The Nymphet Sexualization Of Cleopatra In Caesar And Cleopatra (1945)

Cleopatra has inspired artists and writers for generations as a subversive figure, with portrayals that elucidate each era’s attitudes. In Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), Cleopatra is depicted as a nymphet.

Jan 11, 2021By Lynnie McIlvain, BA Classics (Classical Studies)
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Claude Rains as Julius Caesar and Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Wilfrid Newton, 1945; with Vivien Leigh by Gordon Anthony, 1940


Gabriel Pascal directed the film Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945, almost fifty years after the production of the play on which it was based. That play, of the same title and written by George Bernard Shaw, was performed in 1899. It was wildly successful. The film, however, was a complete failure at the box office, despite the fact that it was the most expensive film in British history (at the time).


Caesar And Cleopatra: The Power Of The Ptolemaic Pharaoh

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Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Wilfrid Newton, 1945, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Cleopatra continued a distinguished line of pharaohs and has long been a symbol of female power. Her role was much different than that of the typical Egyptian woman’s, and her life much different as well. She was the sole ruler of the final kingdom of Ptolemaic Egypt—though at times her brothers ruled with her to uphold a traditional facade. Cleopatra was literate and spoke nine languages, according to Plutarch. But perhaps the most empowered portion of Cleopatra’s narrative is that of her romantic endeavors.


Though Cleopatra’s only recorded lovers are Mark Antony and the famous Julius Caesar, her sexuality has become something of renown. This is because her lovers were public but privately selected by the queen herself. A typical royal romance in Egypt was arranged between the siblings for the purpose of keeping the bloodline pure. However, Cleopatra birthed heirs only from Roman men who served her political gains—unlike her brothers. She was ruthless in her pursuit of power, inspiring scholars and creatives for thousands of years.


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Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra; Flora Robson as Ftatateeta in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Wilfrid Newton, 1945, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Naturally then, Cleopatra has also captivated a cinematic audience; even now she is the focus of modern filmmakers. Previous Cleopatra films portrayed Cleopatra as a lady of the night or a soubrette. This capitalizes off of modern interpretations of the queen of Egypt as a sort of opulent femme fatale, warranted from rumors of her promiscuity and murderous nature towards men such as her brothers. Pascal rewrites her as an emotional teenage girl in desperate need of mentorship to set her kingdom and herself back on track. Enter Julius Caesar, ruler of the Roman Empire.

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Almost exclusively in previous (and later proceeding) adaptations of the Cleopatra story, Caesar and Cleopatra’s relationship has been a sexual one, sometimes borne of love and sometimes borne from her pursuit of political capital. By shifting this relationship into one of mentor and mentee, Pascal does not render Cleopatra non-sexual, but perhaps more temptingly so in his film Caesar and Cleopatra. Through this method, he casts Cleopatra as a coquettish nymphet, tempting Caesar—and the audience—though unknowingly.


The Nymphet Archetype 

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Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra on the set ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Cecil Beaton, 1944, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


In Caesar and Cleopatra, Pascal takes inspiration from George Bernard Shaw’s play (also titled Caesar and Cleopatra) to reimagine Cleopatra no longer as a busty, seductive sex symbol but instead as a shy nymphet figure. Author Vladimir Nabokov first coined the term “nymphet” Vladimir Nabokov in his modern erotic classic Lolita. Lolita tells the story of a man entranced and vexed by a young girl who is innocently unaware of her own sexual power over him. From this novel, the archetype was popularized and provided a wider vocabulary with which to discuss predecessors to the genre such as Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Pascal’s adaptation.


Indeed, Nabokov’s vocabulary could not be more fitting. Nabokov defines a nymphet as “between the age limits of nine and fourteen…who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic.” Such is Cleopatra: a young girl who tempts her self-professed mentor Julius Caesar, despite seeming to be utterly unaware of her wiles. And much in the way of other Lolita characters, Cleopatra is sexually vulnerable to Caesar due to his age and power over her and this vulnerability is a tantalizing undercurrent throughout Caesar and Cleopatra.


Vivienne Leigh On Center Stage

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Vivien Leigh by Gordon Anthony, 1940, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


Vivien Leigh is the star of the film and plays Cleopatra. She was very much not a teenager at the time of the film’s recording, but Pascal was able to capitalize on her youthful face and previous reputation to push his interpretation of Cleopatra. Several years prior to the release of Caesar and Cleopatra, Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. This made her very well known and perceived in the public eye often as a juvenile, girl-next-door actress. Her previously-established image played very well into Pascal’s vision for the new Cleopatra.


The audience already anticipated Leigh in the role of a youthful, untested girl, and Pascal delivered this to them. His Cleopatra has very little power in her sexuality. Her costumes are not overtly sexual; they are more tantalizing because of the low-but-not-low-enough necklines of her dresses, her womanly makeup contrasting her demureness.


On-Screen Sexuality, Or The Lack Thereof

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Claude Rains as Julius Caesar and Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Wilfrid Newton, 1945, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


While Pascal’s Cleopatra may not be aware of her sexuality, the other characters certainly are. Cleopatra’s servant maid, named Ftatateeta, remarks not to perfume herself, as Caesar doesn’t like perfume. She also tells Cleopatra not to paint her lips, or else Caesar won’t kiss her. Cleopatra shrugs off her comments with a childlike, “Why would he want to kiss me?” epitomizing her character as a sensual creature desperately unaware of her sensuality.


Just as the typical Cleopatra’s political power enhances her sexuality, so does Pascal’s Cleopatra and her lack of political power. Pascal stages the film so that Julius Caesar is her guardian and guide, though he asserts himself as such instead of her selecting him as in the traditional narrative. Cleopatra on-screen is playful but too innocent to be purposefully seductive as she finds ways to touch Caesar affectionately: stroking his arm to catch his attention while he works, laying fully across his lap to hug him in gratitude.


Pascal encourages the audience’s awareness of her sexual appeal. Liz Taylor’s character of Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1963) is famous for her bath scene, in which the tops of her breasts are fully visible. She is meant to tease the audience with her well-harnessed, barely-contained sexuality. Caesar and Cleopatra also features a bath scene with Vivien Leigh, but in Leigh’s scene, she is half-hidden behind a diaphanous curtain and the camera shot keeps any intimate angles eclipsed. She slips into the water before the audience can catch the peek that Liz Taylor allows us.


Caesar And Cleopatra For The Audience

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Claude Rains; Cecil Parker; Vivien Leigh, and Stewart Granger in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Wilfrid Newton, 1945, via the National Portrait Gallery, London


By portraying Cleopatra in this way, Pascal gives the audience of Caesar and Cleopatra access to guileless, plausible deniability. She is alluring, but not really! She may seem sexual, but she doesn’t mean it! One cannot deny the power that this gives both Caesar and the viewers over Cleopatra. When she is presented as an ignorant child, Caesar can control the way that she rules her kingdom and herself.


Similarly, when the audience is given Cleopatra as an innocent sort of nymphet, they can shift the accountability for their own sexual desire to her, for not being worldly enough to know how to wield and control her female sexuality. Thus Pascal’s Cleopatra is more accessible than any other to both the audience as well as the other male characters in his film.



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Claude Rains as Julius Caesar and Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ by Wilfrid Newton, 1945, National Portrait Gallery


Caesar and Cleopatra is a unique contributor to the Cleopatra genre. Through the arrangement of many careful components as well as well thought through scenes, Pascal shapes a new Cleopatra with her sexuality in a new shape. In this film, Cleopatra the girl-child is open and vulnerable to men, in the audience and on the screen in a way previously unimagined in Hollywood. She performs as an unwitting nymphet in contrast to the other womanly, darkly seductive Cleopatras, though Pascal makes it clear to the audience that his own story of Caesar and Cleopatra, Cleopatra is one to be desired as well.


But desire her differently, he seems to implore the watchers. The audience should desire her as Caesar desires her: from afar, with greedy eyes but not wandering hands.

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By Lynnie McIlvainBA Classics (Classical Studies)Raised in Washington State, Lynnie is an alumna of the Clark College where she primarily studied Art History and English. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree from the University of Puget Sound in a field about which she is even more passionate: Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies. She currently lives in Tacoma WA, and quietly nurtures her love of literature and writing, foraging, and languages alongside her professional career in nonprofit development.