Dürrenmatt makes all kinds of allusions in The Visit with a particular preference for Greek mythology.
Clotho (or also Klotho) (Greek: ‘Κλωθώ’) The name literally translates as the “spinner”. Clotho was one of the three Fates in Greek mythology who exerted control over the lives of human beings. The Fates (Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos) are goddesses that presided over the destiny of humans by spinning, measuring and cutting threads – each thread representing a person’s life. Clotho, as the spinner, would bring beings into existence.
Reference: Clotho is mentioned in Act I (p. 26) when the schoolmaster has a first glimpse of Claire Zachanassian and remarks
I only learned what horror is an hour ago. That old lady in black robes getting off the train was a gruesome vision. Like one of the Fates; she made me think of an avenging Greek goddess. Her name shouldn’t be Claire; it should be Clotho. I could suspect her of spinning destiny’s webs herself.
Significance: The schoolmaster’s intuitive comments foreshadow what will eventually come true and hints at Claire’s intrinsic evil before anyone knows that the old lady has returned to Guellen to avenge the injustice she suffered.
Laïs: This allusion is ambiguous, as it could refer to either Laïs of Corinth or Laïs of Hyccara. Both were courtesans in ancient Greece. The two courtesans are inextricably linked, as authors often do not specify which one they are referring to.
Laïs of Corinth was said to be one of the most beautiful women of her time and was known for having many lovers. Laïs of Hyccara equally had multiple suitors, one of which – Demosthenes – offered to pay 1,000 Greek drachmas for a night with her. She demanded 10,000 drachmas from him, but slept with another suitor – Diogenes – for nothing. She was eventually stoned to death by other women who were jealous of her.
Reference: The schoolmaster notes “That conspicuous consumption of husbands; she’s a second Laïs.” (Act I, p. 27)
Significance: It is not clear which Laïs Dürrenmatt is referring to, but both courtesans were attached to strings of men and were controversial (simultaneously adored and despised) – as is, in a sense, true for Claire.
Romeo and Juliet: This of course refers to what is sometimes known as the most tragic love story of all times, that of Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare).
Reference: Again, it is the schoolmaster who mentions the two lovers. In response to the policeman, who says that Claire and Ill are “calling in on the places where their passion used to burn” (Act I, p. 27), he answers, “Flame, flame. Remember Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet” (ibid).
Significance: Romeo and Juliet’s love ends tragically, as both lovers die. We can relate this to the story of Claire and Ill, whose love story ends in the demise of one of the lovers (Ill) and in the inability to love anyone else by the other (Claire). The allusion is noteworthy because the policeman’s comment is one that could be interpreted as positive – and, indeed, everyone in the town is expecting the past love to be rekindled (in a sense) in hope of a windfall repayment. The schoolmaster chooses to respond with an example of a love that ended tragically, with no “happy ever after”, foreshadowing that there will be no fortunate ending to events.
The Merry Widow: This operetta by the Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár relates the tale of a rich widow that tries to find a husband. You can find more information here: Wikipedia entry for The Merry Widow.
Reference: In Act II (p. 50) the policeman and Ill are engaged in a conversation. The can hear music from a neighbour (a man called Hagholzer), coming from a newly purchased radio that is playing The Merry Widow.
A transcript of the exact scene:
POLICEMAN: The Merry Widow.
ILL: A radio.
Significance: The brief conversation foreshadows that Mrs. Ill will soon be own her own – and not so unhappy about it. Her delight about newly obtained possessions soon shows, possessions that are of course bought with ‘blood money’. The brevity of the utterances is also telling. Although feelings are not explicitly revealed, the single-word or single-phrase response allow for plenty of interpretation. Ill is clearly struck by the sound of music (which seems to be unusual in Guellen) and immediately realises that the radio is yet another item bought in exchange for his life. The policeman is in denial and pays no attention to the music until Ill mentions it, and then gives an evasive response (“The Merry Widow“), which is of course ironic. Even when Ill probes into the matter, the policeman states that it is not their business to know how all these purchases are being made.
Medea was a sorceress in Greek mythology. Medea assisted Jason in obtaining the Golden Fleece and later on married him. Jason however left Medea for another woman, Creusa, and the sorceress took ferocious revenge, killing King Creon (the father of Creusa), Creusa as well as her own children.
Reference: Again, it is the schoolmaster that mentions Medea when he tells Claire, who has just revealed that she already owns everything in Guellen, the following: “Madam Zachanassian! You’re a woman whose love has been wounded. You make me think of a heroine from antiquity: of Medea.” (Act III, 66)
Significance: The enchantress Medea is merciless to the point that she does not only kill her rival, but is willing to sacrifice her own children to eliminate any connection with Jason and cause him the worst of pains – even if it magnifies her own suffering. Claire is no different: she is a Medea, replaced by another woman (Mrs. Ill). Claire has a child with Alfred, and although she does not kill it herself, it does not survive. She has no forgiveness despite the love that she feels for Ill (which is why it is ‘poisoned love’) and the only way to achieve justice is through the death of Ill.
Early in the play (Act I, p. 12) Zimt, Goethe, Brahms and Berthold Schwarz are mentioned. Zimt seems to be an invention on the author’s part but resembles the name of “Klimt”, an actual painter. The other three names refer to historic individuals – a writer, a composer and the inventor of gunpowder. By mentioning them, the town members try to cling to past glory (claiming that all these three people florished in Guellen) but simultaneously Dürrenmatt appeals to these individuals as part of the foundation of Europe – not morals necessarily, but certain cherished values and principles. This is important, since the town members keep referring to “Western Principles”, claiming they hold to them. The preferred usage of Greek references also reinforces this, as Ancient Greece is considered as the place where Western democracy (thus those Western principles of “humanity” and “justice”) began.
If you noted any other allusions that you think should be included here, please let me know!