A few short weeks ago, Elizabeth Taylor, one of the greatest Hollywood icons, passed away. In honor of her memory, Cleopatra, her Oscar role, has been on virtually every basic cable channel. And I have watched it every single time. It actually inspired me to pick up the latest biography (of Cleopatra, not Liz), called Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff. Apparently it’s all the rage because it’s told from…and this is shocking…Cleopatra’s point of view.
Schiff does her best to strip away all of the aspersions male figures and historians have cast on Cleopatra over 3000 years. According to Schiff, Cleopatra was NOT the siren and seductress she’s always painted to be. Rather, she was just an incredibly intelligent woman who held a great deal of power. And, as we all know, a smart, powerful woman must also be a “harlot,” as Cleopatra was so often called.
Schiff offers a more forgiving and more believable portrait of a culturally ubiquitous person. I don’t think she’s actually capable of writing a dull sentence. Where biographies are so often dry and dense, Schiff makes all kinds of well-known figures far more relatable. For example, Cicero was apparently a pompous, obnoxious grouch. Even though Schiff’s book is titled after Cleopatra, it also gives a fairly detailed impression of the other people in her life, as well as the political climate she had to deal with. Read the footnotes! Schiff includes many Jeopardy-worthy tidbits.
I’ve heard rumors that this book may be the basis for a new Cleopatra movie, in which Angelina Jolie is rumored to be the next Cleopatra. Somewhere (wherever she is), I think Liz Taylor might be a little angry. Anyway, worth a read, even for non-history-majors.