Something somber and triumphant at the same time, something like Respighi's "Nebbie" sung by Pavarotti, who I saw at the Met once begin in a whisper, next to a piano, a lullaby that ended in a death cry, a silence that ended in a splendor, a galaxy-sweating supernova, black and robust and pouring painfully, a golden, wound-colored tenderness, enough for all of us. . .
The inevitable downfall of the ambitious, shrewd, daring, practical Queen Cleopatra, Pharaoh and Goddess Isis, who murdered her brothers and her sister and from whom we inherit the 12 hour day and monthly calendar, the census, our economic practice of using denomination marked monies, patroness of the arts, libraries, languages (having spoken 9 fluently herself), her city famous for its diversity and love of the theater and wit and laughter and dramatic celebrations and lavish Ptolemaic processions, its insurmountable wealth, gold and grain, all eventually taken as spoils and adopted by the Romans who wrote her as the historical villain of the ancient world and whose conquerer named the last month of summer after himself to commemorate his victory over her turncoat manic-depressive Dionysus, giving her children to his ex-wife his sister, August.
History is better than literature. Stacy Schiff's biography is a welcome read. It offers a portrait of a murderous family history, the impressive successes of the girl queen who was married first to Caesar and next to the greatest Roman general of his era, Mark Anthony. She was feared and loathed by the Romans, who were a developing nation of dogs, famous for brutality in war and public restraint, their misogyny apparent in both their philosophy and their politics. Monklike and without splendor. Or money. They needed Egypt, and her downfall was the rise of the western world as we know it. A culture that prizes the celebration of libraries, artistry, pageantry--a rebellion-free reign of education--sounds too good to be true, and it's shocking to imagine an ancient community in which 1/3 of all businesses were owned and run by women, in which women had rights to hold position and even take their ex-husbands to court. The difference between a history driven by the Romans instead of the Egyptian Queen is something like the difference between what anthropologists say is a lost evolutionary line--if we had only evolved from the the peaceful, maternal communities of the Bonobo, instead of from the violently territorial, paternalistic chimp.
What's even more striking in Schiff's book is the final chapter, in which all our particularly American sensibilities are defeated in the Queen's defeat. Her death is humiliating beyond belief. No amount of hard-work, determination, ingenuity or belief can help her. "The Secret" with its insidious message that your life is the outcome of your desires, that your suffering is your own fault, and that success is a result of your good wishes, the faux physics of the "laws of attraction", fails. Great men of our adored history are here painted in mediocrity and deception. Octavian, a lesser warrior than Mark Anthony, Cicero, bitter and grudgeful, Herod, scheming and weak, make a formidable alliance against the foreign lover queen and the sell-out general. Even Mark Anthony is moody and temperamental. Depressed when he is defeated in battle, even suicidal and in silent exile. The one unsung hero is perhaps swift Agrippa, whose January flight through the Mediterranean surprised Mark Anthony and whose arrow landed fatally at the end of that summer, changing history and making Octavian what he is to us now.
Shakespeare's play, I was surprised to find, is actually very accurate. I'm grateful though for Schiff's account, which abstains from making assumptions about Cleopatra's sexual ferocity, or her romantic desires, offering us instead a portrait of someone whose ambition and success were only matched by a terrific, a tragic, an impossible fall:
"She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at 18, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at 39, a generation before the birth of Christ."
Shakespeare's words speak just as magnificently for her death-scene as for her entire life:
"Give me my robe, put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me."
. . . . . . . .