Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cleo the Goddess

Slowly reading Michael Grant's biography of Cleopatra. Early on, he describes the Ptolemaic dynasty of which Cleopatra was a part -- a Greek dynasty, descending from Alexander the Great, but having adopted many of the customs and beliefs of their Egyptian surroundings. One of these beliefs was that monarchs were the earthly manifestations of gods and goddesses -- both Greek gods, like Dionysus, and Eygptian ones, like Osiris and Isis (being the manifestation of more than one god sounds like a lot of work to me, but nobody said it was easy being queen!).

There are obvious political reasons for associating oneself with gods, but the practice had been ongoing for so long (inherited from the Pharoahs) that I can't help but wonder if the Ptolemies believed their own hype. Particularly someone like Cleopatra, who was born and raised to believe her father was the mortal embodiment of Dionysus, and that she would one day become queen, and therefore, a goddess also.

This seems relevant to the play, not because it feeds Cleopatra's ego (no need for help there), but because it reinforces the "immortal longings" which motivate her suicide. I keep coming back to that moment because -- well, partly because I'm afraid of it, but partly because it epitomizes the "larger-than-lifeness" that the play seems to demand. If Cleopatra has always believed that she was destined for godhead, then her decision to die may be misinformed, but it is far from cowardly.

What's more, I think her attitude constitutes a return to form. In the middle of the play, Cleo seems far from divinity, indeed -- capricious, jealous, unsure of herself and her love for Antony. But the ending must provide a restoration, in which Cleo can accept and embrace her love and all of the decisions she's made because of it, and incorporate all of that into her vision of herself as Isis.

(On another note, Grant comments on the Ptolemaic inclination towards incest, and speculates that "certain elements in her character may have been due to this persistent in-breeding -- notably her total absence of moral sense, and a tendency to murder her brothers and sisters which may have been partly an inherited family habit." Sounds like her gene pool had a crocodile problem!)

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