Sunday 24 April 2016

What's Hecuba really to Hamlet?

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

Shakespeare's Ovid
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death takes me to Stratford on Avon to record a BBC Radio programme going out on Tuesday at 1000 pm about The Bard’s Putative Bookshelf.  

He had certainly read lots of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Arthur Golding’s juicy verse translation: Prospero’s famous speech summoning  ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ imitates one Ovid’s Medea delivers before chopping up a victim. Shakespeare absorbed many ghosts and disease metaphors from a 1581 multi-authored English translation of Seneca his Tenne Tragedies. He was eclectic with his Roman  history, keeping translations of Appian, Livy and the Gesta Romanorum handy as well as Plutarch’s Lives of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Coriolanus etc as translated by Thomas North from the French of Jacques Amyot.

The Play Scene in Hamlet by Daniel Maclise
But the most exciting Plutarch reference is the least understood.  It occurs in the player scenes of Hamlet, initiated by the arrival of the 'tragedians of the city' to offer their Lenten entertainment. In Act II scene 2, the player performs a speech by Aeneas describing the death of Priam and Hecuba's response to it.  

Hamlet wonders how the player could make himself go pale, weep, and speak with a broken voice for a woman about whom he in reality cared nothing. If he did really care about Hecuba, and have Hamlet's reasons for feeling strong passions,

He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

Hecuba's suffering, if depicted by a skilled actor, could inspire weeping and 'make mad the guilty'. It is this example that suggests to Hamlet the idea that 'the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.' Claudius subsequently watches a play dramatising actions so similar to crimes he has himself committed that he gets upset and has to absent himself from the performance.

Which Hecuba did Shakespeare really have in mind? Despite all the critics you have ever read, it was not Erasmus’ translation of Euripides’ Hecuba. It was a performance of Euripides’ Trojan Women in the fourth century BCE.

North's Plutarch's Lives
Shakespeare read about this performance in  Plutarch's little read  Life of Pelopidas, chapter 29. Plutarch is describing the crimes of an abominable tyrant named Alexander of Pherae. These included using humans as dog bait and massacring the male populations of entire cities. But Alexander had to leave the theatre out of 'shame that his citizens should see him, who never pitied any man that he murdered, weep at the sufferings of Hecuba and Andromache' (29.4-6). 
Sybil Thorndike as Hecuba in Trojan Women

Hamlet gets the idea for using a mimed murder to test Claudius’ conscience from Alexander’s sudden tears at seeing the women of Troy suffer as he had made his own victims suffer. The spine-tingling beauty of this is that Shakespeare is placing himself in a tradition of tragic theatre which even in 1600-1 went back two thousand years. We still perform Euripides’ Trojan Women today. I know of a few tyrants who should watch it.


  1. Here is an article by Tony Harrison on his translation of Euripedes' Hecuba. I particularly like how he ends wondering whether President Bush would have walked out weeping if he were 'tricked into attending a performance?'.

  2. I love it! Just what I've been looking for. Thank you.