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Chapter 2: The Relationship between Euripides and Shakespeare



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Chapter 2: The Relationship between Euripides and Shakespeare; Titus Andronicus
The objective of this chapter is to comment on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin and Greek, as well as the ways in which he might have encountered ancient texts. The chapter will then focus on the ways in which Greek tragedies made an impact on Shakespeare’s writing, together with those Roman authors who mediated Euripidean influences to Shakespeare. Afterwards, the chapter will discuss the play of Titus Andronicus. It will comment on its story and ethics, as well as the sources from which Shakespeare drew inspiration, and, most importantly, it will analyse the relationship between the play and its Euripidean model.

As previously discussed, Shakespeare’s knowledge of the ancient Greek language was virtually non-existent but his Latin education was sufficient for him to be able to read simple texts and even some poetry, Ovid in particular. Moreover, by Shakespeare’s time, Latin translations of Greek works started to appear more often and were also becoming more accessible. Even though Euripides and the other Greek tragedians were not among the most frequently read authors, as Stuart Gillespie points out in his book Shakespeare's Books: A Dictionary of Shakespeare Sources:

Latin translations existed [...] Euripides was more frequently translated [...]; his emphasis on depicting human emotions, his realistic style, prominent use of rhetoric, and sententiae made him more congenial (Gillespie 161).

Therefore, there was the option to read Euripides in Latin translation, and as A.D. Nuttall admits in his essay featured in Martindale and Taylor’s Shakespeare and the Classics, Shakespeare probably had some knowledge of several Greek plays, including Euripides’ Orestes, Alcestis, and Hecuba, thanks to the Latin versions, however, it does not seem likely that he read them. Nuttall adds: "Surely, the great Euripidean women, Medea, Electra, Phaedra, Agave, would have laid hold on Shakespeare’s imagination. [However,] the thought obstinately persists: Shakespeare did not know this material in any intimate way" (in Martindale and Taylor 210). As Michael Silk (in Martindale and Taylor) argues, there might be an actual link between Greek and Shakesperean tragedy but it is not possible to find any direct product of this affinity since there is no existing "‘reception’ in the ordinary sense" or "‘reading’ of the Attic drama" (241). As he further adds, any influence from the Greek tragedians would have to be transferred through classical Latin sources and then through Renaissance works to Shakespeare.

Thus, it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare would have read Greek plays or their translated versions. In comparison to Latin works, they were very much neglected and they did not seem as attractive. Moreover, the topics of the dramas (usually mythical stories) were often adopted by Roman authors, and this brought them closer to Renaissance writers. In Shakespeare’s case the three prominent figures who mediated ancient Greek topics to him were Plutarch, Ovid and Seneca.

Seneca, as Silk (in Martindale and Taylor) presents him, was the most admired and popular but also accessible of ancient tragedians in the Renaissance. Although he was a Roman, his focus was particularly on Euripides as a source of inspiration, and this was "‘the closest Shakespeare ever got to Greek tragedy’" (241). Among features which Shakespeare took over from Seneca there is above all "the grand rhetoric" and "the preoccupation with the inner torments of the psyche" (241). The latter is probably of Euripidean origin.

As Gordon Braden suggests, Plutarch also uses Euripides as his model, he even quotes him, and is "willing [...] to explore the pathology of the soul’s second part" (in Martindale and Taylor 195). This again indicates Euripidean point of view and focus on a person’s inner self. Interestingly, according to John Roe, Plutarch is supposed to have prefered "his Greeks to his Romans: ‘he drew his ideals from the Hellenic past, not from the Roman world, past or present’" (in Martindale and Taylor 173), the reason for this being possibly a general disillusionment with contemporary Roman culture and socio-political situation.

Ovid possesses certain Euripidean aspects which are so distinct that Charles Martindale calls him "the heir of Euripides" (Martindale and Martindale 87). As Jonathan Bate points out in Shakespeare and Ovid, Ovid’s work was partly original, and partly owed its features to a number of his influential predecessors: his treatment of sexuality was similar to that of Sappho and others; his approach to myth, on the contrary, was influenced predominantly by Euripides and Callimachus. Bate further argues that Euripides’ work served as a model for Ovid’s poetry, however, this also applies to drama: if it had been preserved, "Ovid’s tragedy [of Medea] would have been closer in its spirit to the Greek original than to the surviving Roman dramatic version of the Medea story traditionally attributed to Seneca" (Bate 239). In the case of Ovid, Euripidean influences are striking. In Shakespeare’s case, however, they become less obvious and also indirect.

Despite the resemblances between The Winter’s Tale and Alcestis, Titus Andronicus and Hecuba, it cannot be proved that Shakespeare knew any of the plays of Euripides. But there is no doubt that he derived a Euripidean spirit from Ovid. Euripides taught Ovid what Ovid taught Shakespeare: an art of tragicomedy, a way of writing about the mind under the stress of extreme passion, a sensitivity to female suffering (Bate 239).

All of these features that make Ovid’s and Shakespeare’s works so distinct and unique are to be traced back to Euripides, who first introduced the ideas in his plays.

Even though Shakespeare did not derive his ideas from Euripides directly, one can detect the links via the Roman authors. Both Shakespeare and Euripides focus on distinctive individuals, especially women (Martindale and Taylor, Gillespie). They are interested in exploring the human soul, taking into account all of its aspects. Furthermore, unlike other Greek plays, Euripides’ works do not pay much attention to supernatural beings such as gods (Gillespie 161); the same applies for Shakespeare’s dramas, where hardly any characters possess supernatural forces (Silk in Martindale and Taylor 243). Finally, what is generally perceived as the most distinctive connection between Shakespeare and Euripides is the mixing of the genres of tragedy and comedy (Silk in Martindale and Taylor 247). Shakespeare’s late romances are so reminiscent of Euripides’ "untragic tragedies" (Martindale and Martindale 81) that A.D. Nuttall asserts that "late Euripides is like late Shakespeare as no other dramatist is" (in Gillespie 163). One should therefore be aware of the connection between their plays, even though the ideas they share did not travel directly.

Even though Shakespeare’s idea of Greek culture is thought to be relatively vague, and his knowledge gained mostly from myths, he manages to apply a number of Greek features to his Roman plays. "‘Greekness’ to Shakespeare means abstraction – play of schemata, ramifying myth rather than determinate history, irony rather than praxis [...]. Rome is matter, Greece is form" (Nutall in Martindale and Taylor 219). The result of this merging of the two cultures is then adapted to individual plays. In this way Shakespeare manages to implement this ‘Greekness’ into the world of his plays, thus creating a compact and plastic image of the ancient culture; it is this concept in particular that makes his Roman tragedies so life-like.

However, Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (and still sometimes denied to have come from Shakespeare’s pen), creates an atmosphere of absurdity and unreal brutality, even though it possesses the qualities described above. As Harold Goddard describes it in Meaning of Shakespeare, "it is ostensibly a Senecan tragedy of revenge, [yet] it is not tragedy at all in any proper sense" (Vol. I 33). The play is so full of blood and violent deeds, and these follow each other at so fast a pace, that it lacks any resemblance to reality.

One of the sources of inspiration for the story of Titus was the story of Hecuba, queen of Troy, who lost almost all of her children (her son Polydorus was murdered by the greedy king of Thrace, and her daughter Polyxena was sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles), which appears first as a tragedy by Euripides and later as an Ovidian tale. Jonathan Bate is convinced that Hecuba’s story was an important secondary source for Shakespeare, even though he probably only read the tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, not Euripides’ original play (103). However, as Titus’ main model, Bate suggests the Ovidian tale of Philomel.

Philomela, seeing the sword, and hoping only

for death, offered up her throat. But he severed

her tongue with his savage blade, holding it

with pincers, as she struggled to speak in her

indignation, calling out her father.s name

repeatedly. (Kline and Ovid 307)


So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,

Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravish'd thee. (Demetrius in Titus Act II Scene IV)

The resemblance is so strong that Bate calls Titus Andronicus an imitation of the Philomel story.

Yet, as Bate argues, "the good imitator is eclectic to the point of promiscuity, which is why Titus invokes Hecuba, Lucrece, Livy’s Virginius, Coriolanus, Dido and Aeneas, and a host of other exempla" (105). Charles Martindale (in Martindale and Taylor) even asserts that "it is in Titus Andronicus that Shakespeare [...] had his most sustained dialogue with Virgil. The play is most usualy described today as Ovidian (more rarely as Senecan), [even though there are] 14 references to Ovid, [and] 14 to Virgil" (94). This elaborate mixing of ancient sources may then be perceived as a mastery of imitation, worthy of young Shakespeare.

It would be rather simplistic to describe Titus Andronicus merely as a play of revenge. Catherine Belsey calls it "a play about two families, each unhappy in its own way. [...] As its climactic dinner party indicates, [it] is a play about the appropriation of women, patriarchal power and family feuds" (in McEachern 124). Power and family honour are the two main points of interest and conflict here. Coppélia Kahn (in McEachern) perceives the need to defend the latter as "the essence of manliness" in Titus, and it is so strong that it manages to transform Titus "from pious Roman to revenge hero" (Kahn in McEachern 211) who does everything to prevent his family from being dishonoured, including killing his own offspring. This naturally raises the question whether Titus likes his children at all when the play constantly presents him as obedient only to his rigid ethical code. Belsey answers: "He loves his children but on condition that they reproduce his own values" (Belsey in McEachern 140). It is thus, among other things, also this strong adherence to the manly virtūs that helps create the image of Rome as "a wilderness of tigers" (Titus Act III, Scene I) – even though it should do the exact opposite. Rome falls into barbarism and becomes completely different from the ideal that Renaissance pictured.

The violent, cruel acts committed by Shakespeare’s noble heroes are the ones that are most striking. In the essay "What is a Shakespearean Tragedy?", McAlindon suggests that they might be "linked generically to the monstrous crimes of ancient myth rendered familiar in the Renaissance through the tragedies of Seneca and the Metamorphoses of Ovid" (in McEachern 10). This brutal way of behaviour of Shakespeare’s characters is thus again borrowed from the works of Roman authors (and through them from Greek writers), and follows the ancient tradition. Furthermore, "Shakespeare shares with Ovid the conviction that whether or not it comes with honour, male desire always speaks the language of sexual conquest" (Bate 230). One can trace this pattern not only in Titus Andronicus and its model, the tale of Philomel, but for example in Shakespeare’s Lucrece as well. E. M. W. Tillyard remarks that "there is just as much Ovid in [Titus Andronicus] as there is Seneca" (137), the evidence being, above all, the scenes of Lavinia’s rape and Tamora eating her sons’ flesh; and structurally "Shakespeare apprenticed himself to neo-classical Senecan tragedy" (Bevington in McEachern 53). With Seneca (and Euripides) he shares the interest in the victim’s point of view and feelings, as one can again see also in the case of Lucrece.

The most obvious victim in Titus Andronicus, Titus’ daughter Lavinia, contrives to tell the story of her rape and mutilation "by rifling the pages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the master texts of Latin culture, to cite the tale of Philomel" (Kahn in McEachern 211). Even though immediately after that she manages to write the names of the violators in the sand, and makes thus the previous process unnecessary, it conveys an important message to the audience:

the physical presence of the Metamorphoses onstage [represents] the power of classical texts for Shakespeare: rather than being objects of unqualified veneration, they can be used within the lives of their readers to enable them to communicate. Classical books speak for present occasions (Burrow in Martindale and Taylor 19).

Therefore, one can suppose that this was the general outlook on classical literature at Shakespeare’s time – it most likely formed a part of people’s everyday lives, and was well-known to all who received some education or at least frequented theatre performances and other social events.

When Lavinia is browsing furiously through the Metamorphoses, young Lucius, her nephew, expresses his concern about her mental health, since she suffered immensely and "extremity of griefs would make men mad" (Titus Act IV, Scene I). The boy adds that he has read "that Hecuba of Troy / Ran mad for sorrow" (Titus Act IV, Scene I). Jonathan Bate observes that this notion is relevant not only in the case of Hecuba, and subsequently Lavinia and Titus, but it also applies to a number of other Shakesperean characters like Hamlet or Othello.

Hecuba is the personage that underlies the whole story of Titus Andronicus. In the play itself she is compared to Lavinia but from the objective point of view, as a Euripidean figure she shares much more with the character of Titus. They both lose their children under circumstances they cannot influence, and they both lament over their hopeless situation to relieve their sorrow:

Ah! What a miserable wretch I am! What sounds can I utter? What sorry lament do I sing in my painful old age and in my dreadful, insufferable slavery?

Ah! Who’s there that can help me? What children? What city? My dear husband has gone and so have all my children. What path shall I take now?

This one? That one? Where will I find a haven? Which god? Which mighty power will help me now?

Ah, you Trojan women! Messengers of evil, messengers of suffering, you have

finished me! You have destroyed me! I want no more of this life of light! (Hecuba in Hekabe 3)


If there were reason for these miseries,

Then into limits could I bind my woes.

When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth

o'erflow?

If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,

Threat'ning the welkin with his big-swol'n face?

And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?

I am the sea; hark how her sighs do blow.

She is the weeping welkin, I the earth;

Then must my sea be moved with her sighs;

Then must my earth with her continual tears

Become a deluge, overflow'd and drown'd;

For why my bowels cannot hide her woes,

But like a drunkard must I vomit them. (Titus in Titus Act III, Scene I)

This extreme grief indeed nearly causes both Hecuba and Titus to lose their sanity. They resolve to avenge the deaths of their children and do so in the most cruel manner (Hecuba blinds the murderer of her son; Titus feeds the queen of Goths with the flesh of her sons).



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