- Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages by Tanya Pollard
It is not often that a book about early modern English drama corrects a long-held misunderstanding in the field. It has commonly been assumed and asserted that commercial playwrights (Shakespeare, Peele, and Kyd, for example) had little access to ancient Greek drama: they knew little about it, and it did not influence them. Tanya Pollard demonstrates many times over that this view is simply wrong, revealing that Greek tragedy was widely disseminated to the educated class—through numerous translations into Latin and English, adaptations and imitations, grammar school and university curricula, and performances—and thereby made its way to the theatres. During the 1570s in Oxford, Pollard states, “[t]he study of Greek was rapidly becoming not only widespread but inescapable” (1), so that a student such as George Peele, later a highly successful writer for the popular stage, was moved to make an English translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia. That play continued to stir his imagination when he collaborated with Shakespeare on the hit tragedy Titus Andronicus. In this instance and many others, Pollard argues, “newly visible,” “rediscovered” Greek tragedies “exerted a powerful and uncharted influence on sixteenth-century England’s . . . developing commercial theatres” (2).
Her argument is not limited to this claim, amply and meticulously supported as it is. As the book’s title indicates, she focuses on the tragedies’ female protagonists, offering a considerable challenge to our reading of an early modern dramatic canon as male-centered despite such strong heroines as, for example, Cleopatra, the Duchess of Malfi, Bel-Imperia, and Beatice-Joanna. Eighty percent of Greek tragedies printed in individual or partial editions before 1600, she states, featured female characters in the lead. The most popular of these female-centered tragedies were Euripides’ Hecuba, Iphigenia in Aulis, Medea, Alcestis, and The Phoenician Women, followed by Sophocles’ Antigone and Electra. Typecast, as it were, these “fierce and proactive female figures” (7) played “raging, bereaved mothers, and sacrificial virgin daughters who respond heroically to death” (6). Pollard finds in them a specific, compelling kind of theatrical energy, a “theater of sympathy” or “a kind of affective electricity” (ibid.): they draw on language charged with strong emotion to inspire sympathy, enlist support, and convert their suffering to vindication and vengeance.
It is as though she has uncovered in Greek tragedy a new subtext of feminine power, in addition to that amply explored by many feminist critics. Pollard, however, does not hold what I would call a feminist perspective; she does not attend to the patriarchal limitations on female power, confined as it is in both Greek tragedy and its early modern emanations to the emotional realm and a theatrical mode of performance. Almost invariably, women move men to take the crucial action rather than taking up the sword themselves.
Nonetheless, in chapters on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Peele and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Hamlet, Pollard valuably reveals and interprets the diverse ways in which early modern playwrights reconfigured these archetypal female figures in their [End Page 581] own tragedies. For this reader, however, the revelation of Greek influence is sometimes more valuable than the interpretation of it. While her close readings are always astute, as the book proceeds they grow somewhat predictable. Mourning mothers and sacrificial daughters behave as expected, moving their male audiences to sympathy through powerful laments that catalyze action. Furthermore, Pollard often makes a critical move that, however sophisticated, tends to diminish the emotional power of these female figures: she casts them as “ghosts” representing the forgotten conventions and unrecognized influence of Greek tragedy who “haunt” early modern tragedy, making them allegories of textual influence. This is evident in the chapter on Hamlet’s troubled identification with the queen of Troy as he ruminates on the First Player’s moving performance of her wild grief: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” he asks. While he admires the actor’s empathy with “the mobled queen,” he contrasts that emotion with his own “cue for action” as an avenging son (Hamlet 2...