Month: April 2016

45.The Suppliant Women, by Euripides (423 BC)

Its going to be at least another week before I get my hands on a copy of The Knights, so I’ll jump over it for now and post the next title on my list : The Suppliant Women by Euripides.

Plot : Back to the battlefield outside the city walls of Thebes, where Aeschylus’ play Seven against Thebes was set. The bodies of the seven defeated generals lie unburied without honours, and King Adrastus of Argos, who committed the defeated armies to Polyneices’ cause, has come with the mothers of the dead to beg King Theseus of Athens to intercede and force Creon of Thebes to return the bodies. (Remember Creon also refused to allow the burial of Polyneices in Sophocles’ Antigone).  Theseus at first refuses to act, but his mother Aethra convinces him. Creon refuses, leading to a skirmish between the Thebans and Athenians.

The Athenian forces are victorious but do not press home their attack inside the Theban city walls, merely retrieving the bodies for proper burial and cremation back in Athens.  The goddess Athena appear at the end to urge Theseus to extract a vow from the Argive king Adrastus to maintain friendship and support Athens in the future.

My copy was the Penguin edition Orestes and other plays by Euripides, translated by Philip Vestacott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts : While this play did not stand out personally for me above other Euripidean  tragedies, it was notable for its arguments for different systems of rule, and depiction of democracy, even if it seems unlikely that a herald would speak so bluntly to the King of Athens

“The city that I come from lives under command of one man, not a rabble. None there has the power by loud-mouthed talk to twist the city this way or that for private profit…..”     Theban Herald

“A state has no worse enemy than an absolute king. Under such a ruler there is no common law. One man holds the whole law in his own grasp …. when laws are written down, both poor and rich possess their equal right … the humble man’s just cause defeats the great.

Further, the people,  vested with authority,  values its young men as the city’s great resource. An absolute king regards them as his enemies, the best of them, and those he thinks intelligent, he kills off, being afraid of rivals to his throne  … mown down like fresh stalks in spring? “      Theseus, page 207-208

Again the graphic battle scenes as the Athenians inflict defeat on the Thebans are memorable, as is Evadne’s suicidal leap onto her husband’s funeral pyre. And while Athena’s arrival and advice is politically relevant to the war weary audience of the time, it is now a fairly anticlimactic ending for modern readers.

Favourite lines/passages

“Though I see Thebes now proud in success, my trust is, at the next throw she will find the dice fall otherwise.  The gods stretch greatness in the dust”                            Aethra, page 204

“O wretched race of mortals! Why must men get spears and spill each other’s blood? Stop! Lay this rage to rest ; live quiet with quiet neighbours, and preserve your towns. Life is a brief affair such as it is ; we should seek to pass through it gently, not in stress and strain”                                                                                                Adrastus, page 223

Personal rating : 5

Also in that year : In 423 BC, the plague in Athens ends, but the war with the Peloponnesians continues.

Next: Depending on supply it will be back to #44 Aristophanes’ The Knights, or forward again with #46 Aristophanes’ The Clouds.

 

 

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What is classic literature?

While I am still waiting for my copy of Aristophanes’ The Knights to reach me here in the wilds of rural Australia, I have been reading things not usually considered classics, as I normally do between ‘classics’ (and of course, there is always the temptation to read something ‘out of order’ – there is a lot of emphasis on Shakespeare at the moment as it is the 400th anniversary of his death). I just finished Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie which I wouldn’t have put on a classics list, but if it had been The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, I probably would have listed those, yet they are by the same author and featuring the same detective.

Which raises the question “what is a classic?” Obviously the definition will be different for different people. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice or The Iliad might reasonably be expected to be considered ‘Classics’ by almost everyone, but what about Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Lord of the Rings or Dune? Does childrens’ literature count? Or fantasy? Or science fiction? Or whodunnits? If so, then is Raymond Chandler as worthy as Agatha Christie? Is Isaac Asimov included but not Stephen Baxter? Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett?

As I have written before, I will include for my reading some books which are not always considered fiction, so The Holy Bible and The Koran, philosophy and natural sciences, biographies and histories, Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins, will all ‘make the grade’.

For me it comes down to not only what is recognised as quality and contributing to the “great conversation” but also just makes me curious enough to read. So yes, all the named authors and titles above I hope to reach some day.

 

43. Hecabe, by Euripides (424 BC)

43. Hecabe, by Euripides (424 BC)

Plot : Hecabe, (more commonly called Hecuba) widow of the recently slain King Priam, is enslaved to Agamemnon after the fall of Troy. Her daughter Polyxena is doomed to be sacrificed to appease Achilles’ ghost and her son Polydorus has been treacherously murdered while a guest of her supposed friend Polymestor, King of Thrace. Overcome with grief, she sends a message to Polymestor to visit her at the Greek camp, so she can seek revenge.

I read the version in the Penguin Medea and other plays edited/translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140441298)

My thoughts :  The introduction provided for this volume indicated the critics’ complaint that this play was really two stories, but I have noticed many of the previous Greek plays I have read so far could have the same thing said of them. Regardless, both ‘halves’ have their strong scenes : Polyxena’s nobility in facing death, and the attack on Polymestor and his sons.

 

 

Favourite lines/passages:

By far my favourite passage was the herald Talthybius’ description of Polyxena’s death and the reaction of the Greek army immediately after, on page 80.

“Then he grasped his sword by the gold hilt, drew it from the sheath, and signed to the young men appointed, to take hold of her.

Polyxena saw; and this is what she said: “You Greeks, who laid my city in ruins, I die willingly. Let no one lay hands on me ; I will give  my neck steadfastly to the sword.  So in the name of God, let me stand free, and kill me; then I shall die free………

then she knelt down on one knee, and spoke the  most heroic words of all                  ‘Son of Achilles, here is my breast, if that is where you wish to strike ;  or if my throat, my  neck is ready here ; strike home.

He with his sword, – torn between pity and resolve – cut through the channels of her breath

…then ,  when the deadly stroke had ended her last breath,  each Argive there found his own way to do her honour. Some strewed fresh leaves  over her body, some bought boughs and built a pyre,  while those who stood with empty hands were roundly abused. ‘What do you mean,’ the others cried, “by bringing nothing for Polyxena? Have you no dress, no ornament to offer in her honour?   Hers was the most courageous, noble heart of all.”

 

 

 

Diversions/digressions: [spoilers] I searched for a family tree of Priam to see how many of his family have survived according to the stories of this time.

Hector dies towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, and his brothers Paris and Deiphobus and sister Creusa die in the subsequent fall of Troy. Hector’s wife Andromache is shown as Menelaus’ concubine in Euripides’ Andromache but survives to raise a family of her own, and marries Priam’s surviving son Helenus.

Polydorus and Polyxena meet their fates in the play in this post, while Cassandra, taken as a slave and concubine by Agamemnon, meets her death in the first part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

Personal rating : 6

Next in line is Aristophanes’ The Knights. At this moment I don’t have access to a satisfactory copy, so my apologies if the next post may be some days in appearing while I scour some local bookshops. Ah the onerous life of a literary blogger 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

42. The Acharnians, by Aristophanes (425 BC)

Plot : Dikaiopolis, a Athenian farmer, is tired of the war between Athens and Sparta and the attendant bribery and corruption. He buys a personal peace from the Spartans and then sets up a market which is open to all comers including ‘enemies’ of Athens.

I actually had two copies of this play to hand, the ever present Penguin edition translated by Alan Sommerstein and including Lysistrata and The Clouds, (ISBN 0140442871) and a Bantam Classics edition of the Complete Plays of Aristophanes edited by Moses Hadad and translated by Benjamin Rogers (0553213431). The Penguin edition was far superior with a wealth of explanatory notes and a far more bawdy and comic interpretation which clearly spelt out what was happening.

My thoughts:  The earliest surviving of Aristophanes’ comedies, and therefore the oldest example of “Old Comedy”, with its many topical allusions, and a good choice for an April 1st post. To the reader fresh from the fate driven tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, the lively and earthy dialogue and events of Aristiphanes’ plays can be quite a shock. Sexual acts, farting, defacation  and every other imaginable bodily function is presented.  And Sommerstein’s translations pull no punches when it comes to his choice of words to describe the events either. There is also some completely surreal silliness which would fit into any Monty Python script (insisting that a coal scuttle is a person, which the Chorus totally believe, and an Athenian informer is a pot and trades him off to a poor Boeotian who bags him up and takes him away).

There is quite a lot of poking fun at famous contemporary Athenians, including fellow playwright Euripides and powerful politician Cleon, and this alongside the sympathetic treatment of Athens’ ‘enemies’ including the Spartans,shows just how strong the right to free speech was in Classical Athens, (although Aristophanes tells us mid-play of his legal entanglement over his play the previous year, where he was charged and convicted by Cleon of slandering the City in the presence of foreigners)

Sommerstein’s choice of language in making this translation is interesting as well. Besides the quite strong language, there is the flowery speech used by Euripides (“perchance” this, and “wouldst” that), and the choice of very broad Scots and Irish accents to distinguish the Megarian and Boeotian traders. And the Chorus with their short, rhyming verses sound like they read too much Dr Seuss as children!

Also of note in passing is the far greater number of characters which populate this play (21 speaking parts plus the chorus and another dozen non-speaking players), and several examples of the lead character breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience.

And I have said very little about the political nature of the play and the demands for peace in a wartime Greece, which also perhaps makes it the world’s first protest literature.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Now my legs have lost their fleetness

And my joints are stiff and sore

And the fox has dodged the hunters

And the hounds can run no more”                                                               Chorus, page 59

 

“So  now I can turn to the pleasures I’d always have chosen if I could

Like finding my neighbour’s young slave girl in the act of purloining some wood

and grabbing her tight (for I never have known her to say “I will not”)

and lifting her up to amuse her, then having it off on the spot”     Dikaiopolis, page 61

Personal rating: I have been looking forward to reacquainting with Aristophanes, but The Acharnians is a little disjointed and the author’s self promotion is a little heavy handed. I know there is better to come, so I will settle for a 5

Next : Back to the tragic, with Euripides’ Hecabe