Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages.
Tanya Pollard's new book contributes to a newly flourishing and sometimes controversial field of enquiry, one that asks to what extent ancient Greek literature exerted a demonstrable influence over literary creativity in early modern England. Professor Pollard has produced other recent work in this area, for example a special issue (2017) of the Classical Receptions Journal, co-edited with Tania Demetriou, and entitled Homer and Greek Tragedy in Early Modern England's Theatres. The current book focuses on the reception of Greek tragedy in England, and especially (though not exclusively) on the influence that these plays had on Shakespeare's tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies. Pollard argues that "rediscovered ancient Greek plays exerted a powerful and uncharted influence on sixteenth-century England's dramatic landscape, not only in academic and aristocratic settings, but also at the heart of the developing commercial theaters" (2), and over the course of seven fascinating and richly researched appendices to the monograph, she details the printing, translation and performance of Greek plays as well as well as Senecan tragedies, to illustrate her assertion that, in early modern England, "Greek plays were far more visible than scholars have previously claimed" (6). The most popular of the extant Greek plays, she finds, were Euripidean tragedies, and specifically Euripides' Hecuba and Iphigenia at Aulis, followed by his Medea, Alcestis and The Phoenician Women (6). As Pollard notes, this group is striking for its focus on female protagonists, and she posits that two different kinds of emotive female power to be found in such plays--the power of the furious and lamenting mother, and of the proudly self-sacrificing virgin--seem to have held a special fascination for early modern authors, and moreover exercised a particular imaginative hold over Shakespeare.
Before turning to Shakespeare, though, the book considers the wider role ancient Greek drama began to play in the early modern literary landscape of England. Chapter 1 addresses the circulation of Greek and Greek-influenced plays in England, with particular reference to two examples that have often been overlooked, because they have been perceived as too reliant on vernacular sources, rather than Euripidean originals. These are Lady Jane Lumley's translation (via Erasmus's Latin) of Iphigenia in Aulis, and George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh' s Jocasta, a version of Euripides' The Phoenician Women, via the Italian of Lodovico Dolce. Importantly, Pollard shows how Lumley's play, which has often been dismissed or unadmired, is at points closer to Euripides's Greek than is Erasmus's Latin--for example, in the play's stress on the strange and paradoxical blend of suffering and wonder that is to be found in motherhood (52). For Gascoigne and Kinwelmersh, meanwhile, and though their play has often been regarded as similarly distanced from Euripides, the classical source is not elided, but is rather productively combined with the vernacular intertext, to provide the English drama with 'a distinctively Greek model of tragedy rooted in a mother-daughter dyad' (61).
In Chapter 2, this distinctively Greek, tragic and emotive mother-daughter dynamic is brought to the forefront in discussions of The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus. In the former play, Pollard argues that the powerful grief of figures such as Isabella and Bel-Imperia (and their associated desire for revenge), as well as Hieronimo's bringing of Greek onstage, all combine to suggest that Kyd's play might be "our point of origin for an early modern genre identified with angry, grieving male revengers", but that it is also "shaped by the shadowy afterlives of Greek tragic women" (91). For Shakespeare, the most significant of these women is the lamenting but vengeful mother Hecuba, described by Pollard as "the period's reigning icon of Greek tragedy" (22), and in reference to Titus Andronicus, Pollard argues that Tamora, Titus and even Lavinia are all somehow imbued with Hecuba's traditional associations of melting, tragic grief. As Pollard notes in this chapter, recognizing and acknowledging the Greek tragic influences on Titus Andronicus strengthens the case for regarding George Peele, an admired translator of Euripides, as Shakespeare's co-author, but in chapter 3, Pollard also sees Hecuba's influence as resonating through other Shakespearean tragedies and tragic works, including Hamlet, Coriolanus and The Rape of Lucrece. Indeed, Pollard argues that, following his early collaboration with Peele, it is specifically the Euripidean rather than the Senecan Hecuba who interests Shakespeare, and exerts influence on his tragedies and tragic characters, because of the Greek heroine's strong associations not just with melting grief, but with "active rage and violence" (121).
Chapter 4 charts the somewhat more surprising intrusion of Greek tragic models into Shakespearean comedy, suggesting that even when he was engaged in writing entirely different kinds of plays, Shakespeare remained interested in Greek tragedy's capacity for powerful and affecting emotion, and that this emotion, exemplified by female characters, might be brought to bear on Shakespeare's "distinctive hybrid version of comedy" (144). So, like Hecuba, Adriana in The Comedy of Errors is associated with a range of extreme emotions, both tears and laughter (because of the paradoxically comic potential of her grief onstage). In Twelfth Night, meanwhile, Viola's willingness to be sacrificed in response to Orsino's threat, or the play's reunions and recognitions between brothers and sisters, evoke memories of characters from Greek romance (such as Thyamis, Theagenes and Chariclea, found in Heliodorus' Aethiopica) but such moments also recall the Greek dramatic figures that lay behind Heliodorus' work, such as Polyxena, Iphigenia and Orestes.
Turning to another Euripidean play, in chapter 5 Pollard argues that not only The Winter's Tale but also Much Ado About Nothing and Pericles recall Alcestis, in the motif of the restoration of a lost (and possibly veiled) wife. Indeed, in chapter 6, Pollard shows how Shakespeare became especially associated with this idea of Greek-inspired resurrections and restorations, to the extent that, when Ben Jonson wishes to lampoon his friend and rival in Bartholomew Fair, he turns to this same trope. Via his presentation of women such as Joan Trash and Ursula, and of men who temporarily lose their wives, and inspired by his own interest in Aristophanic parody, in Bartholomew Fair Jonson "simultaneously imitates, mocks, and pays homage to Shakespeare's tragicomic restorations, through parodic versions of the Greek female figures who loom behind their miraculous reversals" (206).
Throughout, Pollard argues that newly accessible and visible Greek tragic heroines "came to embody the power of theatrical performance to transmit emotions sympathetically from speakers to audiences" (221) and argues that this dramatic and affective potential seems to have resonated particularly with Shakespeare, surfacing in a wide range of his dramatic works, and even if other authors of the period were more directly familiar with Greek originals. The monograph is a rich and thought-provoking resource for scholars and students who are interested not only in the transmission and reception of Greek, or in Shakespeare's dramatic women, but in the staging of emotion, and in Shakespeare's complicated and enriching relationships with his ancient literary predecessors, with his more recent vernacular models, and with his contemporaries, collaborators and rivals.
Reviewer: KATHERINE HEAVEY