Chris's Reviews > Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
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's review
Apr 09, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: history-ancient, ancient-egypt, cleopatra

3.5 stars, really.

John Knox, who according to a suscept legend is buried beneath a car park in Edinburgh, managed to anger every single woman ruler of his time with the writing of a tract stating the belief that women should not rule. Elizabeth I, who he later tried to mollify (he didn't mean her, obivously, just those Catholic females), wasn't impressed. One cannot help but wonder what Cleopatra would've made of him. Would she have fed him to the crocodiles? Would she have laughed long and loud at him? It is impossible to answer the question for in many ways Cleopatra belongs as much to legend and literature as she does to history, perhaps even more so because of the lack of the historical record.

It is this lack of clear sources, of first hand accounts and of the Egyptian side of the story, that causes the fasination people have with Cleopatra. In many ways, she is a blank slate. On one hand, she inspires writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare. She has been cloned, immortalized, a vampire, and a magican. The fasination also leads to biography after biography about the Egyptian queen, many of which read like fiction.

At one point, Cleopatra was the immoral whore who stood in stark relief to women like Octavia who represented the good and sexless mother. Sheis the object of desire for two great men, and nothing more. More recently, she has been reclaimed as a powerful and talented ruler.

Schiff is the latest in a line historians to tackle this seemingly engima of the Egyptian queen by putting her in context. Like all Cleopatra biographers, Schiff faces the problem of sources, Roman sources who are writing at several years removed from events and with an obivious bias aganist the queen. While Schiff says we shouldn't trust them, she does, at times, trust them. It would help the reader to know why we should distrust Plutarch at one point and then believe him thirty pages later. Additionally, Schiff glosses over or ignores areas where the history isn't clear - for instance, the question of how many older sisters Cleopatra had. Schiff sides with just one, but doesn't show the reader how she reaches this conclusion (and considering that Egyptalogists seemed unsure on this question, I would've liked a little more infromation in that regard).

Schiff also seems guilty of romantanizing Cleopatra in the same way that she states fictional writers do. It is quite easy to Schiff writing about Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra rather than a Cleopatra Cleopatra. A truly wonderful biography leaves the reader with a feeling of knowing the subject. While this has to be extremely difficult and, perhaps, rare for biographes that deal with anicent figures, this books presents Cleopatra as a ghostly figure, one that does not appear in other biographies.

This isn't to say that the book is not good. Schiff can write. Period, full stop. She can write. She has a wonderful tone. (That's why it is 3.5). Her language is engrossing, and she writes in such a way that even a reader familiar with Cleopatra's life can enjoy the ride. The problem is that the book doesn't present the clear picture of time and place and subject that works by Michael Grant and Joyce A. Tyldesley do, works that Schiff used according to her biblography.
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Reading Progress

April 9, 2011 – Started Reading
April 9, 2011 – Shelved
April 12, 2011 – Finished Reading
October 29, 2016 – Shelved as: history-ancient
October 29, 2016 – Shelved as: ancient-egypt
October 29, 2016 – Shelved as: cleopatra

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Nicole (new)

Nicole you do feel about this recent trend of book covers featuring faceless women? I don't like it.

Chris You know, I haven't really thought about it until you mentioned it. There does seem to be more faceless women than men. It's strange, now that I think about it.

Chris LOL. She did have a nose.

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