(Estimated read time: 7 minutes)

SONG MEANING: “Cleopatra” by The Lumineers is a modern retelling of the story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The song contains allusions to the historical story of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, and to the play Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare. Want to know more? Keep reading. 

The Lumineers have just released the second single from their forthcoming album Cleopatra, and it’s the namesake for the album, a 3 minute-long ode to lost love from the perspective of a woman named Cleopatra.

The song is typical Lumineers style but a little tricky to figure out lyric-wise. The mood is soft, sad, and mournful, and the sentiments are beautiful. If this song is an indicator of what other things we can expect from their upcoming album, then they have good things in store for us.

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What does “Cleopatra” by The Lumineers mean? 

First Verse

The first verse starts, “I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress.” Wesley Schultz, the lead singer of The Lumineers is singing from the perspective of a woman named Cleopatra (or at least someone who identifies heavily with the story of Cleopatra). She’s “an actress” who appears to have a taste for wild living.

In the song, the “you” (or the romantic interest) “knelt by my mattress and asked for my hand.” Cleopatra is “sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress / With my father in a casket.” The fact that she’s on a mattress while they talk  suggests an intimate relationship, and the black dress suggests that she dresses well or acknowledges her own good looks. Cleopatra the historical figure was born in 69 BC, and her father died in 51 BC, 18 years later, so it makes sense that as she’s ready to make decisions about marriage in The Lumineers’ song and that her father has only recently died.

Unfortunately for the suitor, Cleopatra has “no plans” and doesn’t tell us whether she said “yes” or “no.” For her though, it makes no difference because her lover (shall we call him Mark Antony to match the actual story of Cleopatra?) “left town” without her.

In the actual story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony is one of the three most powerful men in Rome, and Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt. They fall in love in Egypt, but Mark Antony has to leave to attend to work in Rome.

As The Lumineers put it, he left “footprints, the mud stained on the carpet.” In the song, Cleopatra claims, “And it hardened like my heart did when you left town.” She doesn’t clean up the footprints because, as she says a line later, “I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant.” He left her, but she still loves in him.

When Mark Antony went back to Rome, according to Shakespeare, he married another powerful Roman’s sister. But The Lumineers’ Cleopatra doesn’t care and neither does the one from history who kept loving Mark Antony and took him back eventually. The Lumineers sum up Cleopatra’s sentiments quite accurately: “Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around.”

Chorus

The chorus is a woeful reminiscing on past mistakes: “But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life.” Cleopatra blames herself. She (Schultz, that is) sings, “And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die, I’ll be on time.” This appears to be an allusion to Cleopatra’s suicide, which comes later in the story.

Second Verse

In the second verse, Schultz sings, “While the church discouraged any lust that burned within me.” I can find little to connect this to the historical story except that the other powerful rulers of Rome likely did not approve of Mark Antony’s relationship to Cleopatra (especially the ruler whose sister Mark Antony was married to).

Cleopatra was a very beautiful woman. In Shakespeare’s play, Mark Antony says of Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety: other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies.” And in the song, The Lumineers tell us that she says, “Yes, my flesh, it was my currency . . .” She used her looks to bring her power, and perhaps, in some way, they helped her to “gain power” over Mark Antony.

But even though her looks were useful, she didn’t stray from Mark Antony. In the song, she claims she “held true / So I drive a taxi, and the traffic distracts me / From the strangers in my backseat, they remind me of you.” She could have kept being an actress and kept using her good looks to bring her money, but she took care of herself as a taxi driver instead.

Because of the reference to taxi driving, the reference to being an actress, other songs the band has written, and the fact that the band was formed in the New York City area, it is a safe assumption that this story is taking place in New York City. This information and the lines above are what suggest that “Cleopatra” is perhaps a modern retelling of the original story.

Bridge

The story continues with the bridge. Schultz sings, “And the only gifts from my Lord were a birth and a divorce.” Here, Cleopatra is referring to her own birth and possibly to the deaths of her two brothers who served as co-rulers during her reign and to whom she was married at separate times.

Schultz continues, “But I’ve read this script and the costume fits, so I’ll play my part.” The “script” and “costume” seem to be references to Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare. The Cleopatra in the song recognizes who she is and knows that she can only hope to be the mistress to the man she loves, but she accepts this role.

Third Verse

The third verse is the last unique stanza, and in it Cleopatra sings, “I was Cleopatra, I was taller than the rafters.” The rafters could refer to the ceilings of the place she performed her plays, and her height suggests that she was even more famous than the playhouse she acted in. Thus, if she had been a Broadway actress, this would have meant that she was very famous indeed.

But, she says, “[T]hat’s all in the past now, gone with the wind.” She’s moved on and lost it, never to regain it. This relationship and her pursuit of it has taken it all away from her. And she knows that her life is almost over: she sings, “Now a nurse in white shoes leads me back to my guest room / It’s a bed and a bathroom / And a place for the end.”

Final Chorus

In the historical account, Mark Antony returned to Egypt to find Cleopatra, but the rulers back in Rome declared war on Egypt. Mark Antony decided to fight with Cleopatra but lost and blamed Cleopatra. She pretended to have died to see if he still loved her. Hearing of her death, he tried to kill himself but failed to do so immediately. Hearing that he was dying, Cleopatra brought him to her, and he died with her. The Roman rulers then tried to capture her and take her back to Rome, but she killed herself before they could.

Her death is what the final chorus is talking about when Schultz sings, “I won’t be late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life / And when I die alone, when I die along, when I die, I’ll be on time.” Cleopatra made mistakes before, but this time, she’s taking her life into her own hands and taking it with her own hands.

What’d you think of the story of Cleopatra? What’d you think of The Lumineers’ song? Let me know in the comments, and if you can shed more light on how the song matches the history or play, please let me know. Thanks!

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Clifford Stumme has his master’s in English literature and is a blogger and a college instructor/center-director at Liberty University. He likes juggling and reading/writing, and he is married to the wonderful and beautiful Wife April. He thinks pop music is awesome. Seriously awesome.Clifford_Stumme

 

  • Jeff P

    I agree with most of your assessment but I think that you spend too much on the Cleopatra comparisons. I think the only comparisons is that she feels like she is young, beautiful, and full of potential.

    But then life becomes ordinary and she becomes complacent. I think she plays her role as an ordinary person because she sees other doing the same (the script and costume). But she doesn’t like it which leads her to her second Cleopatra comparison: the suicide.

    Just my $0.02

  • Reagan

    I definitely agree in retrospect that this song identifies solely with the Cleopatra figure. I have to say that the scene where she lays in a black dress could possibly be from coming back from her fathers ‘funeral’ as such and therefore has no plans to marry ‘Mark’ and regrets her woeful decision from there on out? Maybe I’m a little out there considering the lime lapse but I love some of your comparisons between the song and figure.

    The song is both tragic and endearing, what a beautiful voice Wesley has. Such a lovely song to listen to, very excited to hear the rest of the album mid April! Thank you for your post it was very insightful.

  • Pablo

    Yikes, I just hear the very end of NPR Q interview with Wesley and he had just finished explaining how the song came about an if I have it right, from the little I heard, it’s based on someone he encountered in his travels in the band. I’m almost positive that’s what he was saying but I guess it’s too early to get the transcripts of the interview though I’ve tried. Plus as well about historical facts that you explained, are really interesting.

    I’m pretty out of the loop these days, so I heard them for the first time today. I’m listening to them nonstop for an hour though and wow, really like these guys. I think Cleopatra is a modern girl that instead of “facebook posts, etc., showing off what a life she has the was doing the opposite”, though I don’t know what that means. Don’t know if he said.

    I’, 51, and besides working all over the world also worked as an escort off n on over the decades and had a lot of guys ‘fall’ for me but I always put it off… life is long…get to this kinda stuff later. Then 10 years after settling down with someone he dies suddenly and all of the sudden I’m ‘old’. Man .. this song really hits home for me. There’s still life left in a guy like me but man, … really made/makes me think about things. That’s enough…

    Great album as well! I like this band! Thanks for this site and your comments here guys and gals.. Pablo

  • amanda

    Based/ inspired by a older taxi driver lady he met in another country. Apparently she told him her life story and it inspired him. I wpuld love to hear her tale!

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  • Josh Forester

    Scroll to 26:30 for the history of this song.

    • Josh Forester

      This message board is stripping URL. Go to Youtube video and replace video id with VtMyMuQANLA at the end. Scroll to 26:30 and you’ll hear the band talk about the history of the song.

      • Woodensignsofautumn Farrell

        Thank you

    • Thanks, Josh, and sorry about the link not going through. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it gets too finicky around possible spam.

  • Peter

    This is all false. The Lumineers specifically state in their video “the Making of Cleopatra” that this song is the retelling of a conversation Schultz had with a female cab driver in the republic of Georgia.

    The lady had shared with him stories of her current and past life with a lover she once had. Schultz, who was very much emotionally effected by the lady’s life story decided to write a song about it.

    The video was produced by the Lumineers and can be seen on their YouTube / Vimeo page.

    • Thanks for the head’s up!

      • Andrew Dowdall

        I love discussions about music on the internet, especially how different people see different meanings in songs. I love reading all the different interpretations. 🙂 Here’s a link to the Lumineers web page where they talk about what their songs are about: http://ew.com/article/2016/02/05/lumineers-new-album-ophelia/. More interesting reading. Enjoy!

  • Andrew

    I also like to think that “gone with the wind” is a play on the actress Vivien Leigh, who played Cleopatra many times during her career, but is best known for starring in the film version of Gone With the Wind.

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  • Sam

    Pretty sure it’s about Elizabeth Taylor.

    • Others in the comments seem to have figured it out. Apparently a taxi cab driver is the real subject?

  • The best part is listening to the Cleopatra acoustic bonus track version from their newest deluxe album, followed by Dead Sea from their first album. It’s the perfect narrative, both perspectives told from far in the future after the immediate sting and bitterness of the now fades away. Give it a try five or six times in a row, you’ll see. Oh, and keep you’re favorite drink around. This one is gonna hurt.

  • Did you give it a try yet? If so what do you think of the narrative/interpretation?

  • Thoughts?

    • Very melancholy. Very beautiful. Somewhat depressing. I don’t know that I found a connection between the two songs, but musically, they worked very well together. Maybe I need stronger wine next time. 😉

  • thedrewman

    Welp, No, I disagree with you, but appreciate your creativeness and history lesson. The song is actually about an actual person that Wesley Schultz met who was driving a cab. Just watch the video. Its about the “What Ifs” Life gives us. I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering how my life might have been different had I decided to play pro baseball. I chose a different path. But I still wonder……………

  • Tammy Bridges

    I actually heard the song for the first time, when i bought the CD. Personally, i agree wit& your historical facts- but i do think it is a song about reincarnation. I think the singer is reminiscing his time as the actual Cleopatra. That’s just my opinion. Thanks!

  • Tammy Bridges

    Great interpretation, though. I have studied lyrical writing and poetry for years, and it seems you have a knack for identifying key aspects of literature. Whether the “baseball” reference is true, i cannot comment on that. I haven’t seen the video. But regardless, if we didn’t have videos, i would have thought you hit the nail mostly on the head.

  • TWoodward

    I have been listening to this song over and over. Thank you for this break down. It is even more beautiful

  • TWoodward

    This was my original thought as well. But Stumme does pull in great historical storytelling.

  • Tammy Bridges

    The more I actually listen to the song (i have yet seen the video) i still hold true to my original idea of reincarnation. Whether the singer himself was actually the reincarnate is not really definite. I say this bc of all of the allusions to “i was…”and, the “now i drive a taxi” verse. Also, the point of the singer talking about going to his “retirement room” to die. In addition to all of this, he keeps referring to, “i was late for this, i was late for that,” but now, just like she, he won’t be late for death. Maybe it’s his chance to start again; (or hers). I love the story of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic, but i stay strong in my belief it is a telling of their story from the reincarnate, whether it be the singer himself, or an interpretation from another point of view. I read up on the history of Cleopatra, of her killing herself by stinging herself in the chest with an asp. She won’t be late for her death. Just as the reincarnate won’t be late for his or her death. The recognition of the retirement room almost makes me think that the reincarnate could be getting ready to kill themselves, as well. He/she won’t be late for death, again. By killing the self, depending on what type of reincarnation one believes in, there are usually many stages one must go through before rebirth. I feel the reincarnate is obviously not satisfied with their current state in life, and would rather start over in another life, where he/she might have a better chance of becoming more like a cleopatra, instead of serving a life of almost indigent slavery to their current life, having to reminisce of previous times. Just a thought.

    • Woodensignsofautumn Farrell

      Hi, the instant i heard the song I assumed it was about reincarnation. From Cleopatra days to present in a taxi cab. As if they continued to meet time after time in different lives. A costume and a script. In reincarnation from what I’ve read. A costume meaning the body and a script the life you’ll lead. It seemed like a good fit for him so he takes on his new souls role/life and lives another life out once again running in to his love, but in a different life again. When you study reincarnation. Souls seem stay around each other through different lifetimes. It in a way it reminded me of the bare naked ladies reincarnation song .

  • Danah Ashcroft

    I also thought it was referring to Elizabeth Taylor. It seems to point to that.

  • Jared Tuks

    Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They fell in love with each other on the set of Cleopatra, there first kiss went so long that the director had to ask to say “cut”. When they met they were both married, they later were married twice and divorced twice. The Vatican actually made a point to take a stance on the marriage calling it a “erotic vagrancy”. Elizabeth also loved to infuriate directors with her tardiness, and as a final act she left strict instructions to be 15 minutes late to her own funeral. This is a good example that two people can hear the same song and derive different meanings from it. But this song is most definitely about Elizabeth Taylor. The Lumineers songs seem to have a lot of mid 1900’s American history embedded in them.

  • Chris Hamad

    Great explanations! You should do more explanations for The Lumineers. The songs I would love explanations for are Gale Song, In the Light, Flowers In Your Hair, and Big Parade. Thanks!

  • Fozzyspeak

    I assumed the black dress was a habit and the divorce from God came because she had sex with that man and had a child. Anyone else see this as a possibility?

  • faenze e.

    Black dress, father in casket. This isn’t difficult.

  • Elizabeth was not in Gone With the Wind. That was Vivien Leigh—who also played Cleopatra in a 1940s film version.

  • Lee

    Wow, this interpretation couldn’t be more off track. Wesley even explains what this song meant. It’s about a female taxi driver. Now whether her name was Cleopatra is unclear but this song certainly has no ties what-so-ever to Cleopatra and Mark Anthony