“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Shakespeare has Lysander tell his star-crossed sweetheart Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Ain’t it the truth. Passion, scandal, marriage, remarriage, divorce, murder: Sometimes you can find them all in one famous relationship. What’s missing today, however, is the poetry. I mean, Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries: Not exactly worthy of the Bard, are they? Can you just hear her announcing to him, à la Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to Marc Antony, “I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved”? I don’t think dear Kim would know a bourn’s identity.
Having said that, we decided to comb the tomes, tabloids and tweets of history to give you a little Cook’s tour of amour:
Greek to us
When it comes to epic passion, we moderns have nothing on the ancient Greeks and their rustic cousins, the Macedonians.
Philip II, king of Macedon, was a kind of ancient Henry VIII – a lusty, larger-than-life figure who loved much but none too well. Among the women he took to wife was Olympias, a virginal captive teen princess from the northern Greek kingdom of Epirus whom he met at a religious rite on the island of Samothrace. She bore him two children – Alexander, the future conqueror of the Persian Empire, and Cleopatra, who would become queen of Epirus.
The virile Philip was used to having his way with any number of wives, mistresses and male lovers. Unfortunately for him, Olympias – a cross between Princess Diana and Medea – was not the kind of woman to be gainsaid. As long as her precious boy remained heir presumptive to the throne of Macedon, the hegemony of Greece and Philip’s dream of Persian conquest, Olympias was willing to tolerate the other wives, the trophy mistresses and the boy toys. But when Philip decided to divorce Olympias and take a nice Macedonian girl to wife to make nice, pure-blooded Macedonian babies – thereby jeopardizing Alexander’s claim to the throne and her own dynastic ambitions – well, that was too much.
In a scene dramatized in Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” that would’ve been equally at home in “The Godfather,” Olympias waited until daughter Cleopatra’s wedding day, which Philip staged as a PR event for his achievements. No sooner did he arrive with the bridegroom and son Alexander than he was met by Pausanias, a former lover with an ax to grind and a knife to wield. While Alexander – who would soon ride off to Persia and into history – mopped up the mess left by Dad’s assassination, Mom made sure that her ex-hubby’s young wifey hanged herself and for good measure, crowned the corpse of the assassin, which was hung on a cross, with a laurel wreath, kissing it on the lips.
Whatever else you may say about her, no one can deny that Olympias was a strong woman in a kill-or-be-killed age. That same strength characterized the last Macedonian queen of Egypt, the Cleopatra.
Carry on, Cleo
This Cleopatra was a direct descendant of Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals and, some historians believe, his half-brother by way of one of Philip’s many liaisons. It was Ptolemy who took Alexander’s corpse, encased in a gold sarcophagus, to Alexandria, the port city Alexander himself had founded in Egypt. There, some 250 years later, Cleopatra ruled, guarding his remains and presiding over a cosmopolitan place whose lighthouse was one of the wonders of the ancient world and whose library was its envy.
Alexander was part of Cleopatra’s allure for the Romans – first Julius Caesar and then Antony, his protégé. They wanted to be winners like him. They also liked Egypt’s strategic location as a bridge between the East and the West and its grain supplies.
But there was also plenty to like about the lady herself. Though not the siren of propaganda, she was something far more interesting – a woman of wit and charm who had been educated like a man and who could hold forth on any number of subjects.
Though proud of her Macedonian descent, she was a true daughter of Egypt, the first of the Ptolemaic dynasty to speak the Egyptian language – one of several she commanded – observe the Egyptian customs, worship the Egyptian gods. She never forgot that the first duty of a ruler is to her people. In this, she was very much like England’s Elizabeth I. But unlike Elizabeth – a head-over-heart-girl if there ever was one, who kept men at bay – Cleo backed the wrong horses, so to speak. To protect Egypt, she threw in her lot with Julius Caesar, whom she bore a son, Caesarion. Caesar then had the misfortune to be assassinated.
With Antony, whom she married, Cleopatra had three children – the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and Ptolemy Philadelphus. But Antony – also husband to Caesar’s grand-niece, Octavia – proved no luckier than Caesar, winding up on the losing side of the battle for empire and Caesar’s legacy with his brother-in-law, Caesar’s heir, Octavian (later Caesar Augustus).
With Antony a suicide and the impervious Octavian longing to parade her in chains through the streets of Rome, Cleopatra applied the poisonous asp to her body and stepped into immortality.
Art and life
Much of this is captured – right down to Alexander’s golden, now lost, sarcophagus – in the 1963 movie “Cleopatra.” Has there ever been another movie in which the story served as a metaphor for what was going on off-camera? Just as Cleo and Tony fell for each other, Liz and Dick – as the tabloids dubbed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – fell for each other while playing Cleopatra and her Antony. Depending on whether she or he were telling the story, they either met in 1950s Hollywood at the home she then shared with her second husband, Michael Wilding (her version) or at a pool party given by Stewart Granger and his wife (and Burton’s “The Robe” co-star) Jean Simmons (his take). In either case, he was the wild Welsh-born Shakespearean on the make, in more ways than one. (Fittingly enough, one of his early roles was Alexander the Great.) She was the coolly appraising established star determined not to be another notch on the Burton belt.
But on the sultry, seemingly endless set of “Cleo” in the Eternal City, determination gave way to passion. Soon it was a paparazzi-punctuated, Vatican-denouncing tale of divorce, marriage, divorce, remarriage, globe-trotting, jewelry, box office hits, a six-pack of kids from various marriages, box-office bonanzas and more jewelry that ended with his death in 1984. (Taylor died last year.)
Brangelina is nothing compared to this duo. But then, few couples ever were. According to “Furious Love,” Sam Kashner and Nancy Shoenberger’s juicy recent rehash of the Taylor-Burton romance, Burton sequestered himself on the last day of his life in the study of his Swiss home, surrounded by the 1,000 volumes Taylor had given him, and wrote her a letter.
He later died in his sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage. So among his last thoughts were those of her.
(Editors, please note: This is a companion piece to the preceding story)
Thank God for the British royals. They allow us to enjoy all the romantic drama of monarchy while feeling smugly superior that we don’t have one:
The lioness in summer
The French-identified Plantagenets, who ruled England through the Middle Ages, were the Rolls Royce of royal families. And no one out-Plantageneted them more than the founding matriarch, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Here was a woman who had it all – beauty, brains, talent, money, land, power, influence, a memorable brood and not one but two kingly husbands. The first was Louis VII of France, whom she accompanied on a crusade to the Holy Land. This union, which produced two girls, was a bit of a dud. So faster than you can say “irreconcilable differences,” the marriage was dissolved.
The second match proved legendary: Eleanor proposed marriage to a young nobleman some 10 years her junior. Henry was an attractive guy with good prospects. After all, he was count of Anjou, duke of Normandy and the future Henry II of England.
Their union was the stuff of Broadway plays and Hollywood movies (“The Lion in Winter,” anyone?), with various adulteries (his) and political intrigues and imprisonment (hers). Like Alexander the Great’s mother Olympias, Eleanor had dynasty dreams for her five sons and three daughters by Henry. The oldest two boys died young. But the third and favorite would pass into myth as Richard the Lionheart. He was succeeded by his bad-boy baby bro, John, and Eleanor – having out-lived her sparring hubby to immerse herself in the adult lives of her well-connected children — earned a place as one of the most influential women in history.
After some 300 years, it was time for a new dynasty to take the reins. Still, Henry Tudor (Henry VII) and his wife, Elizabeth of York, could lay claim to some Plantagenet blood. Their second son would prove to be one of England’s most famous kings, though not necessarily for the best of reasons. Henry VIII was a real Renaissance man – handsome, virile, erudite, “Defender of the Faith” against the newfangled Lutheranism and chivalrous husband to his brother’s accomplished young widow, Catherine of Aragon, with whom he had a daughter, Mary.
And then it all went to Hades in a handbasket. He threw over Catherine and his Roman Catholic faith for the bewitching Rules Girl Anne Boleyn, then beheaded her when he tired of her, accusing her of being unfaithful (not) and married the slyly demure Jane Seymour, who died after giving birth to his longed-for son, Edward VI.
Never the most original of lovers, Henry’s fourth, fifth and sixth marriages replayed the first three. He divorced wife number four, the dumpling-like Anne of Cleves, as he had number one (the long-suffering Catherine of Aragon). At least Anne got some perks out of the deal. Then he beheaded number five, good-time girl Katherine Howard, as he had number two (Anne Boleyn). Number six, the motherly widow Catherine Parr, survived him barely. But she would later remarry and die in childbirth, like number three (Jane Seymour).
Is it any wonder that Henry’s greatest progeny and England’s greatest ruler, Elizabeth I, never married? Elizabeth, who was 3 when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded, saw one kindly stepmother after another wrenched from her young life, then had to witness her half-sister Mary’s humiliating marriage to the grasping, pietistic Philip II of Spain, a man who could’ve bored Jesus himself. When Philip, whose real interest was in adding England to the Spanish empire, came sniffing around Elizabeth after Mary died, she coolly asked him what the chances were that he would make her happy, given that he had made her sister miserable.
Besides, Bess – who liked cards, games, sweets and dirty dancing – was more of a bad-boy type. She was delighted to play cougar to her “Frog,” François, the flirty young duke of Alençon, though the great love of her life was her childhood playmate, Robert Dudley, whom she made Master of the Horse and then Earl of Leicester (and who’s been played by lots of studs, including Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes and Tom Hardy). Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) scandalized the court by being too familiar with the queen, while his sickly wife, Amy, stayed at home. When Amy was found dead at the bottom of a staircase – a possible suicide – it fanned rumors of a murder driven by the queen’s illicit love.
Perhaps not so ironically, Bess would later flirt with Dudley’s dashing stepson, the Earl of Essex, who unlike his stepfather had the bad sense to overstep his political bounds and lost his head.
But the famed “Virgin Queen” probably really was so. After Alençon left to help the Protestant cause in the Netherlands and she lost her last chance for marriage and children, Elizabeth penned this sonnet:
“I grieve and dare not show my discontent,
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate,
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned.”
“Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.”
The queen who was described as “more than a man but less than a woman,” was married only to her country.
“Yet this I esteem the most glory of my crown,” she told Parliament in 1601, “that I have reigned with your loves.”
Windsor (love) knots
England’s current royal family, the House of Windsor, is certainly no stranger to amorous scandals, producing one of the greatest love affairs of the 20th century as well as one of the greatest icons.
Many members of the Greatest Generation were probably schoolboys and girls tuned to the radio when Edward VIII abdicated his throne in 1936 for “the woman I love” – Wallis Warfield Simpson – a tale Madonna retells in her directorial debut, “W./E.,” opening Feb. 3. Wallis was everything the Brits despised – an American upstart and a gay divorcée, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. When it became clear that she could not be a queen to Edward’s king, he chose consort over crown and country. The two led a glamorous, jet-set life that sometimes crossed paths with the likes of Liz and Dick.