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!'
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 Hecuba.
'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen…'
'The mobled queen?'
That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.
'…run barefoot up and down, threatening 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'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up;
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steeped,
'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have pronounced:
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.'
In Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas is telling his story to Dido. Obviously we hear the story from his perspective as a prince of Troy, and as such it is understandable that the Greeks are very negatively portrayed. None of them is more wickedly presented than Pyrrhus (more frequently known as Neoptolemus), the son of Achilles. What Shakespeare does not mention is that before slaughtering Priam, he killed Priam’s son Polites. The prince was clinging to the altar of Zeus desperately praying for sanctuary, and the enraged Pyrrhus killed him in full view of his father. Pyrrhus then dragged Priam to the altar too, and “minced his limbs” as Shakespeare so grimly describes it.
Fortuna was the Roman goddess of fortune, both good and bad. Of all of the ancient gods who were supplanted by Christianity, Fortune was perhaps the one who lasted the longest. Well into the Middle Ages, she remained a central part of the imagination. She was frequently depicted with a horn of plenty, or a ship’s rudder, or a ball, but more than anything else with a wheel - hence the reference to her wheel in this week’s episode. Boethius makes several references to her, and particularly to her wheel, charting how a person’s life can go through good and bad periods as their fortune increases or decreases. Fortune is also featured in the writings of Boccaccio, and I’ve included an image of an illuminated manuscript page from one of his books.
A synod is a council of a religious group, usually meeting to discuss an issue of doctrine. Historically, the word applied primarily to a meeting of bishops of the Catholic Church. Amazingly, every single time Shakespeare uses it in one of his plays, he does so to refer to the collected gods of the ancient world.
Hecuba (or Hekabe), wife of Priam, features in an impressive variety of literary works. As well as several episodes in Homer’s Iliad, she is the lead character in two separate plays by Euripides. The Trojan Women happens in the aftermath of Troy’s capture by the Greeks. All of the women are assigned as slaves to the Greek warriors, and Hecuba watches as several of them are carted off. In this part of the story, Pyrrhus gets even more revenge against Priam’s family when he ensures that the last living male Trojan prince, Hector’s son Astyanax, is murdered, thrown from the walls of Troy. Hector’s widow, Andromache, is given to Pyrrhus as a slave. Hecuba herself is given to Odysseus, and the next play, Hecuba, takes place after they leave Troy. Finally the queen is allowed just a tiny bit of revenge, against the king Polymestor who murdered another of her sons. She blinds the king and is turned into a dog, so that she can escape her captors.
Hecuba also appears in Dante’s Inferno, described as Ecuba trista, misera e cattiva - poor Hecuba, sad and captive.
I mention this here (and not in the podcast itself) because the reference is a little too far outside the scope of the play, but both Hecuba and Fortuna appear in the Carmina Burana. Although most famous in the 1930s setting by Carl Orff that has become so famous in horror films, the original text is a collection of songs and poems called “Songs from Benediktbeuern” or Carmina Burana. The most famous segment of Orff’s music is in fact an invocation to the goddess - ‘O Fortuna’. Treat yourself - play this on LOUD.
As I mentioned at the end of the episode, Kenneth Branagh went all-out in his film version of the play in 1996. He filmed the entire play, with a fabulous cast that includes Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie and Kate Winslet. He also includes a good few flashbacks and extra scenes, including those described at Troy by the First Player. Here’s the full speech, performed by Charlton Heston and with John Gielgud and Judi Dench as Priam and Hecuba.