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This article is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

Tragic Heroes, Comic Nurses Felicity Rosslyn

One of the most familiar characters in tragic drama is the Nurse, who bustles around the stage at the emotional crisis, completely missing the heroic point. Orestes has one, Phaedra has one; Juliet has the most famous of them all, and Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov supply them in abundance. This Nurse exists for the sake of contrast, we know; but is it possible that she does more for the play than put the hero or heroine in a stronger light? The persistence of this figure from the Greek stage to the present makes it worth asking, at least, what thoughts the nurse brings with her into the heroic atmosphere - and why to dwell on her role at any length might seem to be breaching a polite taboo maintained by literary criticism. Is there something intrinsically awkward about the conjunction of tragic heroes and their nurses?

To take the earliest example we have, why does Aeschylus pause before the climax of The Libation Bearers to introduce Orestes' nurse, Cilissa, and give her a speech of thirty lines? Clytaemnestra has sent her to fetch Aegisthus to hear some news: two strangers (Orestes and Pylades) have brought the story that Orestes is now dead, and Cilissa knows that no-one inside the palace is sorry. One of the things this speech does is to introduce the note of deep natural affection; Cilissa's reaction is contrasted with Clytaemnestra's hidden smiles:

                            ...Poor unhappy me,
all my long-standing mixture ...


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