Plays by Euripides were not only present in Early Modern England, they were also critically acclaimed. By that time Euripides was not only a “modern” author with strange attitudes towards marginalized members of society and with a difficult approach towards religion. He became, together with Aeschylus and Sophocles, a classical author. His plays were studied already in Aristotle’s time and by those two thousand years he became a member of the literary hall of fame. In the Early Modern times he was accessible and liked not only for “the angle at which Euripides stands to the orthodoxies of his own world” (Oxford14 363), but also because “the plays subject to the sharpest analysis the power of all forms of language to charm and persuade and transform the relations of strength and weakness” (Oxford 364). Euripides’ works existed at first only in fragmentary translations – the formal disintegration of his plays “encouraged translators to pick and choose” (Ibid.). Many translations were of particular lyrics or passages, standing free or embedded into another text. Examples of this approach are Roger Ascham, who embedded in his Toxophilus several lines from Euripides’ Heracles; Charles Gildon, who later translated an argument scene between Agamemnon and Menelaus from Iphigenia in Aulis to provide a proof that this play was influential for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar’s quarrel scene between Brutus and Caesar. The most important from these selective translators was Erasmus. In 1506 he published Latin translations of whole plays Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis, but in his Adages he collected those “little nuggets of wisdom” (Oxford 364) from many classical authors. Adages were published in many editions from 1505 to 1540 and were even later reprinted and translated. In his collection he included “exemplary utterances” from Euripides’ plays, such as a female character like Iphigenia, facing her death, saying “Farewell dear light” (Oxford 364).
The only translations of classical Greek plays into English that survived from 16th century are two plays by Euripides. The first is a private translation in prose of Iphigenia in Aulis by Lady Jane Lumley written about 1550. The other is Jocasta, a play performed at Gray’s Inn in 1566, introduced by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh – it was an indirect translation of The Phoenician Women via an Italian adapted version by Dolce. Both these translations were not successful, so the plays were known rather from the Latin translations. From those are important those by Erasmus and translations by George Buchanan – he translated Medea in 1544 and his Alcestis was even performed in front of the Queen in 1560s15 (Oxford 364). He also wrote his own play, Jepthes, based on Iphigenia in Aulis.
Louise Schleiner in “Latinized Greek Drama in Shakespeare’s Hamlet” argues that William Shakespeare had access to plays by Euripides through Ben Jonson’s library – he “did own a two-volume 1581 Latin Euripides” and he also “owned the Greek Scholia in septem Euripidis Tragoedias (Venice, 1534), including the commentary on Orestes” (Schleiner 32). Jonson, who “took great pride in his learning and was consulted on scholarly matters” (Schleiner 33), was also able to read Greek (the author is suggesting that on the basis that he owned not only double column Greek-Latin books, but also books written in Greek with no translation). Schleiner also points out that even if Shakespeare perhaps did not read a whole play by Euripides in Latin, some of “the busier Latinist adapters among his fellow playwrights” (Ibid.) such as Jonson, Marston, Chapman or Dekker probably did and through them the plays (Orestes in this particular study) gained his attention. In her study she is trying to prove that Hamlet is influenced by Euripides’ Orestes mainly by drawing on some character similarities – Hamlet and Orestes; Horatio and Pylades; Laertes as Ophelia’s loving brother and Orestes and his sister Electra. She also adds interesting details about the plot of Hamlet that cannot be derived from any other source on the topic but from the original Greek play. Although this discussion in particular is not very important for this thesis, it proves that there were means through which the plays of Euripides found their way to Shakespeare – and if he was influenced when writing Hamlet, he might as well been influenced when creating one of his famous female characters.
2.2 Roman influence
From the rich literary history of the Roman Empire only three representatives were chosen for the purpose of this thesis: Virgil, Ovid and Seneca. Not only were their works accessible in the Early Modern times (both in Italy and England), but they were also important sources for the Early Modern drama and played a significant role in the evolution of female characters. The most influential were: Virgil’s Dido from the Aeneid; Ovid’s mythical female characters from his Metamorphoses, his heroines in love from the Heroides and his love instructions from the Ars Amatoria – The Art of Love; Seneca’s dramatic characters were different from those by Euripides, even though they were often the same mythological heroines (as will be demonstrated later in this chapter when comparing the Greek and the Latin Medea), yet his plays were a great influence for the 16th century female dramatis personae.
Virgil, the oldest from the three classical writers discussed in this subchapter, is famous mostly for his epic story, the Aeneid. It describes the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan survivor, who is destined to travel to Italy and found Rome. A.J. Bell in “Virgil and the Drama” claims that the Aeneid seems to be written according to “rules belonging to the drama rather than to the epic” (458) and attributes this fact to the influential Poetics, in which Aristotle states that tragedy is superior to epic. Bell also refers to a theory of T.K. Glover, who argues that the story of Dido, the queen of Carthage, is based more on Euripides’ Phaedra and Medea than on Argonautica, a Greek epic by Apollonius Rhodius. Bell adds to this his argument that Virgil was not only influenced by the Greek dramatic characters, but also by the “technical art” of the Greek dramatists (458). To summarize these theories up, Virgil’s epic poem seems to be rather a dramatic narrative based on Virgil’s Greek literary predecessors.
In comparison with Homer, Virgil’s male characters are “lacking individuality” (Bell 462) and Aeneas becomes even “despicable” as a hero when he leaves Dido, because of his treatment of her – he lacks chivalry and any feelings for romance (Bell 463). The female characters, even though there are not many of them, are created in a much complex way and, as Bell states, “Virgil’s fame in this respect will always depend on his creation of Dido and Camilla” (462). Dido is a leading character of the fourth book and Camilla of the eleventh. Camilla is a female warrior, who dies because she “bluntly pursued in huntress fashion, and recklessly raged through all the ranks with a woman’s passion for booty and for spoil”16 because she saw a Greek warrior in a wonderful armour and she wanted to take it – she did not see her death coming because she was blinded by greed. Michael Andrews claims this passage from the Aeneid to be a source for Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida – when Cressida says “this fault in us I find: / The error of our eye directs our mind,” it is what Virgil thought of women. Nevertheless, in Shakespeare’s play it is Hector, who dies in a very similar situation as Camilla – “what the archetypally patriarchal Virgil stigmatizes as a woman’s passion becomes, in Shakespeare’s play, yet another instance of an irrationality that is human, all too human” (Andrews 221).
If Virgil’s “achievement” in creating a strong female character in Camilla’s case – besides the fact that she is a warrior, which brings in a rather literal meaning of “strong” – is not really outstanding because of his patriarchal “stigmatization”, then the creation of Dido, the queen of Carthage, is undoubtedly more successful. This accomplishment lies in Virgil’s ability to create “within an epic of grand historical scope an intimate tragedy of a woman in love” (Gill 145). She appears for the first time in the first book of the Aeneid and her story ends in the fourth book, of which she is the main character. She falls in love with Aeneas, but because she swore to never love again after her husband was murdered, she is trying to stop the passionate feelings but is unsuccessful. One day when during a hunt they are interrupted by a storm, Dido and Aeneas hide in the same cave and become intimate – Dido calls their relationship marriage to ease her feelings of guilt. When Aeneas is reminded by Mercury that he has to go on to Italy and fulfil his destiny, he decides to leave Dido. She is enraged, but he, made insensitive by the will of gods, tells her he never married her and has to leave. Later in the night, Dido commits suicide. Her character goes through a whole range of moods – she is madly passionate, loving, suspicious, enraged and, at last, desperate.
The story was used in the 16th century by Christopher Marlowe in his play Dido, Queen of Carthage. Even though he changed some aspects of the story, his Dido is at first “the bewildered woman and the suppliant queen” and later turns into “the triumphant conqueror who has, literally, taken Aeneas prisoner” becoming “resourceful and proud” (Gill 152). But before this side becomes dominant, “the woman in love reappears” and in the parting scene she is “near-hysterical” and “swiftly changing tactics” (Ibid.) to hold Aeneas back. Marlowe follows Virgil’s pattern of making Dido a woman of emotions, moving on a wide scale of them, making the reader or the audience understand her decisions, while Aeneas is left unmoved, controlled by the gods.
Marlowe was not the only writer who was inspired by Virgil’s work – as A.J. Bell says, he “became afterwards the direct or indirect original of half the Renaissance epics of adoration and love” (462). But it is rather difficult to distinguish properly the sources of later works, because Virgil was an important influence even on his contemporaries – among them, Ovid.