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January 16, 2012

Stacy Schiff’s new biography of Cleopatra is so speculative and so fixed on what little is known for sure about the Egyptian queen that it ends up making me think of what Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit says about the grandmother he has kidnapped: “she would of been a good woman… if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” With Cleopatra, of course, there was.

I read the book because it was the Imaginary Friends Book Club discussion topic for today, not because it’s the kind of book I would pick up on my own. And it was a bit of a struggle for me to get through it, but I persevered, and it finally got a little better as far as the endless speculation went. Early on, Schiff can’t say much for sure about Cleopatra herself and spends chapter after chapter describing what is known about her culture in case this would have gone for the personification of Isis on earth, too:

“Cleopatra’s was a speechifying culture, appreciative of the shapely argument, of the fine arts of persuasion and refutation. One declaimed with a codified vocabulary and an arsenal of gestures, in something of a cross between the laws of verse and those of parliamentary procedure. Cleopatra learned to marshal her thoughts precisely, express them artistically, deliver them gracefully.

The speculation got most wearying for me in the chapters about Cleopatra and Caesar. This is a good story, and one that everyone already knows, so it seemed to me particularly boring to hear Schiff couch her guesses in proper historical terms:

“You could argue that Caesar had no particular affection for Cleopatra, that the two only happened to find themselves on the same side of a baffling war, but it would be easier to argue that she had no affection for him….The two were inseparable.”

Schiff makes a couple of good points about how the story of Caesar and Cleopatra has been told through the ages, and why, but there’s no big reward for readers who manage to make their way through her nitpicking about who had the upper hand and why. Even she admits “that an easy rapport if not a great passion developed between Cleopatra and Caesar” and then describes the way the foreign Queen “confused the categories and flouted convention” while in Rome. Nothing particularly new there, but Schiff is setting the scene. Eventually, in case anyone in her audience is still awake, she opens the curtains to show her stage piled with evidence that Cleopatra was “a philosopher physician, scientist, scholar” but that her relationship with Caesar resulted in the stories about how she was a woman “suspect for being too good at her craft, whose talents can be attributed only to ‘magic arts and charms.’”

Thus the scene is set for the central story, that of Cleopatra and Antony, the story for which, even in Schiff’s matter-of-fact hands, “the drama understandably overwhelms the history.” There are great sub-plots, like the story of Herod and Alexandra, and Schiff the impartial historian finally gives way to Schiff the talented storyteller. She even allows herself jabs at other historians: “One of the greatest twentieth-century classicists has Cleopatra working through Antony, like a parasite, to realize ambitions she may never have considered.” This is the part of the book that finally made me glad I was reading it.

Schiff’s summation is nothing less than masterful, although she undercuts it by getting all dry and professorial after a sweeping survey of how Cleopatra has been depicted in fiction: “we will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight.” Then she puts on the feminist to shout that Cleopatra’s “crime was to have entered into those same ‘wily and suspicious’ marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed.” But then she again builds on the scene she has set so painstakingly, having earned the right to assert that

“For some time she haunted the ancient imagination, primarily as a cautionary tale. Under Augustus the institution of marriage took on a new luster, a development that boded poorly for Cleopatra, the destabilizing, domineering home wrecker. She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy. From Plutarch descends history’s greatest love story, though Cleopatra’s life was neither as lurid nor as romantic as has been made out. And she became a femme fatale twice over….For Antony to have succumbed to something other than a fellow Roman, Cleopatra had to be a disarming seductress….It can be difficult to say where vengeance ends and homage begins. Her power was immediately enhanced because—for one man’s historical purposes—she needed to have reduced another to abject slavery.”

I am glad to know more about the character I knew mostly from Shakespeare. It doesn’t spoil my image of the asp in a basket of figs to know more about the kinds of weapons that were available to Cleopatra. Having read Schiff makes me admire the way she survived on the edge for 39 years, turning my head away—with some difficulty–from the vision of her courage in Shakespeare’s final act.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    January 16, 2012 10:20 am

    Yes, exactly. Nail on the head.

    • January 18, 2012 8:45 am

      It amuses me that we agree so much, especially since you picked this book.

  2. January 16, 2012 10:57 am

    I’d linked to your review even before reading it because I knew you’d do a more proper job reviewing the book 🙂

    • January 18, 2012 8:47 am

      Good thing I didn’t go off on some wild tangent you’d disagree wildly with, isn’t it?

      • January 18, 2012 9:21 pm

        Oh I meant more that you always do such a solid and thorough job reviewing books–I’m more just tossing out my opinion so that’s why I offer you up as the good example.

  3. January 16, 2012 2:33 pm

    🙂 I like these comments. I enjoyed the “Cleo and Her Times” angle, perhaps because i don;t know very much about Ancient History. Now I know whom to blame for Geometry, and I liked Schiff’s comment that the Egyptians didn’t know what to do with it, either.

    Really liked Schiff’s narrative voice, too.

    • January 18, 2012 8:48 am

      Yes, I think her voice is why the book has gotten so much attention. When she really lets herself go (in the Antony section), it’s almost novelistic, like Eric Larson’s.

  4. January 16, 2012 4:03 pm

    🙂 I like “in case anyone in her audience is still awake.” Maybe this would be worth a skim rather than a focused read?

  5. January 16, 2012 5:16 pm

    Well, I was excited about this book, but also worried at the same time. I do own a copy, so I guess I will have to see how it goes…

    • January 18, 2012 8:50 am

      As I said, it’s not a book I would have picked up on my own, so you might like it better. I don’t read a lot of biography.

  6. January 17, 2012 8:33 am

    I found this book to be too dry and academic, but my mother enjoyed it.

    • January 18, 2012 8:50 am

      Funny, I’m sending my copy to my mother! She remembers the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra.

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