All entries for May 2005

May 08, 2005

more dissertation – Regeneration

Wow it's coming along nicely now, only around 1500 more words to go, brilliant (it is in on Friday though arg). Here's a the section on regeneration. I've also got the last paragraph of the previous section here, because the section was too big to go in one blog.

It is this reaction that again betrays a difference between the world of Shakespeare (or at least, the world of Hamlet) and the Ancient Greeks. If the veneration of dead bodies in plays like Choephori, Oedipus At Colonnus and Antigone tell us anything about the dead hero, it is that his spirit has an eternal power on earth that remains once the body has perished. While I am not saying that Shakespeare does not pay lip service to that idea (as the examples of Julius Caesar above show), the bleak existentialism that Hamlet shows in his idea of Alexander the Great becoming nothing more than dust that is used for ‘stopping a bung-hole’ (Hamlet, 5.1.189) perhaps reveals something different in his philosophy.

There is one more way, slightly rarer but no less significant, in which ideas of death are explored in Greek and Shakespearean drama – through the fantasy of regeneration. Probably the best-known example of this is the case of Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but, as I have mentioned earlier in this study, his treatment of the revival of the main female protagonist after her supposed death has much in common with Euripides’ play Alcestis. Less famously, Shakespeare’s Pericles also contains a scene worth exploring, in which the dead queen Thaisa is brought back to life even after she has been thrown into the sea in a wooden coffin. Interestingly, Thaisa’s subsequent story, that she becomes a priestess at Diana’s temple, is very similar to Iphigenia’s in Iphigenia In Tauris, Euripides’ revision of the myths surrounding Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which Agamemnon’s daughter does not come back from the dead as such, but is saved from sacrifice at the last minute by divine intervention, and so she, too, certainly merits discussion in this context.

Starting with The Winter’s Tale and Alcestis, then, it is crucial to our interpretation of both plays that both Shakespeare’s Hermione and Euripides’ title character are women who lose their lives explicitly through some fault or omission of their husbands. As with the discussions about Agamemnon and his automatic precedence over Clytemnestra, as both a man and a king, in the masculinist discourse of the Oresteia, we see that the very same ideas are at work here, and that lives of the two queens in these plays are entirely in the hands of Admetus and Leontes. With Alcestis in particular, during the build-up to her death at least, not only is there no evidence that Admetus has thought about refusing Alcestis’ offer of her life for his, there is also no suggestion by any other character that he should have done this, because he is the king and the head of the family, and so is more important. Indeed, there is almost the sense, in the Servant’s discussion with the Chorus, that Alcestis’ sacrifice is simply an extension (albeit a rather extreme one) of the obligations of the marriage contract ‘How/Could any wife give clearer testimony that she/Honours her husband, than by freely dying for him? ’ (Alcestis, 156).

Hermione’s fate works in the same way, and despite the fact that, in this case, Leontes’ wisdom in his treatment of his wife is called into question by the likes of Paulina and Camillo, ultimately his status as both the king and head of the family is equally sacrosanct. Though Hermione protests her innocence, she does so quietly, and constantly emphasises her patient loyalty to Leontes and her acceptance that ‘The King’s will be performed’ (The Winter’s Tale, 2.1.117) even as he brands her an adulteress and a traitor and takes away her child. Indeed, in the final big speech before she dies, Hermione echoes Alcestis’ attitude that she is not afraid of death because without a husband she would have nothing to live for;

ALCESTIS:But to live
Parted from you, and these children unfathered – that
I would not bear. (53–55)

HERMIONE:To me life can be no commodity.
The crown and comfort of my life, your favour,
I do give lost, for I do feel it gone (3.2.91–3)

Interestingly, the sentiments that both women express here are also very similar to the speeches made by the sacrificial virgins that we see in two other Euripides plays – Iphigenia in Iphigenia At Aulis and Polyxena in Hecuba. Although their deaths are ultimately decided by the powerful men around them, and they essentially have no real choice in the matter, all four of these women attempt to reclaim this choice to some extent by declaring their willingness to die honourably and with dignity. Polyxena, for example, cites her royal blood and her desire to die free instead of becoming enslaved by the Greeks: ‘…slave! That name first makes me long for death’. The women here are powerless, and yet all of them engage with the masculine code which dictates how one should die, so that after their deaths they are remembered as great martyrs and not reviled as ‘disobedient’ women like Clytemnestra – Talthybius, the Greek herald, is moved to tears by the beauty of Polyxena’s death in Hecuba; it takes the silence of Hermione’s death for Leontes to finally realise he has made a mistake.

Indeed, once both Hermione and Alcestis have died, however, there is an almost instantaneous turnaround in the attitudes of their husbands. Both men realise (with a little help from the condemnation of those around them – Pheres in the case of Admetus, Paulina for Leontes) that, to one extent or another, they are morally culpable for the deaths of their wives. Of course, according to Aristotle, one of the things that tragic action hinges upon is this failure of ‘anagnorisis’, or recognition, on the part of the protagonist, until it is too late – in other Shakespeare and Euripides plays, we watch Othello kill Desdemona out of the same sexual jealousy that drives Leontes, or see Theseus live to regret his complicity in his son Hippolytus’ death just as Admetus regrets allowing Alcestis to die. It is partly this realisation that defines the action in the two plays up to this point as ‘tragic’.

However, the resurrection of these two dead characters means that, as we have seen before, death and its consequences drastically affect genre. I am not suggesting that the ‘happy ending’ of both these plays immediately precludes them from being considered tragedies – the behaviour of both Admetus and Leontes fits in well with the traditional Aristotelian model for the tragic protagonist – but there can be no doubt that the romantic and comic element to these plays does somehow set them apart from the conventional tragic pattern of death and loss which we see in plays like Othello or Hippolytus.

As we see with Leontes and his inconsolable guilt, though both kings may be forgiven by the gods and by their subjects, neither can forgive themselves for their mistakes – and there is no force, not even time (as we see with the sixteen years’ passing in The Winter’s Tale), that will allow this. Arguably, the only way in which it would be possible is on a theatrical level, with the playwright changing a ‘tragic’ world, in which decisions and actions cannot be taken without serious consequences, into a more ‘comic’ one, in which all mistakes are easily resolved. It is my belief that this is what both Shakespeare and Euripides are doing with the resurrection of their female protagonists in these plays – not providing atonement for Leontes and Admetus within the tragic world in which they made their mistakes, but creating a different world in which the rules regarding the obligations of guilt are less stringent.

It is perhaps interesting to note here that, on the evidence of the Euripides plays that remain available to us, this idea of creating tragedy with a happy ending was slightly more common to the Greeks than it was to the Elizabethans. In addition to Alcestis, there are three other plays by Euripides – Ion, Iphigenia In Tauris and Helen – which follow this structure of setting up tragic circumstances and then resolving them in a way which could be considered comic. Importantly, as in Alcestis, each of these plays does this with specific emphasis on the idea of regeneration. All of them somehow involve characters coming back ‘from the dead’ – not always literally, but at least metaphorically and in the eyes of other characters: in Ion, the happy ending is facilitated by Creusa, the queen of Athens, realising that the illegitimate son that she had left for dead as a baby is in fact alive and well. In Iphigenia In Tauris, Orestes and Iphigenia each think that the other is dead, and tragedy is averted when they realise just at the moment when she is about to have him killed, and in Helen, we find out that the Helen of Troy who cuckolded Menelaus was not the real Helen at all, but an illusion created by the gods, and so, again, she escapes execution and they are given a new beginning in which previous grievances can be wiped out. Perhaps because the parameters of what could be considered ‘tragedy’ at that time were so broad – its only real antitype being the political comedy of Aristophanes – there seems to have been less of a problem than there would be in the future with calling these types of plays tragedies.

Shakespearean tragedy, on the other hand, and, indeed, Elizabethan drama as a whole, appears to be governed by much stricter rules. This is partly to do with the prevalence of ‘revenge tragedy’, which, as discussed before, by its very nature requires the bloody deaths of most of the main characters, but even the Shakespearean tragedy which does not fall within the revenge category – Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra – seems to be much more reliant upon a high body count than its Greek counterparts . When we also take into account the shift in conceptions of popular comedy from the scatological, satirical humour of Aristophanes to a more Plautine model of comedy as deception and misunderstanding, we can perhaps see that the genre of the Shakespearean ‘problem plays’ like The Winter’s Tale, which contain elements of both tragedy and comedy, is a little more difficult to define.

The question of why the playwrights would do this still remains – what is it about Leontes which allows him to make Othello’s mistake but get away with it; what is it about Admetus which allows him to get his wife back while Theseus loses his son? One possible explanation is provided by Wilbur Sanders in his 1987 guide to The Winter’s Tale in which he talks about tragedy in terms of another Aristotelian notion of emotional ‘katharsis’ on the part of the audience. Sanders reasons that, if much of the power of watching a play like King Lear, for example, is centred upon our hope that Cordelia will not die, then why should Shakespeare, as a dramatist, not explore this desire in his audience, if only to find out ‘what it feels like to have it satisfied ’?

This reasoning could also be applied to Alcestis – we could view the play almost as an experiment on the part of Euripides as to how far he could take the audience’s pity and sympathy for Alcestis and Admetus before retracting it again with the happy ending. This is supported particularly by the fact that Alcestis contains one of the very few examples in Greek tragedy in which a character dies on stage – usually the convention is that we either witness the immediate build-up and aftermath to a death (as in Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in The Oresteia), or we are simply given news of it by a messenger (as with the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice in Sophocles’ Antigone, for example). Indeed, if we look at Alcestis’ death scene, from her dignity and courage in her last moments and her talk of love for her family, to the picture of the distraught husband and motherless children who are ‘young to walk alone’ (Alcestis, 408) in its aftermath, it is clear that Euripides is making a concerted effort to tug at the heartstrings of his audience in this scene. In the same way, the caricature portrayal of the drunken Heracles and his embarrassing comic argument with the disgruntled Servant is clearly intended to create a much lighter mood.

To a certain extent, then, I would agree with Sanders’ idea of the playwrights experimenting with different ways of presenting death and its consequences, and how these different methods affect an audience. In The Winter’s Tale in particular, when Shakespeare brings Hermione back to life, he not only confounds the tragic expectations of the other characters in the play but also, arguably, the very audience itself. Though Euripides gives his audience a scene in which Heracles declares his intention to save Alcestis from death, allowing us to enjoy the dramatic irony of the moment where she is handed back to her unwitting husband, there is no such sequence in Shakespeare, and very few clues, even in Paulina’s dialogue, which forewarn us of the happy ending. For the first-time viewer or reader at least, Hermione’s recovery should be totally unexpected.

However, I believe that in both Shakespeare and Euripides, experimentation with genre and its affect on the audience cannot be the sole reason for their decision to allow their female protagonists to rise from the dead. Repeated readings of The Winter’s Tale are equally rewarding even without the ‘surprise element’ of Hermione’s resurrection and the clues that it will happen, though probably undetectable to a first-time reader, are nevertheless there – note the moment when Paulina makes Leontes swear to let her choose him a new queen, and then tells him that ‘She shall not be so young/As was your former, but she shall be such/As, walked in your first queen’s ghost, it should take joy/To see her in your arms’ (The Winter’s Tale, 5.1.78–81). This line is completely innocuous unless we know that Paulina is keeping Hermione alive in secret – at which point it takes on a whole different significance, because, of course, his ‘first queen’s ghost’ is going to walk in at the end of the play.

Indeed, our interpretation of the character of Paulina throughout Act V is completely transformed upon repeated readings of this play, because when we are allowed to share the secret of the cryptic statements she constantly makes to Leontes, she becomes much less the interfering courtier, constantly and rather tactlessly reminding the king of the mistake he made sixteen years ago, and more like Heracles in Alcestis, the deus ex machina who performs the impossible task of creating a happy ending out of death.

This idea of the deus ex machina is crucial to all of the plays I have mentioned that explore the idea of characters coming ‘back to life’, whether they use resurrection literally in the case of Alcestis and The Winter’s Tale, or figuratively, as when characters who believe each other to be dead are reunited. Shakespeare’s Pericles provides interesting examples of both of these literal and figurative concepts of death and regeneration – indeed, I would argue that this play is more focused on ideas of loss and rediscovery than any other in the Elizabethan or Greek tradition. From the very first scene in Antiochus’ castle, with the row of skulls on the wall and the eponymous hero being forced, Oedipus-like, to stake his life on the answer to a riddle, it is clear that Pericles will be closely acquainted with death constantly throughout this play – he even ironically thanks Antiochus for having ‘taught/My frail mortality to know itself’ (Pericles, Sc. 1, 84–5).

As the play goes on, not only does Pericles almost encounter death himself several times (he flees the castle just as Antiochus is about to have him killed; his ship is wrecked and he is the only survivor and, but for the loyalty of Helicanus, is almost given up for dead by the noblemen of Tyre), but he is also under the impression at one point in the play that his whole family is dead. Again, we see how death of loved ones affects characters in these plays, with Pericles visiting his daughter’s tomb, like Electra and Orestes visit Agamemnon’s (only, in this case, she is not dead so it is empty) in order to fulfil lamentation rituals, swearing to only wear sack-cloth and ‘never to wash his face nor cut his hairs.’ (Pericles, Sc. 18, 28–9). We are also again given a version of the sacrificed wife, with Thaisa dying in childbirth and forfeiting her own life, like Alcestis, in order that her husband and child might live.

What is unique about Pericles in terms of the presentation of death and loss is that, unlike The Winter’s Tale, in which we are given no indication of Hermione’s survival, or even Alcestis, in which we see Heracles resolve to save her but are unsure until the final scene whether he has managed to do it, we see Thaisa brought back to life in the very next scene after she ‘dies’, long before Pericles or anybody else realises. Similarly, we also know that Marina is not really dead before the thought even enters Pericles’ mind that she might be – so, for the audience at least, the dramatic tension is certainly not based upon whether characters will survive or die, but whether they will find each other.

It is also worth noting that Pericles, even if we ignore its obvious plot similarity to Iphigenia In Tauris, is arguably the most ‘Greek’ of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of its structure and the theatrical devices that it uses – it is the only play that I can think of in his entire canon in which the deus ex machina is actually a god, the constant interjections of Gower contain some of the elements of the Classical chorus, and it is broken up into a series of scenes rather than the traditional Elizabethan five-act structure. The regeneration of Thaisa, as well as the appearance of Diana and several other fantastical elements in this play, make it even harder than The Winter’s Tale to defend against charges that it is contrived – but perhaps this is the point. Neither Shakespeare or Aeschylus, in these plays or Alcestis, appear to be presenting us with anything other than a wholly fantastical and contrived series of events – and so perhaps Sanders’ idea that the playwrights are experimenting with genre and audience reaction only takes us halfway to what they are really trying to do here – experimenting with a different way of looking at the world itself, that neither pure tragedy nor comedy can provide.

Alcestis, The Winter’s Tale and Pericles are all plays that are so similar in their outlook, and in their treatment of death in particular, that it is difficult not to retrospectively place them all within a new genre acknowledging their status as part-tragedy, part-comedy and part something else. John Fletcher, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, acknowledges as much in a preface to his 1608 work The Faithful Shepherdess, defining what he calls ‘tragic-comedy’ as a genre which ‘wants deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it, which is enough to make it no comedy.’

These plays have often also been called ‘romances’ by critics (even though neither Shakespeare nor Aeschylus would have acknowledged the term themselves) – but I would argue that this blanket term is not quite right either – the shadow of mortality that looms large over all of these plays does not allow us to focus solely on the romantic parts, even if they are what we are left with at the end.


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