Ferreira and Buchanan

February 5, 2010

The CEMS Neo-Latin series held two sessions on sixteenth-century tragedies with the theme of female sacrifice. Thomas Earle (King John II Professor of Portuguese Studies) led a discussion of António Ferreira’s Senecan tragedy, Castro, which he has edited (Ferreira, Poemas Lusitanos (Lisbon, 2000, 2008). Written in the 1550s, this play is an example of the close adaptation of Senecan tragedy, including Senecan metres, to a vernacular context: though it was written in Portuguese, some passages adapt Latin metres. Professor Earle showed how Ferreira deploys a particularly interesting double chorus structure to represent contending viewpoints, and linked this with the moment of relative cultural openness before the Counter-Reformation imposed greater cultural orthodoxy. the seminar did something to remedy what Professor Earle has called ‘the notorious invisibility of Portuguese culture in England’ (see also his ‘Portuguese scholarship in Oxford in the early modern period: the case of Jerónimo Osório (Hieronymus Osorius’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 81 (2004), 1039-49, and his Portuguese Writers and English Readers: Books by Portuguese Writers Published before 1640 in Oxford and Cambridge Libraries, soon to be published by the Oxford Bibliographical Society).

Ferreira’s play avoids the sensational aftermath of the story, which has inspired many plays and operas: after being killed by political adversaries, Ines de Castro was given an elaborate burial and in some versions of the story, she was posthumously crowned and courtiers were made to kiss her corpse’s hand. Ferreira the classicist omits this splendidly baroque aftermath (though some of it is treated in James Macmillan’s recent opera, which was partly based on Ferreira). The play’s focus is on the political machinations that lead to Ines’s fate and her resolute defiance: elements the play has in common with the Jephthes of George Buchanan, who himself spent some years in Portugal. Elizabeth Sandis discussed this play and showed that, as in Ferreira, the play of different viewpoints sets the audiences major challenges of interpretation. Jephthes’s role as agent of a divinely ordained victory seems to heighten his extreme fidelity to a vow that will lead to the death of his own daughter. Buchanan is often close to his main Greek model, Euripides’s Iphigeneia, and the group discussed the extent to which a Greek tragic perspective, or Roman Stoic values, could be reconciled with the Biblical setting (the play was often published along with his paraphrases of the Psalms).

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