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 
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© Francesca T. Royster 2003

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  • Francesca T. Royster

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