I dressed as Cleopatra for a party we had a couple of weeks ago. The theme was the letter ‘c’: other costumes included cat, colombian, Candy Warhol, chopping board and candy floss. I can’t remember the last time I actually made anything for a costume but this time my housemates and I actually spent an hour in the garden making headdresses out of old necklaces (me) and gluing cotton wool balls together (cloud).
I’ve always liked Cleopatra. Aged 17 we studied Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I love Shakespeare and was happy enough studying Ophelia, Lavinia and all the other doomed nymphs but Cleopatra was a different kind of female; she was a huge, complex, dominating character. She was the best thing about the play; whole verses tumbled off the page praising her. I remember our teacher characterising her with the classic phrase “women want to be her, men want to be with her”, a modern counterpart to the line in the play; “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”.
We were encouraged to try and draw parallels between us students and various characters. For some reason I ended up as Cleopatra; at 17 I was pretty weird and fairly low down in the social heirarchy and I felt very far away from the assured and powerful voice on the page before me. I don’t know if my teachers could see something in me that I couldn’t, or whether it was purely linked to my beau at the time (coincidentally named Antony) but the nickname ended up sticking around for a lot longer than the essays.
Cleopatra is often depicted as a beautiful, sensual and powerful woman; but I like that there are so many other stories about her wit, her cunning, her intellect. Stories of tricking men into accepting dares she would win, or sneaking into palaces disguised in a carpet to have “relations”. She was educated by leading scholars in maths and astronomy, had a huge interest in star-gazing and spoke nine languages. Quite a few accounts cite her sweet and alluring voice as the most beautiful part of her.
Whilst 17 year old me couldn’t see any resemblance, mid-twenties Laila could draw a few more parallels. I find her to be quite a modern figure. She often styled herself as a masculine leader, comfortable directing large groups of boys. She laments how women are held back in society and that she cannot be considered an equal; a fight that’s not over thousands of years on. She had a love for exotic hair pieces (totally on board with that) and founded a drinking club with her friends called the Inimitable Livers (again, right on sister). And of course there’s the famous black and gold; the colours of royalty in ancient Egypt.
Cleopatra often said she was a reincarnation of the goddess Isis, who inspired her. It’s nice to think that through the years, huge influential people have drawn inspiration of their own from others before them; our hero’s heroes. It’s easy to look back at famous historical figures and draw conclusions about what kind of person they were, or draw parallels between yourself and them, when you can never really know. But for whatever reason Cleopatra has always stuck with me as a choice heroine. Who are yours?