(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.
What does “Cleopatra” by The Lumineers mean?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.