Art relies not always on explicit flashbacks and backgrounds, or even relating of whole historical periods, but often on suggestion that enriches and gives a feeling of weight, of a lived-in world, of something that can be believed.
The Iliad, forever the cardinal work of the Western canon next to Hamlet and King Lear (and the Bible), doesn’t cover the whole Trojan War. Rather, it covers the last few weeks or so of it. And it unifies around the theme of Achilles’ rage (in Greek, it’s menis/meinin). And we don’t see Achilles’ death, but our knowledge of it happening will enrich our reading of the play. Not to mention the facts of the Trojan War that, known by the reader, enrich the layers of this epic poem.
Shakespeare’s Richard II doesn’t give us a scene where King Richard has the Duke of Gloucester killed. But the knowledge, the subtext of that murder, has a huge impact on our reading of it.
Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello brim with subtext of what may have happened and what has happened in the past. We don’t see scenes of Lady Macbeth having once had children, a snapshot of Lear being a parent before the love test, of Hamlet studying philosophy in Wittenberg during the time of the Reformation, of Iago showing service as Othello’s standard-bearer before the play begins. Yet the reader fills in the gaps, the plays’ language allows us to gain clues (while remaining forever in the realm of many possible interpretations) about these things, and the plays are all the more timeless for this foregrounding and for the artistic ellipsis, of leaving things out but hinting at them.
Show and tell, yet when you tell, tell it slant.
As for films, let’s look at two of Steven Spielberg’s films, Schindler’s List and Lincoln.
Rather than focusing on the Holocaust in general, Schindler’s List focuses mostly on the life of one man, Oskar Schindler, and the six hundred lives that he saved. Yet the aura of the Holocaust’s horror is conveyed via the suggestiveness.
And Lincoln, Spielberg’s other great biopic, focuses not on Lincoln’s whole presidency but rather the efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. Yet the aura of Lincoln’s history and statuesque grandeur is conveyed. Not to mention his troubled family life, and the death of his son in the past that brings him grief. And the movie is named Lincoln, not the 13th Amendment.
I want to come back to The Iliad and its use of suggestiveness. When Andromache speaks to Hector of Achilles, she mentions when Achilles battled her father and killed her, and brought him back with his whole armor and everything, and gave generous funeral rites. Homer doesn’t give us a whole scene dedicated to this. He has a character speak about it. Yet this suggestiveness, if the reader picks up on it, gives us a greater idea of who Achilles is.
It’s one anecdote yet it testifies to Achilles who, in spite of his rage and pride, can also have a spot in his heart for honorable fighting and respect for the dead. This is important to understand, and alludes to the more benign parts of Achilles’ character that readers sometimes forget.
It helps us understand better what Patroclus’ death does to Achilles. It changes him. Hence why we can see his desecration of Hector’s body as a big change from what he once was.