All entries for March 2005

March 10, 2005

Introduction to Dissertation

Here's the full introduction (rendering the last two dissertation posts largely irrelevant).

This study aims to explore the different ways in which dead characters are represented on the Classical and Renaissance stage, with particular emphasis on the works of Shakespeare and the three extant Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. While I am not challenging the widely-held belief that Shakespeare probably never read any Greek tragedy, and was only ever exposed to it through the adaptations from the Greek of the Roman playwright Seneca, I do feel that there are enough similarities between certain characters and plots to warrant serious examination – to take just one example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Aeschylus’ Orestes both have fathers who are murdered to facilitate their mothers’ remarriage. Even if we are to take into account the fact that the plots of many of the Greek tragedies that remain can also be found elsewhere as stories and legends to which Shakespeare is more likely to have had access (Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra is mentioned, for example, in Homer’s Odyssey), the differences and similarities between the two playwrights’ treatment of the same basic subject are surely worth exploring in detail.

Clearly, then, a historicist approach, which would look at the direct influence of The Oresteia upon Hamlet, would be pointless in this case, because any similarities we find between Aeschylus and Shakespeare could not be considered ‘influences’ if neither playwright was familiar with the other’s work. One possible way of tackling this issue might involve using the Romans as a means of exploring the indirect influence of the Greeks upon Shakespeare (that is, to look at Seneca’s interpretations of the Greek plays and then Shakespeare’s reading of Seneca) – but again, this would remove the question of the direct relationship between Shakespeare’s tragedy and Greek tragedy which I feel exists in some form.

My intention, therefore, is not to look at the plays in terms of influence or even use them as a way of analysing the differences between Ancient Greece and Elizabethan England, but rather to look at the works as ‘found objects’, comparing and contrasting Shakespeare and the Greeks as playwrights and nothing more. Instead of using the Greeks as a starting point to inform my reading of Shakespeare simply because they happened to come first chronologically, there would appear to be no real reason, once the historicist approach has been discounted, not to do the opposite and look at the Greeks through the work of Shakespeare.

At this stage, it is perhaps important to reinforce the idea of ‘the Greek playwrights’ as three separate individual playwrights in their own right – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. It would be too simplistic to simply write about Shakespeare on one hand and ‘the Greeks’ on the other, as if the Greek tragedians all wrote in exactly the same way – as this is plainly not the case. To this end, I feel that the study is best broken down into three distinct categories, looking at one or two of Shakespeare’s tragedies against those of each of the three separate Greeks in turn. Certainly, for each Greek playwright, there are works that have distinct parallels with certain Shakespeare plays in terms of plot and character – Aeschylus I have already mentioned, with The Oresteia and Hamlet, Sophocles with his Oedipus trilogy (the old, eyeless beggar in Oedipus At Colonnus can perhaps be seen as an combination of both Lear and Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear) and, perhaps most intriguingly, Euripides’ Iphigenia In Tauris and Shakespeare’s Pericles, in both of which a female character who is thought to have died is rescued by the goddess Diana and made a High Priestess at a temple on a remote island.

However, while it cannot be denied that it is interesting to look for these strange parallels between Shakespeare plays and Greek ones which he supposedly never read, perhaps a more useful study is one that attempts to examine the stagecraft of the four different playwrights when each deals with a more universal theme. In my view, the theme which Shakespearean, Greek, and indeed, all other tragedy has in common is death – because, arguably, without death, there can be no tragedy. In exploring the different ways in which the dead are presented in Shakespeare and by the Greeks, I feel that the concept of what it means to be ‘dead’ in tragic drama can be placed, conveniently, into the three separate categories mentioned above.

Firstly, I intend to explore how the tangible physical remains of a dead character are treated – for example, what Yorick’s skull means to Hamlet, or why the body of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus At Colonnus is so important to the Athenians. Secondly, I want to look at the idea of the spirit, both literally when ghosts appear on stage (again, in Hamlet, as well as in Macbeth and Richard III, and for the Greeks in Aeschylus’ Eumenides and Euripides’ Hecuba), and also figuratively, as when dead relatives still appear to somehow hold sway over the actions of the living (one example of this is Portia’s dead father in The Merchant Of Venice having control over her choice of husband through the casket riddle which he has devised). Of course, the links between the first idea, of the body, and the second, of the spirit, are obvious, and it would also be interesting to look at what happens when, as in the case of Julius Caesar, for example, we are presented throughout the course of the play with both the physical dead body of the character and his ghost. Finally, I also wish to address the often problematic notion of reincarnation, famously found in several of Shakespeare’s later plays (Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa in Pericles both famously come back from the dead), and which is also the resolution to a Euripides play, Alcestis.

From this, it is quite clear that in the first category of the body, we are dealing principally with Shakespeare and Sophocles; in the second category of the spirit will be Shakespeare and Aeschylus, and the third will deal with Shakespeare and Euripides – although, of course, the other playwrights may be mentioned in each section where relevant.


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