Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Cleopatra

Cleopatra: A Life 
By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown, and Co. 2010

Stacy Schiff is a very gifted biographer. She turns everything you thought you knew about Cleopatra on its head. Cleopatra’s seductive nature, her stunning beauty, and that infamous snake may all turn out to be creations of the Romans who couldn’t uphold the image of a brilliant, powerful, female ruler.

In her first chapter, Ms. Schiff writes “I have not attempted to fill in the blanks, though on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. What looks merely probable here remains merely probable – though opinions differ radically even on the probabilities. The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context.” I appreciate this in a biography. I think that, often, biographers use conjecture as fact. While the author here will provide options, she is not afraid to conclude that we just do not know what happened or why something occurred the way that it did.

While this is a biography of Cleopatra, Schiff also examines the men who affected her life – Caesar, Antony, and Cicero. Some of the best moments in the book occur when examining the relationship between the Egyptian queen and the Roman dignitaries. Cleopatra’s relationships with Caesar and Antony are carefully scrutinized. The idea of a teenager seducing two men who were known womanizers seems suspect at best. Schiff has the insight to examine all angles of the relationships – romantic and political. Cleopatra seems to have stirred nothing but frustration and disgust in Cicero. One imagines that, if he lived today, he might have a talk show on a news station where he could lambaste everyone he did not like.  “Cicero liked to believe himself wealthy. He prided himself on his books. He needed no further reason to dislike Cleopatra: intelligent women who had better libraries than he did offended him on three counts.”

One of the most interesting sections was the one concerning her death. It is part of our ingrained ‘knowledge’ that Antony and Cleopatra died together, from a snake bite. We’ve seen this depicted by Shaw, Shakespeare, and that infamous movie. However, Schiff’s research reveals that they died separately. She also indicates that Cleopatra is much too educated and resourceful to die by snakebite, which would result in painful, drawn-out suffering.

Cleopatra presents the reader with a comprehensive picture of the infamous queen. She is neither hero nor villain; rather she is a woman who was a smart and able ruler. She is a woman who loved; certainly her children and her people, if not her two lovers. Schiff is able to look past modern culture’s perception of Cleopatra as Elizabeth Taylor, she of the kohled eyes and alluring gaze, who tumbles gracefully out of a carpet to seduce the much older Caesar. “Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent,” she writes. Instead, she presents us with a real woman, with flaws and faults, who reigned over Egypt more intelligently than many of her male predecessors. Ms. Schiff has written an excellent study of a woman who rose above the societal rules of her time to become a ruler who will live in the annals of history forever. 

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