INTRODUCTION1. From Gager’s dedicatory epistle to the Earl of Essex and from Christ Church account books, we know that Meleager was first performed in February 1582, as one of Christ Church’s contributions to a drama festival involving three Oxford colleges described in the Introduction to Oedipus, and was revived three years later, in January, in the presence of the Earls of Leicester and Pembroke, and of Sir Philip Sidney. Meleager is a highly competent neoclassical tragedy, that well reproduces tragedy’s inner spirit as well as its outward form. It has been justly admired by critics. J. W. Binns observed that: NOTE 1
The taut structure of Meleager increases the intense and torrid atmosphere of the play, which is permeated by Fate and a sense of inevitable doom. Gager uses supernatural elements, visions, and dreams to add a somber color to the play, and to suggest that dark and ominous forces are at work beyond the powers of men.
Frederick S. Boas wrote: NOTE 2
[Meleager] deserved its highly favourable reception. Though it was Gager’s maiden effort as a dramatist, he had shown remarkable skill in adapting the Ovidian story for the stage. He uses, as a matter of course, the Senecan machinery and technique, and he observes the unities strictly. But it is only a superficial view that would dismiss the play as merely imitative and unoriginal. Gager…shows genuine inventiveness and dexterity in his management of the plot, fusing into an attractive whole episodes of his own devising with those of which Ovid was the direct source. The chief personages are individualized by numerous touches which lift them out of the category of types, and the figure of Oeneus is specially noteworthy as due almost entirely to the playwright, and as tempering the tragic atmosphere with an element of acid humour. The dialogue springs, in the main, naturally from the circumstances of the action, and sententious moralizing is for the most part restricted to the Choruses.
It is assuredly the most convincing test of the merits of Meleager that…it will not stand entirely disadvantageous comparison with the consummate tragedy on the same theme which a later age owes to the genius and the scholarship of Swinburne.
Meleager is Gager’s most original creation. In his prose preface he displays awareness of various ancient literary treatments of the subject, only two of which are extant. The version of the story in Book IX of the Iliad is radically different and so is essentially irrelevant: no Calydonian boar, no Atalanta, no burning brand, no death of Meleager. This leaves only Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII.270 - 546. So, just as Gager’s other two plays, Meleager is based on a single classical model. Because of the haste with which it had to be written, Dido follows its Vergilian model closely. Ulysses Redux displays more independence from the Odyssey, at least in its second half. But Meleager contains important elements that are either developed from hints in Ovid or are entirely invented. The detailed ways in which he did or did not adhere to Ovid may better be discussed in individual commentary notes. But Gager’s most important innovations can be mentioned here.
2. Meleager’s love for Atalanta is a necessary plot element, since it motivates his fatal decision to award her the spoils of the hunt. Although Ovid gets through this briefly, taking no more than four lines (324 - 8), Gager devotes all but the first speech of Act I to this subject. His characterization of Atalanta as concerned with maintaining her virginity, and the lengthy debate between her and Meleager about the value of chastity, have no Ovidian equivalents at all.
3. Since Meleager does not follow a literary model so closely, Gager enjoyed especial scope for what was perhaps his most distinctive gift as a dramatist, the delineation of character. We have already seen an example of his ability to create deft characterization in Oedipus’ Eteocles. In Meleager this talent is displayed far more lavishly. Act I, for example, contains much that strikes one as less than wholly serious. Atalanta, entirely devoted to the killing of animals, frightening the beasts more than they frighten her, is surely one of the least lovely romantic interests in literature; devotees of the late P. G. Wodehouse will be reminded of Honoria Glossop. NOTE 3 Meleager, doting on this creature, occasionally borders on the goonish. The exchanges between Meleager and Philemon may be inspired by Senecan scenes between a leading character and a confidant, but Philemon is no mere stock character who serves to elicit his interlocutor’s philosophy by asking questions and raising obvious objections: he is a polished courtier with views of his own and is, we are given to feel, considerably brighter than either Meleager or Atlanta.
4. Gager can get away with this slightly tongue-in-cheek presentation of Meleager and Atalanta because they are, by some important standards, secondary characters. Oeneus is perhaps not the play’s unqualified protagonist in terms of the amount of time he is on the stage or the number of lines he is given to speak, and the fact that the play is named after Meleager is duly noted. But he dominates in the fascination of his portrayal. Also, the play ends with a carefully controlled series of escalating catastrophes, and his downfall, being reserved for last, is made the most important. As Boas suggested, in Oeneus’ magnificently single-minded wrongheadedness, and in his terrific rant, there is something almost Marlovian about this quite literally heaven-storming figure. A character is truly worthy of Marlowe who can exclaim (572ff.):
Si rueret omne quod vides caelum undique,
Et ipse ruerem, fateor, et ruerem libens.
Haud ille miser est quisquis ex alto cadit,
Cadente mundo pariter.
[“If this heaven you see everywhere were to fall, and I along with it, I confess I should fall gladly. He is scarcely wretched who falls from a high position, if the universe collapses with him.”]
Despite the play’s title, surely he is the figure who lasts in the reader’s imagination.
5. The fact that he is not closely following a literary model has the effect of allowing Gager to gravitate further into the orbit of Senecan tragedy. Although there are plenty of ways in which Meleager does not strictly imitate Seneca’s tragic outlook or his dramatic technique (I shall return to this subject below), there is a good deal in this play that is very much in the Senecan vein. The play’s crucial transaction (dramatized in Act IV), in which Althaea burns the log and destroys her son, imitates the sacrifice scene in Seneca’s Medea. The scenes between Althaea and the Nurse remind us of domina-nutrix scenes in such plays as Hippolytus and Medea, and scenes between Oeneus and the unnamed Old Man remind us of dialogues between Senecan kings and their more prudent and level-headed advisers. Indeed, Gager embroiders on this Senecan scene-type by multiplication: there is a balanced symmetry between the pairings of Meleager and Philemon, Althaea and her Nurse, and Oeneus and his Old Man. Gager is being equally Senecan when he adds heavy elements of the supernatural: a Prologue-speaking Fury who, we are given to believe, manipulates the action from behind the scenes, reported ghost-apparitions, dire portents and prophecies. All of this machinery, especially the Fury, is quite unnecessary, since the anger of Diana by itself supplies a sufficient element of divine intervention. Gager adds these superfluous supernatural elements both because they are traditionally Senecan and because they are colorful and exciting, and cater to contemporary tastes for the macabre.
6. But he is capable of declaring his independence of Senecan models. Even the tragic Meleager contains elements of song and masquing, destined to play a greater role in his subsequent works. More significantly, although in the proper Senecan manner Meleager is heavily interlarded with references to the power of Fortune and the Fates, at one point (V.1529ff.) Gager rebels against this philosophy and places in the mouth of his Old Man a denial that Fortune exerts any influence over human affairs whatsoever.
7. In fact, if one can look past the very obvious evidence for Senecan influence on levels ranging from poetry to dramaturgic technique to philosophical outlook, there is good reason for thinking that the most important influence on this play is not Seneca, but rather Sophocles, particularly in his characterizations. Equally redolent of Sophocles is Gager’s frequent use of proleptic irony (for example, Meleager’s passion for Atalanta is frequently described in terms of fire imagery). In one of the most important studies of Sophocles written in modern times, NOTE 4 Bernard M. W. Knox has shown that each Sophoclean tragedy but one focuses on a strong and single-minded individual on the day of greatest crisis in his or her life. This character’s monomania is carried to the point of self-destructive obsession. The exception is Antigone, in which two such characters are placed on an inevitable collision course against each other. This type of tragic hero is, peculiarly Sophoclean, but it certainly is not Senecan. It is also very much in accord with the kind of Elizabethan tragic hero that Marlowe was about to invent. But rather than giving us one or at most two such characters, Gager populates the play with no less than four: Meleager, blindly in love with Atalanta; Atalanta, rendered equally blind by the all-dominating idea of maintaining her chastity; Oeneus, with his hubristic self-confidence and thunderous disdain of the god; and Althaea, engaged in a quest for settling a score that would do justice to an Electra. With the possible exception of Atalanta (who dooms herself to a life that, the reader may care to think, is correctly diagnosed as sterile by Philemon), each of these characters is ruined by his or her particular obsession, and by the kind of destructive tunnel vision and spiritual isolation it implies.
7. Of these characters, Oeneus is by far the most interesting. On the Sophoclean stage, there is a religious dimension to the hero’s wrongheadedness which, at the risk of annoying classical scholars who debate precisely what this word and concept are all about, may provisionally be called hubris. Thus, for example, part of Oedipus’ problem is his idea that he can control his destiny, and part of Creon’s is that he is so dead sure that what he wants and what the gods want are one and the same thing. Oeneus’ confidence in the prosperity of himself and his kingdom and his contempt for the gods, which eventuates in his final demented attempt to assault them physically (thus replicating the efforts of the heaven-storming Giants of classical mythology), are as starkly hubristic as anything one could hope to find in the classical repertoire. The play’s mounting catastrophes achieve a climax in Oeneus’ madness and death, which involves (as a good tragic ending should) a reassertion of divine power and of a morally orderly universe.
8. To further emphasize the nature of his heroes and heroines, Sophocles had a trick of playing them off against characters who are more realistic and accommodating, but also made of weaker spiritual stuff. Thus Electra is matched against Chrysothemis, and Antigone against Ismene. The figures of the advisor and the nurse may be stock characters of the Senecan repertoire, but Gager uses Philemon, the Old Man, and the Nurse for a very similar purpose. Senecan tragedy is not classical tragedy. Standing at several centuries’ remove from the great days of the Athenian theater, his plays are better regarded as a kind of Roman exercise in neoclassicism. He had a completely different theology, based on an admixture of his peculiar brand of Stoicism NOTE 5 and blind fatalism, and completely different fish to fry, such as the investigation of tyranny. In Meleager, Gager makes a strenuous and remarkably successful effort to get behind Seneca and replicate the spirit and contents of Attic tragedy.
9. I shall close by quoting, without evaluation, a paragraph from Tucker Brooke’s biographical article: NOTE 6
Another plays on this occasion [of Meleager’s first performance] was probably the Caesar Interfectus of Gager’s friend [Richard] Edes, of which only the epilogue remains on a fragment of paper in the Bodleian dated 1582. This epilogue, unlike those that Gager wrote for his plays, is in prose, and so the entire piece may have been, for though Edes could write tolerable hexameters, there is no evidence that he attempted the tragic metres. However this be, if there is anything in the strangely persuasive arguments of Professor Smart that Shakespeare must have seen Edes’ Caesar, it would be difficult not to believe that he was remembering Meleager as well as Ovid when he wrote the lines in 2 Henry VI 233 - 6,
Methinks the realms of England, France, and Ireland
Bear that proportion to my flesh and blood
As did the fatal brand Althaea burnt
Unto the prince’s heart of Calydon.
For they describe the great climax of Gager’s play.
10. The text of Meleager is preserved by the edition of Joseph Barnes, printer to the University, issued in 1593. This is a 16o in eights consisting of 96 pages (sigs. A - F 8), with poetry set in handsome pica Italic and prose in pica Roman. The printed text contains some typographical errors, or perhaps in some cases printer’s misreadings of the manuscript. Two extant copies contain a few hand corrections, and some necessary corrections are noted in an appendix to Tucker Brooke’s unpublished manuscript. Together with prefatory material, the play occupies sigs. A 2r - E 7v. Five copies survive, owned by the British Library, the Dyce Collection of the National Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bodleian Library, the Library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and the Yale University Library. A photographic reprint has been issued in William Gager, Meleager, Ulysses Redux, Panniculus Hippolyto Senecae Tragoediae Assutus Prepared with an Introduction by J. W. Binns (vol. I.2 in the Renaissance Latin Drama in England series, Hildesheim, 1982), pages unnumbered. In the Introduction to Gager’s letter to John Rainolds I say something about the circumstances under which the printed text was issued. It is possibly worth repeating that this edition was issued sometime after January 1, 1593 (modern style), since Falconer Madan, Oxford Books, A Bibliography of Printed Works Relating to the University and City of Oxford or Printed or Published There (Oxford, 1895) I.33, registers it under the year 1592. To be sure, the date of the dedicatory letter, 1592, is written in quotation marks, presumably to indicate that it is old style; nevertheless, the fact that this book is listed before Ulysses Redux by Madan creates a wrong impression of the order in which these volumes were issued.
NOTE 1 “William Gager’s Meleager and Ulysses Redux,” in The Drama of the Renaissance: Essays for Leicester Bradner (ed. Elmer M. Blistein, Providence, 1970), 27 - 41 (the quotation is from pp. 31f.).
NOTE 2 Boas, p. 175 (he discusses the play on pp. 168 - 76).
NOTE 3 There are, to be sure, elements of her character derived from Seneca’s Hippolytus: her fondness for the hunt, her predilection for the rural life, her disdain of the city (for which cf. Hippolytus’ speech at Seneca, Hipp. 482ff.). It will be observed that, in presenting Meleager as a lover in Act I, Gager makes a game out of inverting the situation in Seneca’s Hippolytus: Atalanta, with her enthusiasm for hunting and devotion to chastity, is already very Hippolytus-like. Gager completes the equation by describing the symptoms of Meleager’s love in language borrowed from the Hippolytus’ description of Phaedra’s passion, and further underscores the similarity by adapting a number of other phrases from that play, as recorded in individual notes.
NOTE 4 Bernard M. W. Knox, The Heroic Temper (Berkeley - Los Angeles, 1964). If it is to be asked how Gager could have been familiar with Sophocles, he could easily have read the Antigone in the Latin translation published by Thomas Watson at London in 1581.
NOTE 5 If one can think that Seneca’s tragedies are Stoic at all. To be sure, they reproduce one major theme of contemporary Stoicism, the glamorization of suicide. But in his plays Fortune and the Fates almost completely supplant Providence as governors of the universe, and a world view that excludes Providence can scarcely be said to be genuinely Stoic.
NOTE 6 “Life and Times” 415, referring to John Semple Smart, Shakespeare Truth and Tradition (London, 1928) 179 - 82.