1. In his introductory essay Ad Criticum Gager touches on some large questions. NOTE 1 He acknowledges that, by the standards of ancient literary criticism, Ulysses Redux is not a tragedy. It contains humorous incidents (he cites the example of the boxing match between Ulysses and Irus), somewhat pedestrian diction, and above all it features a happy ending. He then opens a discussion of a dramatic form that, although not called by that name, is really tragicomedy.
2. This is a rather typical discussion of a topic that loomed large in Renaissance writings on literary criticism. NOTE 2 A common stance in classical literary theory might be called the doctrine of generic appropriateness. Originating in certain statements of Aristotle, such as that tragedy evolved until it attained its proper nature (Poetics p. 1449a6), this theory held that there are a finite number of genres, each having its proper subject matter, aims, methods, and style. In Horace’s Ars Poetica there is an initial discussion of three monstrosities: the poem begun in the grand manner that fails to maintain its level, the votive tablet with a palm tree added, and the pot that is begun as an amphora but finished as a pitcher (1 - 23). NOTE 3 Of these three artistic failures, the second is the most interesting. According to a theory of the distinctiveness of genres, votive paintings should not contain palm trees. Any artistic experimentation that leads to the addition of elements that, according to this canonic view of literary genres, are deemed unsuitable can only be condemned as botched work. This view was scarcely limited to Horace. Cicero, for example, represents this same viewpoint when he writes that “in tragedy anything comic is a blemish, and in comedy anything tragic is ugly” (de Optimo Genere Oratorum 1).
3. Renaissance Humanists were profoundly influenced by this classical view of propriety. Therefore something of a crisis was provoked by two factors: a desire to justify contemporary taste for tragicomedy, and a growing realization that there is a considerable disparity between the doctrines of classical critics and the actual practice of the Greek tragedians. For some items in the tragic repertoire end happily, have humorous incidents, introduce characters dressed in rags, and feature elements of diction that are less than entirely grandiose. Gager’s address Ad Criticum is therefore a typical Renaissance apology for tragicomedy. In connection with Gager’s overall aims as a dramatist, the main thrust of his defense is noteworthy. Although he points to such ancient plays as Sophocles Electra and Oedipus Coloneus and Euripides’ satyric Cyclops, NOTE 4 his ultimate appeal is not to classical precedent but to the court of popular opinion. As Herrick put it (p. 224), “In England…even academic Latin tragedy, as illustrated by the Ulysses Redux of 1592, yielded to the popular preference for variety over regularity.”
4. By Renaissance standards Ulysses Redux deserves to be categorized as a tragicomedy because it has a happy ending. Both in Momus’ reproachful epilogue to Panniculus and in the Ad Criticum Gager alludes to the fact that the boxing match with Irus elicited laughter. At least for a modern reader, there is nothing exceptionally humorous about the writing of this episode, although of course it could have been made so by the way it was acted. On the whole the diction is somewhat pedestrian, at least in the sense that Gager “dispenses with most of the Senecan rhetorical top-hamper, and [aims] in his tragaedia nova at a realism of speech which caught something of Homeric simplicity and force, though it missed Homeric majesty.” NOTE 5 This is a fair comment, at least if you balance it against the observation that plenty of Senecan diction remains, and if you keep in mind the Hadrian-based pathos of Melantho’s dying lament at 1837ff.
5. When Boas describes Ulysses Redux with the words tragaedia nova that appear on the title page, this has the effect of claiming by insinuation that the play is, or at least purports to be to be, distinctively innovative. NOTE 5 If this is what Boas meant, he was guilty a bit of misrepresentation, for the idea that any such claim is contained in the words tragaedia nova is indefensible. The same words appear on the title page of the Meleager edition, and plenty of other printed tragedies, and indicate no more than that this is a recent play printed for the first time (possibly to help sales). Ulysses Redux may be a well crafted play, but it is not a groundbreaking one. When all is said and done, we should not allow our reading of the play to be unduly colored by Gager’s own appraisal. What remains more impressive is the play’s “tragic” side: its pathos and seriousness of moral purpose. Gager’s last complete play is probably his most admired. According to this same writer: NOTE 6
To acclimatize the Odyssey to the conditions of the Elizabethan University stage could not but be a tour de force. But granted the conditions, it is difficult to see how the task could have been better carried out than in Ulysses Redux. In its own kind, the play is a masterpiece, a worthy tribute by renaissance Oxford to “Homer, Prince of Poets” before Chapman had begun to interpret him to the wider world of English readers.
Previous writers have stressed the play’s careful construction. For example, Binns offered the interesting observation NOTE 7 that “Ulysses himself is the center of attention in Act I and Act V, the suitors in Act II and Act IV, and Penelope in Act III.” But in one important sense, someone might care to question the verdict that it is entirely well crafted. In the Poetics Aristotle taught that the best kind of tragic plot builds inexorably to a single climactic turning-point involving a reversal of fortune created by some form of revelation or recognition. Although he does not say so explicitly, it seems universally understood that tragic catharsis is supposed to occur at this point, provoked by this crucial moment. The point of Aristotle’s remarks about plot construction is that, in his view, this is how tragedy can best purvey the specific pleasure involved in catharsis. When this doctrine is mentioned, one inevitably thinks of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus as its best possible illustration. But the plot construction of the Odyssey illustrates it just as well. The climactic moment of the epic comes when the disguised Odysseus strings his own bow with ease, thereby revealing his true identity, and immediately goes about the business of killing the Suitors. In the epic a revealing recognition and a reversal of fortune are no less tightly linked than in the Oedipus. NOTE 8 And so, at least if one is prepared to accept the wisdom of Aristotle’s idea about the best kind of tragic plot, then Ulysses Redux becomes liable to criticism. It is easy enough to accept Gager’s other deviations from his Homeric model, but one might question his decision to separate Ulysses’ victory in the Contest of the Bow from his killing of the Suitors, so that they do no occur in the same Act and are separated by a significant narrative development, Theoclymenus’ ghastly prophecy to the Suitors. The individual reader may best judge whether this decision weakens the tragic effect. But it deserves to be pointed out that Gager did not introduce this change capriciously. He was faced with a genuine problem, for he did not wish to represent the killing of the Suitors as an onstage event, and his solution was to reset the scene by introducing an act-division, so that the massacre could occur out of the sight of the audience.
6. A final word ought to be added about the style of the play. In his prefatory material Gager himself has a certain amount to say on the subject. In his preface Ad Criticum he writes si etiam scribendi ratio mihi imprimis probatur ea, quae est paulo liberior ac pene dissolutior, quaeque non tam doctissimis, quam imperitis placeat [“so in writing my method is somewhat free and relaxed, of a sort which pleases the learned less than the unskilled.”] And in his Prologue he adds (29ff.):
nil audietis grande, nil Sophoclis stilo
Senecaeve scriptum. quippe iam fractus mari
terraque Ulysses, ponet ampullas miser,
nec in cothurnis ambulat, mendiculus
senexque factus, sed prope pedestri dolens
sermone, socco pauper incedit levi.
[“You will hear nothing grand, written in the style of Sophocles or Seneca. Now indeed Ulysses, shattered by land and sea, will discard his bombast, nor will he stride about in tragic buskins, as he has been made a humble beggar and an old man. Rather, bewailing his fate in almost everyday language and a pauper, he walks about in comic slippers.”]
It is worth considering what these statements do and do not mean. While Ulysses Redux contains some phrases borrowed from Seneca, these are considerably fewer than in Meleager. Much of the play consists of speeches based on Homeric equivalents, but they tend to be adapted in the author’s own words. So far, therefore, Gager accurately describes the way he writes. But we should not place excessive emphasis on his reference to Ulysses prope pedestri dolens / sermone. Save for isolated vocabulary items such as senex (= “boss”) or perhaps versipellis, and for a few literal Latin translations of English proverbs, the play is still written in the style of Latin high poetry. It is not written in a colloquial style, or in one redolent of the comic language (let alone meter) of Plautus and Terence. And so, on the level of style as well as that of content, Gager’s idea of tragicomedy is one that admits a certain amount of untragic elements but that retains the essential dignity and earnestness of serious drama.
7. The situation with the text is the same as with Meleager. It exists only in a printing issued at Oxford by Joseph Barnes in 1592. NOTE 9 This is a 12ooin eights consisting of 96 pages (sigs. A - F8). As in that other volume, there are some faults in the printed edition caused by typographical errors or misinterpretations of the manuscript from which the printing was done, as noted in the apparatus criticus.
NOTE 1 More precisely, he develops an issue that had already been raised by the hypercritical Momus in his Epilogue to Panniculus (450ff.)
NOTE 2 Cf. Marvin T. Herrick, Tragicomedy: Its Origins and Development in Italy, France and England (Urbana, 1955), Chapter One. Herrick discusses Ulysses Redux on pp. 221 - 4.
NOTE 3 Cf. the commentary of C. O. Brink, Horace on Poetry (Cambridge, 1971) II.85 - 104 (especially 99 - 101). Horace explicitly applies this doctrine of generic propriety to tragedy at 89 - 92.
NOTE 4 For this latter play, cf. the Commentary note on his discussion.
NOTE 5 Boas, p. 218. Cf. also Herrick, p. 224.
NOTE 6 Loc.cit. So also Herrick, p. 224.
NOTE 6 Boas, pp. 218f. Cf. also the equally enthusiastic appraisal by J. W. Binns, “William Gager’s Meleager and Ulysses Redux,” The Drama of the Renaissance: Essays for Leicester Bradner (ed. Elmer M. Blistein, Providence, 1970) 27 - 42.
NOTE 7 Ib. 29.
NOTE 8 This is superficially disguised by the fact that the division beweeen Books xxi and xxii falls in the middle of the narrative sequence. But the division of the Homeric epics into twenty-four Books apiece was superimposed on the text in later antiquity as a matter of convenience, and does not necessarily represent Homer’s own structural articulation of the two epics.
NOTE 9 Four known copies are extant, owned by the Bodleian Library, Folger Shakespeare Library, Huntington Library, and Library of York Minster. A photographic reprint of the Bodleian copy has been reissued 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.