As soon as the Gorgon becomes beautiful, in other words, she loses the significance she had as a monster. But such an evasion will not do. It entirely misses the point that comes from taking the two, ostensibly different, images together, as a pair – that is, that the destructive power of women operates as much through beauty as through loathsome violence; that men’s position in the world is threatened by their vulnerability to women; that, in the most literal sense, ‘looks can kill.’

In much the same way, Cleopatra is a mythic image of women’s capacity to undermine men’s control over the world – in her case, by a combination of brute force and winning seduction. While on the one hand the rivals to her Egyptian throne fall victim to her ruthless violence, Antony himself is destroyed, failing in his duty as a citizen and as a man, because he could not withstand her beauty. But Cleopatra is not just a ‘double’ of the Gorgons, their replica in a quasi-historical guise. She is in some respects significantly different. And the appeal of her story partly depends on that difference – as is clear in the manner of her death.

The fate of the Gorgon Medusa was to be slain by the hero Perseus. Aided by his protecting goddess Athena (who gave him some winged sandals and a polished shield to deflect the Gorgon’s deadly glance) he cuts off her head and presents it as a trophy to his divine patron. Whatever the complex symbolism of this decapitation – whether it was, as for Freud, an act of female castration, or, as for Jung, a restatement of the rape of Persephone by Hades – at the simplest level it is the destruction of the female by the male: man kills (monstrous) woman. The contrast with Cleopatra is clear. The story of her death is a story of self-destruction. There is no male hero-murderer. Her snakes in the end turn against her, their host, to show that ultimately the power of woman will destroy itself. This story has, of course, elements of pathos. There is a tragedy, almost a heroism, in the suicide of Cleopatra which makes it quite unlike the entirely untragic murder of Medusa. But the implication in the story that woman’s (evil) power is self-destructive conveys an even more reassuring message for patriarchy than Perseus’s slaughter of the Gorgon.

Hughes-Hallett fails to follow through this kind of interrelating theme in Classical (and later) myth-making. It is not just Medusa that is missed. So are many of the powerful symbolic associations of dining, consumption and luxury that would have helped her make better sense of Cleopatra’s famous banquet – the outrageous occasion at which ideals of sharing and ‘commensality’ were said to have been pushed to such extremes that the guests took home the couches on which they had been reclining for dinner, as a gift from their hostess. These blindspots make Cleopatra in some ways a disappointing, even an irritating book. Besides, it is too long. And it is too concerned to justify its often quite sensible, though hardly difficult insights into Cleopatra’s myth and history by ponderous appeals to the work of an ill-assorted range of academic luminaries: from Lacan to Ronald Syme; from Mary Douglas to Nietzsche. It is not that Douglas’s views on the Abominations of Leviticus and on the symbolic role of ‘the anomalous’ are no longer interesting. But, at least in the page-long summary by Hughes-Hallett, they are an unnecessarily heavy-handed way of justifying the claim that Antony’s effeminacy, his breaking-down of traditional distinctions of gender, was perceived as dangerous.

That said, the scope of the book – in particular its concentration on the constant reinterpretations of the story of Cleopatra, rather than on the historical truth that might lie behind it – puts it into a class well above the normal standard of recent ‘feminist’ biography. And some of Hughes-Hallett’s individual analyses are witty and insightful tours de force. Most memorable is the chapter which looks at Joseph Mankiewicz’s film Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton extravaganza of 1962. Hughes-Hallett shows how the extraordinary popular appeal of this film was related to the personalities – as they were perceived by the public – of Taylor and Burton themselves. They did not just play their dramatic roles on the screen. In their behaviour offset they became Cleopatra and Antony: she the libertine Hollywood queen; he the man of talent but weak will, drawn to ruin by his passion for her; both locked in a relationship that united glamour and hubristic excess (in Taylor’s case, spending money) with tragedy, separation, hysteria, even attempted suicide. But there was always a delicious sense that underneath all that emotion Taylor, in particular, knew exactly what she was doing: she knew that it was all high camp play-acting.

Only 11 years separate Mankiewicz’s film from Lady Diana Cooper’s impersonation of the Tiepolo fresco. It is hard to imagine two more different worlds – or a more telling index of the speed of cultural change between the Fifties and the Sixties. In 1951 Cooper can still apparently take herself seriously dressed up as Cleopatra. In 1962, as Taylor (literally) winks at her audience from the film, she can suggest that Cleopatra is now an extravagant joke.