Cleopatra Reconsidered

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety . . .

“Her” is Cleopatra, of course, in Shakespeare’s famous assessment. I went back to Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra after listening to Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (Hachette Audio, 2010). Then of course, I went to the other extreme, so to speak, and watched Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 extravaganza with Elizabeth Taylor. Although Taylor’s is the face that everyone of my generation thinks of when they think of Cleopatra, I was kind of struck by how unsexy she was in the role, although she certainly got Richard Burton’s attention. Speaking of Burton, he was a great actor in my estimation, but it’s hard to take him seriously in the Mark Antony role because he looks so ridiculous in those costumes. Something about his legs. Rex Harrison, playing Caesar, dresses up in pretty much similar outfits, but he looks much better, much more, well, imperial.

(Listen to Mr. Fashionista!)

I went back to these two “sources” to confirm what I already suspected: Ms. Schiff didn’t add much to what we already know about Cleopatra, which is not her fault. Barring the discovery of some new cache of papyrus rolls containing Cleopatra’s daily journal – or that of someone in her court – we’re pretty much stuck with what we already know. And that’s not all that reliable given the biases of the contemporary or near-contemporary sources.

Yet there is a certain richness to Schiff’s version of the story that I found interesting. Listening to the book one appreciates how extraordinarily gifted Cleopatra was, not just in terms of her physical endowments and her famous charm. There was also her incredible fortune – she is one of the richest people who ever lived; even now, in relative terms she would be a multi-billionaire. She spoke, or at least knew, nine languages. She traced her ancestry to Alexander the Great.

The book’s narrator, Robin Miles, captures this regal nature perfectly, with a reading that is authoritative, patient and confident.

But as the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was also remarkably hands-on. She basically micromanaged international affairs (wipe that smirk off your face) on her own. She took responsibility for the local economy to the extent of doling out grain supplies to her subjects during famines. She adjusted the currency. She was commander-in-chief. She was politically sophisticated. She could be as ruthless as any tyrant in the ancient world–or today’s world, for that matter (she killed off sibling rivals to her throne)–yet by all accounts she was an attentive and caring mother to her children. She knew everybody who was anybody, from Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus, of course, to Herod and Cicero, who loathed her. She was just a woman, after all, and the Romans, as Schiff points out, had certain ideas about women that didn’t include running the world.

The great struggle of Cleopatra’s life was to maintain her power, dignity and integrity – and thus Egypt’s – against the overwhelming force of a male dominated superpower. She was doomed to failure, of course, and one can sense desperation in her story. Despite the popular image of her lifestyle as pampered, luxurious and idle, I got the feeling that Cleopatra never really had a moment’s relaxation.

The triumph of Schiff’s biography is that it displays the genius of Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” with sympathy and understanding.

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