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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.


April 18, 2005

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.


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.


February 28, 2005

Next work

Ok well I did continue writing but neglected my blog a little bit as I have had big problems with my stupid stupid laptop which seems to have given up on me for good now. Here's the second paragraph – it was a good job I put the first on this blog as its now my only copy.

For this study to be an effective exploration of the different ways in which Shakespeare and the Greeks represent the dead, I feel that our concept of what it means to be ‘dead’ in tragic drama is best broken down into three distinct categories. Firstly, I intend to explore how the actual, physical body of a dead character is 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, but also Macbeth and Richard III, as well as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba) and figuratively, 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 still being able to influence her choice of husband with the riddle that he has created). Finally, I wish to talk about the often problematic notion of reincarnation, as found in Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Thaisa in Pericles and Alcestis in the Euripides play of that name.

After this I'm gonna actually start on the three sections – thinking if I do about 3000 words for each one plus a conclusion which ties everything up, I should be ok.


January 28, 2005

First Paragraph finally

I haven't updated this for AGES but I've written a provisional first paragraph for the dissertation, which Hugh has commented upon.

The title now is 'Representations of death in Classical and Renaissance Theatre'. I aim to split the research up into three areas – the body (corpses, skulls as in Hamlet/Antigone), the soul – (ghosts as in Hamlet again, Macbeth, Hecuba, Oresteia) and, thirdly, reincarnation (Winter's Tale, Alcestis). The paragraph is this:

This study aims to explore the different ways in which characters who have died 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 directly, and was only ever exposed to it through Seneca’s adaptations, I do feel that there are enough direct similarities between certain characters and plots (for example, Hamlet and Orestes) to warrant serious examination. My intention, therefore, is not to look at the plays in terms of direct influence or even use them as a way of analysing the differences between Ancient Greece and Elizabethan England, but rather to look at them as ‘found objects’, and compare and contrast the Elizabethans and the Greeks as playwrights and nothing more.

Am now working on further introductory notes outlining what I am GOING to do as opposed to what I am NOT doing (as Hugh pointed out), and will update later this weekend when finished.


October 26, 2004

Ghosts In The Machine (if by Machine you mean Seneca and Shakespeare)

Ok well just finished meeting with Hugh today – once again, the discussion about my dissertation topic left me wanting to go in a different direction with it, but for the first time I feel like there might be a topic within the genre of Greek/Roman/Renaissance revenge tragedy that I could talk about in depth – that is, the use of ghosts.

I noticed when reading three different Seneca plays, Thyestes, Agamemnon and Octavia that all three feature a ghost bent on revenge who speaks in the exact same way each time - he mentions the Classical vision of Hell (usually namechecking Ixion on his wheel and Sisyphus and that bloody rock), and how he has been wrenched from Hell only to face a world which is equally hellish. Then I considered Hamlet, and his father's ghost, who says 'I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul...' - there are clear parellels here. As far as the Greek is concerned, there are fewer examples of ghosts appearing on stage (the only ones really are in Euripides Hecuba and Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Eumenides), but the idea of the spirit of a dead relative/loved one holding sway over the living characters is one that is more common – in Sophocles, Antigone is willing to die to preserve her brother's memory, and in the final Oedipus play, the site of the great hero's burial is considered sacred and protecting because of the powers of his spirit.

This week's task, then, is probably to read up as much as I can on ghosts, the spirit and the power of death in tragedy – should be a barrel of laughs eh.


October 21, 2004

First things first

Ok well the original title of my dissertation (thought up at the end of Second Year) was to do with the fact that in many of Shakespeare's tragedies seem to address the same major themes that are addressed in Greek Tragedy, broadly speaking at least (for example, Hamlet's situation is similar to that of Orestes, Ophelia is similar to Electra, King Lear seems similar in some ways to Oedipus, the idea of reincarnation appears in The Winter's Tale and Euripides' Alcestis in a similar way – too many 'similars' inside this bracket but you get the idea). The problem with this is that Shakespeare almost certainly never read any Greek Tragedy directly, although he clearly had access to the Roman dramatist Seneca. I wanted to avoid Roman Tragedy if at all possible, as it was never my intention to claim that Shakespeare was *influenced *by Greek Tragedy, merely to highlight the similarities between the two.

After a couple of meetings with Hugh, however, it became clear in discussion that this probably was not going to be enough to base a decent research project upon – once the similarities had been highlighted, what else was there really to say?

In light of this I decided to modify the question a little bit and talk about Shakespeare's relationship towards the Greeks through Seneca – Shakespeare never read the Oresteia, but Seneca did, and Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Seneca, particularly in Hamlet _and _Titus Andronicus.

Another dimension to this is that, if I were to look at these two plays in detail, along, say Seneca's Octavia or Agamemnon (also relevant is Aeschylus' Oresteia, Euripides' Orestes and Sophocles' Electra, all of which tell the same story) I am essentially dealing with the genre of Revenge Tragedy. Perhaps instead of limiting to Shakespeare, I could talk about Renaissance Revenge Tragedy and how it was influenced by Roman Tragedy, which was in turn influenced by the Greeks.

I am still very much at the ideas stage of this project, and at the moment the work I am doing consists of reading more Seneca and more Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, in particular). I have opened this blog up to anyone – if, on the offchance that anybody sees it and has anything (constructive) to say, I would be interested to hear from you.


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