Cleopatra (Schiff)

Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff, 2010
Little, Brown & Co.
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316001922

Her palace shimmered with gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Cleopatra, the wealthiest ruler of her time and one of the most powerful women in history, was a canny political strategist, a brilliant manager, a tough negotiator, and the most manipulative of lovers. Although her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

At only 18 years old, Cleopatra was already one of history's most remarkable figures: the Queen of Egypt. A lethal political struggle with her brother marked her early adulthood and set the tone for the rest of her life; a relationship with Julius Caesar, forged while under siege in her palace, launched her into a deadly mix of romance and strategy; a pleasure cruise down the Nile followed, a child, and a trip to Rome, which ended in Cleopatra's flight. After Caesar's brutal murder, she began a nine-year affair with Mark Antony, with whom she had three more children. Antony and Cleopatra's alliance and attempt to forge a new empire spelled both their ends.

The subject of gossip and legend, veneration and speculation in her lifetime, Cleopatra fascinated the world right up to her death. In the 2000 years since, myths about the last Queen of Egypt have been fueled by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Shaw, who put words in her mouth, and by Michelangelo, Delacroix, and Elizabeth Taylor, who put a face to her name.

In Cleopatra, Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff accomplishes a feat that has eluded artists and writers for centuries: capturing fully the operatic life of an exceptionally seductive and powerful woman, whose death ushered in a new world order. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 26, 1961
 Where—Adams, Massachusetts, USA 
Education—B.A., Williams College
 Awards—Pulitzer Prize in Biography; Academy Award,
   American Academy of Arts & Letters; 3 fellowships: Guggen-
   heim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities,
   NY Public Library Center for Scholars & Writers
 Currently—lives in New York City, New York

Stacy Madeleine Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American nonfiction author and guest columnist for the New York Times.

Schiff is a graduate of Phillips Academy preparatory school, and earned her B.A. degree from Williams College in 1982. She was a Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster until 1990. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement.

Schiff has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Schiff won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov, wife of Vladimir Nabokov and muse of Lolita. She was also a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Saint-Exupery: A Biography about Antoine de Saint Exupery.

Schiff's A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America won the 2006 Arwen Taylor Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Institut Francais’s Gilbert Chinard Prize.

Schiff was a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She was awarded a 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
[C]aptivating...a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world.... Ms. Schiff seems to have inhaled everything there is to know about Cleopatra and her times, and she uses her authoritative knowledge of the era—and her instinctive understanding of her central players—to assess shrewdly probable and possible motives and outcomes.... Ms. Schiff also demonstrates a magician's ability to conjure the worlds her subject inhabited with fluent sleight of hand.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

If you think two millennia of dusty research and hoary legend have told us all we need to know about this woman, you're in for a surprise. Stacy Schiff...has dug through the earliest sources on Cleopatra, sorted through myth and misapprehension, tossed out the chaff of gossip, and delivered up a spirited life...for all its splendor of detail, Schiff's book is a model of concision, and its brisk, vividly written chapters move with a swiftness the Nile never enjoyed...a great, glorious spree of a story.
Marie Arana - Washington Post

Startling. Rarely have so distant a time and obscured a place come so powerfully to life. It is a great achievement. It is also a provocative one. Faced with the perplexing question of how to write about a person when the evidence is sketchy and often misleading, Schiff has hit on an ingenious solution. She has written a biography in negative, describing the outlines of what she cannot know by brilliantly coloring around the queen.
Louisa Thomas - Newsweek

Schiff's learning is immense, but worn lightly and with an assured grasp of human nature.
Cullen Murphy - Vanity Fair

(Starred review.) An excellent, myth-busting biography...Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the 'great metropolis' of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail. And though we all know the outcome, Schiff's account of Cleopatra's and Antony's desperate efforts to manipulate their triumphant enemy, Octavian, make for tragic, page-turning reading. No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer presents a swift, sympathetic life of one of history's most maligned and legendary women....[Cleopatra] took into her bed some of the most powerful men in history (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony), maneuvered through a male world with intelligence, skill and sanguinary brutality, met and failed to charm Herod and bore children to both Caesar and Antony.... Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra entered a family for whom the word internecine was surely invented—killing family members standing in the way was routine, and Cleopatra was not above it.... Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman—brutal and loving, dependent.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Stacy Schiff writes, “It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend” (page 5). What are the differences between the two? How are these differences related to gender?

2. Discuss the role of subjectivity in historical records. How does Schiff factor that subjectivity into her account? Do you think it’s possible to document events that are close to us in time? Or do chroniclers’ subjectivities necessarily bias their accounts?

3. How do you think Cleopatra felt as she traveled to meet Caesar for the first time? What are the differences between that meeting and her first encounter with Mark Antony? How did the circumstances of the initial encounters set the tone for the relationships?

4. Despite her political ambition, Cleopatra has been painted as a seductress and siren rather than as a powerful and adept ruler. Do you think it’s still the case that men are said to strategize where women manipulate?

5. Discuss women’s roles and rights in ancient Egyptian and Roman society. Did they surprise you? Why or why not? Women in Egypt enjoyed an equality close to what they enjoy today; it was then lost for some two thousand years. Could that happen again?

6. Although Cleopatra came from a long line of strong female rulers, do you think she felt out of place on a political stage dominated by men? Is there any indication that she doubted her abilities? Can you imagine her in a Roman military camp, for example?

7. Cleopatra lived in an era of rampant murder, covert political alliances, and fierce betrayal. Has human nature changed in two thousand years? In what ways is it different and in what ways is it the same?

8. Do you think that Cleopatra loved Caesar and Mark Antony, or were their relationships purely for political leverage? What makes you think so?

9. What do you think of Cleopatra as a woman, mother, lover, partner, and ruler? Was she admirable or detestable? Why or why not?

10. Can you retell Cleopatra’s story as one of her subjects might have written it? How does it diverge from the Roman account?

11. Why has Cleopatra’s story captivated artists and audiences for over two thousand years? Why does she interest you?

12. Are there any modern women who you would compare to Cleopatra? Who? What characteristics do they share with her? Discuss how these women are depicted in histories or in the media today.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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