Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shakespeare and the Greeks

It is very interesting for me teaching an online course on classical Greek drama as well as, concurrently, doing an on-site course on Shakespeare--one sees the similarities and differences so vividly. Shakespeare did not know the Greeks--only as refracted through the ROman tradition as in Seneca--but he was their indirect legatee. In Shakespeare, since it is in our language, one concentrates so much on language, whereas one cannot with the Greeks. Certain nineteenth-century thinkers would not see this as a loss; Thomas Carlyle, for instance, thought only the ideas, not the language, mattered with respect to Greek drama, and German critics like Gervinus and Gundolf said the same of Shakespeare.

Another difference is that Shakespeare plays are so much longer, have, in many cases, subplots or counterplots, and have a five-act structure with multiple actors being on stage at the same time. In addition, there is no plural chorus in Shakespeare plays, although in rare cases, such as the role of Gower in Pericles. Prince of Tyre, a commentator acts as a kind of sole chorus, which is the case with the Choruses in e. g. Henry V or Romeo and Juliet,  or one can see the witches in Macbeth as a kind of anti-chorus. The many songs in Shakespeare plays  of course supply a choral element.

Shakespeare also writes both tragedy and comedy, whereas in Greece you were either a comedian or a tragedian. "Aristophanes here is our ha-ha man, whereas Sophocles here is the marry your mother, murder your father and blind yourself man." Shakespeare also develops a third genre, the history play, which was sampled in ancient times (Aeschylus' The Persians, the unpreserved works of Phyrnichus, the praetexta called Octavia and probably falsely, ascribed to Seneca) but seldom sustained both because of Aristotle's proscription of history as a subject for being insufficiently universal and because talking about history at all was bound to be politically subversive. Shakespeare in general gropes for tragicomic genres (not just the history play but the problem play, the romance) which bespeak his independence from the Greeks' generic norms.

That said, the similarities outweigh the differences, the theory of drama (no doubt mediated through the medieval Christian mass) is similar, and details of implementation, like women's roles being played by men, as well as undeniable physical limitations (having to perform their plays publicly in full daylight etc) are held in common. They are different parts of the same story, so far away from each other. Yet it is a kind of bogus universalism to stress only the similarities and not to consider the differences.


S.Y.R. Kim said...

What exactly is the difference between the duplicity and perplexity of human nature irrespective of genre in Greek and Shakepearean drama?
Is it merely, form, genre or how we understand the dramaturgical historigraphical tradtions that have been passed from the Greeks to Shakespeare in the myriad of his plays and styles. It is like splitting a deck of cards, I guess.

Nicholas Birns said...

I do not believe it is only genre, some critics make genre into a transcendental category, there must be some affective or substantive content but to discern that is, as Shakespeare would say, "the rub."