The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

By Elizabeth Rawson | Go to book overview

14
SPARTANS ON THE STAGE

WHEN turn from political theory to the arts we are reminded again how specialized was the interest that Sparta aroused. Hardly more than in antiquity do scenes from Spartan history make their way into the Renaissance or Baroque repertoire of the visual arts. And it is a commentary on Sparta's generally disappointing role in imaginative literature that the only poetic references at all generally familiar, in this country at least, are those of Shakespeare's Theseus, who describes his hounds

bred out of the Spartan kind,

and hunting exploits

in Crete, in Sparta and in Thessaly,1

or else the apostrophe to Iago:

O Spartan Dog

More fell than anguish, hunger or the sea!

(where the implications of the adjective seem curiously ambiguous, or even sinister, for an age that was only occasionally less than enthusiastic in its response to the idea of Sparta).2

To Shakespeare then, drawing no doubt on Ovid, Sparta seems to mean nothing but hounds and hunting. But more common in sixteenth and seventeenth-century verse than Spartan dogs are Spartan women, not the dancing girls of the classical or Roman poets so much as the Spartan heroines, especially the Spartan mothers, of the Greek epigrammatists. As soon as the Planudean anthology became known in Italy in the later fifteenth

____________________
1
A Midsummer Night's Dream IV. i. 118, 125. Annotations to the effect that bloodhounds hunted silently, i.e. laconically, surely take Theseus' very English description of his Spartan hounds too seriously?
2
Othello V. ii. 363. It is often suggested that Iago's final and obstinate silence may be relevant. But 'laconic' implies brief speech, not absolute silence. However, the boy with the fox was silent or at least secret enough, and doubtless known to Shakespeare. Nonetheless 'fierce' would seem to be the primary connotation of the adjective in this passage.

-202-

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The Spartan Tradition in European Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • FOREWORD TO PAPERBACK EDITION v
  • Preface vii
  • ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS viii
  • Contents ix
  • List of Plates x
  • I INTRODUCTION 1
  • 2 - The Growth of Laconism 12
  • 3 - The Fourth Century in Greece 33
  • 4 - Laconism in the West 56
  • 5 - Plato and Aristotle 61
  • 6 - Laconism in the Hellenistic Age 81
  • 7 - Laconism Exported 94
  • 8 - Under the Empire 107
  • 9 - The Middle Ages 116
  • 10 - Sparta Rediviva 130
  • II - Kings and Ephors 158
  • 12 - In Utopia and Among the Savages 170
  • 13 - The Revolutionary Period in England 186
  • 14 - Spartans on the Stage 202
  • France in the Eighteenth Century(i) 220
  • 16 - France in the Eighteenth Century (ii) 242
  • 7 - The French Revolution and Its Aftermath 268
  • 18 - Italy in the Eighteenth Century 301
  • 19 - Sparta in Germany 306
  • 20 - England: from the Whigs to the Liberals 344
  • APPENDIX NOTE ON THE UNITED STATES 368
  • INDEX OF NAMES 371
  • INDEX OF SUBJECTS 387
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