Material Nostalgia in Classical and Early Modern Drama

By Marnie J. Monogue
2021, Vol. 13 No. 01 | pg. 1/1


The inescapability and influence of the past becomes most discernable with homecoming. A particularly powerful sense of nostalgia concentrates in textiles, especially when these objects purposefully invoke the past. More often than not, theatre uses textile props and clothing as the primary representative medium, enhancing storytelling capacity. These symbolic fabrics and costumes can best be characterized as Shakespeare’s “trappings and suits of woe,” as they function as both physical and psychological traps, but also allow for outward expression of “that within which passes show.” Textiles prove exceptionally practical for capturing the inescapability of the past inherent to a nostos drama because of their nostalgic properties. By conducting analysis informed by new materialism on the textiles employed as trappings in the Agamemnon, The Tempest, and the Trachiniae, this paper explores how fabric and clothing serve as visual and material conduits in classical and early modern drama to convey the inescapability of the past and the risk of death inherently found in returning home.

The inescapability and influence of the past becomes most discernable with homecoming, regardless of whether the return feels joyful or sorrowful. For the Ancient Greeks, nostos meant a homecoming earned after a long and epic journey.1 From this concept we derive the English word nostalgia, or, an acute longing for familiar surroundings.2 Collective nostalgia for a bygone era often focuses on physical objects representative of the past: an eight-track tape, a landline phone, or a Polaroid camera connotes a time different from our own. At times, this pleasant nostalgia can obscure darker truths about the reality of time for which it yearns. A particularly powerful sentimentality concentrates in textiles, especially when these objects purposefully invoke the past. A quilt may be a new, singular object, but if it has been constructed from old, previously-worn clothing, it exists as a visual and material reminder of the passage of time.

More often than not, theatre uses textile props and clothing as the primary representative medium, enhancing storytelling capacity. These symbolic fabrics and costumes can best be characterized as Shakespeare’s “trappings and suits of woe,” as they function as both physical and psychological traps, but also allow for outward expression of “that within which passes show” (1.2.88-9).3 Textiles prove exceptionally practical for capturing the inescapability of the past inherent to a nostos drama because of their nostalgic properties. In both classical and early modern drama, fabric and clothing serve as visual and material conduits to convey the inescapability of the past and the risk of death inherently found in returning home.

Fabric as Weapon in the Agamemnon

As the quintessential play about tragic nostos, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon uses cloth as a symbol of an insidious welcome from within the domestic sphere. A history of war, prolicide, infidelity, and hubris will coalesce to create “the demon of this house” (1184).4 Yet from the opening of the drama, Aeschylus forewarns the audience of familial discord within the home through the Watchman’s monologue; the Watchman laments, “This house in is trouble. / The good days are gone” (16-7). The house to which the Watchmen refers has a double meaning: the physical space of the palace itself – as represented onstage by the skene – and the people of the House of Atreus, which bears a curse imposed upon it by the actions of its family-slaying forefathers. The chorus, too, contribute to the foreboding atmosphere, saying, “For there lives in this house / a certain form of anger, / a dread devising everrecurring everremembering / anger,” thereby emphasizing the rotten state of the house to which Agamemnon will return (102-3). Rather than acting as a healing presence, as Clytemnestra later alludes, Agamemnon’s homecoming further agitates a house filled with pain. The house preludes the significance of material objects that brim with life but seek to destroy humans, objects which Jane Bennett calls ‘vibrant matter.5 As Cassandra says, “The house is reeking blood!” (981), but literal “blood” appears only after Agamemnon returns home. Before this catastrophe, an object must embody the house’s inherited menace – and later assert its own agency by playing a role in the murder of the ostensible master of the house.

The physical manifestation of resentment, hubris, and death concentrates in the Agamemnon’s infamous reddish-purple tapestry. In order to trap Agamemnon on the cusp of his homecoming, Clytemnestra instructs the servants to:

Make his path crimsoncovered!
purplepaved! redsaturated!
So Justice may lead him to the home he
never hoped to see (608-10).

Clytemnestra’s literal rolling out of a red carpet takes the form of a gesture of goodwill, but the “redsaturated” river that flows into the cursed house of Atreus intends to carry Agamemnon to his annihilation. Clytemnestra’s warped sense of justice seeks retaliatory bloodshed rather than temporary punishment or reconciliation. By suggesting the reddish-purple tapestry enables justice to lead Agamemnon to “the home he / never hoped to see,” Clytemnestra both insinuates that Agamemnon had had no desire to return home to Argos and foreshadows his impending death, a final “home” for the returning traveler beyond the palace.

Like that of the other Atreids, Agamemnon’s hubris portends and begets his tragic downfall. Clytemnestra entices her husband into “assuming the role of the hubristic Eastern tyrant” through the use of a manipulative prop, using the tapestry’s seductive luxury as a selling point and invoking the image of Priam of Troy.6 The cloth itself has both religious and psychological meanings, with the abstract properties of the treading of the cloth containing the more potent symbolism.7 In religious terms, although Agamemnon’s fear of incurring the wrath of the gods seems to be a valid concern, this offense seems trivial in comparison to the King’s other sins. If, as Oliver Taplin claims, “what connects this stage action with the past—and later with the future—is the theme and imagery of impious trampling underfoot,” then the King’s previous wrongdoings prevent him from a complete nostos, not the desecration of the fabric.8 The entrance into the blemished house on the reddish cloth creates an evocative stage image for the audience of Agamemnon’s guilt, but also forges a visual link between returning home and walking into a trap.9

In order to further ensnare Agamemnon, Clytemnestra invokes the malicious power of the house. As the King walks on the reddish-purple cloth, Clytemnestra proceeds with a monologue peppered with references to homecoming, house, and fabric:

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
be to gods, no poverty here
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
man’s life.
[…] Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
[…] and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect. (650-5, 658, 660-2).

The significance of the color of the purple-red cloth cannot be overstated. Clytemnestra’s reference to the breeding of a purple stain by the sea and a dark red dye used to color garments – an allusion to bloodshed and the “stain” on the House of Atreus as well as the blood Agamemnon has spilt in killing Iphigenia – turns the threshold of the house into a sacrificial altar. On this altar, she offers up both tangible goods and Agamemnon’s life. She claims the house has an abundance of silver, and although her next phrase suggests she refers to the financial wealth of the house, the syntax of her remark also indicates an abundance of “dark red dye,” or blood. As Melissa Mueller notes, “In societies where human hands laboriously produce every thread of a garment, clothing does not merely symbolize wealth – it is wealth,” meaning Agamemnon’s trampling not only symbolically wastes resources but has a real, monetary cost for the household.10 When Clytemnestra equates Agamemnon’s homecoming with “warmth in winter” yet adds that “coolness fills the house / as the master walks his halls,” she paradoxically posits that the homecoming brings needed order, but her mixing of metaphors dilutes her sincerity. Clytemnestra claims she would have “vowed the trampling of many cloths […] to ransom this / man’s life,” and although this declaration outwardly indicates fidelity through the sacrifice of valuable possessions, the double meaning of the act illustrates Clytemnestra’s true intentions. In effect, Clytemnestra holds Agamemnon for ransom in his own house, leveraging his weakness for fine objects in exchange for his death.

Beyond the tangible fabric tapestry prop, the Agamemnon uses the abstract notion of fabric functioning as a net in order to capture and coerce. Clytemnestra alludes to material features of the offstage trap she has woven for Agamemnon in her welcoming speech:

why, had this man sustained as many
wounds as people told me,
he’d be fuller of holes than a net!
To die as often as they reported he’d need
three bodies
and three cloaks of earth—one for each
burial (573-6).

Her comparison of his yet-undelivered corpse to a net foreshadows her later use of an actual net to ambush, ensnare, and murder him in the bath. Net imagery recurs in the play; Cassandra prophesies that “the wife is the net he’s / married to murder here / comes insatiable vengeance” (807-9). She identifies Clytemnestra as “the net” and associates her character with capture and deceit. Indeed, when Clytemnestra later displays the bodies of Cassandra and Agamemnon in front of the palace, she explains, “I threw round him a cloth with no way / out—a sort of dragnet— / evil wealth of cloth” (1038-9). In this confession, Clytemnestra equates cloth and net, reinforcing the ability of clothing to oppress those who wear it and the power held by those who use its symbolism – or actual physical properties – to control others. The cloth serves as a passive-aggressive visual reminder for both Agamemnon and the audience just as it embodies of the chorus’ maxim, handed down as law by Zeus himself: “By suffering we learn” (120).

Clytemnestra’s allusion to both a net and cloaks in her sarcastic dismissal of Agamemnon’s oft-reported death in Troy further underscores the use of clothing as a net. Taplin does not say with certainty whether Clytemnestra uses the same fabric tread upon by Agamemnon earlier in the play or a different prop, but Mueller points to “a well-known and roughly contemporary” painting on a red-figure calyx krater by the Dokimasia Painter that depicts Agamemnon entangled in a cloth moments before his murder as evidence that the reddish-purple tapestry possibly serves as the murder weapon.11 Yet, Mueller also argues that an explicit textual reference to the dual use of the tapestry as a net might have weakened the visual effect of Agamemnon and Cassandra’s bodies rolled out on the eccyclema for the audience to see.12 However, considering classical tragedians used props sparingly and for special emphasis, the intuition that a single prop represented both the first cloth and the net holds weight.13 In this scenario, the connection between Agamemnon’s tragic fate Clytemnestra’s quest to reckon with her marital and familial resentment through murder becomes tangible through the use of a single fabric stage object. Her co-conspirator Aegisthus declares he has seen Agamemnon, “caught in the nets of Justice,” accentuating the link between warped justice and the inescapable trap of the fabric net (1213). In addition, the tapestry prevents Agamemnon from achieving a complete nostos because, as Mueller notes, “by Clytemnestra’s design and through the textile’s mediation, the returning monarch approaches the palace without ever even setting foot to his native soil.”14 Therefore, Clytemnestra’s plan to thwart Agamemnon’s heroic return relies on the physical properties of her weapon of choice. Clytemnestra and the fabric collaborate in order to undermine Agamemnon, with the prop’s proficiency in trapping and killing mirroring her aptitude for duplicity and destruction.

The interaction between the malevolent house and the objects doing its bidding form the crux of an inevitably deadly homecoming. Speaking outside of the realm of cloth and costume but within the idea of the home as a malicious object, Cassandra reveals to the house’s unseen contamination:

I know that smell. Evils. Evils long ago.
A chorus of singers broods upon this house,
they never leave,
their tune is bad, they drink cocktails of
human blood and party through the
You will not get them out (886-9).

Cassandra speaks to the chorus composed of the elders of Argos as she describes another, hidden chorus. The “Evils” remain invisible to both the chorus and the broader audience, but Cassandra insists on their relevance despite having occurred “long ago,” as a lingering smell alerts her to an ancient putrescence. Like Agamemnon, the house itself cannot escape its past, as Cassandra states the evils cannot be removed. The deadly homecoming engineered by Clytemnestra’s net must be counterbalanced by a homecoming motivated by a different kind of justice. As Cassandra predicts, another nostos breaks the cycle of revenge. She identifies the homecoming an Atreid who, up to this point in the saga, remains unseen:

Another is coming, a son to kill the mother
and pay the father’s debt—
strangered from this land he will go into
then come back one day to finish it off.
The gods have sworn an oath on this (959-62).

As Cassandra predicts, Orestes will return as a virtual foreigner to his native land – even disguising himself as a stranger when he greets Clytemnestra in the Choephori – before seeking refuge in Athens, a place that offers asylum but cannot be called Orestes’ home. Only through a variation of justice different from retaliation can Orestes escape the cycle of revenge and finally return to a purified home without fear of untimely death. By killing his mother, the personified net, Orestes ends fabric’s reign of terror in the house of Atreus.

Clothing as Identity in The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest focuses on Prospero’s return to Milan yet withholds the pleasure of a complete homecoming for its protagonist. Instead, The Tempest relegates the homecoming of Prospero to offstage action after the epilogue, which further blurs the line between theatre and reality. In effect, the play postpones one drama and begins another. To emphasize duality, The Tempest possesses a peculiarity in its treatment of clothing: Prospero removes or changes his costume at key moments in the first and final acts. This engagement with costuming highlights an ontological paradox regarding the self at home and in exile and how clothing retains the memory of both existences.

If Prospero seeks restitution for the wrongs committed against him, he does so in a peculiar fashion, emphasizing both positive and negative internal and external changes of identity. At the end of The Tempest’s final act, Prospero delays his homecoming to Milan until morning. Instead, Prospero invites Alonso and his coterie to spend the night in his cell to hear

[…] the story of my life
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle. And in the morn
I’ll bring you to your ship, and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-belovèd solemnized,
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave” (5.1.362-9)[15]

Rather than promptly returning home, Prospero instead puts on a performance. The implied ensuing stage action is another reference to metatheatricality as well as a mechanism through which Prospero comes to terms with the change in identity connected to renouncing magic and returning to Milan. As John Dean writes, “Prospero’s actions in The Tempest are those of a man gradually loosening himself from personal ties. His actions are geared toward his own private good; he is in the process of leaving behind magic and Miranda and gaining his freedom.”16 The unusual phrase “retire me” implies an involuntary action, as if this homecoming has become an inevitability to which Prospero feels he must acquiesce. Like a man giving away his possessions before death, Prospero unburdens the story of his exile, preparing to leave behind that which he has known: his relationship with his daughter and his magic. He cryptically says, “Every third thought shall be my grave,” revealing an awareness of approaching death and indicating that the subject weighs heavily on his mind with a frequency. Prospero reclaims his past self with some reluctance, having to come to terms with his choice to reject magic and live a normal life in Milan.

W.H. Auden’s evocative retelling of The Tempest presents Prospero’s thoughts on his imminent return to Milan and underscores the notion that a return to one’s home equates one’s death, including the death of a former self. Auden’s poem begins with an entreaty from Prospero: “Stay with me, Ariel, while I pack, and with your first free act / Delight my leaving.”17 Auden’s inclusion of Prospero’s need to pack for the journey connects to a practical necessity for the theatrical production of The Tempest: when Prospero reveals himself to his usurpers in the final scene of the play, he sheds his sorcerer’s costume and dresses himself in his ducal robes, saying “I will discase me and myself present / As I was sometime Milan” (5.1.95-6). In Auden’s version of events, Prospero presumably brings the remnants of his former life in the form of clothing in his luggage, and therefore returns home to Milan carrying both literal and metaphorical baggage from his time spent in exile. The word “discase,” which has become obsolete, means to undress or remove a garment. In making the verb reflexive (“discase me”), Prospero tacitly suggests he will remove his very self by removing his clothing. When Auden’s Prospero packs his luggage, he definitively inters this identity. By donning the apparel worn when he reigned as the “sometime Milan,” he re-assumes the identity associated with the ducal robes that had hitherto been concealed. Prospero must reckon with the fact be became too wrapped up in learning magic to govern effectively, as he admitted to Miranda in 1.2, and perhaps deserved to be expelled from Milan more than he previously cared to admit. In addition, in 1.2 Prospero mentions that before he and Miranda were set to sea, Gonzalo provided them with “Rich garments, linens, stuffs, and necessaries, / Which since have steaded much,” suggesting that for the past twelve years the pair have been using the same fabrics and tools sourced from Milan (1.2.190-6). Although Prospero makes a distinction between ducal robes and the clothing he wears on the island, the textiles used in both sets of garments presumably originated in Milan. The fabrics used by Prospero and Miranda continue to link them to the identities they possessed before exile, stressing the impossibility of escaping one’s past as well as the lingering memories of home symbolically embedded in the cloth.

Auden’s Prospero also has an acute awareness of his own mortality, remarking, “Briefly Milan, then Earth,”18 suggesting he does not expect to live much longer after he has returned home. Both Shakespeare and Auden’s iterations of Prospero make reference to a melancholy associated with impending death: Shakespeare’s Prospero only wishes to see Miranda and Ferdinand married in Naples before returning to Milan to retire (5.1.365-9), while Auden’s Prospero expresses a more straightforward feeling of melancholia to Ariel:

I am glad that I did not recover my dukedom till
I do not want it; I am glad that Miranda
No longer pays me any attention; I am glad I have freed you,
So at last I can really believe I shall die (7-10).

In Auden’s poem, Prospero explicitly verbalizes that to which Shakespeare’s Prospero only alludes: a sense of isolation in his old age, as Miranda marries and he returns alone to a kingdom over which he no longer presides. Phrases such as “no longer” and “at last” imply a sort of transformation on Prospero’s part, as if a combination of age, his time spent on the island, and his forthcoming quotidian existence has altered his priorities and circumstances. Prospero reveals his pleasure that he no longer has the has power over Ariel; any comfort he took in having a sort of tangential immortality in his relationship with Ariel and other magical forms has been erased now that he anticipates a return his Milanese self. The reality of death can finally be experienced in full. Prospero makes a similar statement as previous when he says:

When I am safely home, oceans away in Milan, and
Realise once and for all I shall never see you again,
Over there, maybe, it won’t seem quite so dreadful
Not to be interesting any more, but an old man
Just like other old men […] (11)

Although Prospero recognizes Milan as him home, distancing language like “oceans away” and “Over there” highlights the disconnect between Prospero as he exists now and the form of himself into which Prospero will revert once he returns to Milan. He locates Milan at a great distance from the island but will merely cross the Mediterranean in his voyage. Prospero also admits that he presently finds it “dreadful / Not to be interesting any more.” In constructing this admission, Auden seems to be extracting meaning from the Shakespearean Prospero’s statement “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have ’s my own, / Which is most faint” (E1-3) and mention of retirement in Milan, “retire” meaning both travel and withdrawal (5.1.168 n). As this entire conversation presumably occurs while Prospero packs his clothing and possessions for his journey home, he literally compartmentalizes his magical, powerful, more interesting persona in preparation for a transition into “an old man / Just like other old men,” and not a powerful magician of interest.

Having already reverted to an older version of himself by putting on his ducal robes, Prospero now must fully transition from acting as to being the sometime duke of Milan by physically returning to his homeland rather than merely adopting a visage. Although his costume serves as a visual symbol for the adoption of his old identity, the actual journey will truly cement Prospero’s fate as the once-deposed ruler of Milan. Prospero has already stated he no longer wants his dukedom but feels glad it returns to him now, yet he dwells on dismay when the time comes to leave the island: “My dear here comes Gonzalo / With a solemn face to fetch me. O Ariel, Ariel, / How I shall miss you” (11). The issue, then, lies not in whether Prospero fears his former self, but in the fact that Prospero no longer believes he can function without magic now that he has been given a taste of its power. After all, one could also interpret Prospero’s ducal robes as a kind of funeral shroud. Prospero might have been happy had he continued in Milan without interruption, but because he has seen the brave new world of the island and absolute power, he can no longer be satisfied with his former life. Therein lies tragedy.

The connection between clothing and identity deepens when comparing Prospero’s self-identified magical and non-magical self. When Prospero tells Miranda the story of how they came to reside on the island, he removes his cloak, saying “Lend thy hand / And pluck my magic garment from me. So, / Lie there, my art” (1.2.28-31). The identity of the “art” can be deduced through interpretation. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine define the “art” to which Prospero refers as “learning, skill (specifically, occult learning that gives such magic powers as the ability to control the elements)” in their annotation of the play (1.2.31 n). In this sense, Prospero’s “art” becomes both his magical powers within the play and the theatrical effects produced by the text, the actors, costumes, and props. Prospero does refer to his cloak, it being an outward visual symbol of his magic, but also to Miranda. Prospero created both the cloak and Miranda, and both the cloak and Miranda obey Prospero’s orders and physical manipulations like mechanical objects. After Prospero says, “Lie there, my art,” Miranda sits to listen to Prospero’s story and gradually falls asleep. Like the cloak, Prospero intends for his daughter to serve as part of the visual spectacle of the theatre. The productive confusion of the command reveals how, in Prospero’s mind, both the cloak and Miranda possess both human and material properties. As experts of the theatre, both Shakespeare and Prospero use these elements to create “the baseless fabric of this vision” (4.1.168).

In the play’s Epilogue, references to metatheatricality further fracture Prospero’s homecoming and identity. The audience does not ever see Prospero board the ship to return to Milan, but rather, Prospero requests that the play be terminated in entirety (E1-20). Prospero ostensibly hands over his magical powers to the audience – or, contrarily, Prospero recognizes that the audience held the true power for the duration of the play. Shakespeare directly acknowledges the metatheatricality of the theatre, in which costumes and props function as essential tools for illusion. Prospero’s “art” may be occult learning that grants ability to control the elements, but it exists solely within the theatre’s “art,” fabricating the pretense that such a person named Prospero exists at all. Prospero put on his ducal robes in order to return to the self he inhabited as ruler of Milan, just as an actor changes costume and inhabits a new persona. The truth of Prospero’s very identity relies on theatrical artifice.

The Agamemnon presents a classical precedent for the onstage removal of costume as a visual symbol of a change in identity. Before Cassandra enters the house of Atreus to embrace her death, she rips off her clothing, saying:

So why do I keep this ridiculous costume,
these “prophetic symbols” the stick the
be gone! be damned! Enrich someone else’s
life with doom!
Look, Apollo himself is denuding me
he watched them mock me in my little
prophet’s dress, my little prophet’s hat (949-52).

Like Prospero’s cloak, Cassandra’s vestments serve as outward “prophetic symbols” of her supernatural abilities. Although she claims that Apollo himself is the one stripping her of her costume, the impious act spites the god who granted her the gift of foresight and forges a distinct identity for Cassandra separate from her role as prophetess in the moments before her death. In addition, like Prospero, Cassandra ascribes agency to the clothing itself when she proclaims, “be gone! be damned! Enrich someone else’s / life with doom!” and implies that her “ridiculous costume” placed her in a fatal position. Cassandra knows she will die as a slave in a foreign land, never to return home again; she insists her death be approached on her own terms, without the burden of visually representing prophecy. Prospero completes a similar action in removing his sorcerer’s cloak and putting on his ducal robes as he renounces the person he became in order to survive in a foreign land and embraces his formal self in anticipation of his impending death in his home country. He also renounces his art through destroying the symbols and sources of his power shortly before discasing himself as the sometime Milan:

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book (5.1.63-6)

Auden repeats Prospero’s resolve to drown his books, as Prospero states, “all these heavy books are no use to me any more,” and therefore “surrender[s] their fascinating counsel / to the silent dissolution of the sea.”19 Auden’s Prospero justifies this action by saying, “Where I go, words carry no weight,” referencing the physical heaviness of the books as well as the emotional weight of the words he now abandons as he returns to a monotonous existence without magic in Milan.20 Drowning the books anthropomorphizes them, granting the ability to live, breathe, and die. The trappings of Prospero’s magic must be killed in order to kill his happier self as he proceeds home to retire. Both Prospero and Cassandra wear their garments as symbols of their “art,” in the Shakespearean sense, and the actors portraying Prospero and Cassandra wear these costumes as tools of theatrical art to create the illusion of Prospero and Cassandra. By denuding themselves – with the help of Apollo, god of the arts – these actors introduce metatheatrical commentary on the nature of characterization, the visual trappings of power, and the remnants of identity retained by material objects.

The Paradoxes of Elizabethan Costuming

Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists used costumes to full theatrical effect. Elizabethan audiences consumed metatheatrical references in the realm of social class and economic status relevant to their own lives when attending the theatre. Consider the role of sumptuary laws in early modern theatre: actors often found themselves in clothing they legally could not wear in their everyday lives. During the late 16th century, Elizabeth I enacted a series of dress code-style laws ensuring that people would only wear clothes according to prescribed social class. In effect, “the laws allowed her to curb extravagant spending, and to define and set the distinctions between the different strata of society. Those found dressed in inappropriate clothing could be fined.”21 Therefore, if an actor playing Prospero in an early modern production of The Tempest adorned himself in excess finery as part of the ducal robe costume, he technically ran counter to the law of the land. With clothing holding such a prominent place in conceptions of class distinctions in early modern England, costuming becomes an even more potent tool in creating a character that only exists in the context of theatrical art. The actor wearing fine fabrics breaks the law, but the character holds the right as a member of the nobility.

Beyond the visual meaning conveyed by a costume, the offstage life of the clothing itself deserves examination. The recycling of costumes within a production company, theater, or repertoire among disparate characters and plays may produce an unwelcome sense of recognition for audience members who have already seen a costume in action in a different theatrical context, creating a “haunted” stage. A doublet worn by a rogue who had been stabbed to death and buried might reappear on the body of a happy prince, forging an unconscious link between the two characters. On the other hand, in a postmodern context a conscious reuse of a costume might be used to highlight an intentional intertextual reference.22 Mueller further emphasizes the personal history of costumes as material objects, arguing that costumes are further haunted by the presence of bodies that had animated them in the past.23 This point becomes especially crucial when one considers the early modern practice of using the clothing of the dead as stage costumes. Wealthy middle-class people often bequeathed clothing to their servants after death, but due to sumptuary laws these servants could not legally wear the fabrics enjoyed by their deceased employers. As a result, much of the luxurious clothing would have been sold to acting companies for use as costumes.24 This distortion of materiality produces theatrical illusion because, as Russell Jackson notes, “Costume sits on the bodies of living, sentient beings whose animation of the fiction is more vivid than the surroundings in which we see and hear them. Costume makes them like us and, at the same time, unlike us,” fabricating simultaneous feelings of intimacy and alienation.25 Therefore, while actors masqueraded as nobles, magicians, and mythical creatures, their sartorial aspects linked character to familiar concepts in the mind of the audience, while at the same time deceiving them through theatrical misrepresentation.

Clothing and Fear in the Trachiniae

Sophocles’ Trachiniae employs a single article of clothing as both a net and a new identity and uses it as an effective tool in the accidental engineering of a deadly homecoming. Fear of the changes brought about by absence and distance from home and familial influence result in death at the hand of a domestic partner and undermines the heroic ideal of nostos. As Deianeira presents Heracles’ with the shirt of Nessus, she mistakenly believes she can prevent the transformation of her husband brought on by his long absence. At the opening of the Trachiniae, Deianeira impatiently awaits her husband Heracles’ return home to Trachis and ponders over a prophecy that foretells Heracles’ doom. Deianeira laments the family’s living in exile in Trachis and Heracles’ constant comings-and-goings; they find themselves “living / in a strange household, and where Heracles / has gone, no one can say” (39-41).26 In Deianeira’s perspective, the combination of wretched exile and continuous absence turn the home into a foreign place.27 The estrangement from a permanent home complicates the likelihood of a successful homecoming, especially when paired with an imbalance of power leading to feelings of further alienation, resulting in “a nostos from one state of exile to another.”28

When Deianeira learns that Heracles has taken a lover and brought her back to Trachis, she expresses both anger and fear that Heracles will replace her with a younger woman. In order to resist change and regain control of the family dynamic, Deianeira compels Heracles to don the (unwittingly poisoned) shirt of Nessus; she insists no one else wear the robe other than her husband, saying to the herald Lichas:

I have been making ready for you
a long robe to take back to Heracles -
a gift for him which my own hands have woven.

Give it to him and tell him to allow
no other man to put it on before him.
He must not let the sunlight or the fire
beside the altar or the hearth shine on it
until he stands forth visible to all,
showing it to the gods while bulls are slaughtered (601-10).

The robe certainly symbolizes Deianeira’s fear of infidelity and disorder. As a literal stage object, the robe casts Heracles in a role prescribed for him by his wife. Deianeira forces her husband to be the man she remembers him to be rather than the man he has become after years of misadventure. She insists he must wear it out in the open, standing visible to all, in a garment she created with her own hands especially for him. Deianeira even includes a lie in her instructions to Lichas: “This was my vow: that if I ever saw / or heard that he was coming, I would dress him / properly in this new robe” (611-13), strengthening her argument for presenting the gift to Heracles and alluding to unbroken vows, unlike Heracles’ fragmentation of the couple’s marriage vows. At the play’s end, Heracles’ home in Trachis reveals itself to be yet another foreign land filled with dangers. As Emily Kratzer notes, “under ideal circumstances, nostos culminates in the joyous remarriage of husband and wife,” but the Trachiniae’s depiction of a failed nostos upends the expected happiness.29 Heracles’ long absence and the ensuing chaos of an imperfect homecoming creates a rift in marital harmony. Like Agamemnon, even after surviving dangerous travels abroad, Heracles “must still confront unfamiliar and possibly treacherous conditions in the home he left behind.”30 Unlike Agamemnon, Heracles never crosses the threshold of his house or greets his wife, having been cut down by clothing and completely failing to reintegrate into domestic life.31

Using garments in order to fulfill pre-ordained roles prescribed by family members has significance consequences for women, as the responsibility of keeping emotional order within the household often falls the shoulders of female characters. In Hamlet, Gertrude implores Hamlet to “cast thy nighted colour off / And let thine eyes look like a friend on Denmark” (1.2.70-1), suggesting he abandon the visual symbols of grief for his recently-deceased father. Hamlet, of course, refuses, objecting that his “inky cloak” and other “trappings and suits of woe” merely serve as outer expressions of inward mourning (1.2.79-89). Gertrude’s insistence that Hamlet dress the way he had previously done before his latest return home from Wittenberg, before the domestic disruption of death and remarriage, mirrors Deianeira’s desire that Heracles don a cloak with the actual, physical capability to ensure her husband will continue to love only herself and no other. The control of family life and fear of the broader implications of a dysfunctional household has great strategic importance for both women. In Gertrude’s case, she hopes Hamlet’s abandonment of his mourning clothes will also precipitate a change in attitude, thereby restoring an ostensible order to the royal family and the state of Denmark. In Deianeira’s case, beyond the magical properties of the cloak that will hypothetically restore order to her marriage and household, dressing Heracles in a garment she wove for him denotes ownership by her of him. Unlike Deianeira, Gertrude uses the inevitability of death as an argument in favor of Hamlet’s modification and conformity, as “all that lives must die” (1.2.74). Deianeira, on the other hand, seeks to avoid death, fearing both the prophecy of Heracles’ downfall and Heracles’ roving affection. In the end, both women reach permanent and unsavory homecomings.

Echoes of the Agamemnon’s Clytemnestra reverberate strongly in Deianeira: a husband returns after a long series of trials only to present his wife with his interloping younger lover. As Kratzer says, “in the Odyssey and Agamemnon, as in Trachiniae, the waiting wife takes on a large share of the responsibility for securing her husband’s safe return,” recalling the early mythological tendency to stress “the ugly crises arising in the private domain due to the hero’s absence.”32 Yet rather than plotting her husband’s demise from before the play’s beginning as Clytemnestra does, Deianeira unsuspectingly kills her husband through her attempt to recover marital fidelity and domestic order. No textual evidence implies that Deianeira has been unfaithful to Heracles in his absence; in that regard, she more closely resembles the Odyssey’s Penelope, an antique paragon of wifely virtue. For Clytemnestra, the arrival of Cassandra at the house of Atreus only compounds the spite she already feels for Agamemnon. For Deianeira, however, the revelation of Iole’s identity triggers a total breakdown:

I have received this maiden - no, not maiden -
this mistress, as a sailor welcomes freightage:
a burden which my heart finds hard to bear.

For now he will have two of us to clasp
under one blanket; this is the reward
Heracles, whom we call the good and faithful,
has given me for waiting all this time! (536-42)

Deianeira had previously stated that she never wished to be married (“I was plagued by fear / of marriage more than any other woman,” 7-8), and her fears seem to have been astute. She had openly bewailed waiting for Heracles in exile, and now, in her opinion, receives an unjust reward for her fidelity “which [her] heart finds hard to bear.” Unlike Clytemnestra, who had taken up with Aegisthus and plotted Agamemnon’s murder before Cassandra’s arrival, Deianeira’s pain stems from the perception of an unwarranted punishment after having done no wrong. Heracles has not been “good and faithful,” unlike herself, yet he will enjoy the prize of “two [women] to clasp under one blanket.” This betrayal pushes her to behave in a manner that emulates Clytemnestra, despite the two women’s very different motivations for punishing their husbands. Net imagery, closely associated with Clytemnestra’s wrath in the Agamemnon, reappears in the Trachiniae. As Heracles suffers in the Shirt of Nessus, he says:

but never did the wife of Zeus or hateful
Eurystheus lay so great a burden on me
as this one which the false-faced child of Oeneus
has fastened on my back – a binding net
woven by furies, in which I am dying. (1048-52)

By likening the poisoned robe to a net, Heracles invokes marital treachery as exemplified in the Agamemnon and condemns the “false-faced” Deianeira for her deceit. Heracles’ characterization of the “binding net” as having been “woven by furies” also alludes back to the Oresteia, when Aegisthus describes Agamemnon’s corpse as “lying in the robes that the / Furies wove—” (1191). Heracles declares this final trial to be greater than any imposed upon him by either Hera or Eurystheus – Eurystheus who, according to some legends, ruled Argos until his death, after which Atreus and Thyestes claimed the throne. While the events portrayed in the Trachiniae canonically occur long before the events of the Agamemnon, Sophocles may have easily taken thematic inspiration from his predecessor Aeschylus.

The Trachiniae diverges significantly from the Agamemnon in Sophocles’ employment of the avenging child motif: Orestes returns to Argos to kill his mother for the murder of his father, but Deianeira and Heracles’ eldest son Hyllus defends his mother’s actions. When Heracles denounces Deianeira for what she has done, Hyllus insists, “the truth is: she erred, but she meant good” (1136). While Apollo guides Orestes to avenge Agamemnon and the ghost of Old Hamlet provokes Young Hamlet to do the same on his own behalf, Hyllus differs, as he learns the full, tragic intent behind his mother’s misplaced efforts. Initially Hyllus, too, calls for his mother’s destruction as payment for his father’s death, but after he witnesses the aftermath of Deianeira’s suicide and discovers her true motivation, he becomes her advocate. Before Hyllus explains Deianeira’s mistake to Heracles, he quells his father’s request for revenge, saying, “do not yield to passion / goaded by wrath, or you will never learn / how empty is the vengeful joy you seek” (1117-9). It seems Sophocles rejects the popular retaliation narrative in a case when the transgressor’s intentions can be easily identified as forgivable. In the particular case of Hyllus and Deianeira, however, a resulting quest for revenge would have been impossible, as Deianeira had taken her own life out of guilt before Heracles could demand vengeance.

As in the Agamemnon, the home and domestic sphere present as haunted spaces in the Trachiniae. Deianeira states she concealed the blood of Nessus in her house before dipping Heracles’ tunic in it, and when the tuft of wool from the robe disintegrates she clarifies it “vanished – not consumed by anything / within the house; no, self-devoured it crumbled” (579-80, 676-7). Deianeira, perhaps unconsciously, identifies her home as a place of corruption, harboring poisons and entities with a predilection for consumption. After Hyllus returns with news of Heracles’ torture by the Shirt of Nessus, the house consumes Deianeira as well: embedded stage directions suggest she silently turns and enters the house, wordlessly accepting her own ruin (812 SD). The Nurse, after screaming from within the house, recounts the offstage series of events leading up to Deianeira’s suicide:

After she went, alone, into the palace
[…] falling near the altars, moaned aloud
that they were empty now; and wept whenever
she touched the objects she had known so well. (900, 904-6)

Deianeira enters the palace alone, willingly accepting her imminent death as Cassandra does in the Agamemnon. Deianeira first falls in front of the sacrificial altars, mourning the absence of deities which might have guided the household toward good fortune. Next, she begins a strange ritual: Deianeira touches familiar household objects, seemingly bidding them goodbye. This sentimental gesture points to the emotional significance of objects for Deianeira and the play as a whole. She then narrows her focus:

[…] suddenly I saw her
rush to the room which Heracles had slept in.
There I concealed myself and watched her actions
in secret, and beheld the woman spreading
coverlets on the couch of Heracles.
When she had finished this, she leapt upon them
and sat there in the middle of the bed,
where, bursting into streams of molten tears,
she called upon her couch and bridal chamber,
crying, “Farewell forever! In the future
you will not hold me as a bride again.” (912-22)

When Deianeira enters Heracles’ room, she seems to be most attracted to fabrics and material objects. The Nurse recalls her “spreading coverlets on the couch” before leaping onto the bed and weeping, then “call[ing] upon her couch and bridal chamber” to bid them goodbye. To the bed and bridal chamber, Deianeira laments that her time as a bride has ended. She personifies these inanimate objects and seems to project abilities onto them that they do not possess, just as Cassandra and Prospero cursed and renounced robes, accessories, and books. Deianeira mourns the loss of her relationship with familiar objects and informs the bed and chamber that her time with them as a bride has ended.

Deianeira’s action has twofold significance. First, she uses the household objects in order to articulate certain painful emotions and create a physical landscape in which she grounds herself. Because she has been living in exile, Deianeira’s sense of home directly connects to the presence of familiar possessions rather than a physical location or building. Second, the bed and bedchamber in particular represent her marriage to Heracles, which should have been re-consecrated upon his homecoming but instead fractures when jealousy and material objects intervene. One might argue that these household objects cannot possibly be blamed for Heracles’ death and the breakdown of a relationship, but objects have already asserted their own capability. The Shirt of Nessus has its own agency and abilities despite being a material object, although its power certainly strengthens in connection to what it symbolizes. On one hand, the garment itself betrays Deianeira. She believes it will restore Heracles’ love for her, but the cloak destroys him instead. On the other hand, Deianeira’s ignorance of the cloak’s true nature parallels her misunderstanding of her relationship with Heracles. As she remains unaware of the cloak’s deadliness, she also fails to recognize the fatality of her marriage. This physical manifestation of ignorance creates a formidable visual metaphor of tragedy for the audience.


In Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest, a newly-imagined Prospero commands Ariel to bring the ducal robes by saying, “fetch me the skirt and bodice in my cell. I will discase me and myself present as I was sometime Milan.” 33 The slight change in wording follows Taymor’s choice to cast Helen Mirren as Prospera, “the wrongèd duchess of Milan.” This gender-bending adaptation grants an opportunity to dissect Prospero’s motivations in appearing as the sometime duke of Milan in a new light. As Ariel tightly laces Prospera’s bodice, she takes in a sharp inhale, followed by a purposeful exhale, as if to indicate that the garment itself constricts her body’s vital functions. Up to this point in the film, Prospera has warn a more androgynous-looking tunic and pair of trousers, but she trades her magical garb for a conservatively feminine ensemble with black fabric and pinstripe-style zipper embellishments to match the costumes worn by Alonzo’s entourage. In this costume change, Prospera dons a figurative mourning suit: dressed in black, returning to a more traditional style of dress, and visually aligning herself with her usurpers, Prospera acknowledges and accepts her burden through sartorial symbolism. Indeed, when she later elects to retire to Milan, Mirren delivers the phrase with a mixture of sadness, concession, and fear. Before Prospera releases Ariel and breaks her staff, the camera focuses on the tears pooling in her eyes. In relinquishing her magic and changing her attire, Prospera takes up the mantle of a widow rather than a wizard, yielding to the impediments brought on by the inescapability of the past.

In a literal sense, “mantle” means a protective garment or a loose sleeveless coat. In a figurative sense, the word “mantle” denotes “a duty or position of responsibility, authority, leadership, especially one assumed or inherited by one person from another.” 34 Like trappings, which ensnare and restrict, a mantle suggests a burden of identity assumed by the wearer. A person takes up the mantle of responsibility from one to another, as a child inherits authority from a parent, through the metaphorical employment of a garment. In the aforementioned dramas, whether a character has a happy and successful homecoming relies on whether or not they have successfully dismantled the identities associated with their clothing that have been constructed through hubris, distorted nostalgia, a need for revenge, or an unavoidable repetition of past mistakes.


Aeschylus. Agamemnon. In an Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aischylos, Elektra by Sophokles, Orestes by Euripides. Translated by Anne Carson. New York: Faber and Faber, 2009.

Auden,W.H. The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Edited by Arthur Kirsch. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Carlson, Marvin. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Dean, John. “Constant Wanderings and Longed-For Returns: Odyssean Themes in Shakespearean Romance.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature12, no. 1 (1978): 47-60.

"Elizabethan Dress Codes." The British Library. 126628.html. (accessed 12 July 2019).

Jackson, Russell. “Brief Overview: A Stage History of Shakespeare and Costume.” Shakespeare and Costume. Edited by Patricia Lennox and Bella Mirabella. London: Bloomsbury

Arden Shakespeare, An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016.

Kratzer, Emily. "A Hero's Welcome: Homecoming and Transition in the Trachiniae.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014)143.1 (2013): 23-63.

Mueller, Melissa. Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance of Poetics in Greek Tragedy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Digital Texts. (accessed 12 July 2019).

---. The Tempest. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington  Square Press, 1994.

Simpson, John. “mantle, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. (accessed 29 July 2019).

---. "nostalgia, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press. (accessed 24 July 2019).

---. "nostos, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, (accessed 24 July 2019).

The Tempest. Directed by Julie Taymor. Touchstone Pictures, 2010.

Sophocles. Trachiniae. In Diotima. Translated by Robert M. Torrance (November 28, 2017), (accessed 12 July 2019). Translation first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1966 together with thePhiloctetes.

Taplin, Oliver. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

---. Greek Tragedy in Action. London: Routledge, 2014.

“What They Wore.” Utah Shakespeare Festival. 11 June 2015. (accessed 22 July 2019).


1.) "nostos, n.," OED Online, Oxford University Press, (accessed 24 July 2019).

2.) "nostalgia, n.," OED Online, Oxford University Press, (accessed 24 July 2019).

3.) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Digital Texts, (accessed 12 July 2019).

4.) Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in An Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aischylos, Elektra by Sophokles, Orestes by Euripides, trans. Anne Carson (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009). Note: For the purpose of a closer analysis, I read Carson’s translation as its own text, examining the implications of her particular choice of words in English.

5.) Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

6.) Melissa Mueller, Objects as Actors: Props and the Poetics of Performance of Poetics in Greek Tragedy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 47-51.

7.) Oliver Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 310-6.

8.) Taplin, 311.

9.) Taplin, 312.

10.) Mueller, 46.

11.) Taplin, 314-5 and Mueller, 58.

12.) Mueller, 60.

13.) Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (London: Routledge, 2014), 56.

14.) Mueller, 57.

15.) William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 1994).

16.) John Dean, “Constant Wanderings and Longed-For Returns: Odyssean Themes in Shakespearean Romance,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature12, no. 1 (1978): 55; 47-60.

17.) W. H. Auden,The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ed. Arthur Kirsch (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.

18.) Auden, 5.

19.) Auden, 5.

20.) Auden, 5.

21.) "Elizabethan Dress Codes," The British Library, (accessed 12 July 2019).

22.) Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 125-7.

23.) Mueller, 67.

24.) “What They Wore,” Utah Shakespeare Festival, 11 June 2015, (accessed 22 July 2019).

25.) Russell Jackson, “Brief Overview: A Stage History of Shakespeare and Costume,” in Shakespeare and Costume, ed. Patricia Lennox and Bella Mirabella (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016), 11.

26.) Sophocles, "Trachiniae," Diotima, trans. Robert M. Torrance (November 28, 2017), https://diotimawcc. (accessed 12 July 2019). Translation firstpublished by Houghton Mifflin in 1966 together with thePhiloctetes.

27.) Emily Kratzer, "A Hero's Welcome: Homecoming and Transition in the Trachiniae,Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014)143.1 (2013): 24; 23-63.

28.) Kratzer, 25.

29.) Kratzer, 23.

30.) Kratzer, 25.

31.) Kratzer, 49.

32.) Kratzer, 39.

33.) The Tempest, directed by Julie Taymor (Touchstone Pictures, 2010).

34.) "mantle, n.," OED Online, Oxford University Press, (accessed 29 July 2019).

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