cover image Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth

Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth

Francine Prose. Yale Univ, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-300-25667-3

Plutarch, Shakespeare, and other male writers perpetuated the image of Cleopatra as an “Oriental outsider” who ruined Mark Antony and Julius Caesar’s marriages and betrayed her citizens, according to this stimulating feminist history. Contending that “it is hard not to notice how profoundly her gender determined the way in which her story has been told,” novelist Prose (The Vixen) reveals the racist and sexist undertones of Plutarch’s The Life of Antony and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and tracks their influence on modern retellings including the 1963 movie Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (“quite simply a terrible film,” Prose writes). To combat the myths, Prose focuses on Cleopatra’s accomplishments, noting that she guided Egypt through serious economic hardships, fended off the Roman Empire’s “territorial aggressions,” expanded the country’s borders, rebuilt Alexandria after a devastating civil war, and fought for the safety of her children until she died in captivity in 30 BCE. Throughout, Prose scrutinizes the reliability of historical sources, even bringing in a herpetologist to dispute the legend that Cleopatra killed herself via “poisonous asp bite.” Though the history drags in places, it amounts to a lucid and persuasive reinterpretation. Readers won’t see Cleopatra the same way again. Agent: Denise Shannon, Denise Shannon Literary. (Nov.)