Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Shiff

From the New York Times:
In “Cleopatra: A Life,” Ms. Schiff strips away the accretions of myth that have built up around the Egyptian queen and plucks off the imaginative embroiderings of Shakespeare, Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor.

In doing so, she gives us a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world.

Instead of the stereotypes of the “whore queen,” Ms. Schiff depicts a “fiery wisp of a girl” who grows up to become an enterprising politician: not so much a great beauty as a charismatic and capable woman, smart, saucy, funny and highly competent, a ruler seen by many of her subjects as a “beneficent guardian” with good intentions and a “commitment to justice.”
From NPR:
The name Cleopatra evokes an indelible image of a beautiful, wanton temptress. For those of us of a certain age, a cinematic image of a young, violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor immediately springs to mind. In her new biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff argues that the Egyptian queen of gossip and legend, as well as literature and Hollywood directors, is largely inaccurate.

While one of the most recognizable figures in history, the Cleopatra we think we know is not the real Cleopatra at all. First of all, Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian — the Greeks ruled Egypt in the first century B.C. — a commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy and governance. "What unsettled those who wrote her history," Schiff writes, "was her independence of mind, the enterprising spirit."

And from Salon:
Stacy Schiff, in her biography of the last of the pharaohs, writes against the fabulous grain. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for "Vera," her biography of Vladimir Nabokov's elegant wife and selfless helpmeet, she has chosen a subject entirely the opposite, a bold queen who's constantly threatening to overflow the impeccable refinement of the author's prose. "Cleopatra: A Life" is a political biography, a respectable enough enterprise, but since the politics of Cleopatra's times featured more bloody double-crossings than "The Sopranos," more lurid bedroom shenanigans than "True Blood" and more shameless mudslinging than the current electoral campaigns, only ceaseless vigilance keeps Schiff from lapsing into sensationalism.


Shelley said...

As a writer, I find it interesting how, as is said here, a woman's strength and political savvy doesn't get the spotlight that her "sexiness" does.

Unnecessary: because intelligence is sexy.

Mirella Patzer said...

I love books about ancient Egypt. I think this is one to add to my library. Have you read the books by Michelle MOran? I can never get enough about Cleopatra... Thanks for writing about her.