Cleopatra: Why we're Respecting the Ancient World's Most Powerful Woman

For our Christmas party, Claret Press attended the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra. Great production, but we spotted an issue. Why did Shakespeare portray a powerful woman without any concern whatsoever for her achievements?

Cleopatra was the single most powerful woman in the world through cunning, murder and unconventional tactics. Her affair with Mark Anthony made them the original power couple, sufficiently persuasive that they could attract the support of allies, terrifying Rome.

These two could have taught Claire and Frank Underwoood of House of Cards a trick or two on how to get and keep power, manipulate systems and conventions to their end, and ruthlessly eliminate the competition, including blood relations and best friends.

But Shakespeare chose to cast her as a promiscuous ditz, dangerous solely due to her lusty beauty rather than her tactics. In the play, she's the foolish lover, and her beautiful death at the end of the play is her greatest moment.

Historical sources from ancient Rome insult Cleopatra, whose death was a source of celebration at the end of long and bloody civil wars. As Antony's co-agitator, Cleopatra became the target of Roman propaganda before, during, and after his defeat.

The imperial poet Horace wrote an ode in celebration of her death, while Cicero described her as a dolled-up tart. Both writers were disinterested in accuracy, but had political aims. Furthermore, no one could suggest that the Roman state had any respect for women, let alone one who posed a genuine threat.

Two thousand years later, Claret Press is rebuilding her reputation. Lorna Oakes’ upcoming book, Women in the Ancient World, will shine a light on women of the classical era so that everyone can appreciate their achievements.

Oakes’ previous book, Stories from Herodotus, converted a long and difficult history book into children’s literature. Previously a professor of Egyptology at Birkbeck College, a specialist at the British Museum and Egyptian study-guide, Lorna Oakes is the perfect historian to undo centuries of bad history.

At the Barbican
RSC Antony and Cleopatra poster

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