The exceeding asp.
by Stacy Schiff
New York: Little, Brown and Company
369 pp., $29.99
Cleo: "Freely lay you your hands upon me, / Yet prudence mandates stern decorum / Lest impassioned, you should spill the wine" (Te Oenophiles, I. i, 1-3).
Cleo: "No matter how thin you slice it, it's still / Baloney; yet well accords it with this vintage" (II. iii, 79-80).
Ant: "At what hour openeth the vintner / Of Levantine delights his magazine?" (III. ii, 1-2).
Ant: "This Cyprian plonk lacks all finesse. / Hast thou on hand jereboam none / Of Falernian temperately cradled?" (IV. i, 1-3).
Cleo: "Detox with me--with thee wouldst I rehab" (V. v, 187).
THE ABOVE QUOTATIONS (from Christopher Marlowe's yet unknown tragicomedy about the Twelve Step Program undertaken by Antony and Cleopatra) are my bona fides, as I assert that Cleo, I know. Having frequently hung out with Cleo and her retinue, often according to the Swan of Avon, I was looking forward to an infusion of something good, or at least something, from Stacy Schiff's new hot-off-the-presses corporate product. The reviews have been swooning, and as if that weren't itself an enticement of hoochie-coochie effectiveness, then surely the "reading-group guide" available at hachettebookgroup.com would have been a real deal closer, if I had been at all interested. But I'm not moved by opportunities for instruction by those less well informed than I am--otherwise I would be devoted to Oprah's Book Club.
Cleopatra is a provocative topic--it was ever thus. And somehow Cleo rings a bell these days, for we live in bizarre times. The melting of forms and distinctions in Hellenistic days and the world-transforming events of her moment and after--the invasions of the East, the pagan prophecies of a redeemer and a golden age, the subsequent cessation of civil war and the backflow of empire, the twilight of the gods and the advent of the Messiah recognized by magi--these, and more, strike chords in our day. Yet the author of this treatment may have missed a few points, or pointedly neglected them. There may be more to say about Cleopatra in our day, and even in hers.
Of course the first thing about Cleopatra VII is that she was a Ptolemy--indeed, the last of the Ptolemies, and she in effect made sure of that, since she caused all three of her siblings to be killed. Well, such brutality was not unknown in Christian Europe, and that not long ago; and besides, if Cleo hadn't killed them, one of them certainly would have killed her. The Ptolemies remind me of a question posed pertinently by Max Beerbohm, referring to a different Greek family: "They were a tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, weren't they?" Indeed. Cleopatra was also the product of so much incest that it's a headache to count. This programmatic and even charismatic incest was part of the Ptolemaic mystique, hybridized as imperial Greeks lorded it over ancient Egypt. She was a queen, a pharaoh, an empress, a goddess on earth, the richest person in her world, and a plunger. She was an aggressive player in the Mediterranean casino--she doubled down, all in, and got beat in a card game founded by Alexander the Great, reshuffled by Julius Caesar, hijacked by Octavian, comelatelied by Napoleon, copycatted by Hitler, and whatever by whomever next. The game of the East is not over, though today reversed, and that's one reason Cleo is hot. Is there another reason?
Yes. I think that Cleopatra always holds a certain fascination--she has been so often treated by notable writers, and her legend has extended past the last ages of intelligible culture into the 20th century. Cleopatra has become a movie--there was Theda Bara a century ago, and Claudette Colbert for Cecil B. DeMille, and Elizabeth Taylor for Joseph L. Mankiewicz. What additional vulgarity might be imposed, as the marts of commerce strain to cloud our imaginations? Marlowe did more with less; Shakespeare ditto.
Stacy Schiff's contribution is to my mind problematical, because it is self-contradictory without much of the rich ambivalence of Shakespeare. Miss Schiff has surveyed new scholarship that has improved our knowledge of the times of the first Caesars, Pompey, Antony, and Cleopatra, but to what end? Cleopatra is a mystery because there are so many gaps and so much tendentiousness in the historical texts. Schiff leaps into the breaches, reasoning, imagining, and speculating. And she challenges the truths of the texts upon which she depends, though these are the texts that there are: Plutarch, Appian, Dio, Josephus, and such. But somehow, this powerful ruler was a victim--a victim of the chauvinism and judgmental sexism of Roman writers, including Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Lucan, and so on. And the attitude of scorning Cleopatra has extended into modern times. This brainy woman has been underrated because of her sex. Just because you're a "vamp," doesn't mean that you are one!
But she was. Cleopatra would have attacked the Roman Empire if she thought she could have gotten away with it--she was, among other things, a foxy lady among the big bad wolves. So she played her queenly card--a child with Big Julie, three with Antony--the scheme was of an Eastern empire, with ambitions extending to India. Shakespeare understood very well what she was up to (and so did Octavian, as he told Octavia, in Act III, sc. vii, 65-76), in possibly his greatest work. Her amours were something more than grand affairs--they were dynastic palace coups. And when they failed, there were severe results. She bet the ranch and lost everything, and then some.
A more subtle story than the lurid one, and a better reason for studying this material than is given in the online group study guide, was elaborated by Ronald Syme in The Roman Revolution, first published in 1939, 63 years before Schiff acknowledges. The scam of "Caesar Augustus" and the Soviet/Nazi style rewriting of history is a profound political lesson for our day, and one that has been largely ignored outside the academic realm. Stacy Schiff has personalized or even feminized, as I see it, the meaning of Syme's work: It's not the golden age that got faked, but the frail who got framed. What's a girl to do? Men are all alike.
In the online reading-group guide, questions about "gender," "bias," "women's roles and rights," and "modern women you would compare to Cleopatra" indicate that a species of groupthink is being imposed in a book the asp of which exceeds its grasp. It is not, after all, so Empressive. But the news that the book has been bought by Scott Rudin as the basis for a new movie with Angelina Jolie may say something about its purposes and values. Apparently, the author has declared of Jolie, "Physically, she's the perfect look." Cleo, the shrewd schemer--not Cleo the victim--would have approved.
Contributing editor James O. Tate is a professor of English literature at Dowling College on Long Island.