Month: March 2016

41. Andromache, by Euripides (425 BC)

41. Andromache, by Euripides (425 BC)

Plot

In the aftermath of the fall of Troy, Hector’s widow Andromache has been given to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus to be his slave and concubine, and he fathers a son to her. Now with his new bride Hermione, daughter of Menelaus, blaming Andromache for her own failure to conceive a child, the lives of Andromache and her son are in dire jeopardy. But there are more twists in this story, and some unexpected happy endings.

My version is again the Penguin edition of Orestes and other plays translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts

The shadow of the Trojan war continues to bring tragedy to both the Greeks and Trojans. The play starts with Hermione and Menelaus as classic villains, Andromache and her son Molossus about to be their tragic victims. I  wanted to cheer as, for once, help arrives in time as Achilles’ ancient father Peleus gives Menelaus a proper tongue lashing, laying open all his stupidity and cowardice, and labeling this King of Sparta a “blackguard, son of a blackguard …. contemptible, amorous weakling …  beneath contempt.”

Menelaus retreats from the old man’s anger yet I had to smile as he described Peleus as “a walking ghost endowed with a loud voice, incapable of everything but endless talk”

As with most Greek tragedies up until now, I would have expected a last-minute reversal of fortune that sees Andromache killed after all, but Euripides breaks the mould and tells a different and more intricate story, albeit featuring a series of unlikely events. Hermione is filled with remorse and fear of what her husband will do to her when he finds out what she has tried to do, and tries to commit suicide. Orestes (Agamemnon’s son, remember Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy) appears on the scene and elopes with Hermione, having originally been betrothed to her (Menelaus broke that arrangement), and announces how he has plotted the death of Neoptolemus already. Said death leaves poor old Peleus alone and distraught until the Goddess Thetis (his wife and Achilles’ mother) materialises, to promise Peleus immortality as a God, a future with her under the waves, and a happy ending for Andromache as she will remarry and see her son Molossus begin a new dynasty of kings so that the Trojan line does not entirely become extinct.

Except for Neoptolemus (who we never meet on stage) everyone seems to get a happy ending!

Worth noting the political messages within the script : Autocracy is more effective than democracy, and Spartans are lying, cruel and treacherous.

Personal rating: 7, thanks to the more intricate plot and the less tragic results.

Next : Finally some comic relief with Aristophanes’ The Acharnians

 

 

40. Hippolytus, by Euripides (428 BC)

40. Hippolytus, by Euripides (428 BC)

Plot: Seeking revenge on Hippolytus, the bastard son of King Theseus, for his insults and contempt, the goddess Aphrodite instils an overwhelming love for Hippolytus in the heart of Theseus’ innocent wife Phaedra. The nurse attending the sickening Phaedra betrays her confession of love to young Hippolytus who disdainfully and coldly rejects Phaedra and all women. Rather than bring dishonour to her family, Phaedra hangs herself but leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of ravishing her, in revenge for his dismissal of her pain.

Theseus will not believe Hippolytus’ protests of innocence and uses one of the favours promised by his father Poseidon to kill Hippolytus. A  huge wave rises from the sea and from it emerges a monstrous bull which spooks Hippolytus’s chariot horses and causes his body to be dragged and pummeled through the rocks of the seashore.

As Hippolytus lays dying, Artemis appears and reveals the truth to the anguished Theseus, including the role of Aphrodite as the instigator of the tragedy, and promises to seek revenge by striking down Aphrodite’s most beloved mortal Adonis.

Again, my copy is the Penguin Classics translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 014044031). Maybe I should be getting a royalty from them 🙂

My thoughts: Hippolytus is a popular young man who worships only the maiden goddess Artemis and dismisses Aphrodite and the pursuit of sexual love to live chaste and focused on his love of hunting and chariot racing. He is proud and cold, insolently dismissing advice from his elderly servant and viciously maligning women in general. Only his innocence of the crime he is accused of, and the violence of his death generates my sympathy for his character.

Hippolytus is sometimes cited to demonstrate the concept of sophrosyne, a state of “excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, and self-control”. Hippolytus may be pure from sexual desires, but his woman-hating speech does not strike me as temperate or showing an excellence of character, but a wilful and self-indulgent love of himself and his narrow field of interests.

Phaedra strives to overcome the unnatural love she has been afflicted with, and intends to starve herself to death and protect her honour, before her nurse unwisely betrays Phaedra’s obsession to Hippolytus in public. His overreaction forces Phaedra to not only hang herself but also write the lies which doom him. I think Phaedra is very ill-used by Aphrodite as the tool of the goddess’ plot against Hippolytus, as Phaedra is not only innocent, but had already built a temple dedicated to Aphrodite.

I hoped that Artemis might intervene to save Phaedra or at least Hippolytus, but of course it wouldn’t be a tragedy then. Artemis does appear late in the play, to tell Theseus the truth and berate him for his hasty and heartless actions. She also explains …

“Aphrodite willed all this to happen, to appease her anger, and this law holds among gods, that none seeks to oppose another’s purpose ; rather We stand aloof”  page 124

although I’m sure this could be argued using some of The Iliad‘s events as proof otherwise.

Favourite lines/passages:  There were many passages that stood out for me

Theseus’ grief at Phaedra’s death

“I strain despairing eyes over my sea of misery, hope vanishes, the shore is out of sight, Disaster is a wave I cannot surmount”                                                            page 108

Hippolytus’ death scene

“Come, black irresistible darkness, come in your cruelty and lay me to sleep in death”                                                                                                                                     page 125

and even the Nurse’s reflective if rather self-centered soliloquy

“Since everyone must die, it would be better that friends should set a limit to affection, and never open their hearts’ depths to each other. The ties of love ought to lie loosely on us, easy to slip or tighten. For one heart to endure the pain of two, as I suffer for her, is a cruel burden.”                                                                        page 90

Phaedra’s explanation of human nature

“… though knowledge and judgement tell us what is good, we don’t act on our knowledge – some through indolence, others through valuing some other pleasure more than goodness; and our life offers us many pleasures”                     page 95

But to leave you with some beauty, a description of where Hippolytus gathered flowers for a garland for Artemis

“Fresh from a virgin meadow, where no shepherd dares to graze his flock, nor ever yet the scythe swept, but bees thread the spring air over the maiden meadow. There with clear stream-water Chastity tends the flowers …”                             page 85

Diversions/digressions: Lots of tangents to explore from this play for mythology lovers. Looking back

  • How did Theseus earn the three boons of Poseidon?
  • The backstory of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta
  • The fates of Phaedra’s mother Pasiphae and sister Ariadne

and looking forward

  • Artemis’ vow to strike down Aphrodite’s most beloved in retaliation (Adonis)
  • Will Theseus strive to seek revenge on the goddess Aphrodite?

Personal rating : A very strong tragedy which builds in scale yet never loses focus on the characters. Also many beautiful and memorable passages : easily a 7.

Next: Staying with Euripides, the next play is Andromache, dated around 425 BC.

 

 

 

39. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (429 BC)

Plot : Plague is ravaging Thebes, and according to the oracle, bringing the murderer of the old King Laius to justice is the only way to bring relief. Oedipus vows to do so, thus realising the most dreadful curse afflicting both himself and his family.

Again my copy is the The Three Theban Plays translated by Robert Fagles and published by Penguin Books (ISBN 0140444254)

My thoughts : Finally we reach the story that made Sigmund Freud famous.

Oedipus’ life is fated to be cursed – his own father is warned that he will be killed by his son, so Oedipus is sent away to be killed as a baby. Saved from this cruelty, he inherits a far worse infamy as he does indeed become his father’s murderer, his own mother’s new husband, and the father of his own sisters. He is torn down from the heights of power and fame to the lowest : self  loathing, blinded beggar and outcast.

To quote Aristotle, this is “the most brilliant example of theatrical plot” (although he probably said it in Classical Greek). Despite all advice, Oedipus drives forward in his quest for the truth about the death of Laius and his own mysterious birth, only to discover he has unwittingly brought disaster on himself. His opening speeches are full of irony as he promises to discover the murderer and save the city, and brings his own curse down upon himself.

“Whoever he is … let that man drag out his life in agony, step by painful step”

“I am the king now, I hold the throne that he held then, possess his bed and a wife who shares our seed ….. So I will fight for him as if he were my father”

He refuses to listen to the blind prophet Tiresias’ warnings until the cruel truth hits him

“I have a terrible fear the blind seer can see”

Once the dreadful truth is revealed and Jocasta (his wife and mother) has taken her own life, Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch pins and begs to be cast out of the city. Before he leaves, he embraces his two young daughters and is heartbroken when they must be taken from him.

Favourite lines/passages:

“I’d never have come to this,
my father’s murderer – never been branded
mother’s husband, all men see me now! Now,
loathed by the gods, son of the mother I defiled
coupling in my father’s bed, spawning lives in the loins
that spawned my wretched life. What grief can crown this grief?
It’s mine alone, my destiny -I am Oedipus!”                                            Oedipus, page 242

“I’d wall up my loathsome body like a prison,
blind to the sound of life, not just the sight.
Oblivion – what a blessing …
for the mind to dwell a world away from pain”                                         Oedipus,   page 243

Diversions/digressions : Recoiling from the tragedy of Oedipus and his family, I found myself wondering about his encounter with the Sphinx, the monster with the head of a woman, the body of a lioness, wings of an eagle, a serpent tail, (but no nose as Napoleon’s soldiers had knocked it off 😉 ) Hera (or Ares) sent the Sphinx to Thebes where it asks each traveller the same riddle, (what has only one voice but travels on four legs, then two, then three?) then devours them when they fail to answer correctly. Of course Oedipus solves the riddle, hence gaining access to the City and his fate. Comes of being too clever for your own good, eh?

Personal rating : Much more satisfying and robust as a play, yet still with only one dominant plotline, I think this deserves an 8

Next : Another incestuous mother and son (or step-son) tragedy in Hippolytus, by Euripides

 

 

38. The Children of Heracles, by Euripides (430 BC)

Plot: With Heracles dead, King Eurystheus fears revenge once Heracles’ children reach adulthood, and sets out to capture them. Iolaus, Heracles’ friend and companion, leads them away and seeks asylum in many places but is repeatedly turned away until Athens promises them sanctuary and protection. With Athens and Argos lined up for battle against each other, the prophets warn that only with the sacrifice of a virgin maiden of noble birth can Athens be victorious.

Claimed to be incomplete, the version I read was from the Penguin compilation of Euripides’ Orestes and other plays, edited and translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts : Given the timing of this play’s writing and performance, there is obviously a political undercurrent to the story. Athens going to war for a just cause and to fight against tyranny would obviously have resonated with the audience. Interestingly, because  Eurystheus has been captured and not killed on the battlefield, the Athenians will not execute him, and the play finishes abruptly with Alcmene (Heracles’ mother) planning to kill him herself and face the consequences.

The two stellar scenes in the play are Macaria’s self sacrifice to protect her brothers, (even refusing a lottery to share the danger with her sisters) and allow Athens to defeat Argos as required by the oracles, and Iolaus’ divinely provided rejuvenation  into a younger man to take part in the battle and defeat Eurystheus.

Favourite lines/passages:

Iolaus: “…… We should call here Macaria’s sisters and draw lots,

and let the one chosen die for her family,

It isn’t fair that you should die without this chance”

Macaria : “I will not die by choice of hazard. If I should,

the willing gift has vanished ; speak of it no more.

If you accept me, if you will wholeheartedly use what I offer

my life for my brothers’ lives

This I give with free will, and under no constraint”                                               page 121

 

Chorus :   “O Earth, and night-long Moon, and dazzling beams divine

That light our mortal race, Bring me your message!

Send forth the victory shout to fill the sky, and reach

The august throne where reigns Grey-eyed Athene.”                                        page 129

Diversions/digressions : A very short play (which may help prove it is incomplete) so there was not much time to be distracted. I was so taken with the courage of Macaria (who I had not heard of before this) that I searched further yet could not find any artwork depicting her bravery and self-sacrifice, yet there was also a Greek goddess Macaria (supposedly the daughter of Hades). The name means “she who is blessed” or “a blessed death”. It would be nice to think that being at the very least a demigod’s daughter, Heracles’ Macaria might have been resurrected as a goddess in the underworld to aid those who died courageously.

Personal rating : 7

Next : Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex)

 

 

37. The Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (430 BC)

37. The Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (430 BC)

Plot : Deianeira, long-suffering wife of Heracles, has her prayers answered as news reaches her that he is finally freed of his labours and returning home. But upon receiving a group of women slaves brought to her house as part of Heracles’ spoils in battle, she discovers he has fallen in love with one of them, the princess Iole. Deianeira then sets in motion a plan to regain Heracles’ love, and falls into the trap of a dead enemy.

My copy is the Penguin edition covering Sophocles’ plays Ajax, Electra, Women of Trachis and Philoctetes, translated by E. F. Watling (ISBN 0140440283)

My thoughts :
A few disjointed thoughts
• At least one very long speech was written for each of the characters. Not sure that the actors would have loved Sophocles for that.
• Deianeira’s opening line recalls Croesus’ words to Cyrus in Herodotus’ Histories : “call no man (or in this case, woman) happy until he has reached the end of his days”
• The foretelling of the fate of Heracles ; doomed to die or live peacefully in retirement sounds like the clichéd “cop about to retire” story. Next time I see that storyline, I will imagine the police officer in a lion skin and carrying a club
• Finally, why did Sophocles name this play after the chorus (Women of Trachis) rather than the tragic Deianeira, or even Heracles?

Favourite lines/passages :
Leaving aside the agonies of Deianeira and Heracles, I preferred some of the lesser characters’ outbursts.

“O master of my soul,
I float on air, the sweet
Music of flutes would win me now,
And twining ivy-tendrils whirl me round
In Bacchanalian dance”
Chorus, p. 126

“Tomorrow – what is tomorrow?
‘Tis nothing, until today is safely past”
Nurse, p. 150

Personal rating : 5
Next : Staying with the family : Euripides’ Heracleidae (Children of Heracles). This  will be title number 38.

If you have just started following, you may be wondering what happened to number 36?

Title 36 (Prometheus Bound) was blogged out of order, before 34 (Euripides’ Medea) and 35 (Thucydides’ History of …)

Today’s entry 37 gets me back on track.

35. History of the Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides (c. 431 BC)

Contents : A very detailed historical account of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Sparta and Athens (and nearly every other country, city and island in the eastern Mediterranean) which covers the major events and battles up until 411 BC (the remainder of the war is described by Xenophon in his Hellenica, which I shall hopefully get to in a few months’ time)

My copy is, you guessed it, the Penguin edition translated by Rex Warner (ISBN 0140440399)

My thoughts :  A much more detailed and believable account of Greek history than Herodotus’ Histories, the question first in my mind was whether Thucydides showed any bias in his writing. Thucydides was Athenian and had been a general in their army before being exiled following his defeats. Some readers find him free of bias, others see him as pro-Athenian. I found him mildly anti-Athenian, and he definitely disliked certain Greeks such as Cleon and admired some Spartans such as Brasidas.

His depiction of the Greeks and Spartans also made me stop and think about the stereotypes of the civilized democracy of Athens and the warlike Spartans. Athens came across as much more aggressive, ruthless and power-hungry than I had thought, while the Spartans were slow to anger and hesitant to act.

It was also interesting that Thucydides firstly did not bring the Gods and their influences into the History at any stage, and despite the rash of storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, eclipses and a most virulent plague, such things were rarely taken as omens to start or stop fighting.

As well as the detail of battles, and manoeuvres both political and martial, Thucydides includes the text of a lot of speeches from both sides. Of course there is no way these speeches could be accurate in the length and detail provided.

Most chilling of all the descriptions is the final defeat, rout and destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily in the penultimate Book VII. Once this is described, the remaining battles and political sidesteps become somewhat of an anticlimax, even though Book VIII brings Athens itself to near defeat and civil war, and the overthrow of the democratic government.

Favourite lines/passages
With so many political and patriotic speeches, it should be easy to find passages that stand out. For instance, the depiction of Athenian democracy in Book II:

“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, as long as he has in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty”

Pericles’ funeral oration, Book II

(unless of course, she’s a woman)
In the same speech. Pericles also praises his city’s empire with the words

“Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now”

lIttle knowing of the devastation of the plague to follow.

But the total and overwhelming destruction of the Athenian army in Sicily is really the climax of the story, and foreshadowed by the Spartan general Gylippus in his speech to their allied forces before their attack:

“Let us go into battle with anger in our hearts; let us be convinced that in dealing with an adversary it is most just and lawful to claim the right to slake the fury of the soul in …. taking vengeance on the enemy.”

The following battle scenes, both on board ship and as the Athenians attempt to escape by land are harrowing.

Diversions/digressions
Given the huge level of detail, the unfamiliarity of many cities and place names, and the sheer number of participating cities and the difficulty of keeping track of whose side each was on, I read this in small bursts across a week, and let most of the detail slide over me, just existing in the moment of each individual conflict or speech.

Personal rating : 5

Next : The Trachiniae (Women of Trachis) by Sophocles (430 BC)

 

And the lucky number is ….

And the lucky number is ….

8 !! 

So my target before May 2nd for the Classics Club spin

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/category/classics-spin/

is to read The Knights by Aristophanes.

Before The Knights, I will have to read Women of Trachis and Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles ; The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus, Andromache, and Hecuba by Euripides, and the earlier Acharnians by Aristophanes. This is not part of the Classics Club spin challenge, but self-imposed by my own proviso to try and read the classics in chronological order.Since there are 8 weeks to the deadline (coincidence? I think not 😉 ), all I have to do is average one play a week, and I will make the cut.

I hope to finish Thucydides today, and then divert to something off my shelves (perhaps Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Lost Continent or Stephen Baxter’s Mammoth) before beginning the plays.

Good luck to all fellow Classic Club spinners. I hope you got something you will enjoy, or at least you will enjoy getting off your list.