Over the past decades a number of scholars have attempted to find just the right single general term to apply to the study of the relations between ancient authors and modern ones. But there may not be one best term, since the process is dialectical and complicated, and all the possible candidates – reception, tradition, influence, transmission – grasp only one aspect of it. Better to concentrate, then, on methodological issues, particularly the methodologies most often employed in this now burgeoning field.
For example, reception studies have tended to focus upon single major texts and the traditions they have generated. But texts, like authors and merchants, must always compete with one another for their audiences’ attention and pleasure, and examining double cases of competitive receptions can open up new questions that single receptions may obscure. For instance, Euripides wrote Hecuba about 424 BCE and The Trojan Women in 415. Both plays focus on Hecuba and concern the same mythic material. But the two plays are constructed very differently, and the great contrasts in their receptions can tell us much about changing tastes.
We do not know how Hecuba fared in the dramatic competition when it was first produced, but The Trojan Women was evidently a failure. Indeed, throughout antiquity, Hecuba was far more popular than The Trojan Women (as evinced by quotations and allusions by later authors and by papyri). Nonetheless, during the Imperial period both plays were selected among the ten canonical plays, and so both survived intact. But in the Middle Ages their receptions diverged even more radically. Hecuba was included in the so-called Byzantine triad together with Orestes and The Phoenician Women; as a result, it is transmitted by hundreds of medieval manuscripts and is equipped with very full ancient and medieval commentaries. By contrast, only three medieval manuscripts transmit The Trojan Women. This predominance of Hecuba continued into the Renaissance. As early as the 14th century, the first part of the Greek play was accompanied by an interlinear Latin translation; a number of other Latin translations survive, starting in the 15th century and culminating in Erasmus’ successful metrical version. By the 16th century Hecuba was the most translated and imitated Greek play of all. Euripides’ play was especially admired for its demonstration of the mutability of fortune, for its careful dramatic construction, for the polished eloquence of its speeches, and for its excessive violence. For the authors and audiences of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies, Hecuba was a particularly compelling study of the nature and limits of vengeance.
But at the beginning of the 19th century Hecuba entered a period of prolonged disparagement. August Wilhelm Schlegel’s lectures On Dramatic Art and Literature (1808), which damned Hecuba as the worst of all extant Greek tragedies, established a new critical viewpoint. (Among the play’s many ‘faults’: its portrayal of unrelieved suffering, the balanced rhetoric of its speeches, and its claustrophobic focus on Hecuba.) It required considerable changes in Classical scholarship, in modern drama, and (not least) in our sense of our world as a whole before Hecuba could come back into its own—at the very end of the 20th century.
Contrariwise, the experience of the horrors of war and changes in dramatic tastes led to a remarkable resurgence in the popularity of the ‘rival’ Trojan Women, hitherto neglected. In the past decades, it has become the second most frequently staged of all Greek tragedies, certainly overshadowing Hecuba. It has also been adapted by such authors as Jean-Paul Sartre and Hanoch Levin and has been the subject of notable films by directors Sergio Véjar and Michael Cacoyannis. In most modern versions, allusions to current political events are made fully explicit and the horror of Euripides’ play is, if anything, heightened even further. Evidently, contemporary audiences are less interested in finely-tuned plots and bloody revenge than in the repeated representation of hopeless suffering itself.