When in Egypt, amirite? I was going to pit this as a battle of two Cleopatra books with the Shakespeare play but it turns out I had a lot to say so I ended up splitting them. For the best I think, as they’re both so different- Shakespeare’s play is one layer in the myths of this real historical woman that Schiff is trying to dig through. In that context, Shakespeare is maybe one of the best known mythmakers; his play helped carry the myth of Cleopatra forward while at the same time solidifyng stereotypes and layering on Elizabethan social commentary. Schiff is a historian trying to reconstruct the real life of a real woman whose city and monuments have disappeared (sunken into the sea or disintegrated in the damp coastal soil/air).
Stacey Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, with a penchant for biographies (Vera, her biography of Nabakov’s wife, is what won her the Pulitzer). She turns her stylish prose to one of history’s most infamous women, Egypt’s last queen.
Born into the Ptolemy dynasty (the Macedonians had ruled Egypt since Alexander the Great planted his flag there in the 300BCE era), remarkably little survives about Cleopatra except from the perspective of writers from her vanquisher, Rome. Accordingly, Schiff’s attempt to puzzle reality from the propaganda is no easy task- not only are the historical sources lacking/ biased, we have millennia of artists stamping their impression over the Roman portrait- Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor color our perceptions of this real woman and her accomplishments.
The review excerpts on the back cover/ initial pages are glowing and I agree- this was fabulous. Schiff is adept at contrasting contemporaneous historians and providing context to their opinions of Cleopatra and her accomplishments. Where no biographical information is available she reaches to appropriate generalities, such as what kind of education Cleopatra likely received given her standing and geographic location. She teases apart narratives to give us a surprisingly personal account of a remarkable woman, who should be remembered more for her accomplishments and keen talents at political strategy than seduction.
Schiff gives us background that paints a very different picture than Shakespeare’s play, although no less complex a woman. Cleopatra was born into a family where siblings, parents and children all murdered each other to keep their grip on power. Moreover, she was born at a time when Rome was the great maurading power on the horizon- Egypt was a rich country but did not have the military might to fend off the rapacious colonizer. She used her wily wits, honed via a top notch classical education and street smarts gained from family politicking, to play different Roman factions off against each other- she had borne a child to the still-respected Julius Ceaser and his death meant she (and that child, Ceaserion) were already targets to any Roman successor. In choosing Marc Antony, a gregarious, educated, brave and successful general, she was giving Egypt what she felt was the best chance of escaping becoming a Roman colony. If that meant mixing sex with politics- well, she was using all the tools at her disposal. Lucky in love, unlucky in Octavian’s machinations getting the better of Antony.
I would (and am) recommending Schiff’s book to everyone- so interesting, so informative, incredibly well written. (If you can I would read it while drifting down the Nile, but its still a fascinating read even on your couch, nowhere near Egypt).
Counting this one as the ‘Recommended’ square for cbr14bingo