“It’s not as if I identified in any way with a Ptolemaic queen who murdered her siblings”


From Guernica:

         Lis Harris:

         When was it that some picture that was not the picture that you disapproved of—when was it that this began to appear to you?

         Stacy Schiff:

         That’s a really good question. Um, twice, in short. This was a book I wanted to write well before I could figure out how to do it. It was pretty much a joke in our house: once Cleopatra’s diaries are found, you can start work. It just stuck around as a crazy, off-the-wall idea. And because David Ebershoff [in audience that night] had sent them to me, I had these beautiful editions of Plutarch and I kept rereading Plutarch’s Life of Antony. And one fine day in the middle of the summer many summers ago, I realized that we have a scene of Mark Antony and Cleopatra out fishing, on this sunny Alexandrian afternoon, on which Mark Antony, the greatest military commander of the day, cannot coax a single fish out of the teeming waters of Egypt. He has his servants dive under the water and attach several pre-caught fish to his fishing line, which he reels up triumphantly, one after the other, in a display of his prowess. Because after all it had been rather embarrassing to prove such a lousy fisherman with his girlfriend, the queen of Egypt, at his side. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra did not miss a beat. She arranges the next day for the enormous entourage to go out and watch her talented friend fish again, and, of course, beats him to the punch by having one of her servants dive under the water and attach an imported salted herring from the Black Sea to his fishing line. This he reels up to everyone’s delight. Cleopatra takes the moment to deliver a little speech—according to Plutarch, that is—about how Antony shouldn’t be fishing; it’s clearly not a sport for which he has any aptitude. He should be off conquering cities, kingdoms, and continents, which, needless to say, is what she would like for him to be doing. So, I read that probably for the fifth time and realized, “Oh my gosh. We have a scene, a very vivid scene, indeed we have dialogue.” I just suddenly thought, “Good God, if you could set the scenes we do know and work around the things we don’t know”—and from the Nabokov book I got very good about saying, “We don’t know on the page”—“then maybe you can actually—”


         Do you have a sense, as between Caesar and Mark Antony, which of those was more political and which of them was more—I don’t want to say erotic because God knows what that meant.


         I didn’t know how unromantic I must be until I wrote this book. A Ptolemaic queen didn’t enter into marriages for love, period. It seems to me awfully convenient that Cleopatra had children with the two most powerful men in the world at the time. It just seems like a strange coincidence. Especially given the ostensibly great birth control. My sense is that these are both strategic alliances. Caesar would have been an attraction but also a no-brainer, for the most part, because Cleopatra is about to lose a war; he appears as a kind of savior. You asked about what was the moment—that’s the other one; the moment where I realize, “Oh my God, this is not the mythical Cleopatra.” What I realized is that she is camped out in the desert and she’s twenty-one and she’s at war with her brother’s very, very aggressive advisers and she’s about to lose and she’s highly vulnerable and she’s in an all-male military camp, somehow having raised funds to hire these Thracian and Syrian mercenaries—how do you do that? That was when I realized that this is not our everyday Cleopatra. Befriending Caesar at that point was first and foremost a necessity. And given his prestige in the world at that point it would have been the smart thing to do. Having a child with him is just plain brilliant. [audience laughter] And she does this very quickly; they meet and within a month Cleopatra is pregnant. What I find interesting is we all assume she seduced him; no one has ever suggested that he seduced her. I don’t know why that would be. But it’s never the other way, it’s always that she turns up in Alexandria and, given her feminine wiles, manages to seduce Caesar.

“Capturing the Queen”, Stacy Schiff in conversation with Lis Harris, Guernica