I have never set foot inside the Folger Shakespeare Library, a dereliction I hope will be excused by the fact that it lies about twelve hundred miles down the road. Although I am not a patron, and am very unlikely to become one, the Folger Shakespeare Library nevertheless sends me notices of its upcoming events–indeed it did so just this morning. The event is a performance of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, in which they tell me the actress Shirine Babb will play the famous Siren of the Nile.
As you can see, Ms. Babb’s ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa, most probably somewhere on the shores of the great Gulf of Guinea. This happens to be about twice as far from Egypt as I am from the Folger Shakespeare Library, and even today the roads are worse (but the airfare is lower).
Cleopatra was, in reality, the last in the line of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, which had begun 275 years earlier, in 305 B.C., when Alexander the Great placed one of his Macedonian bodyguards on the throne of Egypt. All of the subsequent Ptolomies, male and female, were likewise Macedonians, which is to say at least as White as, say, Angela Merkel (although without her advanced ideas about miscegenation).
If Cleopatra was even slightly brown, which is unlikely, it was due to accidental tanning by the fierce Egyptian sun.
I known nothing about Ms. Babb’s thespian ability, and am happy to assume that it is considerable. And I would not normally insist that dramatic roles always show a slavish fidelity to historical facts (racial or otherwise). Shakespeare’s play is, after all, a work of art from early seventeenth-century England, and not a work of history about Egypt in the first century B.C.
However, I am also aware of a difference between poetic license and propaganda, the essence of the difference being that the former is done to heighten delight and the latter is done to deepen delusion. The purpose of poetry, as Aristotle taught, is delight–preferably ennobling delight. The purpose of propaganda (modern sense) is manipulation of public opinion to the advantage of the manipulator.
Whatever her thespian ability may be (and, as I said, it may be considerable), I cannot overcome the suspicion that Ms. Babb was cast as Cleopatra in the hope that doing so will leave some in the audience at the Folger Shakespeare Theater with the vague impression that Egyptian civilization was African. Not only that, but that it was an African civilization cruelly crushed under the imperial heel of Rome.
Just below the photographs of Ms. Babb, the Folger Shakespeare Library lists “five facts that separate the imagined Cleopatra from the historical Queen.”
This is, of course, Cleopatra for twenty-first century career women. The lady was ferociously intelligent (1), and yet so sexy as to drive other women into a frenzy of jealous emulation (4). She was ruthless, most especially with respect male rivals (2), and utterly impious when it came to her ancestors (5). And she was, last but very far from least, a wine-bibber and a party girl (3). She was, in short, pretty much the prototype of every modern office harpy you’ve ever met.
I guess five facts is all we can expect anyone to handle, but if there were space enough, and time, they might have included the sixth fact that Cleopatra looked nothing whatsoever like Shirine Babb, and that if you wish to see her likeness today, you will find her living in the shadow of some dark Balkan hill, and not on the sunny shore of the great Gulf of Guinea.