Thursday, 26 January 2012

Phaedra's modesty

When I’m not trying to remember my lines as the Servant, I’m researching what writers in seventeenth and eighteenth century England thought about ancient Greek tragedy.  Some of them recorded their reactions to Euripides’ Hippolytus.  John Dryden in 1679 recalled that Euripides was censured by the critics of his time for making his chief characters too wicked, giving the example of Phaedra who, although she loved her son-in-law reluctantly and was acting under Aphrodite’s curse by, ‘was thought too ill a pattern for the stage’.  That seems a harsh judgment today.
Jeremy Collier in 1698 was more indulgent to Phaedra.  Collier attacked what he saw as the immorality and profaneness of English Restoration comedy and one of his tactics was to claim that the ancient Greek stage was much more moral and decent notwithstanding its paganism.  He argued that Euripides was careful to show women as modest in their manners and that he therefore represented Phaedra doing all she could to conceal her passion for Hippolytus, being ‘as regular and reserved in her language as the most virtuous matron’, and keeping her modesty even after she had lost her wits.  One of Collier’s critics was not convinced that Euripides kept things so chaste after all, pointing to what he regarded as the immodest and smutty language of the Nurse when she eggs Phaedra on.  But Collier’s point was that characters of high social standing, such as Phaedra, should be written so as to set an example of modesty and decorum for the audience.  He did not expect such high standards in the portrayal of lesser characters, excusing Plautus’ use of lewd language because it occurred ‘only in prostituted and vulgar people’ such as slaves and therefore was not likely to be imitated by the audience.  Collier’s view of Phaedra’s modest restraint was echoed in 1718 by Charles Gildon and in 1729 by George Adams (who produced the first complete English translation of Sophocles) who saw Phaedra’s sense of honour overcoming her passion and preventing her uttering the least immodest expression.
The character of Hippolytus was a little more problematical for seventeenth and eighteenth century critics.  But that’s enough for now.

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