In Keats’s 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' we are invited to view the urn from conflicting perspectives. From one angle it seems sterile and artificial, a 'cold pastoral' (45) depicting 'marble men and maidens overwrought' (42), but it can also be seen as a site of primitivism and passion, of 'wild ecstasy' (10). The narrator seems as unsure of his own feelings about the urn as he is about its nature, being in turn repulsed and frustrated by its chilly reticence - ’thou silent form, dost tease us out of thought' (44) - and attracted to its ancient beauty. The ambiguities inhere even within individual words and phrases. Are the 'overwrought' maidens panic-stricken (and thus real) or merely engraved? And do the famous last lines offer an answer to the poem’s problems or are they, as T. S. Eliot thought, 'meaningless'?
The Ode’s uncertainties mirror similar tensions and shifts, though on a larger scale, in the post-Renaissance reception of Greek myth more generally. It is possible to identify times when Greek myth has been a potent literary influence and others when it has been largely ignored by most major writers. But to characterise this period in terms of a stark debate between classicism and anticlassicism would not be accurate. Equally important have been the debates between classicists, between different versions or constructions of Greek myth. Many of the most interesting responses to Greek myth register its polyvalency and display a corresponding ambivalence towards their sources, a combination of reverence and antagonism. It has been thought to signal sterility or fertile invention, tradition-bound conformity or rebellious subversion.
The principal task of the prequel is to return to the imagined origins of a well-known text’s events and characters. This curious exercise – an excavation of a text’s hypothetical history – might be compared with a Freudian case study: the present can only fully be understood with reference to a reconstituted past. The successful prequel, I would argue, is an essentially subversive form. A sequel can interest and surprise us without making us view the original in a different way, simply by introducing further characters and incidents, or by moving on to the next generation. A successful sequel can be an imitation or pastiche of the original, such as the sequels that have been written to many popular mainstream novels. But in a prequel, where the end of the story is already known, this freedom simply to expand is lacking, and some kind of disjuncture between the original and the new text is probably required. A prequel’s readers don’t want simply to be told what they know already; rather they want to be offered a new way into the old text. This desire in the reader for a twist or surprise is fully satisfied by Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres (though, strictly speaking, this is an imaginative updating of King Lear with prequel elements rather than a pure prequel – much of the action corresponds to that of Shakespeare’s play itself). The key to this family’s dysfunctional dynamic lies in its incestuous secrets – Larry Cook abused his two elder daughters after his wife’s death, though not his youngest, Caroline. Although Smiley does not set out to prove in any crude way that King Lear itself is a play about incest, neither does she want us to see her interpretation as wild, anachronistic speculation. In an interview published by The Atlantic Online in 1998 she explains:
I’m not saying that Shakespeare ever thought of Lear as an incest perpetrator. I am saying that some people think there’s a kind of coded reference to incest in this group of folkloric stories, and that therefore you could plausibly attribute the older sisters’ deep, deep anger to abuse that they had undergone.
Today's readers of The Two Noble Kinsmen will already have most of Shakespeare's more celebrated oeuvre under their belt, and thus may experience a sense of déjà vu when they turn to this late work, written in collaboration with Fletcher. We are introduced to the Athenian Duke Theseus, who has just won Hippolyta as his bride, and watch him try to arbitrate in the quarrels of two young noblemen who are both in love with the same girl. Of course these features are already present in Chaucer and Boccaccio; but the unnamed ‘second countryman’ cannot be traced back to any such obvious source. He and his companions, who are planning a May Day dance to entertain the court, have few classical credentials:
All the boys in Athens
Blow wind i'th breech on's. And here I'll be,
And there I'll be for our town and here again,
And there again. Ha, boys, heigh for the weavers!
This over-enthusiastic weaver irresistibly recalls Bottom; it is as though, following A Midsummer Night's Dream, he and his comrades are now immutably part of the Athenian landscape, always rehearsing to please the Duke. Within the complex historical and geographical matrix of educated reading practice there is a corner of a classical Athenian wood which will be forever Elizabethan England. The mechanicals' memorable performance also haunts this play.
Fresh as a rose in spring. And laid out in my coffin. He had built it himself, my husband. Yes, he did. Always had a gift for shaping things. Couldn't have been a more stylish coffin in the country. Handle bars in silver, and the lining of silk from end to end. He'd prepare my body himself; white veil and the lace nightgown in black. Wouldn't have any other shade but black. Transparent, so that I showed all through. God, how frightened I would be sometimes. The way he watched over me; watched over his corpse. After he had made me ready for burial, he would wait by his coffin, and watch over me. The only pleasure he would have of me.
The Tempest has exerted a consistently strong influence on readers and audiences. Plays once well known and admired, such as King John and Henry VIII, are now seldom performed, whereas others, such as Titus Andronicus, were little appreciated until the twentieth century. But The Tempest's high status within the corpus has never seriously been questioned, and this prominence is reflected in the large body of creative works - novels, poems, plays and films - where its influence is strongly felt. If we trace the play's creative afterlife it soon becomes clear that critics' recent preoccupation with issues of race, sexuality and gender have long been anticipated. In particular the play's two absent mothers - Sycorax and Prospero's wife - can be identified as surprisingly potent presences, not simply in recent novels such as Marina Warner's Indigo and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, but in two of the very first creative responses to the play, Jonson's The New Inn and Fletcher's The Sea Voyage.
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