The recent publication and popularity of Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra has brought back memories of productions I’ve seen of this moving play about adult heterosexual love experienced in a Roman world unconducive to playfulness and passion. When I was in my early twenties, I took my mother for see a production by the Shakespeare company in Connecticut. Kathryn Hepburn played the Egyptian queen while Robert Ryan acted the part of Antony. Hepburn was able to bring to this demanding role both the coquettishness, sensuality and jealousy of Cleopatra in the early acts and the majesty and strength of this same woman in the closing scenes. But what lives most vividly in my memory is a 1974 television production staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). And of those memories, the strongest is of the costume Cleopatra wore as she prepares herself for death. Once Antony is dead, she sees no reason to stay alive since the world has lost its luster for her. She also refuses, as the political animal she is, to be humiliated by Caesar who plans to parade her through the streets of Rome.
Just before she begins to clad herself for death, Cleopatra says that she is “marble constant,” no longer under the sway of a changing moon. As her women help her into her robes, she claims only fire and air as her elements, shedding her essential human nature composed so bountifully as it has been of earth and water. The RSC accented this fundamental shift in personality through costuming and camera work. Focusing directly on her face as she enrobes, the camera withholds the effect of that robe until the words are delivered. Only then do we “see” the garment, though its opulence has been hinted at by letting us glimpse the design. The camera pans away from Cleopatra’s face until she stands, alone and magnificent, fully clothed to meet and overcome her final adversary, Death. Dominated by the blue that has emblemized Egypt in all former costumes and jewelry, the robe encases her body. The actor stands utterly straight and still with arms outstretched, creating the geometric impression of an inverted pyramid. The robe is studded with jewels and sewn with thread of gold; its richness corresponds to Cleopatra’s own unstaleable variety, but its heavy formality works to remind us that this time, thought she goes once more to meet her love, the game is for keeps, the setting more thoroughly royal than any earthly court of bedchamber can hope to be.
The fact that the costume stands apart from her body serves both as contrast to previously worn garments, all of which accentuated her sensuality and physicality by their looseness and clinginess. Now she appears statuesque, splendidly preserved while still alive. Once we see her in her final armor, the details of placing the asp to her breast and of becoming the crown of her own tomb are just that—details which complete the required action of the play. But the wench of the Nile is lost to us from the moment that blue robe touches her flesh. That she chooses to die as Queen serves to raise her sensuous playfulness to a level appropriate to someone who “has immortal longings” in her. That the director of this production costumed her so colorfully yet so abstractly only affirms one of Shakespeare’s major themes in this play—the sacred and the profane still merge in Egypt, though Rome has split them asunder.