What’s He to Hecuba?

hecuba-statue-baseThe unveiling of the University of Southern California’s new expansion has given the Los Angeles campus an opportunity to add a new statue. She is Hecuba, Queen of the Trojans, deliberately selected as a subject to counterbalance USC’s testosterone-fueled Tommy Trojan (officially “the Trojan Shrine”), the bronze campus mascot erected in 1930.

The new statue is the work of Christopher Slatoff. “Queen Hecuba will serve as the new symbol of Troy,” said President C.L. Max Nikias, who emphasized that this Hecuba stands as a figure “celebrating our women of Troy.”

Indeed, the statue’s base is ringed by six female figures of ethnicities from around the globe. The inscription, however, reads:

And all for nothing, for Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her

It’s a scant excerpt clipped from a great monologue, itself one element  of the most famous tragedy in the English language.

One might quibble about punctuation here. “What’s Hecuba,” etc., really is a question and needs a ? at the end.

One might quibble further that a) the character of Hecuba had a pretty miserable life, and b) Hamlet is talking about how an actor can summon up the power to imagine the already imaginary Hecuba and be moved by her plight.

But still, if you’re going to settle on a Trojan female for a Trojan-themed campus, you might as well choose Hecuba over, say, Andromache or Cassandra.

It would be pleasant if the new statue sent students rushing off to read the Iliad, but what’s likely to provoke curiosity is the attribution for the statue’s inscription, which reads “Shakespear’s Hamlet” — without a final e in the playwright’s name. (In an earlier age, one might have signed the passage Hamlet, Act II, Sc. 2 and dispensed with the redundancy of authorship, but this is not that age.)

The Washington Post picked up the story with the headline “To E, or Not to E, That is the Question,” which is what USC reportedly told the press as part of its response to inquiries.

The newspaper’s piece goes on to say that the university settled on “Shakespear, a spelling popular in the 18th century, because of the ‘ancient feel’” the sculptor had brought to his subject.

The statue looks dignified and imposing in photographs, though I’m not sure what “ancient feel” might mean (“ancient” as in Homeric Greek? Elizabethan English?).  USC’s choice of typeface for the quotation — a peppy font with looped ascenders — doesn’t say “ancient feel” as much as “party invitation.”

True, Shakespear is a form one might see in 18th-century books. But it’s not the form on the title page of Q1, the 1603 quarto printing of the play (the so-called Bad Quarto because it varies so widely from the 1623 text we have accepted), which bears the name of William Shake-speare.

And the 1623 Folio bears the title Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, leaving us to imagine an apostrophe to mark the possessive, but gloriously proclaiming the Oxford comma. (And no, that’s not the Earl of Oxford comma.)

Of course, there have been many ways to spell the name of our playwright, who himself evaded consistency in his six surviving signatures, three of them on his 1616 will. Several of these precious autographs are abbreviated (one could do that then). Of the fully spelled out versions of his name, however, the poet’s own hand left us Shakspeare and Shakespere, but neither Shakespear nor (alas, alack) Shakespeare. 

But to the task at hand: USC’s new Hecuba, with her “ancient feel,” is doing symbolic work that has nothing to do with ancientness and everything to do with modernity.

As for Shakespeare, Shakesper, Shakespear, Shaxper, and Shakespere, or any other possible spelling, these orthographies are pretty much beside the point for us moderns. He’s Shakespeare now.

Meanwhile, Tommy and Hecuba, bronze and upright in central Los Angeles, will now be able to converse about Troy, why the war with Greece went south, whether Troy-Carthage-Rome-SoCal is the logical sequence for the Trojan diaspora, and whether pius Aeneas is on Facebook yet.

While they do, campus guides can perfect their explanation for the spelling of Shakespeare’s name.


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