PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
M. Wynn ThomasThe Other Side of the Hedge
(PN Review 239)
Next Issue Beverley Bie Brahic, after Leopardi's 'Broom' Michael Freeman Benefytes and Consolacyons Miles Burrows At Madame Zaza’s and other poems Victoria Kenefick Hunger Strike Hilary Davies Haunted by Christ
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
Monthly Carcanet Books
PN Review Blog

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 ...

Searching, please wait... animated waiting image