Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy SchiffCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Published by Back Bay Books ISBN: 0316001945
on September 6, 2011
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Pages: 432
Format: E-Book, eBook
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
four-half-stars

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and—after his murder—three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

I think Cleopatra can best be summed up in a line from the immortal Beyoncé’s song “Formation.”

Beyoncé Gif

In all seriousness, this is a great biography, and I learned a lot. Schiff argues that Cleopatra’s legacy can be summed up by the fact that “in two thousand years only one or two other women could be said to have wielded unrestricted authority over so vast a realm.” Unfortunately, her story was co-opted by her enemies, and so she is known to history as a wily seductress, an ambitious temptress, and a deviant whore. Schiff explains that she was none of those things. What she was, however, was a smart, capable, formidable woman—a total badass. Shiff says that “her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy” and asserts that “the turncoats wrote [her] history.”

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.

Yes, QUEEN! Preach! Shiff’s appropriate eulogy is that Cleopatra “convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and—with all her might—struggled to make it so.”

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

This biography is well-written and engaging. Schiff’s research must have been difficult since history has been so unkind to Cleopatra. She must have had to do a great deal of reading between the lines to uncover a more balanced portrait. If Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s life attempts to tip the scales in the great woman’s favor rather than to take the Roman historians at face value, I can’t fault her. The only reason for me that this book doesn’t earn 5 stars is that I didn’t have any trouble putting it down for stretches of time. I wanted to finish it, and I was definitely not bored, however, so I would not argue that it doesn’t captivate. The chapters are really long, and I would have liked more breaks. I think the prospect of opening the book on my Kindle app and seeing that the chapter would take over an hour to read may have been too daunting on a few occasions. I’m not a fan of stopping the middle of a chapter, but I had to sometimes when reading this book. On the other hand, Schiff’s writing style is eminently readable and at times waxes poetic. Schiff paints a fascinating portrait of a much-maligned, highly intelligent, and incredibly ingenious woman.

four-half-stars
WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesday—April 27, 2011

WWW Wednesdays

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

I am currently reading [amazon_link id=”0307588653″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution[/amazon_link] by Michelle Moran, [amazon_link id=”039332902X” target=”_blank” ]The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History[/amazon_link] by Rebecca Fraser, [amazon_link id=”0143057812″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (audio book), and [amazon_link id=”0199537259″ target=”_blank” ]The Man in the Iron Mask[/amazon_link] by Alexandre Dumas via DailyLit. I am enjoying the first three very much, but the fourth is not grabbing me. I hope it does soon because I so enjoyed [amazon_link id=”0451529707″ target=”_blank” ]The Count of Monte Cristo[/amazon_link]. The narrator for The Shadow of the Wind is exceptional.

I recently finished reading [amazon_link id=”0060558121″ target=”_blank” ]American Gods[/amazon_link] by Neil Gaiman (review) and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning (review).

My next book will probably be [amazon_link id=”0670021040″ target=”_blank” ]Caleb’s Crossing[/amazon_link] by Geraldine Brooks. I won an ARC on Goodreads. The lastest Jasper Fforde, [amazon_link id=”0670022527″ target=”_blank” ]One of Our Thursdays Is Missing[/amazon_link], is calling my name. At some point, I want to return to [amazon_link id=”0812977149″ target=”_blank” ]Finn[/amazon_link] by Jon Clinch. I have a few books on my Kindle that I’m interested in reading, too: [amazon_link id=”B004R1Q9PI” target=”_blank” ]The Secret Diary of a Princess[/amazon_link] by Melanie Clegg, a few Austen sequels, and some good nonfiction, including [amazon_link id=”0316001929″ target=”_blank” ]Cleopatra: A Life[/amazon_link] by Stacy Schiff, [amazon_link id=”0385489498″ target=”_blank” ]Marie Antoinette: The Journey[/amazon_link] by Antonia Fraser, [amazon_link id=”1400052181″ target=”_blank” ]The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks[/amazon_link] by Rebecca Skloot, and [amazon_link id=”1439107955″ target=”_blank” ]The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer[/amazon_link] by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

So what about you?

Reading Update: November 14, 2010

Autumn leaves

I drove around a bend on the Interstate yesterday and the beauty of the golden, orange, and red leaves on the trees near the road arrested me. I love fall.

I’m still plugging away on The Haunting of Hill House, and I might even finish it today. Not really enjoying it much. Such a short book, and I really had to push to finish it. I just don’t like any of the characters, and it can be hard for me to read books when I don’t like the characters. Wuthering Heights seems to be the lone exception. I think the trick there is that I actually do have a fascination for the characters even if I wouldn’t want to be friends with them. In addition to not liking the characters, if I’m honest, I’m a little unsure about what in the world is going on.

I had a bit of a freak out yesterday when my Kindle‘s battery had absolutely no charge, and I needed to reference a book on it. Then I remembered I do have the Kindle app on my iPhone (and my Mac, for that matter). I think I have mentioned this before, but my NaNoWriMo novel is speculative fiction of the Irish legend of Deirdre. It’s going well. I wrote so much yesterday that I could skip a day now with no detrimental effect on being able to finish on time, but I’m going to try not to do that.

Next week I’ll be seeing some of my English teacher friends in Orlando as I travel to the NCTE conference. I will be presenting a session on authentic assessment in teaching Shakespeare along with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s education department, and I’m finished with writing my presentation. I want to try to practice it and see how it goes.

I listened to Valerie Jackson’s interview of Ken Follett, and doesn’t he sound absolutely charming? I definitely want to read his Pillars of the Earth series.

Ken Follett on Betweeen the Lines

I also listened to her interview of Stacy Schiff about her new book Cleopatra: A Life, and it sounds very interesting.

Stacy Schiff on Between the Lines

Valerie Jackson is a great interviewer. I definitely recommend subscribing to her podcast. It’s a great way to learn about new books.

photo credit: MaxiuB