Thursday, February 24, 2011

Character Connection: Cleopatra

There are a lot of great reviews of Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life already. I’ll join the chorus of those who think Schiff did a first-rate job of fitting together pieces of Cleopatra’s life that I didn’t know existed, and explaining along with them the geopolitical realities of the Romans’ Mediterranean world. I didn’t know what else I could actually add to the chorus. That’s why after struggling with this review for about a month, I finally decided to write it as a Character Connection.

Cleopatra, like Eleanor of Aquitaine more than a thousand years later, suffers in historical record for being a powerful woman whose legacy was recorded by men – men who had reason to hate her, to say the least. A bit depressing, isn’t it? Schiff’s biography does what so many other feminist-inspired works are forced to do: it imagines the day-to-day life and the motivations of a woman who was not privileged to tell her own story in her own way. Love the method or hate it, we already know Cleopatra’s story from the dominant, hegemonic vantage point: Vamp. Temptress. Usurper. Schiff reconceptualizes Cleopatra as something far more interesting: a woman. I’d call it a valiant effort.

Schiff doesn’t ignore primary accounts, but seeks to contextualize them, giving Cleopatra a complexity impossible to achieve by looking at those texts alone. At one point, she takes issue with Cleopatra’s legendary ability to “bewitch” men:

The consort of two men of voracious sexual appetite and innumerable sexual conquests, Cleopatra would go down in history as the snare, the delusion, the seductress. Citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts. In the same way it is easier to ascribe her power to magic than to love. We have evidence of neither, but the first can at least be explained; with magic one forfeits rather than loses the game. Kindle Location 2604

I read Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life during the Prince William-Kate Middleton engagement flurry. What struck me most was how William and Kate seemed to be trying so hard to just be like any young couple. The emphasis of the entire public relations campaign – and this royal-commoner engagement represents a massive PR campaign – was on their “love story.” Why? Because a love story is the one thing that royals might have in common with people like us. Sure, making them seem normal might take away some of the monarchy’s mystique – but their PR pros know it also makes them less vulnerable to attack.

In the absence of a personal narrative – even one contrived for public consumption – Cleopatra was easy to vilify. If only Cleopatra had left us her story, others would not have been able to fill the void with venom so easily. I appreciated Schiff’s attempt to give Cleopatra some kind of voice. Like a lawyer making a case, Schiff examines the motives behind the claims made against her. She can’t call her client to the witness stand, so instead she pokes holes in the opposing case. It’s not conclusive in the end, but if posterity is Cleopatra’s jury, Schiff gives it something to ponder. I’d highly recommend this to lovers of history, and for those interested in feminist scholarship. Though well-documented, it is a pretty light read – you certainly don’t have to be a student of history to enjoy reading this book.

Thanks to Jen at the Introverted Reader for hosting Character Connection. And what do you know? She’s also hosting the Dewey Decimal Challenge, which I am currently tearing up, with yet another non-fiction read! So thanks again, Jen.


  1. I've heard mixed things about this novel but Cleopatra sure is intriguing isn't she!

  2. I started reading Cleopatra in December and set it aside when my dad took a turn for the worse and I had to rush home. It sounds like I need to pick it back up.

  3. I've seen this so many places, but haven't read it yet. I am looking forward to sharing Persephone reading weekend with you. :)

  4. I won the audio version and am looking forward to giving it a try soon. Nice review on this one.

  5. Amused -- I really loved it, but I know the detail and political history made some people nuts!

    Kathy -- Funny, I stopped and started it a few times as well. I finally made a push on a sleepless night (amazing how often this happens to me).

    Bellezza -- I have planned a Persephone weekend -- Mrs. Craven in print and finishing up Miss Pettigrew on audio. Actually, a very "lady-like" weekend. What will you be reading?

    Diane -- I think the audio on this would be great (Beth Fish Reads did a review of the audio, I think). I read it on Kindle. I did wind up running to the computer a lot for maps (so many of the countries they discuss no longer exist).

  6. +JMJ+

    I love the comparison you make between the controversial royals of the past and the PR-savvy royals of the present! Roman historians weren't very kind to Cleopatra, were they?

    But although she didn't tell her story in her own way, she certainly lived her life in her own way--and even got the last say in her death. I remember one class I had in uni that looked at a poem Horace wrote about Cleopatra after her death. It was very ambivalent: he obviously didn't think much of the strange foreign queen, but he also admired the manner of her death. My lecturer pointed out that suicide was very honourable among the Romans. It threw them a little that she had lived like an Egyptian (which was "bad") but died like a Roman (which was "good").

    Thank you for visiting my blog. =)

  7. I do believe that Cleopatra is the woman who immediately comes to mind when I see one of those "Well-behaved women rarely make history" bumper stickers. Whatever anyone else thought of her at the time, she gained immortality, something comparatively few of them did. Game, set, and match to the "wanton" queen!

  8. Enbrethilie -- Thanks for stopping by. You're right, the Roman historians made a business out of being unkind to Cleopatra. I am going to look up that Horace poem!

    Jen -- Exactly. In Cleopatra's case, dying well seems to have been the best revenge!


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