In the first book of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, the heroine remembers her childhood. Orphaned in Italy and educated by her aunt in an English country house, she was given pious tracts to read, learned some algebra and embroidered a shepherdess who was
lovelorn with pink eyes
To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell
Which slew the tragic poet.
The hyper-pink shepherdess represents the dainty femininity wished on the child by her aunt. The hat, however, suggests to the adult Aurora, by now a poet with an interest in tragedy, the death of Aeschylus, who according to legend was killed when a circling eagle or vulture, mistaking his bald pate for a rock, dropped a tortoise on it from a great height in order to crack open its shell.
Perhaps the beginnings of this thought had struck the young Aurora when she was doing her embroidery: she had been taught ‘The trick of Greek/And Latin’ by her father before he died. The young Elizabeth Barrett, too, was surrounded by classical texts at her father’s house in Herefordshire. Into Aurora Leigh went the belief of both author and heroine that the most extreme events in Greek tragedy could resonate with modern life. The scene, for instance, in which Aurora’s cousin, suitor and later husband, Romney, waits in church to marry a lower-class woman, and her relatives turn on him like Furies when she fails to arrive, is full of echoes of Aeschylus’ Eumenides. Romney, a thwarted philanthropist, is associated with the Prometheus of Prometheus Bound, who brought fire and the arts to humanity and was chained to a rock in the Caucasus by Zeus for his trouble.
Elizabeth Barrett read widely in Aeschylus during her twenties; she translated Prometheus Bound twice before composing Aurora Leigh. Like Shelley she thought of Prometheus as a radical. But there was also an autobiographical impulse. Confined to her sickbed by a mysterious illness, she identified with his bondage. That much is clear from her 1832-33 translation. When she returned to the tragedy a decade later, her world had shrunk to the darkened upstairs room in 50 Wimpole Street from which she would elope with Robert Browning. Her letters to him allude to the ‘blind hopes’ for the future that Prometheus speaks of in Aeschylus. She hoped to escape her isolation, not just to marry, but to realise her creative potential. She did not want to be crushed by a falling tortoise – least of all a pink one – without first becoming the Aeschylus of her age.
Yopie Prins’s excellent new book takes its title from a passage in Aurora Leigh where Romney patronises the almost self-taught Aurora for writing ‘lady’s Greek,/Without the accents’. This is just the start of a complaint about women who want to be clever and poetical when they should be supporting men who are trying to improve the world: ‘Work man, work woman, since there’s work to do,/In this beleaguered earth, for head and heart.’ No prizes for guessing which sex should be the head and which the heart:
But work for ends, I mean for uses; not
For such sleek fringes (do you call them ends?
Still less God’s glory) as we sew ourselves
Upon the velvet of those baldaquins
Held ’twixt us and the sun.
Women’s poetry, for Romney, is just like sewing. Even when it gets published, it is judged ‘as mere woman’s work’. The problem is not just a misdirection of effort. Women are unable, he says, to ‘generalise’ from particular losses to ‘the world-full woe’. Only men can perceive and dismantle the structures that generate suffering.
Over the nine books of the poem, Aurora comes to recognise not just that she was right to reject Romney’s courtship but that his paternalistic values cannot make the world better. He can only contribute to the reduction of suffering if he is himself reformed. This generalisation from their painful encounter is borne out by events. Romney’s grand house, converted into a refuge for the poor, is set alight by an angry mob, who take it to be a prison, and he is ground down by overwork and retributively blinded like Milton’s Samson. These setbacks change his views (Aristotle would call this anagnorisis) and open him to the sense of hope brought in the closing lines by partnership with Aurora, who describes to him a vision of the New Jerusalem.
Prins shares Aurora’s ability to extrapolate from particular griefs to the condition of society. She shows how Elizabeth Barrett’s entrapment by illness informs her translations while at the same time representing the larger constraints on female creativity. She brings a perceptive combination of biographical insight and historical overview to a series of case studies, from Sara Coleridge’s translation in the 1840s of a chorus in the Agamemnon to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ and H.D.’s Hippolytus Temporises (1927). Assiduous in the archives, she writes well about the manuscripts she has found – describing layout, textual variants, working use – and reconstructs, to flourishing effect, productions of Greek tragedy put on in women’s colleges like Girton and Bryn Mawr.
Learning Greek could be an act of Promethean rebellion. Women seized the arcane knowledge that had been kept from them by a magisterial elite. Aeschylus’ play was paradigmatic because its protagonist, in his own words, ‘taught to mankind the composition of letters (grammata) which is the memory of all things’. As Prins explains, the tragedy employs ‘metaphors of reading and writing that make the theatre into a graphic space for mobilising the Greek alphabet’. For a Victorian woman to read her way into this space, however, required what Elizabeth Barrett described as a ‘tormenting’ and ‘agitating’ effort. The process ‘entangled’ you in ‘perplexities’ like Prometheus bound to the crag. And the whole enterprise was caught up in the paradox that women were acquiring knowledge identified with male authority. The more accurate their work, the more enchained it became – one reason Elizabeth Barrett grew to dislike her earlier translation, as ‘rather close to the letter … a Prometheus twice bound’.
Prins tracks these issues through the story of Io, a young woman metamorphosed into a heifer who bursts into Prometheus Bound pursued by a gadfly after resisting the advances of Zeus. Her inclusion as a foil to Prometheus was apparently Aeschylus’ invention. Prins notes that ‘the root of the verb “to go” is inscribed in the letters of her name.’ But Io is not just a wanderer. She is a #MeToo heroine, lusted after by the most powerful of patriarchs and determined to tell her story. To that extent she can stand for the language of self-representation. ‘After breakfast I began to chew the cud of such bitter thoughts,’ Elizabeth Barrett noted in her diary while translating Aeschylus’ play for the second time, ‘that I was glad to begin to graze, instead, on the verbs in mi.’ Browsing, like a heifer, through first-person Greek verbs, she ‘turned “me”’, as Prins puts it, ‘into the “I” of Io’. The wordplay was tied into ambiguities about language acquisition and translation: ‘Rather than claiming empowerment these women performed subjection to power, by intensifying the rhetoric of suffering of Prometheus as the central figure of the play, and also by identifying with the seemingly marginal Io.’
Prins is too even-handed to reduce such women to victims. ‘Even as she was written in the margins of literary history,’ she notes, ‘the wandering Io became an increasingly mobile figure for classical literacy, classical translation and classical transmission.’ Greek could be enabling, giving women the right to roam imaginatively through extreme situations. In her essay on Aurora Leigh, Woolf says that, for the young Elizabeth Barrett, books were ‘a substitute for living. She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass. She wrestled with Aeschylus and Plato because it was out of the question that she should argue about politics with live men and women.’ That this echoes a letter from Wimpole Street does not make it the whole truth. Greek tragedy introduced Barrett to all manner of behaviour – torture, rape, revenge – and, without doubt, to political arguments that Victorian conversation kept from tender ears.
So while women ‘moralised’, Prins writes, ‘about the loyalty of Antigone, the mourning of Electra, the self-sacrifice of Alcestis’, they were also fascinated by conduct that would have shocked Aurora’s aunt: the bloody violence of Clytemnestra, the jealousy of Medea. As Ladies’ Greek moves from the 1840s to the fin de siècle, it finds poets and translators drawn to irregular and challenging heroines. The focus shifts from Aeschylus and the supposed orthodoxy of Sophocles to the questioning, volatile plays of Euripides, which were celebrated and contested in antiquity for their representation of women. Prins provides deeply researched accounts of what the Victorians made of Phaedra, the incestuously driven stepmother in Hippolytus, and of the Bacchae, with its gender-bending god and unruly maenads. By the end of her book we are in the world of Freud and the suffragettes.
Prins does not recover the prehistory of all this. By starting with the teenage Barrett’s almost accent-free ‘First Greek Ode’, she cuts out a dimension of her story. A fuller account would begin with the neoclassicism of Charlotte Lennox, the novelist and Shakespeare critic who in 1759 translated Pierre Brumoy’s book of versions and commentaries, The Greek Theatre. Or even with Nicholas Udall, who wrote in 1548 of ‘young virgins so nouzled and trained in the studie of letters’ that they could ‘reade or reason … in Greke, Latine, Frenche, or Italian’. The spread of Greek literacy in the early 16th century changed the outlook of a small but prominent group of educated women. Queen Elizabeth translated Euripides into Latin, while Lady Jane Lumley produced an English version of his Iphigenia in Aulis – the first dramatic work written by a woman in the vernacular.
Tanya Pollard mentions Lumley’s Iphigenia in her valuable new book. Unlike Prins, she does not focus on female poets and translators but investigates the entire record of the publication, reception and dramatic influence of Greek tragedy in early modern England. Her findings are significant, especially in relation to female roles. If asked to list tragic protagonists from antiquity, most of us would start with Oedipus, Orestes or Prometheus. All these were well known from Greek sources by the late 17th century. Though Samson Agonistes is based on the Book of Judges, Milton’s depiction of its protagonist, ‘Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves’, draws on Sophocles’ blinded hero in Oedipus at Colonus and Aeschylus’ Prometheus in fetters. Yet Pollard shows that early modern readers were more interested in tragic heroines: ‘80 per cent of the Greek tragedies printed in individual or partial editions before 1600 featured female protagonists – strikingly higher than their 51 per cent ratio in the full canon of extant Greek tragedies – and in the more accessible realm of vernacular translations, the number is an even higher 94 per cent.’ The raw figures are impressive. Euripides’ Hecuba was published at least 52 times, Iphigenia in Aulis 39 times, and these peaks reflect a hierarchy of esteem. Hecuba was the first Greek play to be translated into Latin (by Erasmus), the first to be performed (1506-14), and was praised by scholars including Scaliger, Sidney and Minturno.
Pollard’s major innovation is to argue for the impact of Greek tragedy on popular theatre. It has long been recognised that the ‘university wits’ of the generation before Shakespeare had a classical education. The consequences have been looked for in the contribution of Virgil, Ovid and other Latin authors to the work of Marlowe, Greene and the rest. Pollard shows that Greek was also part of their formation. Shakespeare’s early collaborator George Peele, for instance, translated Iphigenia in Aulis and explored the grief and rage of Hecuba in his narrative poem A Tale of Troy. Playwrights from Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, to Heywood, often considered a popular, jobbing writer, were literate in Greek. Chapman, of course, translated Homer.
Pollard’s case is sometimes circumstantial and often complicated by the possibility that what looks Greek has in fact been drawn from Latin. One of her claims, building on the work of others, is that Greek tragedy was often accessed through Greek/Latin parallel texts, which were frequently reprinted and widely circulated. Even Shakespeare, with his ‘small Latin and less Greek’ (in Jonson’s put-down) could find routes by this means into ancient tragedy. Pollard repeats the established claim that Hekabe (via Erasmus’s Latin) is a model for Titus Andronicus, and pursues the argument that the revival of Hermione, at the end of The Winter’s Tale, is based on Euripides’ Alcestis. Her account breaks new ground, however, in picking up Greek traces in such works as Hamlet. The prince’s question about the player, after he delivers his speech on the fall of Troy, ‘What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her/That he should weep for her?’ is answered by Pollard. ‘When we weep with Hamlet,’ she declares, ‘we are also, always, weeping for Hecuba.’
Why has it taken so long for all this to surface? One explanation must lie in the gender mismatch between the female protagonists of antiquity and such characters as Titus and Hamlet. It needed a feminist scholar to review the whole field for the map of influence to emerge. A second reason lies in what Pollard identifies as ‘a longstanding tradition of English exceptionalism’ that ‘has presented the British Isles as isolated from the Greek learning of continental Europe, and the popular realm of England’s commercial theatre as the epitome of England’s presumed anti-classicism’. And it is true that people have only recently started to examine the connections with European classicism evident in such works as Mary Sidney’s version of Garnier’s Marc Antoine, Jonson’s Roman plays and Ford’s The Broken Heart, set in a stoic version of ancient Sparta. Pollard helps expose the deficiencies of the prevailing view of the period, which takes the idea of an English Renaissance to be elitist and aestheticist.
Richard Halpern knows that European tragedy has often followed the Greeks. His Eclipse of Action starts with an account of the Oresteia and ends with Sarah Kane’s Blasted, a viscerally shocking play which reworks atrocities from tragic tradition. As turning points, he focuses, like Pollard, on Hamlet but also on Samson Agonistes. He gives an ingenious account of the latter as a self-consciously failed mixed marriage (echoing that of Samson with Dalila) of Greek tragedy with the Bible. But Milton’s tragedy is also, for him, socioeconomically revealing. More than a little Marxist, he refuses to separate theatre from the means of production. The refusal makes sense, but it can only be honoured thinly, given the historical range of the book. Looking at the big picture, at least across Northern Europe, Halpern runs into the question of why tragedy went into retreat between Milton and Ibsen. He finds an answer in the emergence of political economy during the 18th century. This is a book about tragedy in which Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is at least as important as Aristotle’s Poetics.
Smith’s account of society is, according to Halpern, ‘antitragic’. The operation of the market neutralises tragedy by alienating agency from action. ‘Not only does Smith elevate production over action as the path to happiness … market mechanisms, which work only across vast aggregates or populations, also negate the ethical as well as the economic significance of the individual.’ Loss is evened out and drained of affect by the operations of the economy. ‘A public mourning,’ Smith observes, ‘raises the price of black cloth.’ This is the effect of supply and demand, not a value placed on grief. Halpern’s book can seem more concerned with political philosophy than drama, as he tests arguments from the Scottish Enlightenment against those of Hannah Arendt, who anticipates the errors of neoliberalism by wanting to put the marketplace outside politics.
The main analysis starts from lines in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon where the unhappiness of the Atreidae – Agamemnon and Menelaus – about the rape of Helen is compared to that of ‘birds of prey who, crazed/by grief for their children, wheel around’. The Loeb translation, quoted by Halpern, has good reason to be ornithologically vague: aigypioi can be vultures as well as eagles. For Halpern, the ambiguity is productive. One strand of Periclean rhetoric held that Athens could be supported by eagles: the city could provide for itself by military prowess and empire-building, ‘winning what it need not produce’. The reason the siege of Troy and its aftermath are at the heart of so much Greek tragedy is that they allow this view to be explored and contested. Were Agamemnon and the other generals eagles, or vultures pretending to be eagles? The Oresteia, Halpern argues, critiques ‘dangerously hyperbolic conceptions of heroism’ by showing what goes wrong when human lives are treated as resources.
The usual view is that the trilogy begins with perverse conflicts in the family – Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon in revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Orestes’ matricidal payback – and ends, in the city, with an assertion of democratic principles through the trial and acquittal of Orestes. Halpern’s account cuts deeper into the workings of power and wealth and gives us a more radical Oresteia. How far his account could be extended is questionable. It would not tell us much about Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women or Seven against Thebes, and if his book started with Euripides it would have to find another thesis. Plays like Iphigenia in Tauris or Ion, which deal with the recovery of lost siblings and children, are closer to Shakespeare’s romances than anything that runs from Greek tragedy into Hamlet or King Lear, whether directly or via Seneca.
Yet Halpern’s analysis has implications that cascade down the history of tragedy. It can tell us much about Prometheus Bound, for example, and the way its significance changed through and beyond Aurora Leigh. The titan, according to Aeschylus, gave humankind not just letters but fire, numbers, the art of yoking animals, and mining minerals. Thanks to him cave man became agricultural and technological, and built an economic base. As Prometheus says in Tony Harrison’s eponymous 1998 film-poem,
Before I came men would be found
in sunless dwellings underground.
They saw no difference between
the winter and the springtime scene.
Without me Man would not now know
the earth and all that lies below,
underground treasures for his use
to free him from the grip of Zeus.
These lines are almost entirely translated from Aeschylus, but they carry new meanings in a script that centres on the closure of ‘uneconomic pits’ after the miners’ strike and the dangers of mechanised warfare, which humanity has brought on itself while Zeus’ imperial eagle hovers overhead. Giving a new twist to the old story, Hermes declares that this is the eagle that dropped a tortoise on Aeschylus’ head to stop the ‘blasphemous poetic flow’ of the ‘pro-Promethean bard’. Harrison, like Shelley, is pro-Promethean, but he remakes his tragedy to show how the gifts of progress that brought mortals the industrial revolution, socialism and hope are leading to ecological disaster.
As is customary in books about tragedy, Halpern ignores the Middle Ages, despite its rich deposits of serious writing about suffering – from Beowulf through Njáls Saga and Dante to the York Crucifixion play. He keeps his focus on economics by leaping, as Pollard does, from Greek tragedy to the 16th century, ‘when theatre first becomes a fully commercial enterprise’. In his account early capitalism did not just provide the material resources for writing and staging tragedy, it also had its own tragic potential. Doctor Faustus is instance and allegory. Faustus’s bond with Mephostophilis entitles him to 24 years of distraction with illusions and stale jests before he is dragged off to hell. Marlowe must have contracted with a theatre owner to write a script that required the provision of ‘special effects’ to complete his vision. So the play, like a draft of Das Kapital, explores ‘a world in which action is impossible without dependence on some enabling apparatus or mechanism from which one is nevertheless alienated and over which one can therefore exert at best a provisional kind of control’. Doctor Faustus is incipiently farcical in its reduction of tragedy to spectacle and procurement to please the market.
This is almost too neat to be true. But Halpern, to his credit, tests his ideas against the more complex world of Hamlet with persuasive results. He helps us see how the search for favour and reward at court elides with the cash nexus on which the travelling players and armament workers depend. The cynical ethos of the market infiltrates the play. Halpern does not make the point, but the Hamlet who quips to Horatio that the baked meats prepared for his father’s funeral were served cold at his mother’s marriage feast, for reasons of thrift, could easily be imagined saying that ‘a public mourning raises the price of black cloth.’ The recycling of food and flesh, ultimately by worms (‘Not where he eats, but where he is eaten’, as Hamlet jests of the murdered Polonius), becomes a theme for Halpern. A remarkable page explores the way this textually unstable tragedy, which reprocesses a lost, earlier play and reaches us in three variant early editions, incorporates decomposition into its composition.
The bottom line is set in performance by the null wit and paid labour of the gravediggers, who throw up a medley of skulls and bones as they prepare for the burial of Ophelia. Their work is as reductive as it is socially productive because they break up individual identity and make noble action seem futile. Hamlet draws the moral: ‘Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.’ That Adam Smith regarded this sequence as dispensable, complaining in a lecture of 1763 that it had ‘no share in bringing about the main design of the piece’, is not an obstruction to Halpern’s argument. If anything it shows that Smith is looking for an economic logic in Shakespeare’s dramaturgy as he does in the workings of society.
So the gravediggers can be seen as precursors of political economy’s undermining of tragic agency. Though they are unlikely advocates of laissez-faire economics, the hole they dig tells us something about the lack of meaning that the market creates, where made things are cloned as commodities and action turns into production. Summarising his argument while responding to Aristotle, who said that ‘tragedy is an imitation of action,’ Halpern concludes that ‘Shakespeare imitates in Hamlet … not action but the eclipse of action by activity … It thereby decisively shifts the very ground of dramatic art. In the great silence created when action reaches its impasse, faint sounds of shovelling can be heard.’
That finely bathetic sentence has undertones of Beckett, who eventually provides the climax if not the culmination of Halpern’s book. In Waiting for Godot, we are told, ‘the only fashioned objects of sustained attention – hats and boots – are conspicuously empty … all made things are holes, and thereby reminiscent of the work of Shakespeare’s gravediggers.’ Halpern beats a path to this notion through political and aesthetic theory from Hegel and early Marx to Kojève’s lectures on Hegel (a likely influence on Beckett). Rather than explore the complications of tragedy in the century of Adam Smith, in Lillo’s The London Merchant, Richardson’s Clarissa or the operas of Gluck, or its later manifestations in Wagner, Nietzsche and the novel (Zola, Tolstoy, Hardy), he sinks into a paraphrase of accounts of social division. ‘The rabble is the tragedy of commercial society,’ derived from Hegel, might have fitted into an account of Dickens or Hugo, but, as it stands, it looks like an excuse for hanging a history of Marxism in a book about tragedy.
Intrigued by Hegel’s preference for tragicomedy over the tragic, Halpern is sympathetic to Marx’s observation that history moves towards comedy: ‘The Greek gods, who already died once of their wounds in Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound, were forced to die a second death – this time a comic one – in Lucian’s dialogues.’ Yet if Ibsen and Strindberg show us anything, it is that the death of the old gods was not the end of human problems. The tragicomic elements in Endgame hardly signal the death of tragedy. In his postscript, ‘After Beckett’, Halpern continues to posit vanishing points for the genre, even when the material under discussion (in this case, the craziness of Blasted) is messily vibrant. He makes much of ‘postdramatic theatre’, but instead of investigating its varied practices (from Kantor to the Wooster Group), he draws on abstractions about it by Hans-Thies Lehmann in order to posit another terminus for tragedy: ‘The actor, who no longer imitates the actions of a fictional persona, morphs into the performer, whose actions occupy the here-and-now of performance.’
Part of the problem is narrowness of selection. This is a radical account of a conservative, largely Anglophone canon. No Calderón, no Lope de Vega, no Siglo de las Luces. It is not clear how The Wealth of Nations can explain the decline of tragic drama in Spain. After Beckett, Halpern could have looked to cinema for tragic action, or to African drama and fiction (Soyinka, Achebe, Osofisan). The dialogue between postcolonial writing and European tragic conventions would have opened out the investigation and avoided pre-emptive endings. He overlooks the vitality of the sort of political drama that he foregrounds in his Greek and early modern chapters. Think of Colm Tóibín’s rewrite, in House of Names, of the Oresteia in the shadow of the Troubles, or Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie’s version of the Antigone in an Islamist setting, or John Kinsella’s new update of Samson Agonistes.
As it happens , Halpern’s insights can unlock much in those works. His account of Samson Agonistes, for example, goes a long way towards explaining what impelled Kinsella to ‘redramatise’ the tragedy. He points out that Milton’s Samson is the first major tragic protagonist to labour for a living, and for other men’s profit. This makes the play ‘emblematic of the predicament of modern drama’ because the economic activity inhibits tragic action. ‘A Prisoner chain’d … To grind in Brazen Fetters’, Samson’s bonds do not ‘constrain him to the degree that Prometheus’ do in Aeschylus’. Caught in an endurable life, he cannot achieve ‘tragic grandeur’. In Kinsella’s Samson Agonistes, the hero’s labours are adapted to LGBTQ+ sensitivities – ‘eyeless in Gaza, bonded to labour/in non-binary community/with other slaves’ – and his Promethean traits updated to reflect the advance of technology. But he still registers the erosion of agency by capitalism. A cyborg warrior, he exemplifies the penetration of human identity by a search for profit that monitors, exploits and rewires thoughts and appetites. ‘I am a child of them all,’ he declares, ‘of/All people who fuse with technology.’ He destroys the Philistines by triggering, or having triggered through him, a neutron bomb. He chooses to die in the blast, just as Milton’s protagonist is crushed under the rubble of the temple that he brings down on the Philistine elite.
Halpern sells Milton short when it comes to money. As the son of a merchant and lender, Milton knew how cash can grow and tempt and how debts ought to be settled. He follows the Book of Judges when he tells us that Dalila betrayed Samson for ‘Philistian gold’, the ‘gold/Of Matrimonial treason’, but adds to the story an initiative by the protagonist’s father, Manoa, ‘to procure his liberty by ransom’. Though Samson tells Manoa that he wants to ‘pay on my punishment’, his father persists with the Philistines until his efforts are cut short by the catastrophe of Samson’s destruction of the temple of Dagon. The distinctions that emerge around the ransom contribute to the play’s tragic potential. One group of Philistines, ‘set on revenge and spite’, those who ‘most reverenc’d Dagon and his Priests’, refuses to countenance ransom. A second group, almost more contemptible, is ‘moderate seeming, but thir aim/Private reward’. A third, ‘generous’ and ‘civil’, wants ‘to remit’ Samson’s captivity, ‘if some convenient ransom were propos’d’. For Milton, in 1671, these are the layers of the Restoration establishment, from hardcore cavaliers, down through selfish trimmers to constitutional royalists, all of whom deserve to die, as enemies of the godly.
This raises the inevitable question about Samson’s motives. Is his inward pause before bringing down the temple, which is reported by a Messenger, a result of his consulting Heaven for guidance (‘as one who pray’d’), or of practical calculation, or even of doubt? Does he kill the Philistines out of personal resentment, for reasons of tribal hatred (attacking them on behalf of the Danites), or, in some version of that, is he acting as Jehovah’s instrument against those who worship Dagon? Are we to accept the guidance of the Chorus, which is always Samson’s apologist, that he was ‘self-kill’d/Not willingly, but tangl’d in the fold/Of dire necessity’, or is he a religious terrorist lured by martyrdom? Halpern is rightly sceptical about the always stale debate over whether Samson should be compared to the Islamists who brought down the Twin Towers. ‘Why, I can’t help wondering, was an act of Muslim terrorism required to first raise the question of whether Milton’s Samson was a terrorist?’ he asks. ‘The necessary political framework was amply supplied as long ago as 1947, when an extensive campaign of terror, including the bombing of schools and hospitals, was undertaken to clear away the resident Palestinian population during the founding of the state of Israel.’ Willing to wound but wary of being noticed, Halpern buries this remark in an endnote, and fails to move on to the thought that Samson most resembles the IDF, which bombs buildings in Gaza, bringing them down on the leaders of Hamas. At least Samson, according to the Messenger, spares ordinary citizens, ‘the vulgar’, who stood outside the temple. Then again, collateral damage is often unacknowledged.
The attack on the Philistine nobility in Milton is an extension of the civil wars. The blind poet explores and indulges through his blinded hero a fantasy of bringing down the Anglican/royalist settlement and the triumphalist architecture it built after the Great Fire of London. In this version of the Book of Judges, the Philistines are not so much another nation as a sinful element of the English. Kinsella’s redramatisation is dedicated to ‘Israel and Palestine and lasting peace, justice and equality in all things’. Revisiting the Israelite v. Philistine conflicts of Judges, he addresses the two-state problems of the present. From his actively environmentalist, anti-nationalist point of view, ‘Palestine and Israel can exist’ (in the words of the Chorus) ‘as one without the hierarchy of land/owned by anyone. The land “owns” us all!’ As Samson idealistically puts it (he has pacifist as well as militaristic wiring), the two peoples ‘share a sense of God’ and
are brothers and sisters and others who
struggle for peace against the violence
of their leaders, against patriarchy
in its many, shape-shifting forms.
It is in the treatment of the Samson/Dalila relationship, as a shape-shifting expression of patriarchy, that Kinsella’s anarchist-feminist revision highlights most interestingly what Milton draws and rejects from Greek tragedy. For Milton, Dalila is a walk-on walk-off character who does not persuade Samson of her innocence and whose destiny is ignored. We do not hear whether she is among the Philistines killed in the collapse of the temple. If, as seems likely, her entrance halfway through the tragedy imitates that of Io in Prometheus Bound, the shape of the role is quite different. Kinsella gives her a more substantial slice of the action, and, in a redramatisation that sometimes lacks the agonistic energy that Milton found in Greek tragedy, her exchanges with the conflicted Samson animate the dialogue around matters of sexual politics that were live enough for the divorced, resentful poet of 1671 and are ubiquitous today. The obscurity of her ending is critically flagged up by Manoa, who in the last moments of the script declares:
The story moves on from his wife, who we
might presume has been lost in the slaughter.
Should we not think of her further … ?
Here, and in the disquisition that follows on ‘the marketing/of family and property’, Dalila becomes a key element in Kinsella’s critique of patriarchal values and the inherited ideas about tragedy that descend from antiquity through Milton to the present. What we do not know about her death, which comes to resemble Samson’s in its opacity, becomes itself a dramatic opening. It is a thought-provoking return to the centrality that both Prins and Pollard, in different ways, find for the Greek tragic heroine.
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