Prose’s Cleopatra is less straight biography than an appraisal of the queen’s historical reception. The core of her thesis is sound: Cleopatra’s reputation has suffered from tired misogynist readings that say more about their authors than their subject. Alas, Ms. Prose trades the myopic conjecture of the past for the one-note fixations of the present ... The author’s solution to [Cleopatra's] defamatory treatment is to assume, conversely, rectitude and astuteness ... That Ms. Prose is right about so much...makes the neatness and predictability of her moral conclusions all the more disappointing. The cartoon hero is as uninteresting as the cartoon villain.
The first few chapters are spent fixing the historical record, and they are, to be honest, a bit of a slog. A gorgeous novelist and prolific biographer...Prose is here, of necessity, mostly reassembling the research of others. But it’s a short book, and we quickly get to where Prose really sparkles: her critiques of the cultural depictions of Cleopatra. Prose vividly reveals just how much more marginalized, sexualized and scandalous these representations became, no matter the artistic medium.
The book functions more as a feminist critique of the legend than a historical view of the life ... Prose asserts that Cleopatra was intelligent and effective, but she doesn’t offer historical evidence to back up those claims ... [Prose] wants the relationships to be romantic, to be genuine, not calculated. They may have been, but there’s no evidence either way ... Prose also stumbles when she accuses the ancient Romans of exoticizing Egyptians—and Cleopatra specifically—as 'Eastern.' But the Ptolemies were Greek, not exotic at all. And Egypt wasn’t seen as the 'other' that Prose wants to present ... These are both instances of imposing contemporary values on ancient times, something an historian is supposed to avoid ... The most effective part of the book is when Prose steps outside of history entirely and casts a critical eye on how books and movies made Cleopatra into a villain ... Prose now takes a turn, offering up a different Cleopatra, one formed by Prose’s own feminist sensibilities. The real Cleopatra, however, remains as unknowable as ever.