BMCR 2022.08.03

Performing gods in classical antiquity and the age of Shakespeare

, , Performing gods in classical antiquity and the age of Shakespeare. Bloomsbury Studies in Classical Reception. London, UK: New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Pp. 208. ISBN 9781350098145. $35.95.

Dustin Dixon’s and John Garrison’s focus is on “the arresting power of the divine” in the theater (1); their title is a play on words, evoking gods as characters who “perform” miracles or other feats, gods who are performing roles, and actors who become invested with divine power when they act on stage.

The book builds “upon previous studies that have traced the myriad influences of classical mythology on early modern culture” (4). Much of the analysis is also devoted to myths on the ancient stage, in both tragedies and comedies. Throughout, “we follow those scholars who have argued that dramatists used gods to explore the mysterious nature of divinity” (9).

Chapter 1 “argues…for the vitality of considering gods as focal points for exploring metatheatricality” (15). The subject is not so much “the role of the gods within the narrative per se,” as “what the appearances of gods onstage have to say about theatrical performance itself” (20). This important qualifier is slightly confusing, since “the role of the gods” is often indeed the subject of discussion (e.g., in all of chapter 4). In chapter 2 Euripides’ Helen and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus are treated as “profoundly metatheatrical plays,” with Helen especially offering a means “to explore the power of theatrical spectacle” (15). Chapter 3 turns to the theme of change or metamorphosis, and chapter 4 links the Oresteia and Hamlet as containing “situations where the gods direct actions of the plot” (16). Chapter 5 addresses the absence of the gods in King Lear, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra.

By far the most absorbing discussion of ancient drama in this book is that on the three plays of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Do they, as a whole, move from “enigmatic utterance to clear statement, from riddle to solution,” or is the problem of justice “not solved but endlessly re-stated?” as Simon Goldhill has said (97). The Eumenides leads us to doubt the human ability, both onstage and in reality, to interpret and imitate the Olympian order. Those readers of Shakespeare who are skeptical about his knowledge of the Oresteia should study the bibliographical essay on this subject at p. 168, n. 3.

The authors’ focus on the divine seems to lead them to see gods where others might not. Why do the authors regard Helen as representing a god in Euripides and Marlowe? The explanation is partly that on their interpretation Euripides is said to “associate her form with divine creation” (48), in my view a reading that is too free. As for Marlowe, I guess the link would have to be guilt by association with Euripides. Gods are also absent in Hamlet, a play to which much of this book is devoted. Here again the missing gods pose no impediment for the authors: “while no god appears onstage in this play, we will come to realize that Hamlet reveres his father as such” (104).  The authors regard immortality as an attribute limited to gods), so that any character who becomes immortal is therefore divine (see the many citations of the word “immortality” in the index).

From the viewpoint of a student of early modern literature, a disappointment is the somewhat casual treatment of Marlowe. The most obvious dramatic handling of gods in his work would have to be in Dido Queen of Carthage, the prologue of which is almost wholly neglected. The opening stage direction offers a comic glimpse of divine life reminiscent of Bellini’s Feast of the Gods: “Here the curtains draw; there is discovered Jupiter dandling Ganymede upon his knee, and Mercury lying asleep.” Venus enters with anger at Jupiter’s “playing with that female wanton boy” while her Aeneas “wanders the sea,” a victim of “false Juno.” Venus, Cupid, and Juno reappear at several points in the play.[1]

Due attention is given to Plautus’s Amphitruo (78-86), but Shakespeare’s handling of the Amphitruo part of Comedy of Errors might have been mentioned; the Jupiter episode in Cymbeline receives two pages, where it is enigmatically said to bring about “a reification of political power and an elevation of social status” (89). The authors sometimes reveal limitations in their knowledge of Renaissance literature, as when they claim that Spenser’s “Mutabilitie Cantos” “open his epic poem The Faerie Queene (1609)” (68).[2]

The writing in this book is sometimes more elaborate and less clear than it might be, for example “It is our contention here that Plautus’ Amphitruo subsumes the actors’ part in creating the non-illusory experience of the theater under the power of the gods” (84). Or: “Intriguingly, literary representations occasionally embraced the freedom to violate the notion of a linear progress of historical time–one that locates early modern individuals and their religious system as superseding those of classical antiquity–by depicting Greco-Roman deities as present in scenes taking place in Renaissance cultural contexts” (11).

A particular delight for me is an afterword on Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphosis, an inimitable play about theatricality. Here as elsewhere the analysis rightly draws attention as much to performance as to text.

Chapter titles

1. Approaching Divinity
2. Under the Actor’s Spell: Audiences in Euripides’ Helen and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
3. An Actor Ascends: Status and Identity in Plautus’ Amphitruo and the Court Masque
4. Authorizing the Gods in Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Shakespeare’s Hamlet
5. To Die Is Human, To Act Is Divine
Afterword: Entertaining Gods in Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses


[1] Dido has had some attention on the recent stage. Its opening scene alone was staged in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge at the 1993 conference for the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s stabbing. The whole play was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2017; at the Target Margin Theater, Brooklyn, in 2001; in 2003 the Globe had small children playing the gods and wearing oversized clothing (what would that have done to the image of divinity?).

[2] They overlook, as Amphitruo parallels in England, the anonymous Birth of Hercules and Thomas Heywood’s The Escapes of Jupiter. Also, their neglecting this influence in act 2 of Heywood’s The Silver Age is curious in view of their attention to Heywood’s less relevant The Golden Age.