Stacy Schiff's book "Cleopatra: A Life" is a sweepingly imaginative biography of one of the most captivating and ubiquitous historical figures who ever lived. Cleopatra VII was wealthy, cunning, charismatic, sexually expressed and politically powerful. The portrait Schiff paints in her nonfiction book, however, is different from the queen Shakespeare portrays theatrically in "Antony and Cleopatra." Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, has said Cleopatra's subjects thought of her as a goddess and generally compares her not to Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton but to Oprah. As for Shakespeare, Cleopatra comes after Gertrude, Portia and Lady Macbeth -- though it's doubtful many would refer to her as Shakespeare's most compelling female character. Schiff's 2010 book -- a Best Book of the Year in the New York Times Book Review -- will be the focus of a public discussion 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 20. (Reservations required.) The writer agreed to answer a few questions in conjunction with the book discussion and the Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra" running July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington, Maine.
Since Shakespeare's kittenish portrayal of Cleopatra doesn't match your portrayal of a tactically powerful and intelligent queen, is there any way to correct the myth that Shakespeare hands an actor?Shakespeare plundered the historical sources completely and plotted brilliantly; in the case of "A&C" he lifted whole passages from Plutarch, which had just been translated into English. Shakespeare had no intention of correcting the historical record -- that's not what art is for -- and I don't think we should have any intention of correcting him. A lot has been written (a lot I haven't read has been written, I might add) on how an Elizabethan playwright approached women and women in power. It is interesting that Shakespeare was writing at the time of a female monarch and still leaves us a kittenish Cleopatra. In any event, I prefer his kitten queen to G.B. Shaw's.
|Stacy Schiff |
PHOTO: Elena Seibert
What quality in Cleopatra would you most like to see exhumed today?
Two things impress me over and over about Cleopatra. The first is how she marches ahead without being hindered by her gender. Twice she lives in all-male military camps; she surrounded herself with male courtiers; she plays by Roman rules, which made for a very male game. She acknowledges her gender -- she has that gift for having children after all, and at the most opportune times -- but doesn't seem constrained by motherhood or femininity. She's also utterly, invariably accommodating. That's true both in her approach to her subjects, for whom she manipulates the imagery and the mission statements, and with the Romans, where she adjusts her loyalties nimbly and gracefully. There's no grandstanding and no gridlock. She's a master of opportunity and of compromise. One more thing I might add: A little charisma goes a long way. She was an inveterate charmer, at least when she wanted to be.
What would you most like to witness if you could go back in time and hang out in Cleopatra's world?
Any number of people have told me, on reading the book, that they want to move to Hellenistic Alexandria. I do, too. I'd like to walk down the streets of the perfume district. Ideally one would want to witness a Ptolemaic feast, as Cleopatra's family invented and dominated the hospitality business; wretched excess was their specialty. And you especially wanted a goodie bag, the horse or furniture or golden goblet with which the lucky guest headed home.