Denis's Reviews > Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
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Jun 14, 12


How many biographies, novels, plays, and essays have been written about Cleopatra? That Stacy Schiff has managed to write what could well be the definitive story of the life of the famous queen of Egypt, and has done it in an extremely vivid, stylish, and entertaining way, is quite an achievement. No wonder the book has received so much applause and has become a runaway bestseller. The big problem with someone like Cleopatra is that, if we know the legend, the reality is somehow harder to decipher: what hid behind the myth? Schiff admits she may not necessarily know, but she cleverly revisits what we think we are familiar with through unexpected angles, and she suddenly makes us see and understand things in new, different ways. She obviously feels a lot of empathy for the queen, despite flaws that she is the first to acknowledge, and therefore avoids the usual views that male historians have often shared about her. The biggest success of Schiff's work, in my view, is that she puts Cleopatra back in the context of her time: the Egypt she ruled, the city of Alexandria where she lived (and what a city!), the countries she visited, the people she was surrounded and in contact with, the social world that she was part of: all this is brought to life with care, brilliance, and intelligence, and a vanished society suddenly lives again in those pages. This book is as much about Cleopatra as it is about the world she lived in. In that sense, even the most famous episodes of Cleopatra's life, like her affairs with Caesar and Mark Anthony, take new meanings. And Schiff is more a realist than a romantic: that helps, too, in better understanding what happened, and in deflating some myths (like the very end of the queen's life). If there is one flaw, I would say that, as tragedy accumulate, I was hoping to be moved, and emotionally transported, the way I was when reading Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette, but that didn't happen. Then again, Schiff, maybe, didn't think we had to cry over this amazing woman's life.
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