When Hamlet reflects on the power of tragic performance, he turns to Hecuba: ‘What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?’ Of all Shakespeare's characters, Hamlet is the most self-consciously preoccupied with the theatre: he accordingly has a privileged position as a tragic commentator. Yet critics have paid little attention to his fascination with the protagonist of the period's most popular Greek tragedy. Hamlet's metatheatrical reflections have typically been situated in the context of Shakespeare's competition with contemporary playwrights. Shakespeare, we understand, vied for the Senecan legacy of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy (1587) and his Hamlet (1588–9), while the ‘little eyases’ of the boys’ companies offered a particular catalyst for reconceiving the shape and function of tragedy (Hamlet, 2.2.326). Yet this picture of England's dramatic landscape has overshadowed another genealogy of tragedy, pervasive during Shakespeare's time, for which Hecuba served as icon. This genealogy has become almost invisible to critics, who have largely accepted the maxims that ‘in tragedy the privileges of the Self are attributed to the masculine hero’, and that ‘the canon of tragic drama, on the whole, concentrates on the experience of male protagonists’. Although recent criticism has attended more fully to female experience in early modern tragedy, we have not yet acknowledged or understood the significance of the period's engagement with a predominantly female-centred canon of Greek tragedy. If Hamlet has become the icon of tragedy, then tracing his responses to Hecuba illuminates how he came to replace her in this role.
WHAT'S HECUBA TO HAMLET?
When Hamlet meets the players, he asks them for ‘a passionate speech’, and quickly identifies a particular one: ‘Aeneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter’. This apparent invocation of Virgil, however, obscures an unexpected swerve toward a different literary focus. Although Hamlet refers to Priam, and the player begins with Pyrrhus, the speech meets with a lacklustre response (‘This is too long’) until Hamlet hurries it towards its true centre: ‘Say on; come to Hecuba.’