Chapter 3: Julius Caesar; Hamlet; Troilus and Cressida This chapter will focus on three plays from Shakespeare’s middle era: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida. Of his middle dramas, the Euripideam influence is supported by the greatest amount of evidence and secondary sources particularly in case of these three. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to discuss the Euripidean features and evidence of his influence as found in these plays. The first part of the chapter will be devoted to the tragedy of Julius Caesar. It will discuss its story, language and imagery, as well as its historical significance and the characters in the play, the philosophy of the play, its sources and, most importantly, its Euripidean features.
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. However, it differs greatly from Titus Andronicus, which has been considered rather untypical of Shakespeare, even though they share the same setting. According to M. W. MacCallum and his book Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background, "Julius Caesar is the first not only of the Roman Plays, but of the great series of Tragedies" (177). Thus, in Julius Caesar for the first time one can find features which form an important part of the great tradition of Shakespeare’s tragic plays.
The tragedy tells the classical story of the murder of Caesar. Even though the title character is killed half-way through the play, the story continues with his murderers attempting, and failing at restoring peace and the Roman Republic. According to John Roe (in Martindale and Taylor),
in Julius Caesar Shakespeare seems to enjoy some relief at not having to invoke the Christian terminology that haunts some of his other heroes. The circumstances of pagan Rome give him an ethical freedom that is otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to attain (182).
This fact only adds credibility to the portrayal of ancient Rome, and suggests that Shakespeare meant to depict it as vividly as possible, leaving out any allusions to the vehemently discussed topic of Christianity.
The play’s language is quite plain, unadorned; Charles Martindale claims that it is because Shakespeare was trying to imitate the style of Roman orators (above all Cicero). Catherine Spurgeon supports this idea in her book Leading Motives in the Imagery of Shakespeare's Tragedies also in the case of imagery: the play is very straightforward and slow-moving, and there are very few images (comparisons to animals at most). However, "characters speak formally, in lofty abstractions, and refer to themselves in the third person (‘illeism’), as though the are spectators and audience of themselves as public figures" (Coppélia Kahn in McEachern 212). This represents the overall idea of ancient Rome as a place where one’s public image and honour was the most important part of everyday life. However, according to Jonathan Bate "in Julius Caesar [rhetoric] is exposed as potentially self-destructive" (110). Therefore, similarly to the situation in some other Shakespeare’s works, words become a powerful weapon which can both serve and destroy the speaker.
In addition to that, "Julius Caesar more than any other literary work has created a lasting mage of public duty, political idealism, ringing oratory, and patrician Stoicism as keynotes of the classical world. It is surely Shakespeare’s most ‘classical’ tragedy" (Kahn in McEachern 212). Such was the image of Rome in times of Shakespeare, derived from various classical and medieval sources. Thanks to this background Shakespeare was able to create a concrete, lively picture of the political and social situation of Caesar’s time.
As MacCallum suggests, Shakespeare must have been fascinated by the figure of Caesar since he referred to him in a number of his early dramas, and Harold C. Goddard thinks that "Caesar [...] apparently came to stand for Imperialism in Shakespeare’s mind" (Vol. I 330). It is quite certain that Shakespeare recognised a powerful figure in Caesar, and explored his potential as much as possible.
Shakespeare’s major inspirational source for Julius Caesar was Plutarch; MacCallum is convinced that "in Plutarch he found practically all the stuff and substance for his play, except what was contributed by his own genius; and any other ingredients are nearly imperceptible and altogether negligible" (180). Even Goddard acknowledges this statement but also he adds: "what of it? He had no need of Plutarch to teach him what a ‘strong’ man becomes in his last days or at death" (Vol. I 309). Therefore, one can suppose that Shakespeare used Plutarch as his main source for the actual story but used his wit and ideas to make the characters as realistic as possible.
Importantly, J. A. Bryant, Jr. asserts in his article ""Julius Caesar" from a Euripidean Perspective" that "[Julius Caesar is] a continuation of Greek drama in its own right – in particular, of the drama and vision of Euripides" (98). He claims that the reason for labelling Euripides as the most influential source is the fact that
Shakespeare and his contemporaries shared the universal admiration of the sixteenth century for at least two plays by Euripides, Hecuba and Phoenissae, and [...] Englishmen probably knew also Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, which Erasmus had translated (98).
Even though it was said that it was quite unlikely that Shakespeare would have read Greek drama in Latin translation, he probably had general awareness of the dramas’ existence, and through Plutarch he drew inspiration from them:
[The scene depicting] the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius [...] is based primarily on Plutarch, but may owe something to the confrontation between Agamemnon and Menelaus near the start of the Iphigenia in Aulis [...]: in both cases a bitter quarrel is unexpectedly followed by an undertaking of renewed friendship (Gillespie 163).
It seems that there might be an actual link between Euripides’ and Shakespeare’s plays, since the similarity of the quarrel scenes is striking:
MENELAUS. How will you show you are my own father’s son?
AGAMEMNON. I will share your virtues, but not your vices.
MENELAUS. You should share my misfortunes, like a friend.
AGAMEMNON. Do good if you will admonish me, but not when you are causing me pain.
MENELAUS. Are you not ready to endure this labor with Hellas?
AGAMEMNON. Hellas, like you, is afflicted by some god.
MENELAUS. Glory in your scepter! Betray your brother! I shall have recourse to other plans, to other friends ---------
MENELAUS. Brother, give me your right hand to touch.
AGAMEMNON. I give it. Yours is the victory, and mine the sorrow.
MENELAUS. By Pelops I swear, called father to your father and mine, and by Atreus that begot us, that I shall say to you plainly what is in my heart, no special pleading, but my whole mind. (Hadas and Euripides 369)
CASSIUS. I denied you not.
BRUTUS. You did.
CASSIUS. I did not: he was but a fool that brought
My answer back. Brutus hath rived my heart:
A friend should bear his friend's infirmities,
But Brutus makes mine greater than they are.
BRUTUS. I do not, till you practise them on me.
CASSIUS. You love me not.
BRUTUS. I do not like your faults.
CASSIUS. A friendly eye could never see such faults.
BRUTUS. A flatterer's would not, though they do appear
As huge as high Olympus.
BRUTUS. When I spoke that, I was ill-temper'd too.
CASSIUS. Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
BRUTUS. And my heart too. (Julius Caesar Act IV Scene III)
In the view of Martindale, the similarity between the two scenes was first recognised in the seventeenth century (Martindale and Martindale 43).Therefore, Iphigenia in Aulis seems to be the major Euripidean source for Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With Plutarch being the source of the story, Euripides’ role lies in supplying personality patterns and characteristics.
Although the title figure is Julius Caesar himself, he is not given much space and is murdered very early in the play. The actual main character is Brutus; it is him who is actively leading all the action but he is also a man "who undertakes a role for which nature never intended him" (Goddard Vol. I 308). He is too virtuous and too much of an intellectual to be able to lead a revolution and shed blood without any second thoughts. However, Brutus is too well aware of his own virtue, and "there lies the tragedy" (Goddard Vol. I 311). His own pride is so immense that he cannot see his own flaws and weaknesses, and that the change he is undergoing is not for the better. Brutus is so sure of his "moral infallibility", that he becomes like Caesar (Goddard Vol. I 324). He says a metaphorical goodbye to his wisdom and innocence when he sends away Portia, his wife, and Lucius, a servant boy, and embraces the Conspiracy.
After the assassination of Caesar, one discovers that "the pride of Brutus is the ghost of Caesar within him as certainly as if at the moment Caesar expired it had literally transmigrated from the dead man to the living one. And so this Tragedy of Brutus is the story of Julius Caesar’s spirit after death. The title of the play is precisely the right one" (Goddard Vol. I 312). However, it is "the situation in Julius Caesar, where the expected heroic figure of tragedy has been diminished by a collection of opposed antagonists" (Bryant 100) that also finds its origin in Euripides’ works, which feature multiple characters, representing the two opposing sides of the society, fighting against each other. It is exactly this "fragmentation of the traditional hero’s role" (Bryant 99) that makes Julius Caesar a Euripidean play. Thus, the figure of Caesar underlies the whole play and is as influential after death as it had been before. According to Bryant, it is its presence that also contributes to the drama’s Euripidean nature: what is crucial, is the figure’s post-mortem impact on the development of the play.
The philosophical idea in the centre of the play is the characters’ Stoicism. Brutus appears to be the major Stoic and rationalistic figure in the play. He is true to his principles and rejects any idea of divine powers influencing human affairs (Bryant 108). However, as opposed to the generally acknowledged idea that men are firm and strong, and women are "melting spirits", "the constancy to which Portia lays claim through self-wounding can be traced to Stoic philosophy" (Kahn in McEachern 214). It is thus Portia who through her suicide proved to be the greatest Stoic of all: the principles upon which she built her life were of paramount importance to her, and she could not bear to abandon them.
In conclusion, one may observe that Brutus’ original aim was to restore the Roman Republic. However, he only succeeds in
precipitating a civil war that ushers in the Roman Empire; and both in his misdirected motive and in the bloody consequence of it his performance suggests [the fate] of the well-meaning, reasonable Euripidean protagonist who brings about classical tragedy’s debacle without achieving the compensatory epiphany that should accompany it (Bryant 99).
Bryant remarks that just as in the Euripidean world, in Shakespeare’s Rome good characters can never be the triuphant ones. Therefore, no matter how strong their sincerity and beliefs are, they can never prevail. They die alongside their ideals.
The second part of this chapter will comment on the tragedy of Hamlet. It will focus primarily on the atmosphere and images in the play, its similarity to Greek tragedy and the sources the author drew from, and it will analyse the character of Hamlet in connection to his Greek counterpart.
The play of Hamlet, similarly to Julius Caesar, comes from Shakespeare’s middle period. It is certainly one of his most famous dramas. Unlike in the case of the previous tragedy, the title character is present throughout the play, and one may observe his gradual change from a crown prince to a (pretended) madman and finally a murderer.
The overall atmosphere of the play is very gloomy and grim; according to Catherine Spurgeon the imagery evokes only sicknesses and diseases. Moreover, the general feeling of uneasiness is also supported by "cryptic allusions to the Protestant Reformation" and "the questioning spirit of early Protestantism" (Diehl in McEachern 92), and the play "explores the psychological pressures early Protestantism exerted on the individual" (Diehl in McEachern 93). Therefore, Shakespeare’s original audience, themselves being a part of a religious conflict, could identify with the ideas featured in the play.
Even though it is possible to find such references to the contemporary situation in Hamlet, Louise Schleiner describes it in her article "Latinized Greek Drama in Shakespeare’s Writing of Hamlet" as a "full-fledged tragedy in the Greek spirit" (45), especially in the case of the play’s story and formal structure. Gillespie’s opinion is that the original idea for the play came from Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Orestes; however, in this instance it did not get to Shakespeare through a reworking by a Roman author. Since the Latin translations of Greek tragedies existed, Louise Schleiner proposes "the possible mediated influence of Aeschylus' Oresteia and Euripides' Orestes on Hamlet, probably through such Latin translations and through a pair of English plays of 1599 entitled Agamemnon and Orestes' Furies," based on a reading of Euripides’ original (Schleiner 29). Therefore, it is quite possible that Shakespeare was inspired by a play he saw performed in a theatre. Moreover, as he was a friend and a fellow playwright of Ben Jonson, Schleiner presumes that he might have read some of the Latin versions of a number of Greek plays which Jonson owned. Even though the assumption is such that he did not, Shakespeare still may have come into contact with them: the four books which Jonson certainly owned were Estienne’s anthology of Latin translations of selected plays by the Greek tragedians, Rovière’s set of Greek-Latin translations, the 1555 edition of Latin Aeschylus and a two-volume 1581 Latin Euripides (Schleiner 31 – 32). Therefore, it is not quite out of the question that Shakespeare might have been acquainted with these texts and plays, and thus could have based his play on them and on his friends’ works, which would justify the presence of Euripidean features in the play.
Although many scholars, following the example of Freud, have argued that Hamlet shares the same "patterns of psychic quality" with Sophocles’ Oedipus, and thus "cannot kill Claudius because he identifies with him too much" (Watson in McEachern 172), Schleiner asserts that the character of Hamlet is much closer to that of Orestes because "Hamlet is at no risk of marrying or having sex with his mother. He is at considerable risk of killing her" (37). This only supports the presumption that Euripides’ text served as a source for Shakespeare’s drama.
Goddard sees Orestes as one of the most interesting literary figures to be compared to Hamlet: "Orestes murdered his mother, went mad, and was pursued by the Furies. Hamlet was visited by his Father, played with murderous thoughts, and commited irresponsible acts" (Vol. I 384). The similarity of the two characters is apparent. The most obvious link between Orestes and Hamlet is the topic of revenge: they both seek to avenge their fathers. However, while Orestes is supported by his friend Pylades in killing his mother, Hamlet does not do so only thanks to his ‘soul mate’s’ Horatio’s warning:
ORESTES. Yes. Pylades was there - he acted with me in shedding blood, my mother’s murder. (Johnston and Euripides 23)
HORATIO. If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will
forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit. (Hamlet Act V Scene II)
Even the closet scene, where Hamlet prepares for the murder of his mother, resembles a scene from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which Orestes kills both his mother and her lover. However, Hamlet never goes that far: "the revisionist idea for an Orestean yet after all non-matricidal avenger son came from the following passage of Euripides' Orestes, spoken by the hero in a lucid interval between fits of mouth-foaming madness and torment by the furies:
I think now if I had asked my dead father at the time [i.e., at the grave] if I should kill her, he would have begged me, gone down on his knees before me, and pleaded, implored me not to take my mother's life. (Orestes, 11. 287-91)" (Schleiner 37).
Thus, Shakespeare might have considered using the original Orestes but in the end found this hypothetical one more interesting and suitable for the exploration of the mind and soul of a murderer who was not meant to become one. Thus, Hamlet is reluctant even to commit the ‘justified’ murder of his uncle, since
[his] tortured revenge on the murderous king is not (like the Aeschylan Oresetes’ revenge on his murderous mother) a cog in a cosmic wheel of Justice, to which the whole drama [...] is devoted. In Shakespeare’s play, as Hegel puts it, ‘the real issue is the subjective character of Hamlet, whose noble soul is not made for this kind of energetic action’" (Silk in Martindale and Taylor 244).
Hamlet thus seems to behave and think much more carefully than his Greek counterpart, and the outcome of this thorough contemplation is his well-known delays in action; according to Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Dionysiac Greek, this is the reason why Hamlet resembles a Dionysiac man: "both have looked deeply into the true nature of things, they have understood and are now loath to act. They realize that no action of theirs can work any change in the eternal condition of things" (Nietzsche in Lerner 280). Therefore, Hamlet, seeing the corruption in the world around him, feels that any deed of his would make no change to it:
Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. (Hamlet in Hamlet Act IV Scene IV)
This again echoes the Euripidean idea claiming that a good person cannot successfully fight against the atrocities of the world. However, he still feels the obligation to fulfil his father’s ghost’s wish and carry out the revenge.
Overall, "the general parallel between Orestes and Hamlet as legendary heroes is that they are initiates of death, moral judges and punishers of their mothers, and avengers of their fathers" (Schleiner 37). Thus, it is reasonable to say that Hamlet is the new Orestes, and the play a revised Greek tragedy: the link between them is apparent, and similarities too strong to ignore.
The last part of this chapter will discuss Troilus and Cressida: the play’s general features, imagery and sources, it will analyse the play’s connection to Euripides as seen in the nature of some of the characters, as well as the realism and modernity of the play.
The very beginning of the play is set in medias res; the characters find themselves in the middle of the Trojan war. Albert Gérard in his article "Meaning and Structure in Troilus and Cressida" suggests that the play is actually a diptych; his idea is supported by Terry Hodgson in his Guide to Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida: the play has a double plot, focusing not only on the story of Troilus and Cressida’s relationship but also on the war itself, its events and heroes. Thus, Shakespeare manages to introduce a number of various issues, and these are related to one or, quite often, both of the topics. Therefore, the war brought upon Troy in Troilus and Cressida represents not only the historical conflict itself but several other important features of the play. As Gérard observes, the development of the Trojan war follows the very same stages as the development of Troilus and Cressida’s love:
The love theme is organized around Troilus and Cressida, and is directed towards the revelation of the bestiality of passion. The war theme is likewise organized around Achilles and Hector and is directed towards the revelation of the bestiality of war (Gérard 11).
As one can see, there is a significant link made between the four important figures and the roles they take on during the play’s development. Furthermore, as Hodgson suggests, "the civil war reflects splits inside the character’s minds" (59), i.e. the war is a result of the indecisiveness or fluctuation of the characters’ opinions and feelings, and it also carries such "crossing of battle lines" (Hodgson 59) with it, be it changing sides or unfaithfulness.
The play of Troilus and Cressida is very rich in imagery. Catherine Spurgeon points out images of food as the most apparent ones, followed by disillusion (as the unfortunate outcome of idealistic love). Her opinion is made even more specific by a point introduced by Hodgson: "sexuality and eating are constantly connected. Cressida is always in Troilus’s mind when he sits at table" (21). Therefore, many references to Cressida made by Troilus also carry references to food and eating. On the contrary, one may also frequently encounter images of sickness and diseases; as Hodgson says, usually introduced by the character of Thersites (a servant of Ajax, later of Achilles), a figure with a function similar to that of a fool, a character which appears in a number of other Shakespeare’s plays. Furthermore, according to Hodgson, Thersites also introduces animal references and imagery to the play. However, the most important feature of the language of the play is mercantile images, as suggested by Gérard. This is used primarily when speaking about Cressida or Helen, the two women seen as trophies throughout the play; as ‘pearls’ of ‘supreme value’ (Gérard 3) which have to be either bought or won.
Interestingly, as Gérard mentions, mercantile images are only used by the Trojans, not by the Greeks. This is because Greek soldiers cannot see any value in what they are doing; they are only fighting for the sake of war. Gérard claims that such a depiction is a result of Shakespeare’s disrespect (even hostility, in the words of Charles Martindale) for the Greeks, while the Trojans are depicted as the moral heroes of the play, following the convention of medieval and Tudor historians who drew links between the Trojans and the English. Moreover, Margaret Arnold comments on the Greeks as depicted in Troilus and Cressida in her article ""Monsters in Love’s Train": Euripides and Shakespeare’s "Troilus and Cressida"" as anti-heroic, similarly as characters of Euripides’ plays. Thus, here one may once again encounter Euripidean personality patterns.
Terry Hodgson makes a list of works which served as sources for the play: even though the topic of the Ten Year War is ancient, and was also the major theme of The Iliad, the story of Troilus and Cressida itself is medieval and comes from Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Latin translation of this book inspired Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato which, in turn, served as a source for Chaucer’s Troylus and Criseyde. The work was then rewritten by a number of writers in the fifteenth century. Shakespeare mostly used Chaucer’s text, although he borrowed several features from some of the younger writers. However, as Martindale (in Martindale and Martindale) remarks, there are numerous Homeric traces throughout the play; the obvious one being the war, followed by the characters’ rhetoric and the stress on value and fame; even the figures possess Homeric characteristics, and they are at least "recognizable descendants of their Homeric prototypes" (Martindale and Martindale 93). A.D. Nutall (in Martindale and Taylor) adds that Troilus and Cressida "brilliantly entwines Chaucerian chivalric codes with a desolate Greek brutalism" (215). Therefore, one may suppose that Shakespeare was trying to sythesise sources in order to create a world which is rich and vivid in its features.
Stuart Gillespie describes Troilus and Cressida as a Euripidean play without a traceable Euripidean influence. Arnold asserts that this is possible thanks to the fact that Euripides was well-known in Shakespeare’s time and "many translations and commentaries contemporary with Shakespeare illustrate the terms in which Euripidean drama was taught and discussed" (Arnold 38). Therefore, even though Shakespeare did not base Troilus and Cressida on a particular play written by Euripides, he probably used the style and patterns of his dramas as an inspiration for the play.
Euripidean features are present throughout the play. Margaret Arnold points out the illustration of "the effects of suffering on the central characters" (38) as the possible means of exploring the character’s psychology. Even the characters themselves are of Euripidean nature: Achilles, who is supposed to be brave and daring is only preoccupied with his own fame and "his own wounded pride" (Arnold 40), precisely as in Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis:
Fortune and I are friends: I do enjoy
At ample point all that I did possess,
Save these men's looks; who do, methinks, find out
Something not worth in me such rich beholding
As they have often given. (Achilles in Troilus Act III Scene III)
Neither Helen is the mythical impersonation of beauty: in Troilus and Cressida she is very Euripidean: much more human and much less perfect. Charles Martindale describes her as "a vamp, [and] a shallow coquette" (Martindale and Martindale 103). She does not quite represent an ideal worth fighting the Ten Year War for. Most importantly, even Troilus and Cressida themselves are Euripidean characters: they are young and full of ideals and, like other Euripidean characters, they must either die for them, or succumb to circumstances and live as broken people. "Although Cressida is less experienced than such Euripidean women as Medea, Phaedra, and Hecuba, she is like them in her divided self and in her evolution through a series of dramatic encounters into the identity by which later ages remember her" (Arnold 44). The development of her character, and the objectivity of Shakespeare’s depiction of Cressida place her next to the Euripidean heroines, whose characters were, contrary to the popular idea about their personalities, depicted in full and without any hints of accusation for what they committed.