Monday, September 26, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff vs. Cleopatra: A Legend by Hollywood

I'm thick into reading Stacy Schiff's recreation of first century BC Alexandria, the opulent Egyptian coastal city that was home to the ancient world's greatest library and a 300 foot tall lighthouse that brought home fleets of quinqueremes, war vessels powered by five tiers of rowing slaves. The city itself was dressed in walls of alabaster, ivory and red granite and played host to elephant parades, political intrigue and extravagant banquets served on gold plates and scented with incense. And ruling over all, the legendary Pharaoh Cleopatra.

Schiff's new biography Cleopatra: A Life tells a true story as wondrous as science fiction, of a woman ruler believed to be divine. Brutality, excess, and marriages between immediate family members were the rules of the game. Fratricide, filicide, uxoricide and all the the other -cides were commonplace in efforts to keep ultimate control of the country and its wealth.

Schiff's accounting of this world is astounding, not just by the jaw-dropping subject matter, but by her work of faithfully tracing the story itself. The record is full of holes, the ancient accounts colored by contradictions, slander and sexism. "As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman," writes Schiff, and Cleopatra's education and power proved so threatening to her first historians that her early image had to be smudged out, then recreated as that of a sexy vamp, a seductress of great beauty, luring great men to their doom with her kohl-lined eyes.

But that is the Myth, the kudzu of history, as Schiff describes it, that rushes in to fill where facts are absent.

There is little evidence that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but much that she was intelligent and well spoken. Rich, resourceful, flattering, clever and witty, yes. A sexy seductress? Eh.

The mythologizing of the history-makers works to diminish the pharaoh queen who in life was capable of raising armies while exiled in the Syrian desert. Making Cleopatra's sexuality the source of her power instead of her considerable intellect, inspired leadership, extensive education or natural talent reduces her to a less threatening figure to the male power structure. Making her a seductress makes her morally suspect.

Schiff: "What unsettled those who wrote her history was her independence of mind, the enterprising spirit." To the first century poet Lucan, she "whores to gain Rome."

Modern movies did not originate the Myth, but have done much to perpetuate it. In a 1999 TV miniseries, a young and sinuous Cleopatra makes rolling out of a rug in front of Caesar as sexy as a veil dance. No surprise that the HBO miniseries Rome has Mark Antony calling the queen a wh0re before they preside over throne room orgies.

Even the supposedly "educational" video, "How Beautiful Was Cleopatra?" from the UK's Open University uses overtired sexist stereotypes and Playboy-style silhouettes to make its Neanderthal point:

"She did what women have done for centuries: used her sexuality to manipulate men."

While many films have exaggerated Cleopatra's sexual powers to the diminishment of her intellect, one movie seems to have gotten at least part of her culture correct - the opulent Alexandrian spectacle of which she, as one of the richest women in history, wholeheartedly took part.

I saw Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1963 production of Cleopatra years ago and all I remembered was

1) it was long;

2) it was overwrought;

3) it had less kitschy pleasures than my favorite sword and sandal epic, The Ten Commandments;

4) the two stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, began their tumultuous relationship on set, although both were married at the time; and

5) the excessive budget nearly bankrupt the 20th Century Fox studio. (Actually, the film recouped its $44 million budget - about $300 million today when adjusted for inflation - after a few years of theatrical and TV showings.) And...

6) ...there was this one scene, where Cleopatra makes a dramatic entrance in front of the Romans. The pageantry was out of control, with a wild parade of animals, dancing girls, colored smoke, a bird flock release and hundreds of men pulling a Sphinx-like parade float bearing Cleopatra and her young son dressed in gold. The first time I saw it, the scene looked to me like wildly inaccurate Hollywood exaggeration.

What a surprise to read in Schiff that Mankiewicz got it about right. She describes an Alexandrian parade: "a Dionysian procession had introduced gilded twenty-foot floats to the city streets, each requiring 180 men to coax it along. Purple-painted satyrs and gold-garlanded nymphs followed, along with allegorical representations of kings, gods, cities, seasons....Fires erupted and died down; lights flickered from statues' eyes; trumpets blared spontaneously." Seems the only thing anachronistic in this movie scene was Elizabeth Taylor's wink!

It has been refreshing to read Schiff's revision of Cleopatra's Myth that parses the legend into less simplistic likelihood. I can't wait to see what she does with the bacchinalia and the asp.

You can read more posts about Cleopatra: A Life here. I received a copy of the book from the publisher with no obligation.


Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

I've never seen the movie with Elizabeth Taylor and after reading Schiff's book, I don't think I can bring myself to watch it.

Lisa Hanneman said...

Awesome post. I could keep on reading... You're always wonderfully insightful.

I was thinking about today's powerful female leaders. It seems they have been made out as manish, asexual and hard. The opposite of Cleopatra. I wonder how future generations will perceive them.

melanie said...

you put into the words the thoughts that i was struggling to piece together. cleopatra was so much more than just a pretty lady. i would like my daughters to hear her intellect and savvy praised more than her figure and her face...

Emily said...

I felt that Schiff's desire to stick to the historical record was admirable but as a result, the character of Cleopatra remained fuzzy to me. The thing that was clear was why the contemporary and later historians and scholars were so quick to downplay her many accomplishments. In that way, Schiff adds a lot to the historical record.

Amy said...

Great post! I really like your writing style! Thanks for sharing!