Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.28

Tanya Pollard, Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. vii, 331.  ISBN 9780198793113.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Timothy Saunders, Volda University College (

Table of Contents

Tanya Pollard’s welcome new book presents a powerful case for reading Shakespeare’s plays as responses to ancient Greek drama. It contends in particular that Euripides’ suffering yet heroic female protagonists embodied for Shakespeare the capacity of Greek drama to convey intense emotions to the audience and thus served as figures to be conjured with as he developed his own forms of tragedy, comedy and tragicomedy. The “Shakespearean stage” the book constructs consists of six interlocking propositions:

(1) that Shakespeare had more cognizance of Greek drama than has traditionally been acknowledged;
(2) that the affective power of Greek tragedy was encapsulated for him above all in the female protagonists of Euripides’ plays, especially their bereaved mothers such as Hecuba and sacrificial virgin daughters such as Iphigenia;
(3) that Shakespeare and other early modern writers attributed the remarkable ability of these female protagonists to transmit powerful emotions to the audience to the distinctive nature of their bodies and their role in genealogical transmission;
(4) that these female protagonists uphold models of ethics and heroism that stand in contrast to those of their male counterparts and thereby offer alternative perspectives from which to question society’s hegemonic values;
(5) that these female protagonists also thus make available an alternative model for understanding the processes of literary transmission operative in the early modern reception of classical drama, from its more familiar perception as a struggle between fathers and sons to one in which such male practices of usurpation are replaced by female ones of propagation and supplementation; and
(6) that, in sum, Shakespeare saw in Greek drama the origins of his own theatrical practices, in Euripides’ figure of Alcestis a compelling symbol for his endeavours to reanimate the dead, and in Euripides’ plays more generally a stimulus to experiment in the hybrid genre of tragicomedy.

As the preceding overview should have indicated, Greek Tragic Women on the Shakespearean Stage presents the reader with a tantalising prospectus: one in which some of the most affecting figures and scenarios from Euripidean drama and (what Pollard treats as in some respects its continuation in) Greek romance are to be enticed out of the wings and allowed to enrich our current understanding of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy and the early modern reception of Greek drama more broadly. Whether readers will conclude that the book delivers on this prospectus will depend in large part on whether they are persuaded by the evidence Pollard provides in support of her view that Shakespeare was able to engage with Greek drama independently of its mediation through Roman and other intervening authors. Much of this evidence is assembled in seven appendices at the end, but it is also summarised and interpreted in the introduction and Chapter 1, and referred to regularly throughout. In its raw form it consists of lists of those Greek plays which would have been available in Shakespeare’s England through performances, scholarly editions or translations into Latin or English. Similar information is also provided for Seneca’s plays to make it easier to track how much of the apparent knowledge of Greek drama demonstrated by Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists could have been conveyed through what is commonly assumed to have been this major conduit and how much could not. One of the most significant results this set of comparanda throws up for the argument of this book is that “in the popular realms of vernacular translations and performances, Greek tragedies seem…to slightly outnumber those of Seneca” (6).

Pollard’s contention that Shakespeare could have known about Euripides’ plays and the romance tradition they inspired without recourse to their later adaptations is based on much more, however, than these lists of necessarily incomplete and sometimes ambiguous data. She demonstrates, for instance, how Greek played an increasingly prominent role in the curricula of Cambridge, Oxford and some of England’s leading schools. She admits there is not enough evidence to confirm whether this applied to Shakespeare’s schooling in Stratford, but believes it probably did (70). Even if it did not, it would have applied to many of his fellow playwrights, meaning he could have acquired some knowledge of Greek drama from them. The path to ancient Athens really begins to firm up when Shakespeare (most likely) collaborated on his early tragedy Titus Andronicus with George Peele, a known translator and aficionado of Euripides. Pollard argues that Titus includes some specific references to Euripides’ Hecuba that are not present in its Roman reception and contends that Shakespeare in his later plays continues to address several of the questions about the affective dimension of tragedy initially raised by these allusions. Some readers may contest that George Peele alone could have been responsible for Titus’s particular engagement with Hecuba and that the scale of this engagement is in any case not sufficient to motivate the reach and range of Shakespeare’s subsequent probings into the causes and consequences of tragic emotions, yet even they would have to admit Pollard is right to observe that in plays such as The Comedy of Errors, Much Ado about Nothing, The Winter’s Tale and Pericles Shakespeare introduces explicitly Greek names and settings to a far greater degree than their immediate sources require and agree with her that “[t]hese Hellenizing details call for explanation” (172).

Citing Frances Meres’s identification of Shakespeare in 1598 with “these Tragicke Poets [who] flourished in Greece, Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles,” Ben Jonson’s still more familiar invocation of that same triumvirate in his poem in memory of his rival in 1623 and other examples besides, Pollard shows how the association between Shakespeare and Euripides she proposes was available in some form in Shakespeare’s time as well. More crucial still to her argument is her attempt to anchor this association in more substantial dramaturgical bedrock by situating Shakespeare’s purported responses to Euripides within a sequence of literary works that begins before his emergence as a playwright with Thomas Kyd’s influential The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) and ends with Ben Jonson’s satirical reflection on his technique in Bartholomew Fair (1614). The first of these, Pollard argues, established a pattern of equating the spirit of Greek tragedy with its female protagonists to which Shakespeare would react shortly afterwards in his first tragedy Titus and in just about every tragedy he wrote subsequently. The second, meanwhile, is read as an early modern equivalent of Frogs, in which Jonson self-consciously adopts the role of Aristophanes in order to satirise his (by extension equally recognisable) Euripidean counterpart.

For all her concern to put tangible flesh on the bones of a genealogical relationship between Shakespeare and Greek drama, Pollard regularly refers to the figures she believes Shakespeare revives as “ghosts.” This is because Euripides’ characters never actively strut Shakespearean boards like the Romans of Julius Caesar (even Hecuba is absent from Troilus and Cressida), nor are they commonly evoked by name (though here Hecuba is a notable exception). Instead, they play a more nebulous yet pervasive role as conduits of the ‘spirit’ of the forms of theatrical drama Shakespeare and his contemporaries inherited from antiquity. This, indeed, is where Euripides’ female characters come particularly to the fore, since figures such as his Hecuba were widely recognised in the early modern period as archetypal embodiments of tragic suffering and pity. Here too Pollard is careful to establish the historical association between Greek tragedy and femininity in the broader culture before tracing its development in Shakespeare. She documents, for instance, how Greek became a frequent element in the education of elite women as well as men and highlights one of its most striking consequences: Jane Lumley’s Iphigeneia of 1557, the first extant play in English by a woman and the first English translation of a Greek play by anyone. Pollard notes too that virtually every one of the most popular Greek plays of the period boasted a female character in the title role: Euripides’ Hecuba, Iphigenia in Aulis, Medea, Alcestis, Phoenician Women, and Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra.

Against this backdrop, Pollard invites a number of Euripides’ female ghosts (especially Hecuba’s) to emerge from the tiring house. Starting with Titus and encompassing a number of other plays, we are shown how, despite the unwavering presence of men in the title role, these works follow Euripidean drama in relying on the affective power of suffering women to spur these men into action. Nor are Euripides’ female roles only reprised by women. The discussion of Hamlet — a play which, as Pollard acknowledges, appears to mock and dismiss grieving women — is particularly crucial in demonstrating how Shakespeare’s male protagonists can also channel or otherwise engage the affective power of Euripidean female protagonists. Noting that Hamlet shares with Euripides’ Hecuba a number of common plot elements — a pre-existing crime, a ghost, delay, deceit, and violence — Pollard goes beyond the standard observation that Hamlet’s desire to hear a speech about the sufferings of Hecuba and his subsequent reflection on it (“What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?” 2.2.553–4) allows him to ponder conventional forms of tragic suffering and the means by which the emotions this suffering engages can affect one’s character and actions. For Pollard, it additionally enables Hamlet to express his own inability to take on his enforced role as a latter-day Hecuba and transform his suffering into a triumphant act of revenge. His failure to make anything of his situation and be more than a “John-a-dreams unpregnant of my cause” (2.2.562) is (according to Pollard) in part due to his gender: “Hamlet, in contrast with Hecuba, is incapable of fertility: male rather than female, child rather than parent, belated literary imitator rather than origin” (120).

Those who have sought for an analogue for Hamlet in ancient Greek drama have tended to settle on the figure of Euripides’ Orestes in the play of that name. Pollard by no means rejects this correlation, but rather enriches it through broadening Hamlet’s gene pool beyond Euripides’ (arguably already feminised) male protagonist to include that playwright’s Hecuba as well. This is consistent with her practice throughout, in which rather than usurping the thrones of various of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae and reserving them for her own preferred female candidate, Pollard’s readings tend to supplement conventional interpretations of each play. This may make those readings come across as less immediately revelatory than one might have expected, but it does at least make them seem more secure. Pollard’s methodology is enriching, too, in its willingness to explore how Shakespeare’s responses to Greek tragedy carried over into the experiments he conducted in comedy and tragicomedy more generally. The discussion of the early and avowedly Plautine comedy The Comedy of Errors carries out especially important work here. Supplementing the play’s explicit re- Hellenisation of Plautus’ text by transferring the action to Ephesus, Pollard shows how the female characters speak and suffer like Euripidean heroines and in so doing instil a greater emotive depth and complexity into Shakespeare’s adaptation.

The Comedy of Errors is also the first of Shakespeare’s many plays that include an Alcestis figure (the protagonists’ mother Emilia, whom her family had long presumed dead). Pollard sees Euripides’ Alcestis as an important figure for Shakespeare, through whom he could reflect on his continuing challenge to reanimate the figures and theatrical traditions of the past and endow them with the emotive power of the female protagonists of Euripidean drama.

Euripides’ Alcestis would serve as an appropriate emblem for Pollard’s book too. Soberly presented (perhaps too soberly at times: the wooden phrases “I suggest that” and “I argue that” recur with a somewhat deadening monotony), adept at anticipating and answering likely objections, and based on a solid knowledge of Greek (as well as early modern) drama and scholarship, Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages brings back to life ghosts even a non-believer will find strangely haunting.

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