Monday, January 16, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff Little, Brown & Co; 2010

Opinions on this book seem quite divided within our group. We all seem to have taken an informal approach to it, so I will join in that vein. ("Baaa, baa," I hear you cry. Cleo trained to be a ruthless and clever schemer; I trained to make intellectual comments about the development of their romance novel over a thirty year period.)

Some of us disliked the speculative nature of this book. I didn't mind that angle at all, particularly given that, as Schiff notes, it's difficult to preserve papyrus and Alexandria is underwater. With the passage of time and the handicap of history written by victors, a paucity of direct and flattering information on Cleopatra is inevitable at best. ("[T]he turncoats wrote the history." page 297) To my mind, Schiff did an excellent job at presenting the culture around Cleopatra; she even managed to make me interested in the many intersections between political, personal and family power over the years.

Perhaps it is my love of mystery novels that slants my bias, but I enjoyed reading what Schiff could tease out from the narratives of Cleopatra's enemies toward presenting multiple possible motivations and opinions. That which the turncoats wrote guarantees that many layers of myth could and did build up, which makes what lies beneath all the more interesting to me. I am not left persuaded that Cleopatra harbored any deep emotional affection for Mark Antony, Taylor/ Burton/ Shakespeare be damned, but I do come away persuaded that she understood Antony far better than perhaps anyone else in her life.

I'm most struck, though I'm not sure Schiff intended this, by the immense lack of privacy in Cleopatra's life. Obviously the standards for privacy two thousand years ago for a woman born a goddess differ quite a bit from my own in 2012, but to have one's every moment known widely abroad, and almost certainly used as a weapon later on, must have taken an immense toll upon Cleopatra and her contemporaries. The need for large-scale public demonstration of status to as to maintain that position eliminated a certain amount of security.

In a perfect world, I could assign Chapter IX, "The Wickedest Woman In History" to a wide audience. Schiff delineates the ways in which a life gets recast and revised (reshaped, etc.) to fulfill particular agendas that change over time. In an era when we keep being promised "unbiased" news, Schiff offers a healthy reminder.

I grew up with an image of Cleopatra as a clever and capable ruler, one who killed to preserve her own status and one who took life on her own terms; I admired this. It was disconcerting to learn later on about "evil Cleopatra" she who slept around, seduced "innocent" men like Caesar and all of that therein. Elizabeth Taylor might have sullied Cleopatra for a generation, but I have to ask how many people who might sneer at Cleopatra today have seen Taylor in the role. Most of the people I meet read Shakespeare only in high school, and they read one of the tragedies, or possiblyA Midsummer Night's Dream. In my biased opinion, Cleopatra primarily lives on in pop culture as Queen of Egypt, rather than as Shakespeare and his kith saw her. Example: she gets a passing reference, with the implication that she's a desirable woman whom the Doctor knows well in the new series of Doctor Who.

To be remembered as a ruler, beautiful and brilliant, with the men of her life a bit vague, is pretty good for a woman whose deeds live on through the words of the turncoats.


Jeanne said...

It really is pretty good.

I felt like I met Cleopatra when I first read the Shakespeare play, at 19, and reacted to it as a first whiff of how a powerful woman could be seductive. "A woman of infinite variety" was something I aspired to be, from that moment on.

FreshHell said...

Yes. You touched on a lot of the same things I was thinking as I read it and had entirely forgotten. I have never seen more than bits of the Taylor movie so it hasn't colored how I think of Cleopatra. And, as far as her "beauty" goes, looking at the coins that may or may not have been carved in her likeness? I think standards of beauty are different for each culture. She would most likely not be considered beautiful now but perhaps "handsome" or "interesting". Which is a back handed compliment.