Skip to main content Accessibility help

What’s Hecuba to Shakespeare?*

  • Tanya Pollard (a1)

When Hamlet reflects on the charged power of the tragic theater, the figure who haunts his imagination is Hecuba, Queen of Troy, whose tragedy came to define the genre in sixteenth-century Europe. As a bereaved mourner who seeks revenge, Hecuba offers a female version of Hamlet. Yet even while underscoring her tragic power, Shakespeare simultaneously establishes a new model of tragic protagonist, challenging the period’s longstanding identification of tragedy with women. In exploring why both Hamlet and Shakespeare are preoccupied with Hecuba, this article argues that ignoring the impact of Greek plays in sixteenth-century England has left a gap in our understanding of early modern tragedy. Attending to Hecuba highlights Shakespeare’s innovations to a genre conventionally centered on female grief. In invoking Hecuba as an icon of tragedy, Shakespeare both reflects on and transforms women’s place in the genre.

Hide All

For comments on earlier versions of this essay, I am grateful to Bianca Calabresi, Katharine Craik, Julie Crawford, Natasha Korda, Lucy Munro, Nancy Selleck, William Stenhouse, and Oliver Taplin. I am grateful to Melina Moore for help with editing and formatting. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

Hide All
Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers. New York, 1992.
Alexiou, Margaret. The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition. Cambridge, 1974.
APGRD Database, University of Oxford, 29 March 2011).
Ascham, Roger. The Scholemaster. London, 1571.
Bacon, Francis. “Of Revenge.” In The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon, ed., Robertson, John M., 740. New York, 1970.
Baldwin, T. W. William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke. 2 vols. Urbana, 1944.
Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford, 1982.
Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and Ovid. Oxford, 1993.
Billing, Christian M. “Lament and Revenge in the Hekabe of Euripides.” New Theatre Quarterly 23.1 ( 2007 ): 4957.
Blundell, M. Whitlock. Helping Friends and Harming Enemies. Cambridge, 1989.
Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries. Cambridge, 1954.
Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition. New Haven, 1985.
Brown, Pamela Allen. “The Counterfeit Innamorata, or, The Diva Vanishes.” Shakespeare Yearbook 10 ( 1999 ): 402 – 26.
Burnett, Anne Pippin. Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy. Berkeley, 1998.
Bushnell, Rebecca. Tragedy and Tyrants. Ithaca, 1990.
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Ed. Norton, Glyn. 9 vols. Cambridge, 19892001.
Castelvetro. On the Poetics. Trans. Allen Gilbert. In Literary Criticism ( 1940 ), 305 – 57.
Castelvetro. Castelvetro on the Art of Poetry. Ed. and trans. Bongiorno, Andrew. Binghamton, 1984.
Child, Harold. “Introduction.” In Iphigenia in Aulis ( 1909 ), v–vii.
Cinthio, Giraldi. On the Composition of Comedies and Tragedies. Trans. Allen Gilbert. In Literary Criticism ( 1940 ), 252 – 62.
Cooper, Lane. The Poetics of Aristotle. Ithaca, 1923.
Crane, Frank D. “Euripides, Erasmus, and Lady Lumley.” The Classical Journal 39.4 ( 1944 ): 223 – 28.
Crane, Mary Thomas. “Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49.3 ( 1998 ): 269 – 92.
Cronk, Nicholas. “Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus: The Conception of Reader Response.” In The Cambridge History ( 1999 ), 3 : 199204.
Cunliffe, John W. “The Influence of the Italian on Early Elizabethan Drama.” Modern Philology 4 ( 1907a ): 597604.
Cunliffe, John W. “Italian Prototypes of the Masque and Dumb Show.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 22 ( 1907b ): 140 – 56.
Demers, Patricia. “On First Looking into Lumley’s Euripides.” Renaissance and Reformation 23.1 ( 1999 ): 2542.
Demetriou, Tania. “‘Essentially Circe’: Spenser, Homer, and the Homeric Tradition.” Translation and Literature 15.2 ( 2006 ): 151 – 76.
Dewar-Watson, Sarah. “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Odysseys: Homer as a Tragicomic Model in Pericles and The Tempest.” Classical and Modern Literature 25.1 ( 2005 ): 2340.
Dewar-Watson, Sarah. “The Alcestis and the Statue Scene in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 60.1 ( 2009 ): 7380.
Dewar-Watson, Sarah Jocasta: ‘A Tragedie Written in Greek.’” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 17.1 ( 2010 ): 2232.
Dolce, Lodovico. Giocasta. Venice, 1549.
Dunn, Leslie C. “Ophelia’s Songs in Hamlet: Music, Madness, and the Feminine.” In Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, ed., Dunn, Leslie C. and, Jones, Nancy A., 5064. Cambridge, 1994.
Early English Classical Tragedies. Ed. Cunliffe, John W.. Oxford, 1912.
Enterline, Lynn. The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare. Cambridge, 2000.
Erne, Lukas. Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd. Manchester, 2001.
Euripides. Iphigenia Aulidensis . In Euripidis Fabulae ( 1984–94 ), 3 : 357421.
Euripides. Hecuba . In Euripidis Fabulae ( 1984–94 ), 1 : 333 – 98.
Euripides. Medea . In Euripidis Fabulae ( 1984–94 ), 1 : 85155.
Euripides. Phoenissae . In Euripidis Fabulae ( 1984–94 ), 3 : 71179.
Euripidis Fabulae . Ed. Diggle, James. 3 vols. Oxford, 1984 – 94.
Euripidis … Tragoediae XVIII. Basel, 1541.
Εύριπδου ΤραΥωδίαι … Evripidis tragoediae dvae, Hercuba & Iphigenia in Aulide. Trans. Desiderius Erasmus. Basel, 1524.
Farley-Hills, David. Shakespeare and the Rival Playwrights 16001606. London, 1990.
The Female Tragic Hero in Renaissance Drama. Ed. Naomi Conn Liebler. New York, 2002.
Fienberg, Nona. “Jephthah’s Daughter: The Part Ophelia Plays.” In Old Testament Women in Western Literature, ed., Frontain, Raymond-Jean and, Wojcik, Jon, 128 – 43. Conway, 1991.
Foakes, R. A. “Tragedy at the Children’s Theatres after 1600: A Challenge to the Adult Stage.” In The Elizabethan Theatre II, ed., Galloway, David, 3759. Toronto, 1970.
Foakes, R. A, ed. Henslowe’s Diary. 2nd ed. Cambridge, 2002.
Foley, Helene P. Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Princeton, 2001.
Fox-Good, Jacquelyn. “Ophelia’s Mad Songs: Music, Gender, Power.” In Subjects on the World’s Stage: Essays on British Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed., Allen, David C. and, White, Robert A., 217 – 38. Newark, 1995.
Freeman, James. “Hamlet, Hecuba, and Plutarch.” Shakespeare Studies 7 ( 1974 ): 197202.
Garland, Robert. Surviving Tragedy. London, 2004.
Gascoigne, George, and, Francis, Kinwelmersh. Jocasta . In Early English Classical Tragedies ( 1912 ), 67159.
Gaunt, D. M. “Hamlet and Hecuba.” Notes and Queries 16.4 ( 1969 ): 136 – 37.
Goldhill, Simon. Reading Greek Tragedy. Cambridge, 1986.
Gomme, A. W. “The Position of Women in Classical Athens.” Classical Philology 20.1 ( 1925 ): 125.
Goodland, Katharine. Female Mourning in Medieval and Renaissance English Drama. Aldershot, 2006.
Gosson, Stephen. “Plays Confuted in Five Actions.” In Shakespeare’s Theater ( 2004 ), 84114.
Gould, John. “Tragedy and Collective Experience.” In Tragedy and the Tragic ( 1996 ), 217 – 43.
Gourlay, Patricia. “Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play: A Note on Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2.” Renaissance Quarterly 24.2 ( 1971 ): 221 – 25.
Grabes, Herbert. The Mutable Glass. Trans. Gordon Collier. Cambridge, 1982.
Greenberg, Marissa. “Women and the Theater in Thomas Heywood’s London.” In The Idea of the City: Early-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern Locations and Communities, ed., Fitzpatrick, Joan, 7989. Newcastle, 2009.
Gross, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Noise. Chicago, 2001.
Heath, Malcolm. “‘Jure principem locum tenet’: Euripides’ Hecuba.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 34 ( 1987 ): 4068.
Herrick, Marvin T. Tragicomedy: Its Origin and Development in Italy, France, and England. Urbana, 1955.
Heywood, Jasper. Troas. London, 1559.
Heywood, Thomas. Apology for Actors . In Shakespeare’s Theater ( 2004 ), 213 – 54.
Hillman, David. Shakespeare’s Entrails. Basingstoke, 2007.
Hirsch, Rudolf. “The Printing Tradition of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes.” Gutenberg Jahrbuch ( 1964 ): 138 – 46.
Holst-Warhaft, Gail. Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature. London, 1992.
Homer, . The Iliad. Ed., Murray, A. T.. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1924.
Howard, Tony. Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction. Cambridge, 2007.
James, Heather. Shakespeare’s Troy. Cambridge, 1997.
James, Heather. “Dido’s Ear: Tragedy and the Politics of Response.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52.3 ( 2001 ): 360 – 82.
Jayne, Sears, and, Francis, R. Johnson, eds. The Lumley Library: The Catalogue of 1609. London, 1956.
Jervis, Swynfen. A Dictionary of the Language of Shakespeare. London, 1868.
Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford, 1977.
Kietzman, Mary Jo. “‘What Is Hecuba to Him or [S]he to Hecuba?’ Lucrece’s Complaint and Shakespearean Poetic Agency.” Modern Philology 97.1 ( 1999 ): 2145.
Letzler Cole, Susan. The Absent One: Mourning, Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence. University Park, 1985.
Levin, Richard. “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido and Shakespeare’s Unreliable Narrators.” Studies in English Literature 48. 2 ( 2008 ): 305 – 26.
Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Ed. Gilbert, Allan H.. New York, 1940.
Longo, Odonne. “The Theater of Polis.” In Nothing to Do with Dionysus? ( 1990 ), 1219.
Loraux, Nicole. Mothers in Mourning. Trans. Corinne Pache. Ithaca, 1998.
Lucas, F. L. Euripides and His Influence. New York, 1963.
Lumley, Jane. Iphigenia in Aulis. Ed., Child, Harold. Malone Society Reprints, 1909.
Maguire, Laurie. Shakespeare’s Names. Oxford, 2007.
Martindale, Charles. “Thinking Through Reception.” In Classics and the Uses of Reception, ed., Martindale, Charles and, Thomas, Richard F., 113. Oxford, 2006.
Mastronarde, Donald J. The Art of Euripides: Dramatic Technique and Social Context. Cambridge, 2010.
Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “A Womb of His Own: Male Renaissance Poets in the Female Body.” In Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed., Grantham Turner, James, 266 – 88. Cambridge, 1993.
McDonald, Charles Osborne. The Rhetoric of Tragedy. Amherst, 1966.
Mehl, Dieter. The Elizabethan Dumb Show. London, 1965.
Minturno, Antonio. L’Arte Poetica. Venice, 1564.
Miola, Robert S. “Aeneas and Hamlet.” Classical and Modern Literature 8 ( 1988 ): 281 – 86.
Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca. Oxford, 1992.
Miola, Robert S. “Euripides at Gray’s Inn: Gascoigne and Kinwelmersh’s Jocasta.” In The Female Tragic Hero ( 2002 ), 3350.
Mossman, Judith. Wild Justice: A Study of Euripides’ Hecuba. Oxford, 1995.
Mueller, Martin. Hamlet and the World of Ancient Tragedy.” Arion, 3rd ser., 5.1 ( 1997 ): 2245.
Mullaney, Steven. “Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600–1607.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45.2 ( 1994 ): 139 – 62.
Nicholson, Eric. “Ophelia Sings Like a Prima Donna Innamorata: Ophelia’s Mad Scene and the Italian Female Performer.” In Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theater, ed., Henke, Robert and, Nicholson, Eric, 8198. Aldershot, 2008.
Norland, Howard. Neoclassical Tragedy in Elizabethan England. Newark, 2009.
Norton, Thomas, and, Thomas, Sackville. Gorboduc . In Early English Classical Tragedies ( 1912 ), 364.
Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in its Social Context. Ed. Winkler, John J. and, Zeitlin, Froma. Princeton, 1990.
Orgel, Stephen. “Shakespeare and the Kinds of Drama.” Critical Inquiry 6.1 ( 1979 ): 107 – 23.
Padel, Ruth. “Making Space Speak.” In Nothing to Do with Dionysus? ( 1990 ), 336 – 65.
Plato, , Republic. Ed., Shorey, Paul. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1980.
Plutarch, . “De la fortune ou vertu d’Alexandre. ” In Les Oeuvres Morales & Meslees du Plutarque, trans. Jacques Amyot, 308r–318r. Paris, 1572.
Plutarch, . “On the fortune or virtue of Alexander.” In Moralia, ed., Babbitt, Frank, 4 : 382487. Cambridge, MA, 1936.
Pollard, Tanya. Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England. Oxford, 2005.
Pollard, Tanya. “Romancing the Greeks: Cymbeline’s Genres and Models.” In How To Do Things with Shakespeare, ed., Maguire, Laurie, 3453. Oxford, 2007.
Puttenham, George. The Art of English Poesy . In Shakespeare’s Theater ( 2004 ), 135 – 45.
Rackin, Phyllis. “Engendering the Tragic Audience: The Case of Richard III.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 26.1 ( 1993 ): 4765.
Rehm, Rush. “Performing the Chorus: Choral Action, Interaction and Absence in Euripides.” Arion, 3rd ser., 4.1 ( 1996 ): 4560.
Reiss, Timothy J. “Renaissance Theatre and the Theory of Tragedy.” In The Cambridge History ( 1999 ), 3 : 229 – 47.
Rose, Mary Beth. “Where Are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42.3 ( 1991 ): 291314.
Saladin, Jean Christophe. “Euripide Luthérien?” Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome 108.1 ( 1996 ): 155 – 70.
Scaliger, J. C. Select Translations from Scaliger’s Poetics . Ed. and trans. Frederick Morgan Padelford. New York, 1905.
Schleiner, Louise. “Latinized Greek Drama in Shakespeare’s Writing of Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41. 1 ( 1990 ): 2948.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed., Wells, Stanley and, Taylor, Gary. Oxford, 1986.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed., Greenblatt, Stephen,, Cohen, Walter,, Howard, Jean E., and, Eisaman Maus, Katharine. London, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark . Ed., Braunmuller, A. R.. The Pelican Shakespeare. New York, 2001.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed., Edwards, Philip. Cambridge, 2003.
Shakespeare’s Theater: A Sourcebook. Ed. Pollard, Tanya. Oxford, 2004.
Shuger, Debora. The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity. Berkeley, 1994.
Sidney, Philip. The Defense of Poesy . In Shakespeare’s Theater ( 2004 ), 146 – 65.
Silk, Michael. “Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy: Strange Relationship.’” In Shakespeare and the Classics, ed., Martindale, Charles and, Taylor, A. B., 239 – 58. Cambridge, 2004.
Smith, Bruce. Ancient Scripts and Modern Experience on the English Stage, 15001700. Princeton, 1988.
Smith, Rebecca. “A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude.” In The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed., Swift Lenz, Carolyn Ruth,, Greene, Gayle, and, Thomas Neely, Carol, 194210. Urbana, 1980.
Stiblinus, Gasparus. “In Hecabam Euripidis Praefatio.” In Evripides Poeta Tragicorum Princeps, 3839. Basel, 1562.
Straznicky, Marta. Privacy, Playreading, and Women’s Closet Drama, 1500s–1700. Cambridge, 2004.
Streufert, Paul D. “Christopherson at Cambridge: Greco-Catholic Ethics in the Protestant University.” In Early Modern Academic Drama, ed., Walker, Jonathan and, Streufert, Paul D., 4564. Ashgate, 2008.
Sypherd, Wilbur. Jephthah and his Daughter. Newark, 1948.
Taplin, Oliver. “Comedy and the Tragic.” In Tragedy and the Tragic ( 1996 ), 188202.
Tarrant, R. J. “Senecan Drama and its Antecedents.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 ( 1978 ): 213 – 63.
Thomson, J. A. K. Shakespeare and the Classics. London, 1952.
Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond. Ed. Silk, M. S.. Oxford, 1996.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre, and, Pierre, Vidal-Naquet. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York, 1990.
A Warning for Fair Women. Ed. Cannon, Charles. The Hague, 1975.
Waszink, Jan Hendrik. Erasmi opera omnia. 10 vols. Amsterdam, 1969.
Weil, Judith. “Visible Hecubas.” In The Female Tragic Hero ( 2002 ), 5169.
Westney, Lizette. “Hecuba in Sixteenth-Century English Literature.” College Language Association Journal 27.4 ( 1984 ): 436 – 39.
Wilson, Douglas B. “Euripides’ Alcestis and the Ending of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.” Iowa State Journal of Research 58 ( 1984 ): 345 – 55.
Winston, Jessica. “Seneca in Early Elizabethan England.” Renaissance Quarterly 59.1 ( 2006 ): 2958.
Wohl, Victoria. “Tragedy and Feminism.” In A Companion to Tragedy, ed., Bushnell, Rebecca, 145 – 60. Oxford, 2009.
Zeitlin, Froma. Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Chicago, 1996.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Renaissance Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0034-4338
  • EISSN: 1935-0236
  • URL: /core/journals/renaissance-quarterly
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed