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What’s Hecuba to Shakespeare?*

  • Tanya Pollard (a1)
Abstract

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.

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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.

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