New Globe Theatre, London, England - stage and stalls (photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)New Globe Theatre, London, England - stage and stalls (photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)

The Great Scenes and Soliloquies

I heard thee speak me a speech once ...

Act II, Scene 2 (Hamlet and First Player).

With the arrival of the Players, we not only approach the dramatic heart of the "main" tragedy but also move to one, or actually several other symbolic levels. I've explained how I see the basic structure of this move on the Players' character page – here and on the "Play within the Play page" let me address its two language-driven elements; beginning with the "speech" ordered by Hamlet immediately after the Players' arrival.


I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted;
or if it was, not above once;

Unknown Dutch Master: Still-Life with Books (ca. 1628, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany)Unknown Dutch Master: Still-Life with Books (ca. 1628, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany)

"Wait a minute," I can see someone wanting to object. "'Never acted – or not above once?' I thought this is about Priam's slaughter ... and doesn't Hamlet specifically refer to Aeneas' tale to Dido? So aren't we talking about Virgil, then? 'Of arms and the man I sing,' and all that?"

Well, no ... at least not directly. Leaving aside that the Aeneid is not a play but, as Virgil himself expressly says in the opening line, a "song" – or more specifically, a very long narrative poem that would have been presented in the way of a formal chant – what we're getting here is not Virgil's original but the Bard's abridgment and reinterpretation, ultimately even throwing in a bunch of material from other classic sources. And this applies to Pyrrhus's description as much as to King Priam's killing and, most of all, to Hecuba's lament; because Virgil himself does not give us that all-important lament at all but, rather, has his narrator Aeneas cast a last hateful look on Helen and learn from Venus – his mother (who herself had set the cause of the Trojan war when she made Paris fall in love with Helen!) – that for proud Troy's demise, "not Helen's face, nor Paris, was in fault; but by the gods was this destruction brought" ... whereupon Aeneas reluctantly resolves to let Helen live, seeks out his father, his wife and his son, and leaves the ruined city behind forever, to embark on wanderings mirroring those of Odysseus and ultimately reach Italy and become the mythical forefather of Romulus and Remus. So while Shakespeare's source material was certainly well-known enough (and to the extent he is relying directly on Greek tragedies, such as Euripides's "Trojan Women" and "Hecuba," those in themselves were of course enacted repeatedly), the first thing he is telling us here is that we are not to merely expect bits and pieces of the classics woven into a play of his own but rather, a substantial recreation of the story in question.

Paul Cézanne: The Banquet (ca. 1870, private collection)Paul Cézanne: The Banquet (ca. 1870, private collection)

for the play, I remember, pleas'd
not the million, 'twas caviary to the general;

Aaahhh yes, and secondly, of course ... there's the playwright's age-old dilemma: You can either write for the masses, or you write for those select few of truly discerning taste – in other words, you can either decide to make money with your writing; or you focus on artistic achievement ... base concerns and daily survival be damned. (This from the one playwright whose works were the first ever to be bootlegged on a routine basis, in order to satisfy a near-undying popular demand for print copies of his plays, and who himself very likely had the conceit to consider his works so unique that they would to stand the test of time 'till kingdom come; thus bringing together precisely the two seemingly irreconcilable opposites he alludes to – artistic class and popularity.)

but it was (as I
receiv'd it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in
the top of mine) an excellent play,

Oh please now, my lord Hamlet – patron of the Muses ... let's have no false modesty, shall we? You having to rely on other people's judgement for confirmation of your own opinion in matters of art? I really don't think so ...

well digested in the scenes,
set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said
there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury,
nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of
affectation; but call'd it an honest method, as wholesome as
sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.

Samuel van Hoogstraten: Self-Portrait (17th century, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia)Samuel van Hoogstraten: Self-Portrait (17th century, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia)

And the opposite is true for you, Master Shakespeare. I mean, leaving aside the bombastic language we're about to hear Hamlet and the First Player uttering (but then, you sometimes just can't help yourself, can you? However much you may be taunting your contemporaries for that kind of thing elsewhere ...) in any event, it is certainly nice to learn what you consider essential in playwriting – and let me make a note of that: "well-digested in the scenes ... as much modesty as cunning ... honest ... as wholesome as sweet ... more handsome than fine" – okay, gotcha, I think. In other words, well-structured, clever but not too clever for its own good, straightforward storytelling, without any fake elements but with a lasting effect, just the right dose of sentiment, and not excessively ornate and flamboyant. Is that what you're saying? Alright, yes, makes sense. Sure, I can do that ... (Err, talent – what do you mean, talent?!) But anyway, don't you think you're going a bit overboard with the self-praise here? I mean, even before we're getting to that purported play itself and all its overcharged prose (err, what was that you just said about "modesty"?) – which in itself should, incidentally, at least tell us that we're quite obviously not looking at Virgil, Livy, Horace, Ovid, or any of your other Greek, Roman and otherwise classical sources ...

One speech in't
I chiefly lov'd. 'Twas AEneas' tale to Dido, and thereabout of it
especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter.

Now we're coming to the heart of the matter –

If it live in
your memory, begin at this line – let me see, let me see:

– and our Prince and Player-wannabe can't possibly pass up an opportunity like this. Of course he himself has to do the honours and begin the whole presentation. But he has a point in wanting to do so:

Bamberg Apocalypse, The Book with Seven Seals - Dragon (image from Wikimedia Commons)Bamberg Apocalypse, The Book with Seven Seals - Dragon (image from Wikimedia Commons)

'The rugged Pyrrhus, like th' Hyrcanian beast –'
'Tis not so; it begins with Pyrrhus:

And, oh, it's almost too good to be true. Hamlet seems to be starting on a false note ... but in fact, on the sly we're already hearing about regicide before he has even gotten to Priam. Because "the Hyrcanian beast" is (I think, anyway) none other than Artabanus of Persia, an officer and close confidant of 5th century B.C. Persian King Xerxes I, who killed the King and was also responsible for the death of his son, crown prince Darius, only to then become regent himself for a while. – Man, oh man. Can you say, "rubbing it in"?

On a side note, you just have to have seen the Jacobi and Branagh versions of the play to see what you can do with this little passage here – how the First Player with a few simple gestures and an unspoken exchange with the Prince becomes Hamlet's mentor and surrogate father in the world of make-belief, while in the real world he no longer has a father to look up to.

The Death of Priam (Athenian black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BC, British Museum, London, England)The Death of Priam (Athenian black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BC, British Museum, London, England)

'The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear'd
With heraldry more dismal. Head to foot
Now is be total gules, horridly trick'd
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Bak'd and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
To their lord's murther. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'ersized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.'

Now, if this isn't out-heroding Herod then I don't know what is. Virgil's description of Pyrrhus is certainly terrifying enough; but this sounds more like "Pyrrhus the Greek meets Cerberus the Hellhound" to me, and our Bard not only borrowed from the author of the Aeneid but also from Dante and other medieval descriptions of the devil here:

Virgil, Aeneid – Book II

Before the gate stood Pyrrhus, threat'ning loud,
With glitt'ring arms conspicuous in the crowd.
So shines, renew'd in youth, the crested snake,
Who slept the winter in a thorny brake,
And, casting off his slough when spring returns,
Now looks aloft, and with new glory burns;
Restor'd with poisonous herbs, his ardent sides
Reflect the sun; and rais'd on spires he rides;
High o'er the grass, hissing he rolls along,
And brandishes by fits his forky tongue.
He hews apace; the double bars at length
Yield to his ax and unresisted strength.
The fatal work inhuman Pyrrhus plies,
And all his father sparkles in his eyes;
Nor bars, nor fighting guards, his force sustain:
The bars are broken, and the guards are slain.
Not with so fierce a rage the foaming flood
Roars, when he finds his rapid course withstood;
Bears down the dams with unresisted sway,
And sweeps the cattle and the cots away.
Behold! Polites, one of Priam's sons,
Pursued by Pyrrhus, there for safety runs.
Thro' swords and foes, amaz'd and hurt, he flies
Thro' empty courts and open galleries.
Him Pyrrhus, urging with his lance, pursues,
And often reaches, and his thrusts renews.
The youth, transfix'd, with lamentable cries,
Expires before his wretched parent's eyes.

Virgil, Aeneid – Book VI
(Aeneas, the Sibyl, and Cerberus):

No sooner landed, in his den they found
The triple porter of the Stygian sound,
Grim Cerberus, who soon began to rear
His crested snakes, and arm'd his bristling hair.
The prudent Sibyl had before prepar'd
A sop, in honey steep'd, to charm the guard;
Which, mix'd with pow'rful drugs, she cast before
His greedy grinning jaws, just op'd to roar.
With three enormous mouths he gapes; and straight,
With hunger press'd, devours the pleasing bait.

Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy – Inferno (Canto VI):

Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.

Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.

Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.

When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.

And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.

Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles.

The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord) – Vision 13
(the Devil):
[T]here lay on its back a monster shaped like a worm, wondrously large and long, which aroused an indescribable sense of horror and rage. ... Now that worm was black and bristly, covered with ulcers and pustules, and it was divided into five regions from the head down through the belly to its feet, like stripes. One was green, one white, one red, one yellow and one black; and they were full of deadly poison. But its head had been so crushed that the left side of its jawbone was dislocated. Its eyes were bloody on the surface and burning within; its ears were round and bristly: its nose and mouth were those of a viper, its hands human, its feet a viper's feet, and its tail short and horrible. ... Many flames came forth from its mouth, dividing into four parts: One part ascended to the clouds, another breathed forth among secular people, another among spiritual people, and the last descended into the abyss. ... And I saw sharp arrows whistling loudly from its mouth, and black smoke exhaling from its breast, and a burning fluid boiling up from its loins, and a hot whirlwind blowing from its navel, and the uncleanness of frogs issuing from its bowels; all of which affected human beings with grave disquiet. And the hideous and foul-smelling vapor that came out of it infected many people with its own perversity.

I don't know – so should Claudius be flattered or annoyed by such a comparison? For there can't be any reasonable doubt about whom we are really talking here ...

Peter Paul Rubens: The Reconciliation of King Henry III and Henry of Navarre (1628, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, USA)Peter Paul Rubens: The Reconciliation of King Henry III and Henry of Navarre (1628, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, USA)


So, proceed you.


Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.

The hand-over from Hamlet to the First Player – another moment allowing for a little fun among all the soliloquy's grim doings; alas (and not for the last time) at Polonius's expense. For do you really think that Hamlet is out for his applause? Hardly ...

But now our Bard's imagination is really beginning to run into overdrive. First, he completely excises Polites's killing, which in Virgil's text is the very thing that incites the tired and aging Priam to take a last, desperate stand against the much more powerful Greek warrior. Thus, the Trojan King's murder itself here resembles Pyrrhus's brutal, senseless, unprovoked acts preceding the killing of Priam in Virgil's version almost more than (or at the very least as much as) it resembles the King's own murder, leaving us, the audience, in no doubt whatsoever about the abject moral reprehensability of that act. Secondly, again even more so than Virgil, Shakespeare describes the King's murder – his sole focus to begin with – in the most glaring language imaginable, even inserting a "still shot" moment, where he literally brings his narrative camera to a full stop and dramatically depicts Pyrrhus as a "painted tyrant" with his sword looming over Priam's head, seconds before actually striking him dead. And thirdly, while Virgil ends his narrative of this episode on the description of the dead King's body, underscoring the ruin of an erstwhile powerful man and symbolically linking it to the ruin of his entire kingdom, Shakespeare – like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy – appends a lament on the incident that would probably go on for even longer, were it not interrupted by the hapless Polonius. – Compare:

Kleophrades painter - The Death of Priam (Attic red figure hydria, ca. 480 BC, Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy)Kleophrades painter. – The Death of Priam (Attic red figure hydria, ca. 480 BC, Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy)

First Player:

'Anon he finds him,
Striking too short at Greeks. His antique sword,
Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,
Repugnant to command. Unequal match'd,
Pyrrhus at Priam drives, in rage strikes wide;
But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
Th' unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium,
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear. For lo! his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' th' air to stick.
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And, like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.
But, as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless, and the orb below
As hush as death – anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region; so, after Pyrrhus' pause,
Aroused vengeance sets him new awork;
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armour, forg'd for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!

Virgil, Aeneid – Book II (Priam's murder):

"Perhaps you may of Priam's fate enquire.
He, when he saw his regal town on fire,
His ruin'd palace, and his ent'ring foes,
On ev'ry side inevitable woes,
In arms, disus'd, invests his limbs, decay'd,
Like them, with age; a late and useless aid.
His feeble shoulders scarce the weight sustain;
Loaded, not arm'd, he creeps along with pain,
Despairing of success, ambitious to be slain!
[Polites], transfix'd, with lamentable cries,
Expires before his wretched parent's eyes:
Whom gasping at his feet when Priam saw,
The fear of death gave place to nature's law;
And, shaking more with anger than with age,
'The gods,' said he, 'requite thy brutal rage!
As sure they will, barbarian, sure they must,
If there be gods in heav'n, and gods be just –
Who tak'st in wrongs an insolent delight;
With a son's death t' infect a father's sight.
Not he, whom thou and lying fame conspire
To call thee his – not he, thy vaunted sire,
Thus us'd my wretched age: the gods he fear'd,
The laws of nature and of nations heard.
He cheer'd my sorrows, and, for sums of gold,
The bloodless carcass of my Hector sold;
Pitied the woes a parent underwent,
And sent me back in safety from his tent.'
"This said, his feeble hand a javelin threw,
Which, flutt'ring, seem'd to loiter as it flew:
Just, and but barely, to the mark it held,
And faintly tinkled on the brazen shield.
"Then Pyrrhus thus: 'Go thou from me to fate,
And to my father my foul deeds relate.
Now die!' With that he dragg'd the trembling sire,
Slidd'ring thro' clotter'd blood and holy mire,
(The mingled paste his murder'd son had made,)
Haul'd from beneath the violated shade,
And on the sacred pile the royal victim laid.
His right hand held his bloody falchion bare,
His left he twisted in his hoary hair;
Then, with a speeding thrust, his heart he found:
The lukewarm blood came rushing thro' the wound,
And sanguine streams distain'd the sacred ground.
Thus Priam fell, and shar'd one common fate
With Troy in ashes, and his ruin'd state:
He, who the scepter of all Asia sway'd,
Whom monarchs like domestic slaves obey'd.
On the bleak shore now lies th' abandon'd King,
A headless carcass, and a nameless thing.


This is too long.


It shall to the barber's, with your beard. – Prithee say on.
He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps. Say on; come to

Good old Polonius, bless his heart. So much for his own Thespian credentials, I guess, which he will so proudly be asserting before the "play within the play," only to be mocked yet again by our intemperate Prince. And of course, once more a simply delicious little interlude in the Jacobi and Branagh versions ...

Hecuba (detail from an Athenian amphora, ca. 6th century BC)Hecuba (detail from an Athenian amphora, ca. 6th century BC)

First Player:

'But who, O who, had seen the mobled queen –'


'The mobled queen'?


That's good! 'Mobled queen' is good.

"Mobled" = "hooded" or "shrouded," in case you'd been wondering. And three times in a row – rubbing it in yet again, are we, Master Shakespeare? Hecuba as the personification of grief and mourning over a slain husband, before we've even heard a single other word about her ...

Here, also, Shakespeare most notably deviates from Virgil's text, where we last see Hecuba before Priam's death, desolately commenting on the senselessness of any resistance against Pyrrhus and inviting her husband to take shelter with her and her ladies-in-waiting. – Rather, the Bard now borrows from accounts of Hecuba's fate after the fall of Troy; primarily, I think, from Ovid's vividly dramatic "Metamorphoses" (a known favourite of Shakespeare's) and from the tragedies of Euripides, the great master of human sentiment: because like Niobe (remember her from Hamlet's first major monologue in Act I, Scene 2?), Hecuba in fact has not only a slain husband but also a whole family of slain children to lament (plus one daughter named Cassandra driven into madness by a certain god named Apollo); her last surviving children – daughter Polyxena and son Polydore – being killed almost before her very eyes while she, along with other Trojan women, is already on her way into servitude and captivity in Greece. So again, our Bard throws a little twist into the story, and Hecuba's misery and heartache instead becomes all about Priam ... just as Gertrude should be mourning her first husband.

First Player:

'Run barefoot up and down, threat'ning the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'erteemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up –
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep'd
'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have pronounc'd.
But if the gods themselves did see her then,
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband's limbs,
The instant burst of clamour that she made
(Unless things mortal move them not at all)
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven
And passion in the gods.'

Virgil, Aeneid – Book II (Hecuba):

Uncover'd but by heav'n, there stood in view
An altar; near the hearth a laurel grew,
Dodder'd with age, whose boughs encompass round
The household gods, and shade the holy ground.
Here Hecuba, with all her helpless train
Of dames, for shelter sought, but sought in vain.
Driv'n like a flock of doves along the sky,
Their images they hug, and to their altars fly.
The Queen, when she beheld her trembling lord,
And hanging by his side a heavy sword,
'What rage,' she cried, 'has seiz'd my husband's mind?
What arms are these, and to what use design'd?
These times want other aids! Were Hector here,
Ev'n Hector now in vain, like Priam, would appear.
With us, one common shelter thou shalt find,
Or in one common fate with us be join'd.'
She said, and with a last salute embrac'd
The poor old man, and by the laurel plac'd.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena (Athenian black-figure amphora, ca. 570-550 BC, British Museum, London, England)The Sacrifice of Polyxena (Athenian black-figure amphora, ca. 570-550 BC, British Museum, London, England)

Ovid, Metamorphoses – Book Thirteen
(Polyxena and Hecuba):

The victor with full sails for Lemnos stood
(Once stain'd by matrons with their husbands' blood),
Thence great Alcides' fatal shafts to bear,
Assign'd to Philoctetes' secret care.
These with their guardian to the Greeks convey'd,
Their ten years' toil with wish'd success repaid.
With Troy old Priam falls: his queen survives;
'Till all her woes compleat, transform'd she grieves
In borrow'd sounds, nor with an human face,
Barking tremendous o'er the plains of Thrace.
Still Ilium's flames their pointed columns raise,
And the red Hellespont reflects the blaze.
Shed on Jove's altar are the poor remains
Of blood, which trickl'd from old Priam's veins.
Cassandra lifts her hands to Heav'n in vain,
Drag'd by her sacred hair; the trembling train
Of matrons to their burning temples fly:
There to their Gods for kind protection cry;
And to their statues cling 'till forc'd away,
The victor Greeks bear off th' invidious prey.
From those high tow'rs Astyanax is thrown,
Whence he was wont with pleasure to look down.
When oft his mother with a fond delight
Pointed to view his father's rage in fight,
To win renown, and guard his country's right.

The winds now call to sea; brisk northern gales
Sing in the shrowds, and court the spreading sails.
Farewel, dear Troy, the captive matrons cry;
Yes, we must leave our long-lov'd native sky.
Then prostrate on the shore they kiss the sand,
And quit the smoking ruines of the land.
Last Hecuba on board, sad sight! appears;
Found weeping o'er her children's sepulchres:
Drag'd by Ulysses from her slaughter'd sons,
Whilst yet she graspt their tombs, and kist their mouldring bones.
Yet Hector's ashes from his urn she bore,
And in her bosom the sad relique wore:
Then scatter'd on his tomb her hoary hairs,
A poor oblation mingled with her tears.

Oppos'd to Ilium lye the Thracian plains,
Where Polymestor safe in plenty reigns.
King Priam to his care commits his son,
Young Polydore, the chance of war to shun.
A wise precaution! had not gold, consign'd
For the child's use, debauch'd the tyrant's mind.
When sinking Troy to its last period drew,
With impious hands his royal charge he slew;
Then in the sea the lifeless coarse is thrown;
As with the body he the guilt could drown.

The Greeks now riding on the Thracian shore,
'Till kinder gales invite, their vessels moor.
Here the wide-op'ning Earth to sudden view
Disclos'd Achilles, great as when he drew
The vital air, but fierce with proud disdain,
As when he sought Briseis to regain;
When stern debate, and rash injurious strife
Unsheath'd his sword, to reach Atrides' life.
And will ye go? he said. Is then the name
Of the once great Achilles lost to fame?
Yet stay, ungrateful Greeks; nor let me sue
In vain for honours to my Manes due.
For this just end, Polyxena I doom
With victim-rites to grace my slighted tomb.

The phantom spoke; the ready Greeks obey'd,
And to the tomb led the devoted maid
Snatch'd from her mother, who with pious care
Cherish'd this last relief of her despair.
Superior to her sex, the fearless maid,
Approach'd the altar, and around survey'd
The cruel rites, and consecrated knife,
Which Pyrrhus pointed at her guiltless life,
Then as with stern amaze intent he stood,
"Now strike," she said; "now spill my genr'ous blood;
Deep in my breast, or throat, your dagger sheath,
Whilst thus I stand prepar'd to meet my death.
For life on terms of slav'ry I despise:
Yet sure no God approves this sacrifice.
O cou'd I but conceal this dire event
From my sad mother, I should dye content.
Yet should she not with tears my death deplore,
Since her own wretched life demands them more.
But let not the rude touch of man pollute
A virgin-victim; 'tis a modest suit.
It best will please, whoe'er demands my blood,
That I untainted reach the Stygian flood.
Yet let one short, last, dying prayer be heard;
To Priam's daughter pay this last regard;
'Tis Priam's daughter, not a captive, sues;
Do not the rites of sepulture refuse.
To my afflicted mother, I implore,
Free without ransom my dead corpse restore:
Nor barter me for gain, when I am cold;
But be her tears the price, if I am sold:
Time was she could have ransom'd me with gold".

Thus as she pray'd, one common shower of tears
Burst forth, and stream'd from ev'ry eye but hers.
Ev'n the priest wept, and with a rude remorse
Plung'd in her heart the steel's resistless force.
Her slacken'd limbs sunk gently to the ground,
Dauntless her looks, unalter'd by the wound.
And as she fell, she strove with decent pride
To hide, what suits a virgin's care to hide.
The Trojan matrons the pale corpse receive,
And the whole slaughter'd race of Priam grieve,
Sad they recount the long disastrous tale;
Then with fresh tears, thee, royal maid, bewail;
Thy widow'd mother too, who flourish'd late
The royal pride of Asia's happier state:
A captive lot now to Ulysses born;
Whom yet the victor would reject with scorn,
Were she not Hector's mother: Hector's fame
Scarce can a master for his mother claim!

With strict embrace the lifeless coarse she view'd;
And her fresh grief that flood of tears renew'd,
With which she lately mourn'd so many dead;
Tears for her country, sons, and husband shed.
With the thick gushing stream she bath'd the wound;
Kiss'd her pale lips; then weltring on the ground,
With wonted rage her frantick bosom tore;
Sweeping her hair amidst the clotted gore;
Whilst her sad accents thus her loss deplore.

"Behold a mother's last dear pledge of woe!
Yes, 'tis the last I have to suffer now.
Thou, my Polyxena, my ills must crown:
Already in thy Fate, I feel my own.
'Tis thus, lest haply of my numerous seed
One should unslaughter'd fall, even thou must bleed:
And yet I hop'd thy sex had been thy guard;
But neither has thy tender sex been spar'd.
The same Achilles, by whose deadly hate
Thy brothers fell, urg'd thy untimely fate!
The same Achilles, whose destructive rage
Laid waste my realms, has robb'd my childless age.
When Paris' shafts with Phoebus' certain aid
At length had pierc'd this dreaded chief, I said,
Secure of future ills, he can no more:
But see, he still pursues me as before.
With rage rekindled his dead ashes burn;
And his yet murd'ring ghost my wretched house must mourn.
This tyrant's lust of slaughter I have fed
With large supplies from my too-fruitful bed.
Troy's tow'rs lye waste; and the wide ruin ends
The publick woe; but me fresh woe attends.
Troy still survives to me; to none but me;
And from its ills I never must be free.
I, who so late had power, and wealth, and ease,
Bless'd with my husband, and a large encrease,
Must now in poverty an exile mourn;
Ev'n from the tombs of my dead offspring torn:
Giv'n to Penelope, who proud of spoil,
Allots me to the loom's ungrateful toil;
Points to her dames, and crys with scorning mien:
See Hector's mother, and great Priam's queen!
And thou, my child, sole hope of all that's lost,
Thou now art slain, to sooth this hostile ghost.
Yes, my child falls an offering to my foe!
Then what am I, who still survive this woe?
Say, cruel Gods! for what new scenes of death
Must a poor aged wretch prolong this hated breath?
Troy fal'n, to whom could Priam happy seem?
Yet was he so; and happy must I deem
His death; for O! my child, he saw not thine,
When he his life did with his Troy resign.
Yet sure due obsequies thy tomb might grace;
And thou shalt sleep amidst thy kingly race.
Alas! my child, such fortune does not wait
Our suffering house in this abandon'd state.
A foreign grave, and thy poor mother's tears
Are all the honours that attend thy herse.
All now is lost! – Yet no; one comfort more
Of life remains, my much-lov'd Polydore.
My youngest hope: here on this coast he lives,
Nurs'd by the guardian-king, he still survives.
Then let me hasten to the cleansing flood,
And wash away these stains of guiltless blood."

Streit to the shore her feeble steps repair
With limping pace, and torn dishevell'd hair
Silver'd with age. "Give me an urn," she cry'd,
"To bear back water from this swelling tide":
When on the banks her son in ghastly hue
Transfix'd with Thracian arrows strikes her view.
The matrons shriek'd; her big-swoln grief surpast
The pow'r of utterance; she stood aghast;
She had nor speech, nor tears to give relief;
Excess of woe suppress'd the rising grief.
Lifeless as stone, on Earth she fix'd her eyes;
And then look'd up to Heav'n with wild surprise.
Now she contemplates o'er with sad delight
Her son's pale visage; then her aching sight
Dwells on his wounds: she varys thus by turns,
Wild as the mother-lion, when among
The haunts of prey she seeks her ravish'd young:
Swift flies the ravisher; she marks his trace,
And by the print directs her anxious chase.
So Hecuba with mingled grief, and rage
Pursues the King, regardless of her age.
She greets the murd'rer with dissembled joy
Of secret treasure hoarded for her boy.
The specious tale th' unwary King betray'd.
Fir'd with the hopes of prey: "Give quick," he said
With soft enticing speech, "the promis'd store:
Whate'er you give, you give to Polydore.
Your son, by the immortal Gods I swear,
Shall this with all your former bounty share."
She stands attentive to his soothing lyes,
And darts avenging horrour from her eyes.
Then full resentment fires her boyling blood:
She springs upon him, 'midst the captive crowd
(Her thirst of vengeance want of strength supplies):
Fastens her forky fingers in his eyes:
Tears out the rooted balls; her rage pursues,
And in the hollow orbs her hand imbrews.

The Thracians, fir'd, at this inhuman scene,
With darts, and stones assail the frantick queen.
She snarls, and growls, nor in an human tone;
Then bites impatient at the bounding stone;
Extends her jaws, as she her voice would raise
To keen invectives in her wonted phrase;
But barks, and thence the yelping brute betrays.
Still a sad monument the place remains,
And from this monstrous change its name obtains:
Where she, in long remembrance of her ills,
With plaintive howlings the wide desart fills.

Greeks, Trojans, friends, and foes, and Gods above
Her num'rous wrongs to just compassion move.
Ev'n Juno's self forgets her ancient hate,
And owns, she had deserv'd a milder fate.

Euripides, The Trojan Women:


Let lie ... the love we seek not is no love ...
This ruined body! Is the fall thereof
Too deep for all that now is over me
Of anguish, and hath been, and yet shall be?
Ye Gods ... Alas! Why call on things so weak
For aid? Yet there is something that doth seek,
Crying, for God, when one of us hath woe.
O, I will think of things gone long ago
And weave them to a song, like one more tear
In the heart of misery ... All Kings we were;
And I must wed a King. And sons I brought
My lord King, many sons ... nay, that were naught;
But high strong princes, of all Troy the best.
Hellas nor Troas nor the garnered East
Held such a mother! And all these things beneath
The Argive spear I saw cast down in death,
And shore these tresses at the dead men's feet.

Yea, and the gardener of my garden great,
It was not any noise of him nor tale
I wept for; these eyes saw him, when the pale
Was broke, and there at the altar Priam fell
Murdered, and round him all his citadel
Sacked. And my daughters, virgins of the fold,
Meet to be brides of mighty Kings, behold,
'Twas for the Greek I bred them! All are gone;
And no hope left, that I shall look upon
Their faces any more, nor they on mine.

And now my feet tread on the utmost line:
An old, old slave-woman, I pass below
Mine enemies' gates; and whatso task they know
For this age basest, shall be mine; the door,
Bowing, to shut and open ... I that bore
Hector! ... and meal to grind, and this racked head
Bend to the stones after a royal bed;
Torn rags about me, aye, and under them
Torn flesh; 'twill make a woman sick for shame!
Woe's me; and all that one man's arms might hold
One woman, what long seas have o'er me rolled
And roll for ever! O my child, whose white
Soul laughed amid the laughter of God's light,
Cassandra, what hands and how strange a day
Have loosed thy zone! And thou, Polyxena,
Where art thou? And my sons? Not any seed
Of man nor woman now shall help my need.

Why raise me any more? What hope have I
To hold me? Take this slave that once trod high
In Ilion; cast her on her bed of clay
Rock-pillowed, to lie down, and pass away
Wasted with tears. And whatso man they call
Happy, believe not ere the last day fall!

Euripides, Hecuba
(After the discovery of Polidore's murder at the hand of Philoctetes):


Look you! what woman was ever born to such misfortune?


There is none, unless thou wouldst name misfortune herself. But hear my reason for throwing myself at thy knees. If my treatment seems to thee deserved, I will be content; but, if otherwise, help me to punish this most godless host, that hath wrought a deed most damned, fearless alike of gods in heaven or hell; who, though full oft he had shared my board and been counted first of all my guest-friends and after meeting with every kindness he could claim and receiving my consideration, slew my son, and bent though he was on murder, deigned not to bury him but cast his body forth to sea.

I may be a slave and weak as well, but the gods are strong, and custom too which prevails o'er them, for by custom it is that we believe in them and set up bounds of right and wrong for our lives. Now if this principle, when referred to thee, is to be set at naught, and they are to escape punishment who murder guests or dare to plunder the temples of gods, then is all fairness in things human at an end. Deem this then a disgrace and show regard for me, have pity on me, and, like an artist standing back from his picture, look on me and closely scan my piteous state. I was once queen, but now I am thy slave; a happy mother once, but now childless and old alike, reft of city, utterly forlorn, the most wretched woman living. Ah! woe is me! whither wouldst thou withdraw thy steps from me?

[As Agamemnon is turning away]:

My efforts then will be in vain, ah me! ah me! Why, oh! why do we mortals toil, as needs we must, and seek out all other sciences, but persuasion, the only real mistress of mankind, we take no furthur pains to master completely by offering to pay for the knowledge, so that any man might upon occasion convince his fellows as he pleased and gain his point as well? How shall anyone hereafter hope for prosperity? All those my sons are gone from me, and I, their mother, am led away into captivity to suffer shame, while yonder I see the smoke leaping up o'er my city. Further – though perhaps this were idly urged, to plead thy love, still will I put the case: at thy side lies my daughter, Cassandra, the maid inspired, as the Phrygians call her. How then, king, wilt thou acknowledge those nights of rapture, or what return shall she my daughter or I her mother have for all the love she has lavished on her lord? For from darkness and the endearments of the night mortals reap by far their keenest joys. Hearken then; dost see this corpse? By doing him a service thou wilt do it to a kinsman of thy bride's. One thing only have I yet to urge. Oh! would I had a voice in arms, in hands, in hair and feet, placed there by the arts of Daedalus or some god, that all together they might with tears embrace thy knees, bringing a thousand pleas to bear on thee! O my lord and master, most glorious light of Hellas, listen, stretch forth a helping hand to this aged woman, for all she is a thing of naught; still do so. For 'tis ever a good man's duty to succour the right, and to punish evil-doers wherever found.