Signs of Cleopatra


I came to write Signs of Cleopatra by way of asking questions about Shakespeare’s version of this Egyptian queen. Looking at images of Cleopatra that were circulating in Europe when he was alive and in later periods, I was baffled. The many reworkings  of ‘Cleopatra’s Banquet’ all showed her dropping a pearl into a goblet of wine: a story that was new to me.

I discovered that it was being used to convey a moral, one that also concerned the behaviour of women in general.

Yet the meaning of this story seemed to shift and change.

A seventeenth century Dutch artist, Jan de Braij, had painted a memorial family portrait, featuring his dead parents as Antony and Cleopatra. 

In Venice Tiepolo painted her in the pose of a demonstrator at a scientific experiment.

For Delacroix and Gauthier, nineteenth-century French Romantics, Cleopatra seemed to have a political significance.

Not to be defeated, believing that any work of art grapples with the concerns of the time and place in which it’s made, I set out to crack the codes, to research the histories and contexts of these images.

That meant travel to Venice, Paris, and beyond, beginning with a trip to Egypt. Books alone wouldn’t confront me with the otherness of the past.

I began to uncover how the stories Europe told about Cleopatra tracked the laws and fantasies intended to contain all women, so that the name of Cleopatra became a sign of warning for both women and men.

‘Mary Hamer has written a fascinating study of politics and desire, authority and sexuality . . .she studies the cultural interests Cleopatra’s image has served, from the prohibition of incest to the institution of coinage, from Newton‘s optics to women’s suffrage, from the guillotine to the obelisk, and from Plutarch to Cecil B. de Mille.’

- Barbara Johnson, Harvard University

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