Sunday, January 22, 2012


Laura Monrós Gaspar, Robert Reece, Cassandra, the Fortune-teller: Prophets, Gipsies and Victorian Burlesque. le Rane. Studi, 56. Bari: Levante editori, 2011. Pp. 330. ISBN 9788879495752. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Joanna Brown, University of Reading (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of Contents listed below.]

The Trojan princess Cassandra remains a haunting figure in the cultural imagination, being most recently reinterpreted by novelists Christa Wolf in Cassandra (1984) and Marion Zimmer Bradley in The Firebrand (1988). In her mythical personae as unheeded prophetess, madwoman, and victim of Apollo, Cassandra is a powerful symbol of the silenced woman, or the abuse survivor whose attacker accurately predicts that she will not be believed. In an impressive chronological span, Laura Monrós Gaspar explores Cassandra's previous incarnations in English literature from the Renaissance to the Victorian era, concluding with Robert Reece's 1868 burlesque, Agamemnon and Cassandra. Recent scholarship has noted that most of the dramatic texts in which Cassandra appeared have since been 'forgotten' (Grafton, Most and Settis 2010: 176), a failure of memory that Monrós Gaspar seeks to rectify.

In her preface, Monrós Gaspar places her work in the context of recent studies of Victorian classical and burlesque theatre (such as Eltis 2004, Macintosh 2000, Hall 1999), trends in the theory of classical reception (Martindale and Thomas 2006) and research on the reception of Cassandra in particular (Mazzoldi 2001, Neblung 1997). Monrós Gaspar describes her research as 'unveiling [the] cultural processes' behind the refigurations of this myth, focussing on 'the semiotic dialogue between art and reality.' Accordingly, Monrós Gaspar conceptualises a break between the realm of art and that of reality, and regards burlesque 'as a refracting and a reflecting mirror' of Victorian ideals and preoccupations.

In her Introduction, Monrós Gaspar sketches a reception history of the figure of Cassandra from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. She locates figurations of Cassandra as belonging to a collection of images of females 'conceived by the anxieties of patriarchal society' (21). From the beginning, then, Monrós Gaspar utilises the term 'patriarchal' as an analytical tool, one which has provoked much dissent within studies of feminist historiography (Morgan 2006). Monrós Gaspar seems to use the term as a convenient shorthand to denote features common to the male-dominated societies in which the Cassandra myth was created and refigured. She surveys the ancient literature in which Cassandra appears, drawing attention to the emphases on her beauty (in the Iliad, Virgil, Ovid and Ionnes Malalas), on her 'mad' look and visions (in Dares of Phrygia, Tzetzes and Ennius) and on the physical effects of prophecy on Cassandra's body (Aischylos, Euripides, Seneca). It is these ancient descriptions of her marginal knowledge and dramatic visions, Monrós Gaspar argues, that set the scene for her nineteenth-century appearance as a gypsy, witch, and fortune-teller. The Cassandra of the Middle Ages, as seen in Chaucer, she asserts, consists of 'the conceptualisation of unorthodox access to knowledge,' (30) while in the sixteenth century she was associated with contemporary heretics and prophets. As the century matured, emphasis came to rest on Cassandra as a cunning enchantress, in line with the seventeenth-century peak in belief in witchcraft.

Chapter One focuses on the way in which nineteenth century translations of Aischylos' Agamemnon and Homer's Iliad 'foreshadow popular reworkings of Cassandra' (60). Noting that translations of these texts served as the 'cultural models' through which refigurations of myth could be conceived, Monrós Gaspar draws attention to the use of pejorative terms used in the translations of Cassandra episodes. Looking at three popular and influential translations of Agamemnon by William Sewell, Hart Milman and Anna Swanwick, Monrós Gaspar analyses the vocabulary choices made by the translators to render the words such as pseudomantis and thurokopos, which Cassandra says are insults used against her by the Trojans in the Agamemnon (1194-5, 1269-74). Overall, Monrós Gaspar concludes that these translators utilise words which 'attempt to depict sage women with images related to the peripheral elements of society.' The second half of the chapter concentrates on the translation of Cassandra's appearance in the Iliad. Monrós Gaspar notes the general familiarity with excerpts from the Iliad (24: 699-708) appearing in translation, and alluded to in street fairs, penny books and burlesques. Here she argues that, in the episode in which Cassandra announces the return of Hektor's body to Troy, the translations of kokosen and gegone connect Iliadic myth with dramatic gestures seen in Victorian melodramas and burlesques. Kokosen, for example, was translated as 'shriek,' a word which held particular associations for Victorians with women, madness and hysteria.

Chapter Two discusses the general appearance of Cassandra in the nineteenth century, placing her in the context of the contemporary renaissance of the occult and the trend for works of 'social prophecy.' Monrós Gaspar argues that the nineteenth-century Cassandra marked a turning point from the eighteenth-century theatrical portrayal of her as a victim to be pitied, experiencing not madness but grief. By the mid-nineteenth century, Monrós Gaspar suggests, Cassandra had come to be associated with figures who had 'marginal access to culture,' such as women, prophets, gypsies and fortune-tellers. Mid- to late- century Cassandras were based upon pejorative female types, in part of a reaction to the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, which made divorce easier for women to access. Monrós Gaspar draws on visual representations of Cassandra, noting that Rossetti's 1870 Cassandra aligned the prophetess with pre-Raphaelite 'fallen' women and that artists expressed Cassandra's rage through depictions of her unbound hair. In the final section, Monrós Gaspar draws together the themes of Victorian sage writing and figurations of prophetesses, gypsies and fortune-tellers in popular Victorian culture. She notes that gypsies were treated as anthropological subjects in periodicals, and that, like Cassandra, gypsies 'are peripheral figures who stray from the paths of conventional and mainstream access to and possession of knowledge' (116). While these peripheral characters are heroic when male (as in the works of Carlisle), they are malevolent when female.

Chapter Three traces the evolution of Cassandra from the virtuous sage in the eighteenth century to the mad fortune-teller in the nineteenth, focussing on Cassandra's appearances in comic theatre. She notes that Victorian burlesque grew out of eighteenth-century street entertainments which often used classical mythology to amuse a popular audience. The first comic Cassandras appear in the eighteenth century, as well as 'sentimental Cassandras in high brow entertainment' (130). In the early eighteenth century, Cassandra is depicted as a mournful victim, far from the mad Victorian figure. However, it was in the mid-century that Cassandra was first connected with peripheral figures such as gypsies. In an 1819 play, produced at the time when Queen Caroline was being divorced for adultery, Cassandra criticises Paris and Helen for their adulterous behaviour and portrays Paris as a dandy. However, despite her overt moralising, hints are made towards the prophetess's madness, which Monrós Gaspar argues 'foreshadows' Reece's burlesque treatment of her. From her image as moral sage in 1819, Cassandra morphs into a frenzied 'shrew' taking vengeance on Clytaimnestra in 1868.

Chapter Four is a close reading of Robert Reece's 1868 burlesque, Agamemnon and Cassandra, which acts as the teleological focal point for the book. Monrós Gaspar remarks upon Reece's contribution to the genre of burlesque, and situates his Agamemnon within the context of the debates of the 1850s and 1860s about the 'strong-minded woman' and divorce. She cites the play as the first to treat Cassandra as a three-dimensional character and argues that 'the ambivalence of burlesque favours a comic Cassandra which both perpetuates and departs from the Greek prototypes, reimagining the signs within an ideological context in which her predictions are believed' (158). Cassandra in her speeches directly associates herself with nineteenth-century fortune-telling almanacs, which Victorians 'rejected as well as demanded' (191). The craze for fortune-telling represented 'the social recognition of peripheral knowledge' (191). In Reece's burlesque, then, Cassandra is rejected as well as heeded, and the ambivalence of the genre towards intellectual models and marginal knowledge allows it to associate Cassandra both with the ugly and vengeful Furies, and with the revelation of truth. While revealing the plot to kill Agamemnon, and crafting Clytaimnestra's exposure in a dramatic and clever way, she remains ambivalent. Clytaimnestra is portrayed rather as a soulless and calculating murderer without the mitigating factor of a sacrificed daughter, ruling over the henpecked Aigisthos. The play, Monrós Gaspar suggests, constructs two approaches to the figure of the New Woman in Clytaimnestra and Cassandra. Monrós Gaspar locates burlesque questioning of women's roles beside the use of the figure of Cassandra as the paradigmatic silenced woman by Margaret Fuller and Florence Nightingale (see also Monrós Gaspar 2007).

Despite continuities in the portrayal of the Trojan princess between Reece and earlier treatments, Monrós Gaspar argues that there is a substantial gap between them. Agamemnon and Cassandra coincides temporally with feminist upheaval, and '[b]urlesque offered Victorian audiences a cathartic mirror where social stereotypes were decoded for laughter' (202). Concluding, Monrós Gaspar suggests that Victorian refigurations of Cassandra include the juxtaposition of Cassandra as the false prophet with her as the wise and heeded; she is ambivalently presented between conservative fears of women's education with the Victorian craze for peripheral prophetic figures. It was the 'ambivalence' of burlesque, Monrós Gaspar concludes, that allowed for the 'coexistence of opposing refigurations of the myth and staged both a scorned and a strong-minded heroine' (205). Monrós Gaspar's book ends with illustrations of Cassandra and of gypsies in ethnographic articles and usefully reproduces the entire script of Reece's Agamemnon, a play which would otherwise be difficult for her readers to access.

Monrós Gaspar's volume is an extremely valuable contribution to nineteenth-century social history, women's history and classical reception studies, drawing attention to non-elite and neglected texts while drawing on recent rich studies of classics and Victorian popular culture. Monrós Gaspar surveys and analyses an impressive range of material, both textual and visual, and throws a light upon the reception of a deeply evocative and ambivalent classical figure. The focus on Reece's play as the culminating point of the work is suggestive of an evolutionary process through which Cassandra 'becomes' the heeded New Woman of 1868. While this highlights nicely the ways in which aspects of Cassandra's presentation in previous contexts contribute to Reece's portrait, it does run the risk of presenting a single, developing Cassandra rather than multiple Cassandras. Also notable and evocative is Monrós Gaspar's use of terms such as 'anticipating' and 'foreshadowing', in places where she suggests that certain representational aspects of Cassandra provide clues towards her future. These phrases harmonise with the theme of the second-sighted Cassandra, bringing the marginalised prophetess's vision to bear in Monrós Gaspar's text. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cassandras are themselves prophecies of Cassandras yet to be realised in the classical tradition. Monrós Gaspar's book adeptly illustrates the ways in which mythical figures are refigured and reproduced through layers of text and spectacle and brings a marginal classical figure in equally marginal popular texts into the limelight. Monrós Gaspar centralises Cassandra in classical discourse, reinvoking an evocative marginalised figure who continues to be a source of female identification.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 9
Preface 11
Introduction: Cassandra from Homer to the 1600s 21
Chapter 1: Cassandra and the Classics in Translation(1820-1868) 59
1.1. Knowledge, Witchcraft and Fortune-telling: Aeschylus' Agamemnon 61
1.2. Images of the Voice: Cassandra in Homer's Iliad 76
1.3. Other Sources 84
Chapter 2: Nineteenth-Century Cassandra 89
2.1. Gestures, Movements and Attitudes 90
2.2. Prophets, Gipsies and Fortune-Tellers 107
Chapter 3: Comic Cassandra (1707-1854) 125
3.1. Eighteenth-century Comic Street Theatre 128
3.2. Cassandra and the Equestrian Burlesque (1819-1854) 139
Chapter 4: Cassandra, Robert Reece and the heyday of burlesque 157
4.1. Robert Reece and Burlesque 158
4.2 Agamemnon and Cassandra or the Prophet and Loss of Troy (1868) 171
4.2.1. The Liverpool Scene 171
4.2.2. Textual Sources: An 'Intertextual Extravaganza' 180
4.2.3. Cassandra: a Witch, a Fortune-Teller and a New Woman 186
Appendix I: Illustrations 205
Appendix II: List of Modern Cassandras 221
Appendix III: Agamemnon and Cassandra, or; the Prophet and Loss of Troy 225
References 287
Index 319


Bradley, M. Z. 1988The Firebrand. Michael Joseph, London
Eltis, S. 2004 'The Fallen Woman on Stage: Maidens, Magdalens and the Emancipated Female' in K. Powell ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre. Cambridge, CUP: 222-36
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Hall, E., F. Macintosh and O. Taplin eds. 2000. Medea in Performance 1500-2000. Oxford, OUP
Macintosh, F. 2000 'Medea Transposed: Burlesque and Gender on the Mid-Victorian Stage' in E. Hall, F. Macintosh and O. Taplin 2000: 74-99
Martindale, C. and R. Thomas eds. 2006 Classics and the Uses of Reception. Blackwell, Oxford
Mazzoldi, S. 2001 Cassandra, la vergine e l'indovina. Identita di un personaggio da Omero all'Ellenismo. Pisa
Monrós Gaspar, L. 2007 'The Voice of Cassandra: Florence Nightingale's Cassandra (1852) and the Victorian Woman' New Voices in Classical Reception Studies Vol. 3: 61-76
Morgan, S. 2006 The Feminist History Reader. Routledge, Abingdon
Neblung, D. 1997 Der Gestalt der Kassandra in der antiken Literatur. Stuttgart and Leipzig
Wolf, C. trans. Jan van Heiurk 1984 Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays. Virago, London

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