Cleopatra and the Birth of Film: Staging Perpetual Motion

  • Francesca T. Royster


In her history of visual representation prior to film, Cleopatra has been a racial code-shifter, often occupying positions of contrasting racial extremes. While Shakespeare, Daniel and other early modern dramatists depicted Cleopatra as black or tawny, many European writers and artists imagined Cleopatra as fair— perhaps even the extreme of fairness. For example, in Guilluame Belliard’s sixteenth century erotic poem “Les Delitieuses Amours de Marc Antoine et de Cleopatre,” Cleopatra’s whiteness “is said to outshine the whitest ivory, the brightness of her yellow hair makes gold seem dark by comparison, her rosy cheeks are more brilliant than all the flowers of spring and her breasts are as round and firm and pale as a pair of ivory billiard balls.”1 In the woodcuts accompanying the Ulm Boccaccio of 1473, Cleopatra’s sexual outlaw status was marked by a conspicuously European fashion accessory—a horned headdress that had been designated by the Roman Catholic Church “as the sign of female licentiousness,” according to cultural historian Mary Hamer.2


Racial Identity Cultural Critic White Identity Yellow Hair Black Slave 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Cleopatra: History, Dreams and Distortions (New York: Harper & Row, 1990), 202.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mary Hamer, Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation (London: Routledge, 1993), 32–33.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Jean-Michel Humbert, Michael Pantazzi and Christine Ziegler, Egypto-mania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730–1930 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1994), 183–184.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Robert Hamilton Ball, Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange, Eventful History (London: Allen & Urwin, 1968) 385.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Antonia Lant, “The Curse of the Pharaoh, Or, How Cinema Contracted Egyptomania,” in Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, ed., Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar (New Brunswick. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 72.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    André Bazin, What is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 9–16.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    H. Rider Haggard, Cleopatra: Being an Account of the Fall and Vengeance of Harmachis, the Royal Egyptian, as Set Forth by His Own Hand (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1889).Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1991), 189.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 26.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye, Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), especially chapters 2 and 3.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    For a full discussion of this controversy, see Miriam Harisen’s introduction to Siegfried Kracauer, The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), vii–xlv.Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    For a reassessment of modern spectatorship in light of nineteenth-century noncinematic optical gadgets like Thaumatropes, stereoscopes and phenakistiscopes, see Thomas Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990). Linda Williams discusses these gadgets specifically in light of pornographic images in “Corporealized Observers: Visual Pornographies and the ‘Carnal Density of Vision,’” in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 3–41.Google Scholar
  13. 24.
    Ray Phillips, Edison’s Kinescope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), 140.Google Scholar
  14. 26.
    Daniel Bernardi, “Introduction,” in Daniel Bernardi, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 7.Google Scholar
  15. 29.
    Recent histories on the social construction of the white race include Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: Volume One: Racial Oppression and Social Control (London: Verso, 1994)Google Scholar
  16. Matthew Frye Jacob-son, Whiteness of a Different Color (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)Google Scholar
  17. David Roedigger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991). On Irish whiteness, seeGoogle Scholar
  18. Eric Lort, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), especially chapter 5; and Noe! Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Roudedge, 1995). On the construction of Jewish white identity, see Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (New York: Routledge, 1991), chapter 7; and Karen Brodkin Sacks, “How Did Jews Become White Folks?” in Race, ed. Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 79–85. On the social construction of Italian/Sicilian whiteness, see Robert Orsi, “The Religious Boundaries of an In-between People: Street Feste and the Problem of the Dark-Skinned Other in Italian Harlem, 1920–1990,” American Quarterly, 44.3 (Sep-tember 1992), 313–347; and James Barrett and David Roediger, “Inbe-tween Peoples: Race, Nationality and the New Immigrant Working Class,” Journal of American Ethnic History 16.3 (Spring 1997), 3–45.Google Scholar
  19. 36.
    Ronald Genini, Theda Bara: A Biography of the Silent Screen Vamp, with a Filmography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1996), 15.Google Scholar
  20. 37.
    For a history of the construction of Hollywood film celebrity, see Richard Decordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 38–39.Google Scholar
  22. 39.
    Melani McCallster, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945–2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) 22–23.Google Scholar
  23. 49.
    On pressures of assimilation for Fox and other early Hollywood directors, see Claire Pajaczkowsa and Barry Curtis, “Assimilation, Entertainment, and the Hollywood Solution,” in The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, ed., Linda Nochlin and Tamar Garb (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), especially 243–245.Google Scholar
  24. 51.
    Eve Golden, Vamp: The Rise and Fallof Theda Bara (Vestal, NY: Emprise Publishing, 1996), 39.Google Scholar
  25. 52.
    Bryan Cheyette, “Neither Black Nor White: The Figure of ‘the Jew’ in Imperial British Literature.” in The Jew in the Text. Cheyette argues that the inability of nationalist writers like Buchan, Haggard and Kipling to contain the Jew into one stable racial category undergirded larger anxieties of empire. For more on Jewishness and crises in British nationalist thought, see Irene Tucker, A Probable State: The Novel, The Contract and the Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Many thanks to Irene Tucker for her reading suggestions for this chapter.Google Scholar
  26. 63.
    Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies (London: Macmillan, 1986), 44.Google Scholar
  27. 64.
    Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919), in On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, ed, Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper Collins, 1976), 122.Google Scholar
  28. 67.
    Charles Hopkins, “Cleopatra (1934),” Magill’s Survey of Cinema, ed. Frank Magill, vol. 1 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1980), 359.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Francesca T. Royster 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francesca T. Royster

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations