Shakespeare's Myths

Hecuba features especially prominently in Shakespeare’s writings; he alludes to her fifteen times by name, as well as once by status (“the queen of Troy”, Titus Andronicus I.i.136) and once indirectly through a page’s misidentification (“my lord, Althea dreamt she was delivered of a firebrand”, 2 Henry IV, II.ii.82). Throughout these references, he actively revises her prevailing literary legacy. In antiquity and beyond, most writers identified Hecuba especially with sorrow. The magnitude of her losses—her husband, her many children, and Troy itself—made her an icon of grief, and of Fortune’s precariousness. Yet although he underscores her misery, Shakespeare identifies her especially with the angry revenge that she enacts in Euripides’ Hecuba and (less extensively) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As a model for translating grief into action, Hecuba offers the possibility of dramatic agency rooted in a distinctively female suffering. And despite the ambivalent overtones of her violence, Shakespeare emphasizes the urgent appeal for sympathy that is Hecuba’s most conspicuous literary legacy. Perhaps responsive to the widespread admiration of Euripides’ play, he most famously portrays her as a symbol of tragedy’s power to move audiences to tears: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?” (Hamlet, II.ii.561-62).


Literary depictions of Hecuba emphasize her suffering, grief, and futile supplication of both gods and Greeks. They also emphasize her maternity, especially through references to pregnancy: her famous dream of delivering a firebrand, while pregnant with Paris, features in multiple texts including Euripides’ Trojan Women, Virgil’s Aeneid, Apollodorus’s Library, Ovid’s Heroides, the Second Mythographer of the Vatican, and Conti’s Mythologia. So it is striking that when Shakespeare first alludes to Hecuba, in Titus Andronicus (1594), she appears as a symbol of armed vengeance. Tamora’s son Demetrius invokes her when his mother, like Hecuba, loses a son to murder: “The self-same gods that armed the Queen of Troy / With opportunity of sharp revenge / Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent, / May favor Tamora, the Queen of Goths” (I.i.136-39). Tamora’s terrible loss prompts the revenge that sets the play’s plot into motion. Yet the resulting violence ultimately serves to turn audiences against her by inviting sympathetic identification with a new Hecuba figure, Titus’s daughter Lavinia, whose rape and mutilation Tamora oversees. Observing Lavinia’s suffering, young Lucius notes, “I have heard my grandsire say full oft, / Extremity of griefs would make men mad; / And I have read that Hecuba of Troy / Ran mad through sorrow” (IV.i.18-21). These lines emphasize the transformation of grief into madness, but the play demonstrates further consequences of both these states, which incite Titus to sympathetic grief, anger, and revenge. Although neither Tamora nor Lavinia survives the play’s carnage, each of them imitates Hecuba in converting grief to anger and revenge, escalating the passionate action that animates the play.


Allusions to Hecuba in Titus Andronicus suggest Euripides’ influence, not only because of their emphasis on how loss can instigate revenge, but also because of the reference to “sharp revenge / Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent” (I.i.137-38). Ovid does not depict Hecuba’s violence as taking place in a tent, and no other classical author represents her revenge at all, focusing instead on her suffering and grief. As this play represents Shakespeare’s first engagement with the figure of Hecuba, it is striking that she appears in sections now widely attributed to George Peele, with whom Shakespeare collaborated on the play. Peele, who seems to have introduced Hecuba to Shakespeare’s literary imagination, almost certainly encountered her through Euripides. Peele was praised by William Gager for his translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia (almost definitely Iphigenia in Aulis, which was far more popular than Iphigenia in Taurus in the period), and in the wake of Erasmus’s prestigious Latin translations of Hecuba and Iphigenia, the two plays were typically printed together. Hecuba, the more popular of the two, also appeared in individual editions, but there were no printed editions of Iphigenia in Greek or Latin in the sixteenth century that were not conjoined with Hecuba. Peele’s own depiction of an angry and vengeful Hecuba in his epyllion A Tale of Troy (composed in the early 1580s, and printed in 1589) supports the likelihood that he was familiar with her revenge in Euripides’ play.


The proactive Hecuba depicted in Titus Andronicus, mobilized by grief into action, emerges also in The Rape of Lucrece (1594).  Overcome with despair, Lucrece turns to the figure of “despairing Hecuba” in order to identify enables herself as a classical tragic heroine.  After she “shapes her sorrow to the beldame’s woes”, she finds herself able to transform this sorrow into a plan for taking action against her wrongdoer (1447, 1458).  Troilus and Cressida (1602-1603), Shakespeare’s most sustained exploration of Troy, turns to the roots of this despair rather than its consequences. Although Hecuba features in the play, its events stop with the fall of Troy, so they do not illustrate the revenge that come to define her later.  Instead, they emphasize her fruitless supplication—“Priamus and Hecuba on knees” (V.iii.56)—and her grief.  Cassandra marks “how Hecuba cries out” (V.iii.86), and Troilus wonders, of Hector’s death, “Who shall tell Priam so, or Hecuba?” (V.xi.15).


In Shakespeare’s post-Trojan world, however, Hecuba returns to her associations with action. In Coriolanus (1608), Volumnia draws on Hecuba’s associations with maternal tenderness in order to chide her daughter-in-law for caring more about Coriolanus’ safety than his honour: “The breasts of Hecuba, / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword” (I.iii.37-40). And in Cymbeline (1608-1611), upon mistaking Cloten’s corpse for that of Posthumus, Innogen invokes her as a kindred spirit of bereaved vindictive fury: “Pisanio, / All curses madded Hecuba gave the Greeks, / And mine to boot, be darted on thee!” (IV.ii.314-16).  Throughout these examples, Shakespeare’s Hecuba represents not passive suffering, but active responses to wrongdoers, the possibility of transforming grief into the satisfaction of justice and revenge.


Because of Hecuba’s famous sorrows over the losses of her husband and children, her literary appearances emphasize forms of suffering particularly identified with women, and especially mothers. Shakespeare most frequently evokes Hecuba in the context of suffering women: Tamora, Lavinia, Lucrece, Virgilia, and Innogen all evoke Hecuba in ways that suggest active responses to tragic grief. Yet Shakespeare explores Hecuba’s dramatic possibilities most self-consciously in Hamlet, a play in which a male protagonist struggles to convert grief into active revenge. Hecuba’s name occurs four times in Hamlet, more often than in any Shakespeare text beyond Troilus and Cressida, in which she has an actual role.  At first glance it may seem odd that Hamlet should provide such a focal point for Shakespeare’s fascination with Hecuba, but the play represents his most sustained reflections on the nature of tragedy and its effects on audiences.  As such, it offers an apt vehicle for a figure intimately associated with sympathy, suffering, and the classical tragic tradition.


When Hamlet responds to the visiting tragedians, his questions about the impact of tragedy come to focus on Hecuba. He is horrified by the idea that an actor playing Hecuba, “But in a fiction, in a dream of passion”, could be moved to passionate tears:


And all for nothing.

For Hecuba!

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,

That he should weep for her?  (II.ii.554, 559-62)


Hamlet puzzles over Hecuba’s curiously contagious ability to shape audiences in her own image, but Shakespeare presents it as a synecdoche for the mysterious workings of the tragic theater. Just as Falstaff says of himself, “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men” (2 Henry IV, I.ii.8-9), Shakespeare’s Hecuba represents not only grief in herself, but the cause of grief in others. The source of the firebrand that destroyed Troy, she similarly generates sorrow and sympathy that lead to explosive consequences throughout Shakespeare’s plays. Hecuba’s literary history offers Shakespeare a rich vein of associations with maternity, sorrow, sympathy, and devastation, and his pointed adaptation of this material becomes a defining feature of his own theatrical landscape.


How to cite

Tanya Pollard.  “Hecuba.”  2015.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology 

(2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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