Wounded maternity, sharp revenge: Shakespeare's representations of queens in light of the Hecuba myth.
--Nicole Loraux, Mothers in Mourning
One of the most shocking moments in Euripides' Hecuba comes in the displaying of a boy's corpse onstage. When Hecuba's servant returns from the sacrifice of Polyxena with a body in winding cloth, Hecuba believes that her daughter has been returned to her for burial. Upon removing the cloth, her eyes fall upon the body of her youngest son, Polydorus, dead and mutilated. "Oh no, no!" she cries out, "This kills me! Oh, what misery! I am alive no more, no more!" (ll. 681, 683-4). Immediately she begins to sing a mourning dirge: "O my child, my child, what woe is mine! I lead off a wild, ecstatic song, newly taught me by the avenging spirit who has sent these ills ... not a day shall pass for me without groans or tears" (685-7, 690-91). She calls the boy's murder an unspeakable violation of human and divine law, "[a]n act that cannot be spoken, cannot be named, past wonder, more than heaven can countenance or men endure" (714-5). "O accursed man," she cries out, envisioning how the Thracian king to whom she and Priam had sent the boy for safety during the Trojan war, "rended his flesh, hacking at this boy's limbs and showing no pity!" (718-20). Hecuba may wear the "garland" of sorrows (660), her misery unsurpassed by any man or woman, but she does not lack agency in her profound grief; rather, in her lamentation, with her slaughtered son before her, fury arises. She wastes little time with tears as she prepares for her revenge, an instinctual and violent action rightly understood as ethical and political in nature.
In her book Mothers in Mourning, Nicole Loraux argues that classical Greek theater gave mourning women a political voice and affective power that was forbidden them by the state. She focuses on great mythic queens such as Hecuba, who appear onstage not only as mourners, but as agents of violence, driven by wrath (menis) and unforgettable grief (penthos alaston) to avenge the deaths of their children. "More cruel yet than the fate of divine mothers in tragedy is that of mortal women: whether triumphant or heartbroken queens," Loraux observes, "they are always wounded in their motherhood. From that moment when mothers obtain only the horrified sight of the child's corpse to compensate for their loss, mourning that has already been transformed into wrath becomes vengeance in deeds. And mothers kill" (49). Her view should give us pause, when we consider how critical appraisals of women's revenge have focused typically on gender transgression, sexual jealousy, and moral deviance or barbarity, rather than maternal bereavement or political agency for the powerless. Furthermore, we might consider how critical assessments of revenge narratives in Western literature have tended to place a cultural premium on the wrath and vengeance of fathers, kings, and male warriors as if those stories of wounded honor and bereavement turned to violence are the only ones that matter. In ancient Greek theater, mothers matter, mothers grieve, and mothers desire vengeance. Maternal vengeance is not antithetical to grief or to justice; indeed, revenge might be understood in this theater as an active form of mourning and as a just political response to unspeakable crimes.
From the classical pantheon of avengers known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Hecuba stands out as a sympathetic female example. The Hecuba myth had resonance in the early modern social imaginary: to invoke Hecuba was to strike chords of profound pity for those crushed beneath Fortune's wheel, but equally it was to evoke the sorrows of wounded motherhood and the tragic emotions connected with child loss. I will be examining here how Shakespeare revives Hecuba in subtle ways to engage audience sympathy for two mourning mothers who display a sharp appetite for revenge: Tamora, queen of the Goths, in Titus Andronicus and Margaret, queen of England, in the Henry VI Tetralogy. (1) In these plays, Shakespeare is concerned as well with paternal grief and masculine revenge, but he does not fail to move audiences with stage images of mothers struck to the quick by the cruel deaths of their sons, who are political heirs and sacrifices alike. The prospect of a mother's mourning transmuted into wrath, curses, and vengeance is terrible to behold onstage, and considered "monstrous" in the eyes of some male characters in their respective plays and some critics of these plays. This is so, arguably, because such a vision imagines political agency and violence springing from motherhood and maternal loss. Early modern feminine revenge gains ethical justification when female characters are depicted in light of Hecuba as powerless queens and mothers witnessing wartime atrocities. In Shakespeare's theater, we detect a political engagement with the Hecuba legend and an implicit paradigm of tragedy based on maternal bereavement and affective ethics.
What was Hecuba to Shakespeare? Shakespeare's Hecuba is decidedly not Virgil's queen, who is barely visible in The Aeneid. In his tale to Dido, Aeneas emphasizes atrocities committed by the Greeks against the Trojans. In a particularly gruesome scene, Pyrrhus kills one of Priam's sons, Polites, before the father's eyes at Troy's sacred altar. The Earl of Surrey's Elizabethan translation vividly captures the scene:
he came now in sight Of his parentes, before their face fell down, Yelding the ghost, with flowing streames of blood. Priamus then, although he were half ded, Might not kepe in his wrath, nor yet his words: But cryeth out (Howard 689-94).
The speech Priam then delivers emphasizes how Pyrrhus "defile[s] the fathers face" (701) with his own child's blood. Priam meets his death "Wallowing through the blodshed of his son" (718). In Virgil's epic, Hecuba is present at the scene in which Pyrrhus slaughters her son--"in sight / Of his parentes, before their face fell down" (689-90)--but Aeneas recounts nothing of the mother's wrath, her words, her cries. Her very presence is effaced from the text at the moment when a mother's lamentation might seem most natural. Virgil's interest clearly lies in the fate of fathers, sons, and cities, and in Priam's paternal loss as a metonym for the loss of Troy.
Many accounts of the Troy legend, however, give Hecuba her due and make of her sorrowful image, rather than Priam's, an archetype, or resonant figure, of loss. Furthermore, some of those accounts focus on Hecuba as avenging mother. Euripides' Hecuba and The Trojan Women, Seneca's Troades, and Ovid's Metamorphoses all represent Hecuba as a suffering, passionate queen and mother, and Homer's Iliad presents her in one striking moment as a wrathful mother who wishes to devour the liver of Achilles, her son Hector's killer, with her teeth. Early modern translations of these texts from Greek to Latin, and from Latin to English, were well known among writers. Importantly, multiple editions and translations of Euripides' Hecuba, including Erasmus's Latin translation, were available on the Continent and in England. (2) Emrys Jones claims that Euripides' Hecuba "had been admired for centuries, so that by the time it came down to the sixteenth century it was accepted as being quite obviously one of the chief masterpieces of Euripides" (93). Judith Mossman notes that Hecuba was "the most translated and imitated Greek play of the sixteenth century" (225), and writers of poetics treatises such as Scalinger, Minturno, and Sidney knew Euripides' play well enough to use it to demonstrate their theories about dramatic structure.
In his play, Euripides depicts Hecuba as a captive queen brought to the shore of Thrace with the Greek fleet. In her loss and grief. Hecuba must suffer the further atrocities of her daughter Polyxena's sacrifice to Achilles' ghost and the discovery of the mutilated corpse of Polydorus. Her last child's death figuratively kills the mother and awakens a Fury. She becomes a supplicant before Agamemnon, begging for justice, but receives none. When neither mortal nor god takes up the mother's cause, she and the captive Trojan women invite her son's murderer, King Polymnestor, to their tent; they gouge out his eyes with their brooches and kill his two sons. She is not punished by the Greeks for these violent acts, and the play ends with Agamemnon sending Hecuba to bury her children.
Seneca re-envisioned Euripides' Hecuba and The Trojan Women in his play Troades, which features the dominant presence of a mourning Hecuba. In his Elizabethan translation of Seneca's play printed in 1561, Jasper Heywood represents Hecuba as an archetypal figure of misfortune. Unlike the Virgilian emphasis on Priam's tragic face, here Hecuba's face is literally and figuratively the human face of de casibus tragedy:
Let him in me both se the Face, of Fortunes flattering joy: And eke respect the ruthful end of thee (O ruinous Troy) For never gave shee playner proofe, then this ye present see: How frayle and britle is the state of pride and high degree.... (1.1)
At the end of the drama, Hecuba's lament clarifies her function as a universal figure of woe:
What ever mans calamatyes ye wayle for myne it is. I beare the smart of al their woes, each other feeles but his Who ever he, I am the wretch all happes to me at last. (5.1)
Hecuba's maternity resonates subliminally in the word "beare." If Troy is a byword for the loss of home, city, kingdom, and good fortune, Hecuba is a byword for the feeling response to absolute human loss, like that of a mother for her children.
In texts such as these, early modern readers were encouraged to take moral instruction from Hecuba's misfortune. (3) Heywood's queen is "A mirrour ... to teach you what you are / Your wavering wealth, O Princes here is seene" (1.2, Chorus added by Heywood). In Gorboduc audiences hear Hecuba described as "the woeful'st wretch / That ever lived to make a mirror of" (3.1.14-5). But such a mirror might produce more than contemplation of mankind's unfortunate lot, for even when framed as didactic, Hecuba's suffering might produce tears, a response predicated on sympathy rather than moral application. Early modern writers recognized both of these functions in the figure of Hecuba, her exemplarity and her pathos, but the later we travel into the sixteenth century, the more likely the writer was to emphasize Hecuba's affective capacity, particularly in the theater. (4)
In representations that evoke pathos, Hecuba was unmistakably gendered female--queen, wife, and mother--and her maternal identity was displayed through her intense grieving for her children. Hecuba's legend suggests that the mother-child bond is the strongest of all bonds in nature and violations of that bond cause an absolute grief that legitimates women's revenge. She is the "paradigm of mourning motherhood," to echo Loraux (40), and, as such, reveals the feminine nature or root of all tragic loss. Indeed we might go so far as to say that the bereaved mother lies at the ground of tragedy as its most potent figure. Ancient tragedies of Troy and early modern reanimations of Hecuba suggest as much.
Hecuba's mourning motherhood is articulated through tropes that recur in textual representations of her myth. Hecuba's grief was imagined feelingly, for example, through acoustic description: in her piercing shout in Homer's Iliad, her howling in Golding's Metamorphoses and Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, her "burst of clamour" in Shakespeare's Hamlet (2.2.453). Through images of the womb, the wounded heart, eyes, and tears, Hecuba's sympathetic identification with her children is rendered with pathos, which in turn inspires a feeling response from the reader or audience. The Player in Hamlet incorporates the mother's fecundity and pain in childbirth--her "lank and all-o'erteemed loins" (446)--into the image of Hecuba run mad for grief over Priam's slaughter. In Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses, Hecuba cries out, "O daughter, thou are dead and gone. I see/Thy wound which at the verry hart strikes mee as well as thee" (13.592-3). In Ovid's Latin, the text emphasizes the mother's emotional identification with her daughter with verbal repetition and alliteration: "videoque tuum, mea vulnera, vulnus" ("I see your wound, my wound" 13.495). In Richard Rainolde's oration for Hecuba in his rhetoric book for Tudor schoolboys, Hecuba laments, "Hectors death did wounde my hart" (N3r). In Thomas Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament, Summer invokes the image of"raging Hecuba, whose hollow eyes / Gave suck to fifty sorrows at one time" (201). "Hollow eyes" suggests an acoustic pun on howl, while at the same time recalling the gouging of the Thracian king's eyes. The eyes also appear as displaced breasts, the tears flowing where milk once had given nourishment to Hecuba's many children.
Ovid's re-visioning of the Hecuba myth distills Euripides' dramatic character into a charged metamorphic figure of maternal grief, queenship, and vengeance in his Metamorphoses, Shakespeare's main source for the Hecuba myth. He first depicts her in Troy as a "miserabile visu" ("pitiable sight" 13.422) and a lamenting mother visiting the tombs where her sons are laid: she kisses their bones and leaves behind poor offerings, tears and hair ripped out in passion. She even takes Hector's ashes with her when she is forced into captivity (13.508-14). Later in Thrace, after she laments Polyxena's death, she views the horrific sight of Polydorus's wounded body, which in the Ovidian narrative produces shrieking from her women, but utter silence from Hecuba. Arthur Golding's translation reads: "shee was dumb for sorrow"; she "stood astonyed leeke / As if shee had beene stone" (13.645, 647-8). Ovid omits the Euripidean Hecuba's dirge here, instead revising the grieving Niobe's transformation to stone: whereas Niobe becomes a helpless weeping stone, Ovid's Hecuba barely weeps before she becomes absorbed by the image of revenge: "[P]oenaeque in imagine tota est" (13.546). Wrath and vengefulness arise almost as a single passion within the mother's heart as she gazes upon the gaping wounds in her child's body. In Ovid's image, she "arms" ("armat" 13.544) herself with rage, which is suggestive of a warrior readying herself for battle. Golding calls Hecuba "queen" three times in this passage (Ovid only once), insisting upon her "princely hart" (13.660). Golding follows Ovid in depicting a double internal metamorphosis in Hecuba, which rhetorically displays the agency of mourning motherhood. No longer a heartbroken, aged, helpless queen, she rises up with a heart on fire as a princely avenger and bereaved lioness hunting her prey. Ovid's narrative economically depicts the rapid transformation of grief into wrath into revenge that Euripides had dramatized through Hecuba's dirge. While song conveys passions on the ancient Greek stage, silence is the necessary medium for the Ovidian female avenger. (5)
Shakespeare revives the spirit of Hecuba in his drama and poetry because she is such an evocative figure of tragedy. In Shakespeare's imaginary, Hecuba's subliminal presence lies at the ground of tragedy: through intertextual play with the Euripidean-Ovidian tradition, she is made visible in striking tropes and ekphrastic images of passion. She is conjured by name and image in the Trojan tapestry in The Rape of Lucrece, the Player's recitation of Troy's fall in Hamlet, strikingly opposing references in Titus Andronicus, Imogen's grief-stricken curse in Cymbeline, and Volumnia's martial praise in Coriolanus, which compares the loveliness of Hecuba's breasts suckling Hector to her own son's forehead spitting forth blood. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's dramatization of the Troy legend, Hecuba surprisingly does not appear as an onstage character. She is described at one point by Pandarus as laughing herself to tears. This unorthodox representation of a laughing-weeping Hecuba suggests the key to that strange, bitter comedy, which views Trojan losses through bathos rather than the elevated passions associated with epic and tragedy. Hecuba, thus, is a figure that can be used to gauge affective qualities of literary forms, rhetoric, and images. In moments of tragic seriousness, in the contexts of rape, murder, grief, and vengeance, her image might rightly be sought after by a writer, or by a literary character, as Lucrece makes clear in her distraught effort "[t]o find a face where all distress is stelled" (1. 1444). The sorrowing face of Hecuba stells--delineates and stills--all human loss, pain, and woe; yet Shakespeare has been specific in gendering this encounter. It is most decidedly a feminine face that speaks silently to a bereaved female here.
In his intertextual engagements with Hecuba, Shakespeare emphasizes a rhetoric and imagery of affect that convey the sufferings of mothers over their children's fates. Such suffering leads to disrupted and deranged attempts at mourning and the revenges or vengeful curses of mourning mothers. In the representations of Tamora and Margaret, Shakespeare brings into play the Hecuba myth to show more than a universal "stelling" of distress; through stage action and rhetoric, Shakespeare's Hecubas display the agency mothers possess in their mourning. Not only do these queens elicit pity and sorrow when they are forced to witness the killing or mutilation of their children, they also are shown as fierce, vengeful mothers, bent on destroying their enemies. Both characters appear in plays deeply concerned with parental bereavement, maimed funeral rites, and violent mourning. The slaughtered and mutilated children in Titus Andronicus and the First Tetrology represent absolute loss that drives mothers and fathers alike to vengeance.
In Titus Andronicus, Tamora's revenge is linked explicitly with that of the legendary Trojan queen. Barbara Mowat, for one, has recognized Hecuba's revenge as a shaping myth that operates structurally "at a very deep level" in Shakespeare's play (58). As a fallen, captive queen and a fierce avenging mother, Tamora distinctly resembles Hecuba. In the first scene of the play, Demetrius, Tamora's son, draws the parallel, appealing to the gods who assisted Hecuba to favor his mother, the queen of the Goths:
The selfsame gods that armed the queen of Troy With opportunity of sharp revenge Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent May favour Tamora, the queen of the Goths (When Goths were Goths and Tamora was queen), To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes. (1.1.139-44)
Demetrius offers an overtly political reading of Ovid's Hecuba designed to align our sympathies with a wronged queen who, like Hecuba, will triumph in her revenge not only as a mother, but as a queen. Golding's emphasis on queenliness in his translation with the three repetitions of "queen" (13.654, 658, 680) reverberates here. Demetrius adds to the Ovidian episode the notion that the gods favored Hecuba, which insists upon divine sympathy, even justification, for a queen's revenge. In Titus, then, to kill Tamora's son is to wound her royal maternity, for her son is a prince, and she is a queen; thus, to kill a royal son is to wound the honor and the political identity of a queen.
Visual emphasis is placed at the start of the play on Tamora's motherhood, for she appears onstage with her three sons, two of whom comfort her when the eldest, Alarbus, is taken away to be sacrificed. This scene reminds an audience of the cruel fate of women in war, "always wounded in their motherhood," to echo Nicole Loraux (49). In classical Greek tragedy, Loraux points out, mothers kill the guilty man, "always a man, and sometimes children, the culprit's sons" (50). Hecuba is an excellent case in point, and it is to Hecuba Shakespeare turns at first to figure Tamora's grief and vengeful spirit. The early scene of maternal helplessness is pitiable in the highest degree. She kneels before Titus, as Hecuba kneeled before Odysseus, in Euripides' play, begging for her daughter's life. We hear elements of the traditional captive woman's lament: "Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed," cries Tamora, "A mother's tears in passion for her son! / And if thy sons were ever dear to thee, / O, think my son to be as dear to me.... Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son" (1.1.108-11, 123). Titus is unmoved, and carries on with the intended sacrifice. Tamora is left in the end without even a corpse to lament and bury; rather, she must bear witness to the horrifying sight of the Andronici sons burning her son's entrails.
This sacrifice, like that of Hecuba's daughter Polyxena, takes place offstage or ob-skene; both are "obscene" in the sense of ill-omened and offensive to morality. The sacrifice of Polyxena and the mutilation of Hecuba's son Polydorus are conflated in the treatment of Alarbus's corpse in Titus. The intimate connection between the Goth mother and son is severed, the body-memory of Alarbus disrupted by a traumatic, unspeakable image of dismemberment and incineration.
With no funeral rites and little time for lamentation, Tamora displays a "mourning that has already been transformed into wrath," that "becomes vengeance in deeds" (Loraux 49). She swears not simply to kill Titus or to dispatch his son as repayment for her son's slaughter, but to "massacre" the Andronici (1.1.455). Her revenge is sharp, a word that connotes both appetite and pitilessness. Since no pity was shown to the mother, the mother will become pitiless. The desire to repay Titus for his cruelty consumes her. Once she unexpectedly gains a position of power in Rome, having made an amorous conquest of the emperor Saturninus, Tamora begins to unleash the furious energy of a wronged mother's ire upon the Andronici and masculine Rome. She will "make them know what 'tis to let a queen / Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain" (1.1.459-60).
When Tamora is in a position to take revenge, she reenacts the earlier scene of her humiliating supplication for her son's life. Now she takes Titus's role and Lavinia, Titus's daughter, is her supplicant, begging for grace in vain. Tamora is ready to kill Titus's daughter herself: "Give me the poniard. You shall know, my boys, / Your mother's hand shall right your mother's wrong" (2.2.120-21). Tamora's memory of Alarbus's death is raw, and she desires nothing more than revenge, child for child: "for his sake [Alarbus's] am I pitiless" (162). She recalls how her mother's tears "poured forth ... in vain,"
To save your brother from the sacrifice, But fierce Andronicus would not relent. Therefore away with her and use her as you will: The worse to her, the better loved to me. (163-7)
She asserts her maternal claim to revenge here, allowing her sons to desecrate Lavinia's body as repayment for the desecration of Alarbus's body.
Unlike Ovid's Hecuba, who is transformed into a dog, her misfortune moving Trojans, enemy Greeks, and gods alike "to ruthe" (Golding 13.687), Shakespeare's Tamora is represented without pity at the end of Titus. The savageries of revenge accumulate in images of her monstrous maternal body: Not only is Tamora ultimately made to eat the flesh of her own children, but Lucius, the new power in Rome, verbally metamorphoses her into a "ravenous tiger" and deems her life "beastly" (5.3.194, 198), insisting,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weed, No mournful bell shall ring her burial, But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey: Her life was beastly and devoid of pity, And being dead, let birds on her take pity. (195-9)
Shakespeare has removed all sympathy from his Hecuba figure, a tactic he started midway through the tragedy when Titus and Lavinia took up some of Hecuba's part. Lavinia, for example, is compared to "Hecuba of Troy / [who] Ran mad for sorrow" (4.1.20-21), and Titus, bereaved father, weeps for his lost children and is moved to take revenge on the mother. The masculine appropriation of the Troy legend is complete when a Roman lord invokes Aeneas's story of Troy's fall and speaks of the wounding of "our Troy, our Rome" (5.3.86). Shakespeare's staging of failed sympathy for the bereaved, vengeance-seeking mother is rather stunning, suggesting a deliberate artistic reworking of the Hecuba myth to show the political dangers of maternal wrath to the state. She must be suppressed, banished from the city, and sharp revenge must be taken on what can only be seen finally as the alien maternal body. Thus does Rome seek to preserve its honor and the socio-political integrity of its patriarchal "body."
Similarly, Queen Margaret in the Henry VI Tetralogy is viewed by her male enemies as monstrous, as an alien, a tiger and an Amazon, because she threatens their political designs in England. While there is no direct allusion to Hecuba in the First Tetralogy, there are suggestive undercurrents aligning Margaret with the Trojan queen. At the end of 1 Henry VI, Suffolk engages the Troy legend when he casts the royal union of Henry and Margaret in his own private fantasy of conquest, ominously fashioning himself Paris to Margaret's Helen. But Margaret is no Helen. She proves her "valiant courage and undaunted spirit/(More than in women commonly is seen)" (5.4.70-71) in becoming the queen of England, a political power, diplomat, general of the Lancastrian troops, and defender of her son's claim to the throne. In 3 Henry VI, King Henry refers to England as Troy and Warwick as "my Hector, and my Troy's true hope" (4.8.25). Margaret plays Hecuba to Henry's Priam, only she is a war-like Hecuba, prepared to fight for her Troy and her son, Prince Edward. As Naomi C. Liebler and Lisa Scancella Shea emphasize, Margaret's fierce maternity becomes a "destructive energy ... directed against those who threaten her son's right to succeed to the throne" (88). She sheds tears for the siege of her Troy and claims justice in her cause: "for every word I speak," she says to her troops, "Ye see I drink the water of my eye ... You fight in justice" (5.4.74-5, 81).
Margaret's tears, however, presage her ruin and the death of her greatest hope, her son. The scene immediately following this one depicts Margaret and the Prince's capture by the York brothers. In this, Margaret's last appearance in 3 Henry VI, her resemblance to Hecuba, queen of woes, is striking, for she is viewed onstage in her moment of greatest loss. As a fallen queen and bereaved mother, Margaret elicits the audience's sympathy. She dominates the stage, as Julia Foster's Margaret showed us in the 1983 BBC production (dir. Jane Howell), where her chastisements and violent grief visibly shook the new political powers, the York brothers, Edward, Clarence, and Richard. In this scene, they each stab Margaret's son before her very eyes. Shakespeare would have found the description of the killing of the Prince in both Edward Hall's and Raphael Holinshed's histories, but neither chronicler reports that the mother bore witness to the slaying of her son. Audience response is intensified in Shakespeare's play with the additional presence of the helpless mother onstage. Shakespeare rewrites history to give audiences a potent image of child slaughter and maternal bereavement that connects divine retribution to the affective ethics of maternal loss and grief.
In altering Hall's English history, Shakespeare reaches back to the Troy legend where he finds a suggestive model for Margaret in the Euripidean-Ovidian Hecuba. Just as the mutilated corpse of Polydorus represents a moral outrage and a generative source of revenge, so too does the killing of the young prince. In shock and disbelief, Margaret cries out, "sweet Ned" is but "a child / And men ne'er spend their fury on a child" (5.5.51, 56-7). But we know she is wrong, for earlier in the play, Clifford killed Rutland, the youngest of York's sons, in furious vengeance for the murder of his own father at St. Albans. For Clifford's savagery and for her mockery of the father's paternity in the infamous molehill scene where she and her men kill the Duke of York, Margaret must pay. As a political agent, Margaret is caught up in the revenge cycles that characterize the Wars of the Roses: she is both avenger and target of vengeance. This scene, however, elicits tremendous sympathy from audiences who view Margaret, finally, as a mother, wounded where she is most vulnerable. And unlike Tamora, she focuses exclusively and piteously on her murdered child. Her grief is absolute; she must "speak, that so [her] heart may burst" (60). In the BBC production, Foster held out her arms in lament, just as Hecuba does before the body of Polydorus in Antonio Tempesta's illustration of this moment in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Fig. 1).
Foster then cradled the body of her son in her arms. She begs, even taunts, the brothers to kill her. "Butchers and villains! Bloody cannibals!" (61), she calls them. To kill her would complete their butchery of the defenseless. Richard is ready, exclaiming, "Why should she live to fill the world with words?" (44). But King Edward hesitates fearfully: "Hold, Richard, hold, for we have done too much" (43). He sends her away to await the ransom that will remove her from England.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Edward Hall depicts Margaret's life back in France, where she returns after the wars, as "more lyke a death then a lyre," languishyng and mornyng in continuall sorowe, not so much for her self and her husbande, whose ages were almost consumed and worne, but for the losse of prince Edward her sonne (whome she and her husband thought to leue, both ouerlyuer of their progeny, and also of their kyngdome) to whome in this lyfe nothyng coulde be either more displeasant or greuous. (301)
Shakespeare elaborates upon Margaret's "continuall sorowe" by giving maternal grief not only affective power, but agency. Like Hecuba, Margaret may wish to die, but she finds reason to live in vengeance. Richard's question predicts the politically significant function Shakespeare grants Margaret in Richard III, or Margaret's Revenge, as we might think of the play.
Just as Hecuba's myth continues beyond the loss of Troy, Priam, and her children, Margaret's story continues beyond her losses. In Richard III, a drama filled with the cries of mourning mothers, Margaret makes a spectacular, unhistorical appearance at the English court. Shakespeare alters history in order to give political weight and purpose to maternal mourning. Margaret appears not as a weapon-wielding avenger, but as an onstage mistress of revenge, calling to mind a Fury and performing the memory work of a bloody nation. In Greek tragedy, the Furies relentlessly pursue those who shed kin's blood and violate laws of hospitality, friendship, and filial relations. They are personifications of curses. In Hecuba's legend, the Thracian king violates xenia, the sacred law of hospitality, when he kills his "guest-friend," the young Trojan prince; thus, like a Fury, Hecuba hounds him so that she can enact justice. The Wars of the Roses, in essence, were predicated on violent competition among kin, with the senseless killing of children emphasizing the horror and unnaturalness of the wars. We might recall the moving scene in 3 Henry VI in which a father discovers he has slain his son, and a son that he has slain his father. Shakespeare has them both imagine how the mother and wife will rage and "[s]hed seas of tears, and ne'er be satisfied" (2.5.106).
In Richard III, mothers shed tears, rage, and seek satisfaction. Maternal loss and absolute grief seem most piteous in this play, culminating in the scene of mourning queens (4.4). There is a ferocity about these mothers in mourning. Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York open the scene with a lamentation for their dead children; Margaret, however, reserves for herself the distinction of "ancient sorrow":
If ancient sorrow be most reverend Give mine the benefit of seigniory, And let my griefs frown on the upper hand. If sorrows can admit society, Tell o'er your woes again by viewing mine. (4.4.35-9)
Like Hecuba, she is exemplary, the mirror in which the younger bereaved women might see their own woes reflected. Margaret recounts her woes as if they were tallied on revenge's balance sheet, which she reviews with grim satisfaction:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; I had a husband, till a Richard kill'd him: Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.... (40-43)
These lines encourage the women to join in hatred against Richard, the child-killer and husband-killer. They can gain some satisfaction in cursing their mutual enemy and watching his decline.
Like Hecuba, Margaret is a figure of Fortune's fall: "One heav'd a-high, to be hurl'd down below" (4.4.86). But her misfortunes evoke sympathy specifically through the pathos of maternal bereavement, which is emphasized at the end of the Henry plays and intensified in this scene from Richard III. Seen in light of the Hecuba myth, dramatic queens such as Margaret and Tamora bring into play the sharp satisfaction of revenge, achieved in the name of dead children. In Richard III Margaret may seem to be displaced from history's arena as Hecuba was after Troy's fall, but her agency does not sleep, nor does her memory. She teaches mourning mothers to curse and to challenge the corrupt political system in England. Underlying Shakespeare's dramatic representations of mourning mothers lie threads of association with Hecuba, whose grief and revenge bring to mind how mothers' intimate connections with their children are severed during war, how mothers seek instinctually and justly to punish those responsible for such unnatural serverings, how there is a political purpose and a rightful challenge to the patriarchal order in the displaying of a mother's passions.
Initial performances of Titus Andronicus and the First Tetralogy date from the 1590s, a late period in Queen Elizabeth I's reign. England's queen also knew what it meant to be subject to wavering Fortune and to feel wounded in her maternity. For Elizabeth, however, pain came not from a slain child or a son's lost patrimony, but rather from her publicly contested and slandered maternity. During the first two decades of Elizabeth's rule, her political obligation to produce an heir was the subject of serious debate in Parliament. Elizabeth was repeatedly petitioned and pressured to marry and bear children. Furthermore, scandalous rumors circulated in the kingdom that the Queen had borne children illegitimately (Levin 61-4). As an unmarried female in the public's eye, Elizabeth was vulnerable in her maternity. Yet, as a political agent, she was shrewd and quick-witted, countering Parliament's demands for her to marry and ensure succession by appropriating their rhetoric of marriage and motherhood. In place of biological motherhood, she made public claims to a "symbolic, political maternity," as Christine Coch has called it (450). In her early years as queen, Elizabeth adopted the metaphoric role of "good mother of [her] Contreye," calling the English people her "children" and, in time, serving as godmother to more than one hundred of her subjects. (6) She proceeded to act upon the natural authority derived from the mother-child relationship, which suited her political and personal ends.
Upon seeing the troubled, dark mirrors offered by Shakespeare's queens in the theater, Elizabeth may have felt reassured about her own choice to forego childbearing. In these plays, the Queen would have beheld tragic representations of the political risks, contingencies, and personal sufferings that attended royal maternity. Although her person and rule were imperiled at times by slander and political plots, England's queen never suffered the sort of devastating losses summed up in the tragic figure of Hecuba. Indeed, Elizabeth I was no Hecuba, nor was she Margaret or Tamora. Elizabeth was a triumphant, rather than a heartbroken or tragic, queen. She bore the wounds to her maternity with dignity and did her best to heal those wounds with a positive rhetoric of female rule. Through her careful rhetorical management of her image and her refusal of the political, social, and biological imperatives of matrimony and maternity, Elizabeth fashioned a compellingly modern mirror for spectators, who could learn from her what it is to triumph against odds as a female prince in a patriarchal world.
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My warmest thanks to Carole Levin for inviting me to present a version of this essay to the Queen Elizabeth I Society at the South-Central Renaissance Conference, Corpus Christi, TX, March 18-20, 2010.
(1.) For a more extensive examination of Hecuba's legacy in Shakespeare's dramas and of women's participation in the revenge dynamics of Shakespeare's plays, see Tassi and Weil.
(2.) Ten editions of Hecuba and Iphigeneia in Aulis together, and three of Hecuba alone appeared in early modern Europe before 1541, according to Charlton (33), and further editions were printed after that date (Mossman 223). On Erasmus's translation of Hecuba, see Jones 96-7; Mossman 221-3. Jones makes the strongest, or at least most detailed, argument for Shakespeare's knowledge of Euripides' play and his use of this classical antecedent to structure Titus Andronicus (85-107).
(3.) Westney contextualizes early modern treatments of Hecuba as a didactic mirror within the tradition of mirror literature (442-4).
(4.) For further insight into Hecuba's affective capacity, see Heald 143-84. Heald argues specifically that "[p]oets collapse the act of representing Hecuba with the passionate response she provokes.... In this way, Hecuba provided a way of imagining the transmission of poetic language, specifically the classical tradition, as predicated upon a transmission of feeling" (144).
(5.) Fox observes that Golding's translation of Ovid's tales of Procne and Hecuba "highlights most clearly the inability of his female characters to speak or weep once their interior states are wholly devoted to picturing revenge. Paradoxically, therefore, reaching this point of extreme passion, the female figures are granted the ability to conceal it, and through their silence they can revenge" (119).
(6.) Coch notes that Elizabeth I did not use the "mother of her country" trope explicitly after 1563, yet "she retained the maternal attributes it implied" (449). For examples of Elizabeth's use of the maternal trope, see her 1559 and 1563 speeches in answer to the Commons' petitions that she marry (Elizabeth I 58-60, 70-72). Levin notes how Elizabeth served as godmother to James Stuart, as well as to numerous courtiers' children (60). Coch and Levin both emphasize the problems and perils Elizabeth shrewdly avoided when she refused biological motherhood.
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|Author:||Tassi, Marguerite A.|
|Publication:||Explorations in Renaissance Culture|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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