All entries for April 2005

April 29, 2005


More fragments of essay stuff here, just in case my computer goes tits-up. You know the score, no one is reading this anyway.

Map a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. You should include at least two specimen scenes, an outline of the whole film, and an account of your aims and strategies.

Although there have been a great deal of famous and authoritative film adaptations of most of Shakespeare’s best-loved tragedies and comedies, involving some of the world’s greatest directors and actors, Troilus and Cressida is one of the few remaining examples of the playwright’s truly great works of which have, as yet, been largely ignored by the movie industry. This is particularly surprising when we consider that Troilus and Cressida, with its biting political satire and bleak cynicism, is widely considered by critics to be the most ‘modern’ of Shakespeare’s plays in its outlook, and also the fact that that it is unique within the playwright’s because its popularity and performance history as an unabridged text is almost exclusively limited to the Twentieth Century.

Of course, a few of versions of the play do exist on film – most notably, two different ones made by the BBC, the first in 1966, directed by Michael Croft and Bernard Hepton, and the second in 1981, directed by Jonathan Miller – but neither appear to have been particularly critically acclaimed. I would certainly not call them failures, as they are in no way bad interpretations of the text (in fact, I felt that Miller’s choice of casting Jack Birkett, a cabaret performer, as Thersites was particularly interesting), but I felt the main thing that was wrong with both productions was that they felt less like ‘films’ and more like recordings of theatre. To my mind, this is clearly a problem in a world in which recent films like Baz Luhrmann’s inventive and fast-paced Romeo and Juliet, or Michael Almereyda’s drastic modernization of Hamlet are now considered the norm in discussions of modern Shakespearian adaptations for film. No matter how good the interpretation of the text is, the methods used for staging in the theatre are no longer wholly appropriate for staging on the big screen.

With this in mind, I would certainly cite the urgency and strong visual spectacle of these two plays as influences for any adaptation of my own, as well as two other very recent treatments of Shakespearean tragedy; Julie Taymor’s Titus and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III. These four films are all much shorter than conventional theatre performances – and rightly so, given the different expectations of a film-going public. Their directors’ strength lies in the fact that they are not afraid in their streamlining to try and capture the spirit of Shakespeare’s plays by drastically cutting scenes or even moving lines around. Also, all four directors use the relative freedom of being able to shoot scenes that would be logistically impossible in the theatre in order to create memorable images that are at once entirely filmic and entirely Shakespearean – the expansive, Daliesque picture of the aftermath of Lavinia’s rape in Titus, for example, or Richard’s darkly comic descent into hell at the end of Richard III.

The greatest strength of these films, though, and one which I would aim to emulate in my own effort, is that they do not go to extremes in their attitude towards the texts themselves, either by trying to completely update them into modern parlance (as with the recent Hollywood adaptations of the comedies, such as Ten Things I Hate About You) or remain completely faithful (as with Kenneth Branagh’s well-meaning but clumsy four-hour unabridged version of Hamlet). In many ways, what becomes apparent with these four films is that, when the text is used and engaged with instead of treated as either too untranslatable to keep or too sacred to change, it lends itself conveniently to a modern setting. In Almereyda’s Hamlet, for example, it appears eminently suitable that Ophelia is wearing a wire for her arranged meeting with Hamlet in Act III Scene I, because it is a much more effective way for Polonius and Claudius to spy on them than standing behind an arras – and in the same way, it does not seem strange for the gang members in Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet to call their guns ‘swords’, because that is the name of the company that makes them.

I feel that this sense of Shakespeare’s universality of language and theme of is particularly pertinent to my reading of Troilus and Cressida. The main ideas that Shakespeare explores in this play, such as the cult of hero-worship around the warriors like Achilles and Ajax, the political pragmatism of Ulysses, the seedy voyeurism of Pandarus and the questionable legitimacy of the Trojan War as a whole each have obvious parallels with 21st Century Britain. Our celebrity-obsessed culture still has young, masculine heroes like Achilles, only they are now professional footballers. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Ulysses’ cynical Realpolitik echoes our own suspicions about ‘spin’ in modern government and, of course, our country has recently been involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were waged with surprisingly little justification or popular support. Of course, reading the play as pure political satire, and simply substituting Troy for Iraq, and the Shakespearian characters for crude caricatures of leading figures in society would be fun but nonetheless counterproductive in this instance, not only because the film would date very quickly, but also because there would be a risk of glibly over-simplifying the complex political issues of the day, which would not constitute a thoughtful and measured interpretation of Shakespeare’s text.

That said, I do feel that the attitudes Shakespeare presents in this play, especially towards exposing the myth of the traditional warrior hero and the hypocrisy of warmongering politicians, are so fundamental to any interpretation and, indeed, so particular in their relevance to contemporary political and social issues, that it would be ridiculous not to take advantage of them in some way. Again, in striking this balance between clever satire and outright caricature, I would take the lead in my approach from the four modern Shakespearean adaptations mentioned above. Each of them is very carefully set in a kind of imaginary Twentieth Century hyper-reality – a world that is based on actuality but not clumsily overt in its allusions. Loncraine’s Richard III nods to 1930’s London, and Taymor’s Titus evokes Fascist Italy, but neither explicitly mentions these locations or seriously attempts to equate, say, Richard III with the early Windsor monarchs or Saturninus with Mussolini. Nevertheless, by situating them in a recognisable world that is not too recognisable, the directors are able to use the setting to provide us with clues about plot and character within the play (we see the allusions to fascism and immediately associate Saturninus with corruption and evil) and, at the same time, use the characters and situations within the play to make a comment upon the reality (equating the calculating and ruthless megalomaniac Richard III with the modern British monarchy in order to raise questions about its role in society). To this end then, my aim is to set the play in a Troy which has echoes of the modern Middle East, but does not specifically mention Iraq, and subtly hint at the likes of Bush, Blair and Beckham while still explicitly retaining the Shakespearian complexity of character.

I would argue that, though the progress of technology means that our conception of what the actual fighting of a war entails is obviously worlds apart from Shakespeare’s conception, the attitudes of all of the characters towards war in Troilus and Cressida, whether they be general, soldier or civilian, translate very well into our modern sensibility. For example, although the likes of Agamemnon, Nestor and Menelaus are physically in Troy in Shakespeare’s text, in one sense they are not there at all, as they are not involved in combat. Certainly, in a modern day war, the leaders of the coalition forces would remain at home and do not fight, and so my idea was to have the generals quite obviously back in Greece, dressed in suits and sitting in a kind of ‘situation room’ which enabled them to make their decisions and interact with their soldiers via telephone and satellite link-up. I wanted here to really emphasise the fact that, in Shakespeare, Agamemnon and Menelaus are not warriors as they are in Homer’s Iliad, but essentially politicians, and drive home the irony of lines such as Agamemnon’s bravado to Aeneas when the Trojans issue their challenge; “…one meets Hector, if none else, I am he.”

Of course, this alienation of the generals from the action would not work in every scene, as some plot devices require the physical interaction between characters (for instance, the rather disturbing scene in Act IV Scene VI in which Cressida is kissed by all of the Greek commanders) – but it could be made clear in these instances that the commanders had perhaps flown out to Troy. There are certainly enough ways around any problem with this given the reliance of today’s warfare upon the idea of being able to transmit information instantaneously and easily interact with people halfway around the world. Even in Act V, in which, for example, Paris is seen fighting with Menelaus, or Nestor says to Diomedes ‘So, so, we draw together’, I feel that these short sequences could be cut, and the speeches made by Agamemnon, Nestor and Menelaus could be delivered from some kind of vantage point from which they are watching the battle on television screens – and any encouragement they give to the soldiers could be relayed over the telephone.

Another aspect of modern life and, again, technological advances which I feel would be useful in exploring Shakespeare’s themes and attitudes is the civilian reliance upon the media, not just in war correspondence but in everyday life. I find the idea of warriors like Achilles and Ajax being the celebrities of their day very interesting, especially if we apply our modern notions of celebrity to them. The stories of Paris and Helen, Troilus and Cressida and Achilles and Ajax, were they happening today, would saturate newspapers, glossy magazines, television news bulletins and the internet, and so a modern adaptation of the play would be able to take advantage of this and convey information about all of the characters in a myriad of different ways. One effective way of highlighting the ubiquity of the media is to make Thersites a tabloid journalist – this would explain Achilles referring to him as a ‘privileged man’ in terms of his being allowed to offend people. In my interpretation, Thersites would deliver his big speeches (the one at the very beginning of Act II Scene III, for example, or the one in Act V Scene I about Achilles and Ajax having ‘too much blood and too little brain’) by typing them into a laptop computer and sending them to his editor in an e-mail at the end.

Furthermore, this idea of an intrusive media sits very well with the blatant voyeurism displayed by almost all of the characters at some point during the action. There is an example of this in the specimen scene which I have submitted for Act I Scene II, in which Pandarus and Cressida watch the parade on television and read about the warriors in the newspapers – but I also wanted to modern technology to permeate every scene of the play. For example, I envisaged Act V Scene II (the scene in which Troilus watches Cressida betray him) alternating between Diomedes and Cressida in Calchas’ tent (which, of course, would not be a tent in the film, more a kind of compound), and Ulysses and Troilus in some kind of observation room within the Greek camp, where they watch the scene via security cameras. I wanted to make it clear that all of the characters within the play are fully aware that the world is a very claustrophobic place, constantly watching and casting judgement upon them, and intruding upon their privacy, and that this is one of the reasons why the love between the two title characters becomes corrupted.

The other issue that must take on a different slant when viewed from a modern perspective is the problem with masculine sexuality in this play. Though, of course, there was no cultural reference point for homosexuality in Shakespeare’s time, his treatment of Achilles and Patroclus makes it clear that they are in a sexual relationship (note Thersites’ reference to Patroclus as “Achilles’ brach” in Act II Scene I, for example). Even without this overt relationship, the nature of the Classical Greek masculine warrior, and his desire to penetrate the male body with his sword has obvious sexual connotations, which are exploited to the full in Shakespeare’s language. Of course, this homoerotic undercurrent has been noticed and extensively highlighted and explored by many directors, notably Ian Judge and his 1996 RSC production, which featured a camp, leather-clad Achilles and a communal bath scene involving the Trojan soldiers, but I would argue that it is not enough simply to make Achilles or even Patroclus into homosexual caricature. Again, I would make the analogy with a very specific aspect of modern celebrity which I have mentioned above – the popular conception of the professional sportsman.

Indeed, despite the apparent modern acceptance of homosexuality in Western culture by all but the most extreme right-wing religious zealots, it is true that professional sport, and football in particular, remains very similar in its attitude to the world of Achilles and Ajax. For example, I would argue that, right up until Hector’s death, the Greek and Trojan soldiers are fighting a war that is very like a professional game – a soldier goes to battle with his comrades, fights but does not get killed, and is rewarded at the end of the day for the extent to which ‘his sword is bloodied and his helm…hacked’. The culture in both sport and war in this context both requires a homoerotic undercurrent to facilitate the solidarity of the men against their opponents, but is also part of a highly homophobic culture, of which men who desire other men in any other way but to beat them cannot be a part – it is no coincidence that, at the time of writing, there are no openly gay professional footballers or managers, and that the acceptance of homosexuals into the army is still a much-debated issue. In my adaptation, I would certainly wish to explore, if only conceptually, the correlation between these worlds and their warped male sexuality, looking in particular at the death of Hector and the silence surrounding the obvious relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.

At this point, with most of my chief aims and interpretations dealt with, perhaps the best method of showing what I intend to do with my interpretation of the play into film is to refer to the specimen scenes which I have chosen. Though they are heavily annotated in red, and hopefully are explained adequately within themselves, I will go through them very briefly here as well. Firstly, I intended with the prologue to create the same kind of memorable and colourful immediacy as, say, Loncraine in his opening to Richard III, with the tank that smashes through the wall. I also felt, though, it was important for this opening to provide a literal visual translation for the verbal imagery which Shakespeare creates, because it is only here that we are given the back-story to the events which take place, which it is crucial for an audience to understand. I also felt that using Thersites to deliver the prologue in character was more effective than simply a disembodied voice, because it sets his character up as the journalist and commentator which he will become as the film continues. Finally, I wanted to use the loud, stirring war music and fast, constantly changing camera shots as the Prologue went on in order to create a sense of urgency and excitement, which could then be ironically deflated by the first shot of Troilus in Act I Scene I sighing over a picture of Cressida (on the front of a glossy magazine, of course) and complaining that he does not want to fight.

With regard to the other two sections, I wanted to choose scenes from the beginning and the end of the play which I feel roughly included all the elements of my interpretation which I have discussed – the use of the media, the homoerotic undercurrents, the detachment of the generals and the fallacy of the honourable warrior. I wanted the murder of Hector to be ignominious, uncomfortable and dishonourable – I was particularly attracted to the idea that the Myrmidons beat to death rather than shoot him, and that they all do the deed at once, like the assassination of Caesar, but then it is Achilles who takes all the glory for himself. I felt that the culture on display here of the complete, ritual humiliation of the helpless prisoner had very potent parallels with the recent photographic evidence of soldiers’ abuse of prisoners in Iraq, hopefully conveying the horror of the violence without sensationalising it.

Although this by no means constitutes a full interpretation of the play, and I am aware that there are issues with regard to making it into a film which I have left out (for example, the presentation of Helen and the difficulty of making Ulysses’ huge philosophical speeches relevant to a modern audience), I would hope that this essay and the extracts provided give a general feel of my treatment of Troilus and Cressida and, at least, allowed me to explore some of the issues raised in this difficult but ultimately intellectually rewarding play.

Guitar chords – Quand Vous Mourez De Nos Amours by Rufus Wainwright

This is one of the bonus tracks off the new album – I don't think I've ever really liked a song sung in a different language before but I really like this one – I've managed to work out with my poor A level French that the title means When You Die Of Our Loves, and can tell roughly what it's about. Tune is quite easy, I've just worked out the chords in about 10 minutes, so if they're wrong that's why.

G Am D G

G Em C G
Quand vous mourez de nos amours

Am D Em
J’irai planter dans le jardin

Am G D
Fleur à fleurir de beau matin
G Em C B
Moitié métal, moitié papier

G Em Am
Pour me blesser un peu le pied

G Em Am
Mourez de mort très douce
G Am D G
Qu’une fleur pousse

G Am D G

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
J’en ferai sur l’air de ce temps
Chanson chanteuse pour sept ans
Vous l’entendrez, vous l’apprendrez
Et vos lèvres m’en seront gré
Mourez de mort très lasse
Que je la fasse

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
J’en ferai deux livres si beaux
Qu’ils vous serviront de tombeau
Et m’y coucherai à mon tour
Car je mourrai le míme jour
Mourez de mort très tendre
à les attendre

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
J’irai me pendre avec la clef
Au crochet des bonheurs bâclés
Et les chemins par nous conquis
Nul ne saura jamais par qui
Mourez de mort exquise
Que je le dise

Quand vous mourez de nos amours
Si trop peu vous reste de moi
Ne me demandez pas pourquoi
Dans les mensonges qui suivraient
Nous ne serions ni beaux ni vrais
Mourez de mort très vive
Que je vous suive

April 27, 2005

More name fun

Writing about web page

I found this while searching for funny names on google after talking to my girlfriend about the previous funny names post. There are so many great things about the information presented in this article, I laughed for so long: the fact that he was quoted as Mr Bubba made me laugh, as well as just the obvious humour in the fact that his full name is now Bubba Bubba Bubba. The funniest thing for me though was the fact that it all started when his work colleague referred to him as Bubba Bubba Bubba, and her friend thought that that was his real name! Why on earth would anyone think that was a real name??? That person should automatically have their own tv show, I'd definitely watch it because if they think that's a real name, then what other funny things must they think? Goodness only knows. Fucking moron.

I had a really long conversation with Becky about funny names actually, and we agreed that Rob Beef was our favourite (she came up with that one, she turned out to be better than me at it, although I did come up with the fact that Rob Beef probably has an older brother called David Beef and a father called David Beef Senior, and the father doesn't like being called Dave, because he thinks it's disrespectful). I'd like to write a sitcom about that family actually, there are so many possibilities. I think Rob Beef is a retired footballer from the 70's (see how the previous football post informs my thinking), who still has the mullet and the moustache, he tried being a commentator but wasn't very good at it, and now he wears a tracksuit all the time and coaches an under-12's team. Then I realised it might end up a little bit too much like Alan Partridge, so I stopped. Also the names got too silly, like Janet Eyebrow (Rob and David Jr's mother, who left David Snr and remarried), and Andrew Hair, Rob's best friend. I think made-up names are funnier when they are said in full, like Andrew instead of Andy, David instead of Dave etc. Rob Beef is the exception because it is the clash of 'b's at the end of Rob and beginning of Beef that is a big part of the humour – Robert Beef doesn't work as well for me.

Then I remembered the funny names on that bbc2 show Look Around You that was on a while ago, like Leonard Hatred, Sir Prince Charles and Synthesiser Patel, the man who liked synthesisers so much he changed his name. All this when I should have been thinking about my dissertation.

April 25, 2005

First names for surnames

Was having a conversation today during the United game, in which Wayne Rooney, Poet Laureate of the Premiership, scored what was indisputably the goal of the season, about people who have first names for surnames, because the referee was called Neal Barry. Heres my England team of current players with first names for surnames.

1. David James (or Nigel Martyn)
2. Philip Neville
3. Ashley Cole (allowed because Cole Porter is my evidence here)
4. John Terry
5. Gary Neville
6. Steven Gerrard
7.Lee Clark (allowed Clark Kent is my evidence, although a fictional character)
8. Gareth Barry
9. Michael Owen
10. Kevin Phillip(s)
11. Shaun (Wright) Phillip(s)

Ok some are dubious, but its not an awful side and they're all in the right positions, so that was pretty good i thought. My favourite is Collins John who plays for Fulham, i think that's hilarious, because that's a name that's totally backwards, and if you remember, Fulham did have a player called John Collins a couple of years back, so its like some backwards world or something, which is GREAT. My absolute favourite thing though is when people have objects or words for second names, some footballers who have this are: Shay Given and Nicky Hunt (rare ones because their names are verbs, not nouns), Stefan Postma (regrettably one letter away from Postman which would have been brilliant), Gary Speed, Ray Parlour and, of course (one size) Fitz Hall.

April 22, 2005

Guitar chords – All You Can Do by Willy Mason

Can't believe this guy is younger than me his album is really good its quite depressing really, like the day I realised that I'm also now older than two of United's best players (Rooney and Ronaldo). Need to write that best-selling album I think within the next couple of years or somehow get discovered by Alex Ferguson's scout brother Martin while playing in the KPMG league at Warwick otherwise I can abandon those two dreams. Here's my favourite off the album, its really hard to play and sing at the same time with the strange rhythm and all but I'm getting there. Have no idea what that little tab thing I made will look like once this is posted, but its quite easy to play the riff, just start on the E note on the A string (7th fret), then form an open E chord on the 4th fret (its some kind of G obviously not sure) and then C and B notes on the A string again. Its easy anyway you can work it out from that surely.

Riff for intro and verses:

G|———0———-4——————-/ x4

Hopelessness is in the alley, alone dragging his feet
He wasn’t born that way but life has just taught him defeat
So he waits to teach you distrust from his cold home in the streets

Hope is all that you can do

Hopelessness is on the TV infecting sea to shining sea
And the worried eyes of our parents try as we might not to believe
And we tried pills and prescriptions but drugs won’t kill this disease
Hope is all that we can do

Em B (bass F# G F# E)
This is the new year, nobody knows
Where we are going, what’s down the road
The city is humming, the country is cold
But you give me something, something like hope

We grew up without parents to teach us wrong from right
So we turned towards many heroes but still we couldn’t sleep at night
So we searched and read and listened to the songs old prophets sang
Let’s all get together friends and dance away the rain

Riff x2

It’s time to get together friends and dance away the rain

This is the new year…

Guitar chords – 11:59 by Blondie

This is quite a weird one to have on with Rufus Wainwright and Elliot Smith perhaps, but Parallel Lines is a great album and this is one of my favourites on it – I couldn't find the chords anywhere on the internet.

Eb F# Eb Ab B E Eb
E Eb Eb
B Abm Ebm Ab
Leaning in your corner like a candidate for wax
E C#m B
Sidewalk social scientists don’t get no satisfaction
B Abm Ebm Ab
From your cigarette, it’s ten to ten, time is running out
E C#m B
Lock up all your memories, get outta here you know that

F# E Eb B F#
We can run today can last another million years
E Eb B Ebm Abm E F#
Today could be the end of me, it’s 11:59 and I want to stay alive

Pumping like a fugitive in cover from the night
Take it down like a freeway like a bullet to the ocean
Wait into the morning, take tomorrow by the hand
Take it down the highway like a rocket to the ocean

We can run today can last another million years
Today could be the end of me, it’s 11:59 and I want to stay alive

Verse chords end on F#

C# Bbm Fm Bb
Hanging on a frequency, burning like a fire
F# Ebm C#
Boy you’ve got the motion down, it’s getting late, I’m tired
C# Bbm Fm Bb
And I’ve lost control, don’t leave me here, time is running out
F# Ebm C#
Take me down the highway like a rocket to the ocean

Ab F# E C# Ab
We can run, today can last another million years
F# E C# Fm Bbm F# Ab
Today could be the end of me, it’s 11:59 and I want to stay alive

C# Ab to fade

April 18, 2005

Guitar chords 'The One You Love' by Rufus Wainwright

This is probably my favourite song so far off Rufus' new 'Want Two' album. Note living legend Levon Helm from The Band is playing the drums on this track. Saw him live recently and this song was one of the highlights. Intro chords are the same for the verses. Not sure about the chords towards the end in the 'into the early morning' bit, but it works generally.

¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ F E ¦
¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ E Am¦

The mind has so many pictures, why can’t I sleep with my eyes open
The mind has so many memories, can you remember what it looks like when I cry?
I’m trying, trying to tell you all that I can in a sweet and velvet tongue
But no words ever could sell you, sell you on me after all that I have done

Am G F Em Dm
I’m only the one you love

E Dm G E
Am I only the one you love?

The Lady Gloom and her hornets circling round is now before us
The screaming’s done without moving, one little move and for sure you will be stung
I’m singing ‘Oh Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, see what he’s picked up in the park’
Let fuck this awful art party, want you to make love to me and only to me in the dark

I’m only the one you love
Am I only the one you love?

¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ F E ¦
¦ Am Em ¦ F Am ¦ F Am ¦ E Am¦

We’ve traded in our snapshots

We’re going through the motions

Dm G
Into the view, I’m leaving you

Em G E Dm
Down Conduit Avenue into the early morning
Am E
Into the early morning

F Em Dm E Dm E Am
The one I love, are you only the one I love?

More Dissertation – the spirit

Ok here's some more – I'm just putting it on here now so I have another source in case my computer messes up, which is highly likely – but only when I've finished the dissertation and am about to hit the save button. I've done the section on the sprit now, though it's subject to revision.

The spirits of the dead, whether they appear in ghostly form or not, are ever-present right across the work of both Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians, and there are many characters, in both tragedy and comedy, whose actions and motivations become, to one extent or another, hugely affected by the death of a loved one. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, sets itself up as a rather silly, conventional Menandrian romantic comedy right up until the last two hundred lines of the play, after which time a messenger arrives with the news of the death of the King of France. This has such a huge influence upon the Princess and her ladies-in-waiting that they are forced to leave the men that have been wooing them for the last five acts and return home to grieve. As Biron points out, this one death, of a character we never even see on stage, means that the very genre of the play is affected, and it ‘…doth not end like an old play. Jack hath not Jill’ (Love’s Labour’s Lost 5.2.851.2) . In the Greek tradition too, we see Euripides use two separate plays – The Trojan Women and Hecuba – to explore the Trojan queen’s descent into madness as she hears the news that, one by one, her family members are executed, enslaved or sacrificed by the Greeks.

It is perhaps surprising to note, though, that throughout the entire canon of the Ancient Greek tragedy still available to the modern reader, there are only three plays which actually feature ghosts as characters on stage – Aeschylus’ Eumenides (the third part of his Oresteia trilogy) and Persians, and Euripides’ Hecuba. Indeed, it could even be said that only in the Aeschylus plays do the spirits (the Ghost of Clytemnestra in Eumenides and the Ghost of Darius in The Persians) actually feature as part of the action of the play itself – in Hecuba, the murdered Polydorus appears as a Prologue, explaining plot details directly to the audience and not addressing any of the other characters, performing much the same function as, for example, the goddess Aphrodite at the beginning of Euripides’ Hippolytus, or Athene in Sophocles’ Ajax. While Euripides’ apparently unprecedented choice of effectively substituting a ghost for a god in his prologue is, in itself, interesting, is the furious, vengeful ghost of Clytemnestra which has much more in common with the Shakespearian spirits who haunt the likes of Hamlet and Macbeth.

Within Shakespeare as well, though, there are very notably different kinds of ghosts, their existence performing different functions depending on the different points the playwright is trying to make about death. Admittedly, what the ghosts who appear in four different Shakespeare plays do have in common is that all of them have been violently murdered by characters in the play who are still alive at the time of their appearance. However, while Banquo, Caesar and the victims of Richard III all appear in very similar ways and only haunt their murderers, it is clear that Shakespeare is doing something different with his ghost in Hamlet, where the king is seen by several characters and calls for revenge to be taken on his behalf.

Clearly, in the first three incidences, it seems pointless to argue in favour of the notion that the ghosts in any way ‘exist’ within the reality of their plays – certainly, the sinister and silent appearances of Banquo and Julius Caesar to Macbeth and Brutus says much more about the disintegrating mental state of the murderers than the existence of the supernatural, especially since it is made quite clear that no other characters on stage can see the ghosts. The fact that that Macbeth sees the ghost twice, both times not ten lines after he has toasted Banquo’s absence, not to mention Lady Macbeth’s insistence that he has a history of hallucinations (‘This is the air-drawn dagger which you said/Led you to Duncan’ Macbeth 3.4.61–2), hints that even Macbeth himself knows that the ghost he sees is not really there, but is a manifestation of his guilt. Similarly, Brutus and King Richard both openly acknowledge that they consider the ghosts they see to be products of their own feverish minds (note Richard’s exclamation ‘Have mercy, Jesu! – Soft, I did but dream’ Richard III, 5.5.132 and Brutus’ rationalisation ‘I think it is the weakness of mine eyes/That shapes this monstrous apparition’ Julius Caesar, 4.2.327–8).

Nevertheless, this does not make any of the ghosts any less terrifying to the three men, and certainly, it is no coincidence that their respective downfalls are greatly accelerated after the moment that they meet their victims’ ghosts, even if it what they see is not ‘real’. It is Brutus who seems to feel this more acutely, and he in particular seems to completely lose the courage of his convictions once he knows that even his own conscience is rebelling against him and willing him to fail – certainly, he hints that he expected to die even before the battle had begun when he admits to Volumnius that ‘The ghost of Caesar has appeared to me…I know my hour is come’ Julius Caesar, 5.5.16–19.

So, if we are to look at this first category of ghosts less of a nod towards the supernatural and more as indicators of the innermost thoughts and fears of the tragic protagonists, then it is equally interesting to look at the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet, which has ramifications of its own. The idea that the ghost of his father may be a figment of Hamlet’s imagination simply does not work, and not just because Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo also see it in the very first act of the play. Because this ghost is unique in Shakespeare due to its appearance before the avenger and not the murderer, we can assume that it is there to perform a very specific function. Most importantly, the material existence of the ghost within the world of the play (and the fact that this existence is never seriously called into question) signals that Hamlet is part of the tragic sub-genre of ‘revenge tragedy’.

Clytemnestra’s ghost in The Oresteia can be viewed in a similar way. Certainly, she resembles the ghost of King Hamlet in that she too calls for revenge – but there is also an argument for viewing her as a manifestation of Orestes’ guilt, like the ghosts in Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Richard III. Haruo Konishi points out that, at the beginning of Eumenides ‘the Furies, who were visible only to the eyes of the demented Orestes in the previous play, are now visible and alive to the audience ’, and goes on to assert that this signifies a transition from the ‘real’ world to some kind of hallucinatory landscape inside Orestes’ mind, in which his guilt at killing his mother shows itself through the appearance of the supernatural. While this is no doubt an interesting idea, and one which would constitute a fascinating interpretation of the play if it were ever to be used in the theatre, I would argue that it makes more sense to view Clytemnestra as a literal, vengeful ghost in the mould of King Hamlet, and therefore see Aeschylus’ Oresteia as the first example of revenge tragedy, a genre of which Hamlet and so much other Elizabethan and, indeed, Roman drama can be considered a part.

With this in mind, it would perhaps be beneficial to explore this very specific genre, in terms of how calling these plays revenge tragedies affects our interpretation of both the characters of the ghosts and of the plays as a whole. Firstly, it is worth pointing out that we are ascribing the name ‘revenge’ tragedy to Aeschylus’ play retrospectively, since for him there were no such tragic sub-genres – in Ancient Greece, plays were simply ‘tragedies’ or ‘comedies’, even if they can be categorised slightly differently by modern critics. Nevertheless, the traditional staples of this peculiarly Elizabethan genre – a ghost calling for vengeance against his murderers, hints of madness on the part of the protagonist, a violent and bloody murder (or series of murders) involving family members or close friends and the protagonist having to exact revenge by himself because of a corrupt or incompetent government – are all quite obviously there in The Oresteia.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given that although the genre was at its most popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, it was inspired by the Roman plays of Seneca, who was in turn inspired by the Greeks. It seems entirely possible that Seneca took these elements for his plays particularly from The Oresteia, and the Elizabethan and Jacobean pioneers of the genre, such as Kyd, Shakespeare and Middleton, took their cue from Seneca. It follows, then, that despite the fact that Aeschylus was writing The Oresteia with no knowledge of these conventions for revenge tragedy, and Shakespeare was writing with such a comprehensive awareness of them that he may even have been trying to subvert them somewhat in Hamlet, the two plays are distinctly similar.

In terms of the convention of the vengeful ghost in revenge tragedy, in particular, then, the similarities between Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra and Shakespeare’s King Hamlet become obvious. Again, there appear to be certain conventions, exemplified by the cases of both Hamlet and Eumenides, to which the character of the ghost tends to adhere, even across the cultural and historical chasm that divides the two playwrights. On a very simple, plot-based level, for example, the ghost appears near the beginning, essentially performing the same function as a prologue (in that both ghosts, like Euripides’ Polydorus mentioned above, provide essential background information regarding events prior to the immediate action of the plays), but also interacting with other characters and acting as a catalyst for the revenge plot through direct instruction to the living characters as to exactly how its murderer should be punished. These two ghosts are not silent in their accusations, like Banquo, or prophetic in their assertions that their murderers’ end is coming, like Caesar or King Henry – they are active within the play and make a concerted effort to bring their murderers to justice.

Furthermore, the language of both Clytemnestra and King Hamlet suggests that they have much in common in terms of their physical appearance on the stage. Both still bear, at the very least only visually, the wounds inflicted upon them by their murderers, and, indeed, there are even hints that they still somehow feel the pain of these wounds – as shown by Clytemnestra’s ‘See here/This wound under my heart ’ (Eumenides, 98–99) and by the ‘vile and loathsome crust’ (Hamlet, 1.1.72) that covers King Hamlet’s skin. In the same way, both go on to make reference not just to the physical evidence of death upon their bodies, but also to the state of their souls.

It is these notions, of what constitutes the soul and what happens to the spirit after death, upon which Shakespeare and Aeschylus disagree, perhaps unsurprisingly. Though the two ghosts perform the same function within their plays, and perhaps even look rather similar physically, what they represent in their very existence upon the stage is naturally different given the ideological differences between Ancient Greece and Elizabethan England. Both ghosts describe the actual experience of living in the underworld in a discourse equally steeped in the imagery of extreme suffering, but Clytemnestra, perhaps unsurprisingly, calls to mind a Classical vision of a hell based on psychological torment, in which she is ‘abused unceasingly/Among the other dead…despised and shamed’ (Eumenides, 94–96). The account provided by Hamlet’s ghost, on the other hand, echoes Christian notions of purgatory, in which he is subjected to ‘sulph’rous and tormenting flames’ (Hamlet, 1.5.3) as penance for his sins on earth.

This fundamental difference in religious belief between Shakespeare and Aeschylus not only affects our interpretation of the ghosts themselves and what they signify, but it is also in evidence on a plot level when we look at notions of killing and vengeance from the perspectives of the two male protagonists of the these plays, Hamlet and Orestes. It is worth noting that, despite being faced with almost identical tasks at the beginning of the plays (that is, to avenge the murder of their fathers), the outcomes for these two characters are clearly very different – Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus with relatively little reflection beforehand upon what the consequences will be, is absolved of the murder and goes on to become king. Hamlet, on the other hand, spends five acts reflecting upon whether he should kill his uncle, finally doing so at the end of the play only to die himself minutes later. While this could be attributed simply to natural, inherent differences in the characters created by the two playwrights, it is interesting to apply the Christianity of the Elizabethans and the multitheism of the Greeks to Hamlet and Orestes and their attitudes towards revenge.

Most interestingly, if we compare the moment in which Hamlet arguably should have killed Claudius, at the end of Act III Scene III, to the moment where Orestes kills Clytemnestra in Choephori, we see both characters preoccupied with the idea of the gods, heaven, and the spirit of their proposed murder victims. Hamlet, on the one hand, refuses to kill Claudius whilst he is praying, because his soul would then go to heaven rather than the hell where Hamlet believes Claudius deserves to be. In a Christian world, there is a difference between killing a man to destroy his body and killing a man to destroy his spirit, and with Hamlet here we see that this makes the revenge act slightly more complicated.

For Orestes, on the other hand, revenge is slightly more clear-cut, at least from the point of view of religion. Though his task is, on a personal level, perhaps more difficult than Hamlet’s, in that he has to kill his own mother, he does have Apollo, the Oracle and eventually Athene on his side, not just as he commits the murder, but in its aftermath when the Furies come to claim him. Arguably, the end of The Oresteia, in which Athene intervenes to save Orestes’ life, proves that, in the Greek religion, conceptions of right and wrong are slightly more arbitrary than in Christianity, in that the gods can look at individual cases like Orestes’ and decide who deserves to be punished. The gods of Greek tragedy are much more like humans, in that they can take part in the action of the plays and make decisions independently of any rigid doctrine. In Hamlet, on the other hand, the concept of god is equally present but much more of an abstract concept in the minds of the characters, and one which would certainly never appear in person to provide judgement. Because of this, fixed concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are required, and so anybody who ‘sins’ must be punished, regardless of mitigating circumstances. To me, this is the reason why Hamlet dies where Orestes does not, and perhaps also the reason why Hamlet appears to reflect more upon the consequences of his actions.

However, while this ideological difference is important, I would argue that on a wider moral level, Shakespeare and Aeschylus are both using the idea of the vengeful spirit to address very similar issues with regard to the definition of ‘sin’, the nature of justice and, most crucially, the extent of the obligations of the living towards their dead relatives. Both Clytemnestra and King Hamlet attempt to legitimise the proposed execution of their respective murderers (Orestes and Claudius) by claiming that they are the perpetrators of an act so unspeakable that other, larger forces have been affected and can only be appeased with more blood. In particular, both cite the violation of fundamental familial bonds, with Clytemnestra’s talk of ‘Orestes, who killed me, his mother’ (Eumenides, 122) and King Hamlet’s similar disgust at the ‘damnèd incest’ (Hamlet, 1.5.83) of Claudius and Gertrude. Certainly, a sense of outrage permeates the language of both ghosts, as if the murders to which they have fallen victim are somehow even more ‘foul, strange and unnatural’ (Hamlet, 1.5.28) than usual, and both seem to be attempting to appeal to some kind of universal moral standard inherent within the agents to whom they have entrusted their revenge.

Interestingly, both ghosts also use another technique in order to persuade their charges to do their bidding, which is to speak on a much more personal level of specific debts which they are owed. Clytemnestra, for example, angrily reminds the Furies of the nourishment she gave to them, in the form of libations and sacrifices, while she was alive, and King Hamlet does something similar with the calculating emotional blackmail forced upon his son; ‘If thou didst ever thy dear father love…revenge his foul and most unnatural murder’ (Hamlet, 1.5.23–5).

At this point, with regard to these ideas of paternal love and inherent moral standards, it seems relevant to add another idea of death and revenge into the discussion. If it seems to be the case that one of the primary functions of the ghost character in revenge tragedy is to provide the living with reasons to kill one another, then perhaps it is not quite enough to look simply at the actual ghosts of Clytemnestra and King Hamlet who appear on stage, but also at characters like Agamemnon and Polonius who are killed and avenged but do not appear as ghosts, because they are clearly part of the revenge cycle as well.

Though Agamemnon’s spirit does not appear in the Oresteia at any point, from the moment that he is killed in the first play his memory drives the actions of Orestes (and Electra) just as potently as Clytemnestra’s haranguing drives the Furies – indeed, in Choephori, the crucial part in Orestes’ preparation for the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus consists of he and Electra visiting Agamemnon’s tomb invoking his spirit ‘Father, your own son calls you: stand at my side!’ (Choephori, 460). Similarly, Laertes’ merciless anger, directed first towards Claudius and then Hamlet, is propelled by his desire to ‘…be revenged/Most thoroughly for my father’ (Hamlet, 4.5.131–2), and exemplifies the powerful impulse for revenge which is apparent even when the ghost does not appear on stage.

What makes the moral framework of Hamlet and The Oresteia as revenge tragedies so complex for the protagonists, perhaps more so than in other revenge tragedy, is that all of the action takes place within two tiny, incestuous worlds inhabited by the royal families of both Denmark and Argos. The revenge they desire is not upon rival families, as in Titus Andronicus, with the Andronici fighting the Goths, or upon corrupt Kings and Dukes like Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy or Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy, but upon their own close family members. Both Hamlet and Orestes are forced, by codes of honour not of their own making, to choose between their mother and father.

From a modern, post-feminist perspective at least, Orestes and Electra’s treatment of Clytemnestra appears particularly harsh and, indeed, rather arbitrary – certainly, she has murdered their father, but, as I have already mentioned, he is also the man who killed their sister, and with this in mind, the extent of both their respect and forgiveness of their father and hatred of their mother seems disproportionate – it seems they could equally have justified supporting Clytemnestra given Agamemnon’s treatment of her. There is one small concession – Orestes’ uncertainty just before he kills Clytemnestra in his aside to Pylades: ‘…what shall I do? To kill a mother is terrible. Shall I show mercy?’ (Choephori, 898–9) – but from this moment on, once he has the reassurance he needs, he shows no remorse for his actions. Similarly, although the ghost of King Hamlet fortuitously provides the caveat to his son that he should not ‘…let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught (Hamlet, 1.5.85–6), Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s lack of respect for his father is arguably as compelling as Orestes’. Indeed, Hamlet does seem to have to remind himself not to be violent towards her – ‘Let not ever/The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom…I will speak daggers to her, but use none’ (Hamlet, 3.2.363–6).

However, within the world of both plays, the reaction of both Prince Hamlet and Orestes to side with their fathers against their mothers is perfectly natural given what is at stake. Aside from this breaking of the familial bonds with which both King Hamlet and Clytemnestra seem preoccupied, there are other vested interests at work in the language of both ghosts, based on the fact that not only are the protagonists members of the same family, but they are also members of the royal family. I would argue that, underpinning both Hamlet’s conversation with his dead father and Orestes’ alliance with Electra is the tacit understanding that both men will become king in a straightforward coup d’état if they honour their revenge pact and kill those in power.

In the discourse of revenge, then, there is no room for equivocation – for any characters who has been murdered, it is crucial on both a personal, political and a wider moral level that their deaths are avenged and their murderers brought to justice. For both Shakespeare and Aeschylus, though, the legitimacy of the retribution proposed by the two ghosts is specious at best. While King Hamlet at least appears to have been killed as an innocent, and indeed, both ghosts have undoubtedly been treated in a manner which would be considered particularly abhorrent by any standard (through fratricide and matricide), it is made clear that the nature of the revenge act which he promotes is bound up in exactly the same kind of bloody violence to which he himself has fallen victim. Although we do not know enough about him as a living character to really judge his motives for revenge, it is clear that, for a man who is supposed to be in purgatory cleansing himself from sin, he is remarkably willing to remain involved in the politics of murder and, indeed, advocate the killing of his own brother.

A better example of this is perhaps in evidence with the behaviour of the Ghost of Clytemnestra, who talks of Orestes’ guilt at the beginning of the Eumenides as if her own equally heinous crime – that is, the murder of her husband Agamemnon, which we witnessed in the opening play of the trilogy – had never happened. The unnatural act for which she so condemns Orestes is one that she herself has committed, and so again, her moral authority in seeking revenge is exposed as questionable at best. Her difficulty perhaps lies in the fact that, at one point or another during the trilogy, Clytemnestra represents every point of view within the cycle of revenge. She begins the trilogy as the bereaved relative (her husband Agamemnon has killed her daughter Iphigenia) and then becomes the revenger, plotting to murder Agamemnon as punishment for his crime. This act in turn makes her the villain and murderess upon whom Orestes wreaks his revenge, and finally she becomes the victim again, the ghost calling to anyone who will listen for revenge to be taken on her behalf.

Despite the fact that Clytemnestra is technically the only character who fulfils every one of these roles, this notion of murder and revenge as a kind of unbreakable cycle which alternates between accusations of guilt and innocence that are wholly subjective is one that applies to all of the characters involved in revenge in both of these plays. The apparent moral absolutes of vengeance and justice inevitably become clouded because of the transient nature of guilt and innocence – from the moment that he mistakenly kills Polonius in Act III Scene IV, Prince Hamlet himself becomes akin to the thing he has been charged with destroying – the murderer of a father. In using murder as a means of atoning for murder, Hamlet, if only from the perspective of Laertes and Ophelia, finds himself on a similar level to Claudius.

Even with the spirits of those who have been killed but do not come back as ghosts, we find ourselves questioning the moral legitimacy of the acts perpetrated in their name. Certainly, if Aeschylus had chosen to create an ‘Agamemnon’s Ghost’ character, it would doubtless have displayed the same desire for revenge against their murderers as the ghosts we do see. Also like the ‘real’ ghosts, he would not have had the authority to speak from an entirely morally sound standpoint about justice either – especially Agamemnon. We learn from Clytemnestra in the first play of the trilogy that, aside from kidnapping and raping Cassandra, Agamemnon is ‘marked with his daughter’s blood’ (Agamemnon, 1420), having sacrificed the child Iphigenia to ensure safe passage to Troy for the Greek fleet. Perhaps, in this instance, even a ‘Ghost of Iphigenia’ would be required in order to remind us of the need for atonement for her killing – as, indeed, Deborah Warner provided in her 1991 production of Sophocles’ Electra.

Admittedly, Polonius’ guilt is much less clear-cut, as he does not kill anybody, but exploration into his constant manipulation of his daughter’s relationship with Hamlet in order to curry favour with Claudius and Gertrude reveals a more sinister side to his character than the bumbling, garrulous fool which he is often portrayed as . Note Act II Scene I, for example, in which Polonius charges his servant Reynaldo with spying on Laertes when he gets to Paris. While this may be motivated by nothing more than paternal concern for his son, when we also consider Act III Scene I, where he sets up the meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet so that Claudius can spy on them, we begin to realise that, at the very least, the old man knows how to manipulate and deceive people.

Though I am in no way comparing Polonius as a character to Agamemnon, or asserting that either or both of them particularly deserves to be killed, the crucial point here is that when both men are posthumously spoken of by their sons, there appears to be disparity between the characters we saw when they were alive and their sons’ memories and conceptions of them. Laertes in particular is ready to kill first Claudius and then Hamlet in the name of his ‘noble father’ (Hamlet, 4.7.25), while forgetting that Polonius, whatever else we can say about him, was loyal to the king almost to a fault (‘I hold my duty, as I hold my soul,/Both to my God and to my gracious King’ – Hamlet, 2.2.44–5), and would have been unlikely to have advocated violence against him, for any reason. Orestes and Electra, too, while strangely acknowledging only once in the play that their sister was ‘cruelly killed’ (Choephori, 244), then go on to be unequivocal in their eulogizing of Agamemnon, with their promises to ‘reverence this tomb above all other things’ (Choephori, 488). Even Hamlet himself, with his famous hyperbolic dismissal of Claudius as ‘My father’s brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules’ (Hamlet, 1.2.152–3) seems to have fallen victim to this apparent fetishisation of the dead father.

However, this glorification of the dead in the consciousness of those close to them is probably to be expected – in the worlds of both plays, the dead hero has immense power. Particularly in the Greek tradition, we only have to look at, say, the sense of mystery and wonder surrounding the burial of Oedipus’ body in Sophocles’ Oedipus At Colonnus, and the way in which his spirit is used to keep Athens ‘free from harm forever ’ (Oedipus At Colonnus, 1765) to realise that this is no mere fetishisation on the part of the living characters, but a genuine attempt to tap into the power that surrounds conceptions of death. We see this power in Shakespeare, too – in Julius Caesar, for example, when both Caesar’s murderers and his avengers attempt to use the great emperor’s corpse to somehow invest themselves with his power. Brutus and Cassius, for instance, smear Caesar’s blood upon their hands before they go into the forum crying ‘peace, freedom and liberty!’ (Julius Caesar, 3.1.111), while later on the Plebeians are very specific about using the fire from Caesar’s funeral pyre to burn down the homes of the conspirators – ‘We’ll burn his body in the holy place/And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses’ (Julius Caesar, 3.3.243–4).

In both the Greek and Shakespearean worlds, the treatment of a dead character’s physical remains, especially in the case of a father, a king or a great warrior, goes hand in hand with the ideas that we have seen about the spirit and the afterlife. Part of Laertes’ anger in Hamlet is not simply that his father has been murdered, but that the body has been denied a formal burial, and given ‘no noble rite nor formal ostentation’ (Hamlet, 4.6.210), and thus has been dishonoured. This is particularly important in Christianity, and we see the other side of the argument in the death of Ophelia, where we perhaps detect some dissatisfaction in the Priest’s language that somebody who does not deserve such a burial in the eyes of the Church should be allowed one by royal proclamation – ‘but that great command o’ersways the order/She should in ground unsanctified have lodged/Till the last trumpet’ (Hamlet, 5.1.210–2).

We see the same ideas in the Greek tradition and, indeed, the eponymous heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone goes as far as giving up her own life for the principle, arguing that proper burial rites are necessary not only for the spirit of her brother, and for the family name, but simply because they are ‘the laws the gods hold in honour’ (Antigone, 91–2). Again, we are given the opposite viewpoint in Creon, who, like Hamlet and his decision not to kill Claudius, finds a way to punish his enemy even after death, extending the destruction of Polynices’ body in order to destroy his spirit.

In addition to addressing the ideological and spiritual problems associated with burial, the physical remains of the dead also have another specific function, which is very specific to the genre of revenge tragedy – the notion of the ‘memento mori’. The most famous instance of this in Shakespeare, perhaps in all theatre, is Hamlet’s discourse over Yorick’s skull. I would argue that it is this simple encounter, perhaps above the appearance of the ghost, his killing of Polonius and all of his soliloquies, which is the most powerful indicator to him personally of the finality of death. Clayton MacKenzie argues that Hamlet’s discovery of the skull of Yorick in particular, a man whom he knew well and was, indeed, something of a father figure, is the first time in the play that he sees the ‘harsh reality ’ of death as opposed to the detached intellectualising of it that we have seen previously. He can no longer glibly ask whether the anonymous skulls that went before belonged to lawyers and landlords – in fact, all he can do now is acknowledge the smell of death and throw the skull to the ground with an inarticulate ‘Pah!’ (Hamlet, 5.1.185). For the first time, Hamlet confronts his own inability to make sense of death.

April 2005

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