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Book Review: Cleopatra

CLEOPATRA.jpg
Yale University Press
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If people think that Cleopatra looked and acted like Elizabeth Taylor, it may be because what little they know about this legendary Egyptian queen probably comes from the over-the-top, four-and-a-half hour blockbuster movie that came out in 1963, rather than from Plutarch’s Lives, a series on noble Greek and Roman leaders and their times. The movie, by the way, is estimated to have cost $400 million in today’s economy. Plutarch likely wrote in the second century AD, decades after Cleopatra ruled, and was not translated into English until the early 16th century.

In his Lives, Cleopatra is defined only by her relationship with her lovers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. No surprise. Women, including uppity pharaohs (as a female leader back then she was unique), had their place. How ironic that the Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison extravaganza appeared the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

As novelist and critic Francine Prose emphasizes in her slim, readable recounting for Yale University Press’s new series, Ancient Lives, Cleopatra, Her History, Her Myth, the remarkably clever and seductively intelligent political and military strategist, who was fluent in several languages and sought to defend her Ptolemaic kingdom and children from the ever-encroaching Roman empire, is still undervalued, held to have been only a scheming, sexual manipulator in love with riches and personal power. Recent studies have persuasively argued against this view, particularly Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff’s elegant 2010 biography, Cleopatra: A Life, twice the length of Prose’s book. So, do we need another? 

No, but why not! Prose’s book, like Schiff’s, helps change the narrative, moving from Hollywood back to history, or what evidence there is, as opposed to unsupported persistent so-called facts, such as Cleopatra’s suicide by way of an asp. Not feasible, as several writers have argued, though how she really did die — sealing herself up in her tomb — is unknown. Prose adds to the corrective record in a way that is likely to attract a young feminine readership, especially those who know only of the movies –not just Taylor’s but, earlier, Theda Bara’s, Claudette Colbert’s, and the Vivien Leigh 1945 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, which Prose calls “stunningly racist.”

The first section of Prose’s book seems slightly numbing because so many male leaders are called Ptolemy and women Cleopatra — our lady was the seventh Cleopatra. The second half, however, “The Afterlife of Cleopatra” is engaging, as often in a subdued sarcastic tone, Prose accuses the Roman Republic of prejudice toward Alexandrine Orientals and women. To male-centered Rome, Cleopatra was a licentious witch, a deceitful liar, the person responsible for the fall of Antony, a “man’s man,” whom she turned into a “humiliated love slave.” Never mind that he was increasingly drunk, made a poor choice to fight the Battle of Actium on the sea, and finally abandoned his men. Dante put Cleopatra in the second circle of hell for the lustful. Boccaccio hated her. Shakespeare gave her late-life power and passion but not tragic dimension.

As Prose claims, Cleopatra may indeed have been beautiful but she was also highly intelligent and toward the end of her reign — and life — was nobler and more courageous than Antony. Her life is worth re-considering because, as Prose contends, she’s “a sort of mirror in which each era sees itself,” and thus a timely gauge of how attitudes toward history reflect and affect contemporary culture.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.