A Shakespeare Connected exhibition in collaboration with Islam Issa, Birmingham City University

“Age cannot wither her”. The most pertinent description of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s tragedy stands true today. While it alludes to Cleopatra’s beauty and status, it points to her ageless prevalence as a historical and – in Egypt’s case – national icon.

Cleopatra’s character continues to intrigue and defy the tests of time. One way in which this happens is through her cultural and literary legacy, most famously Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Like my parents and grandparents, Cleopatra VII was born and lived in Alexandria. She is a source of pride: I grew up hearing tales about her in an Egyptian household (where little ancient Egyptian models and papyrus paper are never more than one room away).

Cleopatra, I would learn, aspired to have a huge library. She was an intellectual who debated powerful men. She was learned in philosophy and astronomy. She spoke eight foreign languages.  Seeing the latest RSC performance of the play reminded me of the dominance of orientalism, presenting Cleopatra as an exotic and inferior woman. Such interpretations have been common since the first performance in 1607.

This online exhibition re-gathers in order to re-claim. The items include Shakespeare’s sources and responses to Cleopatra’s character, appearance, and dress. These are accompanied by less-known aspects of Cleopatra’s character as well as details about modern-day Egypt, where a figure with one of the most famous deaths in Shakespeare remains very much alive.

This recent piece is a fusion of Mediterranean and Ancient Egyptian musical styles. It was composed as part of an advertising campaign for "Ceramica Cleopatra", a leading ceramics and tiles company in the Middle East.


With thanks to the Museums and Universities Partnership Initiative (an Arts Council funded project).