New York: It`s as though Cleopatra lives and breathes once again in the pages of Stacy Schiff`s exquisitely researched and well-written ‘Cleopatra: A Life.’
The book injects the Egyptian queen with a complexity and humanity that has long since been forgotten.
Schiff`s Cleopatra is no Elizabeth Taylor, who played her in the 1963 film of the same name. Although she may not have been a beauty, she used her charm and intellect to captivate Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and had children with both men, Schiff writes. (Cleopatra had four children.)
"Best of all, Cleopatra`s timing was impeccable; she indeed seems to have had help — or great good luck — in producing children precisely when it was most advantageous to do so," Schiff writes.
Cleopatra, a descendant of the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruled for almost 22 years with immense wealth and splendour. The dynasty, of Greek descent, was particularly violent with each other. They were also great hosts and knew how to throw a party. Schiff tries to look at Cleopatra as objectively as possible. The writing is thought-provoking and eloquent.
Schiff takes the reader on a journey of this queen`s life. Although she relies on interpretations of the past, she questions the validity of them.
"(It is notable that when she is not condemned for being too bold and masculine, Cleopatra is taken to task for being unduly frail and feminine)," Schiff writes.
She also doesn`t let Cleopatra fall prey to stereotypes of being a man-eater or love-sick heroine. She relies on the evidence of what remains. The work glows with details.
"If it was convenient for Cleopatra to fall in love, or in step, with the man to whom she essentially answered, it was no less so for Antony to fall in love with the woman who could single-handedly underwrite his military ambitions."
Schiff says sex probably played a big role in the relationship between the queen and Antony early on.
Cleopatra`s story comes as much from "male fear as fantasy," Schiff said.
"Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank," Schiff writes.
After she died, Octavian`s men killed her eldest son and her other children were raised by his sister, Octavia, who had been married to Antony, Schiff says. What a bitter irony.
Until the last line, Schiff tries to get into Cleopatra`s mind.
"The fear and fury must have shattered Cleopatra as she realized she was to become the woman `who destroyed the Egyptian monarchy,` as a third century A.D. chronicler has it," Schiff writes. "For her monumental loss there were no consolations, including — assuming she believed in one — a brilliant afterlife."
Schiff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),’ is scheduled to discuss the book at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.