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.