05 November 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life," "Contested Will," and "The Coffee Trader,"

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff
Contested Will, James Shapiro
The Coffee Trader, David Liss

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff

The two major lessons of Schiff's book are these:

  • Despite her legendary stature in history, we know very little about the last queen of Egypt.
  • What we do know is uncertain, since it was written by enemies and misogynists eager to diminish her.

Despite these limitations, this detailed biography of the last of the Ptolemies is fairly good.  Like all historians with limited direct testimony, Schiff fills in the gaps with background information and educated guesses.  She can't tell us about Cleopatra's upbringing specifically, for example, since her sources - Suetonius, Plutarch, Lucan, and a few others - don't mention her childhood at all.  But by researching the upbringings of the other Ptolemies and the wealthy families of Egypt's capital at the time, Alexandria, Schiff can piece together a fairly good picture of how Cleopatra must have grown up.  It's a time-tested and effective strategy for supplementing the sources, and it works particularly well in Cleopatra: A Life, because Schiff's descriptions are interesting and rich.

It would be downright difficult to write a bad book about Cleopatra's life and death.  The major players in her story are titans: Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Caesar Augustus, Cicero.  Schiff comes into her own in telling of the grand betrayals, great passions, and endless scheming.  She has just the right mixture of clinical abstraction and veiled opinion.  It's something like, "Based on the evidence, this is likely, that is not, and oh hey by the way Mark Anthony was kind of a jackass."

Schiff's harping on the injustice of historians towards her subject eventually begins to grate, as does her clear partiality to the Egyptian queen.  There are frequent moments in Cleopatra's story where we cannot know her motives or her goals, and can only guess - does she stay with Anthony in Greece out of love or fear of losing control?  Without fail, Schiff's favored guess is the one that glorifies her heroine as a clever and comparably decent ruler.  It's the flaw that has claimed many a biographer.  Long months or years spent in research, steeped in the life and thoughts of another, eventually sways many chroniclers to the opinion that their subject is either a hero or a villain.  To Schiff, Cleopatra may not have been Isis reborn, but she was nonetheless a sort of deity: a goddess of proud and shrewd womanhood.  It's an understandable flaw, but it does detract from the book.

This is a good book, but not a great one.  If you are interested in the epic world of Cleopatra and Caesar, then you will love the high drama of the central stories as well as the amusing anecdotes clipped from classical accounts (Anthony once instructed a servant to swim under his Nile barge and attach fish to the end of his line, to disguise his poor fishing ability, only to have Cleopatra learn of the ruse and arrange to have him reel in a dried and salted Greek fish).  But get it out of the library - you won't be rereading it.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, James Shapiro

To many people, the question of this book's title is a surprising one, although that will become rather less true with the debut of Anonymous, the just-debuted movie that dramatizes the theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the secret author of the poems and plays attributed to Shakespeare.  The movie was called a "brutal insult to the human imagination" that "burnishes meretricious nonsense" by the New York Times, and at least one Shakespearean scholar, Ron Rosenbaum (whose Shakespeare Wars I enjoyed very much) has said it is "laughably incoherent botch of a movie."  But what about the question behind the movie, covered in detail last year in Shapiro's book?  Who wrote Shakespeare?

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read four books on the subject: Thomas Looney's 1920 Shakespeare Identified, which launched the Oxfordian movement seen in Anonymous, John Mitchell's 1996 Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Brenda James's and William Rubenstein's recent The Truth Will Out, and this last 2010 work by noted critic James Shapiro, Contested Will.  Each book had different conclusions.

Looney's Shakespeare Identified asserts boldly and with great certainty that Oxford wrote Shakespeare.  His book is filled with dated information and outright mistakes, like his claim that The Tempest didn't belong in the canon of Shakespeare's works, but was the work of some unknown.  But it is interesting for its historical value.  Looney was single-handedly responsible for identifying Oxford as the "real" Shakespeare and building the core of the case for the theory.  Wealthy, educated, well-traveled Oxford, Looney asserts, was far more likely to have been the real author of plays and sonnets that trafficked with royalty and distant lands. How could the son of an illiterate glover, whose surviving documents show an inglorious obsession with money, possibly have been the greatest artist in the language?  No, there was a conspiracy at work, where Oxford commented in secret on politics and Shakespeare took credit.  The son of a glover!

Mitchell's book, an overview of all the different theories, is gutless.  It offers a "pox on all their houses" indecisive approach, while still clearly inclining towards Sir Francis Bacon's authorship.  The larger problem seems to be Mitchell's overall credulousness - most claims and ideas seem plausible to him, even when they're clearly outlandish.

James and Rubenstein offer a new candidate, Sir Henry Neville, using the same methods as all other theorists: circumstantial evidence and biographical similarity.  As a modern, text-focused, and erudite argument, it still harbors the essential problems of all Anti-Stratfordians: the mistaken assumption that the poems and plays of Shakespeare are autobiographical, and heavy dependence on the negative evidence about Shakespeare of Stratford.  The former mistake is one of too little imagination - it took a genius to write Shakespeare's work, and they underestimate the power of genius to transcend place and education.  The latter mistake is a common one and an old one.  We have no drafts of Shakespeare's plays, but that doesn't mean they didn't exist.  Negative evidence is suggestive, not at all conclusive.

Shapiro, I was relieved to find, feels the same way that I do.  I am a harsh skeptic in literary matters: high-flung criticism and unfounded assumptions find no pleasant berth in my harbor.  To make the extraordinary suggestion that there was a hidden conspiracy to hide the works of another behind Shakespeare's name requires equally extraordinary evidence.

Contested Will recounts the whole history of the authorship controversy with an equitable eye and fair pen.  Shapiro explores the early fervor in favor of Bacon, when his fame was already at its height in Victorian Europe.  The Bacon theory still has its adherents, but it had fallen away almost into extinction even by the turn to the twentieth century, leaving in its wake only well-established sneering about Shakespeare of Stratford's inadequate background.  Oxfordianism took its place, and has now been established as the near-certain alternate candidate, a position a major Hollywood movie like Anonymous will solidify.  Shapiro explores the evolution and motivations behind the authorship controversy from first to last, and very kindly limits his harsher words until his conclusion.  The final chapter lists fierce rebuttals for each attack on Shakespeare of Stratford, and then all the evidence in his favor - it piles up before the reader, crushing the preceding chapter's various doubts with a conclusive and substantive dismissal.

One of the problems with the conspiracy is that it cannot be disproved - there is virtually no mechanism for disproof, short of a miraculous new discovery of a cache of Shakespeare's handwritten papers.  Given the span of five centuries, the gap in our knowledge of a quiet-living actor and playwright is not actually so surprising, especially since he seems to have had little interest in posterity.  But that gap is negative evidence, an appeal to ignorance, and dozens of critics have leaped to try to cram that gap with their homespun theories.  Any fact can serve their ends.  Literally dozens of contemporaries mention Shakespeare as a writer, and we have hard evidence of his hire?  That's okay, they were all fooled by the conspiracy, or else were a part of it (depending on the needs of the moment).  The chosen replacement, such as Oxford, died years before some of the collaborative plays were written?  That's okay, three playwrights (Fletcher, Middleton, and Wilkins) somehow found the plays and finished them.  But when everything is evidence, then nothing is evidence.

If you are interested in the controversy, Shapiro's book is the best and most authoritative one.  But even if you are not, it is written engagingly and will interest you in the subject as it explores the famous Anti-Stratfordians, Delia Bacon, Mark Twain, and so on.  No great knowledge of the Bard is necessary, and even a neophyte will find the twisting story intriguing.  You would do well to check it out.

The Coffee Trader, David Liss

The Coffee Trader is a worthy novel, but falls short of greatness despite early promise.  This is not for lack of a good story, at least.  David Liss tells a wonderful story of Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jewish merchant who is living and trying to make his fortune in 17th-century Amsterdam.  The world he paints is exotic, although it is less defined by its Dutch setting than by the insular community of Portuguese Jews in which Miguel lives and moves, ruled by the clerical Ma'ada.  Lienzo, down on his luck after poor luck in the sugar market, is introduced to a novel new commodity trickling into Europe: coffee.

Much of the book is focused on the mechanisms of the emerging stock market, particularly the futures market.  The traders don't just buy a share of a stock, they buy future shares at a predicted price.  If the actual shares are worth more then the buyer paid when he purchased them (when he made his gamble) then the buyer profits.  This new kink in the financial word, just recently developed in the era in which The Coffee Trader is set, combines with other techniques like monopolies, selling short, and good old-fashioned usury to create an atmosphere of drama in the book.  There's nothing like buying on margin - buying stock with more money than you actually possess - to generate tension, and by the conclusion of the book the schemes and trickery has grown so thick, the possibilities of treachery so numerous, and the stakes so high, that you'll be on the edge of your seat.

Unfortunately, the book falls shy of meeting expectations in the latter half.  It's not a bad ending.  It makes sense, wraps up all the threads of the plot, and feels satisfying.  It just doesn't provide the necessary catharsis.  Rather than a scene of triumph and a huge climax, the end slumps out.  It's satisfying, but not spicy.

This book is well-written, with excellent characterization and imagery.  The very first paragraph grabbed me, made me want to read more, and made me want a steaming cup of coffee.

It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting.  Miguel Lienzo picked it up and pulled it so close he almost dipped his nose into the tarry liquid.  Holding the vessel still for an instant, he breathed it in, pulling the scent deep into his lungs.  The sharp odor of earth and rank leaves surprised him; it was like something an apothecary might keep in a chipped porcelain jar.
Still, despite my slight disappointment, The Coffee Trader is worth reading, especially if you're interested in the rudiments of finance or historical fiction.  At bottom, it's a well-crafted and interesting story.   Check it out.

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