Month: May 2016

49. Peace, by Aristophanes (421 BC)

49. Peace, by Aristophanes (421 BC)

Plot : Trygaeus flies up to heaven on the back of a giant dung beetle (wisely surmising that he will only need to carry enough food for himself for the trip!) to speak to Zeus. Finding all the gods except Hermes have retreated higher where they cannot hear the constant cries from Earth, Trygaeus instead discovers that Peace has been held captive in a deep well, from which he and other Greeks (including Spartans, Athenians and representatives from other cities) work together to pull her out into the light, accompanied by the beautiful young Harvest and Festival. Trygaeus returns to Earth, is praised by the peace loving farmers and merchants and the play ends with his marriage to Harvest.

My version is the Penguin Black Classic The Birds and other plays, translated by David Barrett and Alan Sommerstein (ISBN 9780140449518)

My thoughts :  A fortnight before the Peace of Nicias brought about an end (albeit temporarily) to the Peloponnesian War,  Aristophanes presented this play, which is not as strong or satisfying as his earlier plays, yet still won second prize at the City Dionysia.

Even though Cleon is dead, Aristophanes still can’t resist a parting dig or two

First Slave : “he’s eating shit these days, down amerng the dead men”     p. 99.

There is also a lot more bawdiness in this play than earlier – presumably in peace time there is more time for partying and seduction.

Personal rating : 6

Kimmy’s rating : Asleep on my lap throughout. One ear flicker.

Also in that year :  As mentioned, the Peace of Nicias is agreed between Sparta and Athens, ending ten years of hostilities. Designed to stand for half a century, it was broken the following year when Sparta signed a treaty with Boeotia, and the War resumed.

Next: Electra by Euripides

 

 

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48. The Wasps by Aristophanes (422 BC)

48. The Wasps by Aristophanes (422 BC)

Plot

Old Philocleon (‘lover of Cleon’) is addicted to serving on the jury at the courts and the power it gives him over people, to such an extent that his son Bdelycleon (‘hater of Cleon’) has to lock him up in their house with barricaded doors and windows, rags blocking the drains, and netting over the whole house to stop him running off to sit in judgment on all and sundry.  His jurymen cronies, the Wasps, come to free him, and after a bit of argy-bargy, agree to a debate between father and son with the jurymen as audience and judges.Bdelycleon convinces them all that they are paid a mere pittance of the city’s income from the other cities under Athens’ thumb, with the rest of the spoils going to Cleon and his kind, and wins the argument. Then Bdelycleon sets up a courtroom outside their own house to save Philocleon the trouble and inconveniences of attending the real thing.The first case is between two household dogs, one accusing the other over eating an entire cheese without sharing. Philocleon (who never shows mercy on defendants) is tricked by Bdelycleon into acquitting the guilty dog.

The second act sees Philocleon gradually seduced into drinking and partying until he is so drunk that he absconds with a young female fluteplayer, and causes mayhem and assaults on his drunken stagger home with her, no doubt to be facing charges in court himself before long. The plays ends with him performing a wild dance alongside giant crabs (yes, you’ve read that right)

My copy is the Penguin Black classic edition, Frogs and other plays, translated by David Barrett, and revised by Shomit Dutta (ISBN 9780140449693), which I bought alongside the second Penguin copy of Aristophanes’ works, The Birds and other plays. Both volumes will stay on my bookshelves for some years to come.

My thoughts

I’ve spent a lot longer describing the story than usual, but then this is one of the great comedies I have read, and certainly the most bizarre. While there is the usual social commentary and attacks on Cleon surrounded by crudity, bawdiness and many surreal moments, as in earlier plays, it really is the sheer silliness of much of the play, which like The Clouds and The Knights that I enjoyed here.

Favourite lines/passages

The image of old Philocleon poking his head out of the chimney (like a puff of smoke as eh says himself) at the beginning of the play is marvellous, and the appearance of his old crony jurymen decked out as wasps complete with stings, and the resulting tussles and fights as they try to free him from his son would be a treat seen on stage.And the crabs … don’t forget the crabs!

Diversions/digressions

As usual, Aristophanes provides his own digression between Acts One and Two, as the Chorus Leader laments the playwright’s disappointing third place with his play The Clouds last year. He also compares the author as Heracles in battle with the greatest monster in the land (Cleon), who he describes as

“Jag-toothed it was, and from its staring eyes shot rays more terrible than those of Cynna

And in a grisly circle round its head flickered the tongues of servile flatterers

Condemned to groan; its voice was like the roar of mighty floods descending from the hills

Bearing destruction; heinous was the stench that issued from the Beast as it slid forth

With camel’s arse and stinking unwashed balls”

Personal rating : 9. An excellent comedy.

Kimmy’s rating : Particularly fond of the dogs’ trial and the puppies pleading with old Philocleon, and would have raised more than one bark for the dancing crabs.

Also in the year 422 BC : Cleon of Athens, warmongering general and politician, and  Aristophanes’ chief nemesis, is killed at the battle of Amphipolis later this year.

Next : Another Aristophanean comedy, Peace.

47. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : part 2 : the Historical Books (King James version)

47. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament : part 2 : the Historical Books (King James version)

This section covers the Books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. For the earlier five books, see post numbered 22.

My thoughts : As said previously, I will not comment on the text as religion, merely my experiences in dealing with the books as literature and evidence of life and customs in the ancient world.

Here there comes a real divergence in structure between the Hebrew, Protestant, Catholic and Eastern orthodox versions of the Old Testament. Some versions have more or less books than those listed above, but I will be sticking with the Protestant canon, and specifically the King James version.

The Book of Joshua starts where the book of Moses finished;  with the recognition of Joshua as Moses’ successor. Joshua leads the invading army of Israelites across the Jordan (when the waters part in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant) to destroy all the peoples already living in the Promised Land, and divides the land between the tribes of Israel.

Not that I am a regular church goer by any stretch, but very little of the people and events in Judges had I ever heard of : Judah, Othniel, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Jotham, or Jephthah, until we finally get to Samson and Delilah (Chapters 14-16).

Likewise in the Books of Samuel,  I was unfamiliar with much about Samuel or Saul until I reached David, and his defeat of Goliath (“whose height was six cubits and a span”, or eleven and a half feet tall!) using his sling and a stone. Eventually David becomes King of Israel, defeating Saul and his sons. (God had turned away and forsaken Saul because he had disobeyed the strict instructions to kill not only all the men, women and children, but also all the livestock, and kept the best sheep and cows to offer as sacrifice to the Lord)

David is the closest person to a modern idea of a Christian (of course, the term Christian has little meaning at this stage when the devout obey God’s law, while the heathen do not) but he shows remorse for his actions (such as having Bethsheba’s husband sent into the front line to be killed so he can have her) and is willing to forgive his enemies. The most heartbreaking section was Absalom turning on his father King David to wrest Israel from him, and despite this treachery, David’s heartache and grief when Absalom is killed (2 Samuel 18)

The two Books of Kings are a long stretch of the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah, many of whom turned away from God, and worshipped idols, causing their peoples’ eventual exile from their land. Notable in this section were the abilities of Elisha which foreshadowed Jesus’ miracles (raising the dead, feeding the multitudes, curing leprosy). The following two Books of Chronicles repeats much of the history content of the Books of Kings, finishing again with the overthrow of the Israelites by King Nebuchadnezzar, and the people being taken captive to Babylon.

The Books of Ezra and Nememiah start with the Lord stirring up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia (who we were introduced to by Herodotus when he spared the life of King Croesus) to rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and release the people to return there. In Ezra (the priest)  and Nememiah (the governor), the text moves in and out of first-person, as if it has been clumsily edited together, which raises the whole issue of exactly how many authors produced the Old Testament – I have heard more than forty suggested. One good editor amongst them wouldn’t have gone amiss!

Different again is the Book of Esther, which reads more like a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm ; not mentioning the Lord or scriptures at all, but describing a Cinderella-like girl who becomes Queen to King Ahasuerus (who ruled the lands from India to Ethiopia) defeating the looming threat of the genocide of the Jews, including her foster parent Mordecai, from the scheming court official Haman, who ends up hanged from the very scaffold he had built to execute Mordecai. But true to Old Testament form, the slaughter is reversed so that the Jews instead kill all their enemies.

Things I learnt from this section of the Old Testament

  • It wasn’t the sound of the trumpets which destroyed the walls of Jericho, but the final shout of the Israelite army after the walls had been circled seven times and the trumpets blown.
  • The continuing and repeated times the Israelites turned away from God and worshipped idols
  • When Samson brings down the building, killing himself and the Philistines within, there were also three thousand Philistines on the roof watching his ridicule, who presumably perished with the rest
  • Saul seeking out a witch to raise the spirit of Samuel to seek advice – ghosts in the Bible?!
  • “For the battle was there scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.” At first I took this to mean that the trees came alive in some way, which seemed reinforced by the way Absalom being caught by the neck and lifted off his mule by the tree branch, but then perhaps I just read too much Tolkien, and it simply refers to the rough terrain impeding the flight of Absalom’s forces (2 Samuel 18 : 8-10)
  • Goliath had four sons, all giants, and all slain by the soldiers of Israel
  • David took a census of the Israelites, which angered God (was this a prideful act on David’s part?) so much that He sent a plague on the Israelites
  • Elisha mocked by little children, turns and curses them, and then two bears come out of the wood and ate them (although some scholars interpret children in this passage to mean uneducated people, which is not much of an improvement!)

The language of the King James version in these histories, particularly the Books of Samuel, was hard to decipher at times, and I just had to keep reading until further events clarified what had happened.

Favourite lines/passages

The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich : he bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory, for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and he hath set the world upon them.                                                                                                 1 Samuel 2 : 7-8

For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.                                          1 Chronicles 29 : 15 

Personal rating : I didn’t feel I gained much at all from this reading. Just a 2.

Next :  From the not-quite-sublime to the ridiculous?  The Wasps by Aristophanes

46. The Clouds, by Aristophanes (423 BC)

46. The Clouds, by Aristophanes (423 BC)

Plot : Strepsiades, an elderly farmer being driven bankrupt by his son Pheidippides’ horse racing debts, goes to the Thinkery run by Socrates, to learn how to argue so well that he cannot be sued in the courts. After failing to remember anything he has been taught, he takes the Clouds’ advice and enrols his son instead. But this backfires, as his son, instructed by Wrong Argument, now argues eloquently that he can beat his father black and blue with impunity.

My copy is again the Penguin edition Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds, translated by Alan H. Sommerstein (ISBN 0140442871)

PS The image accompanying this post is from Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Cafe website

My thoughts : Naturally enough, the atmosphere is so completely different from the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. There are no mighty heroes of legend, no violent deaths or tragic doom filled pronouncements, but pratfalls, lewd and disgusting behaviour and merry making and debauchery.

I love the sheer ridiculousness of many of the early scenes : making wax slippers for flea’s feet to measure their leaps, lizards defacating on Socrates’ face as he stares at the moon, and students staring at the ground to learn about hell, while their bottoms point at the stars to study astronomy to learn twice as much at once.

Socrates and his scholars reject the gods and worship the Clouds, “the patron goddesses of the layabout”, who “nourish the brains of the whole tribe of sophists… the prophets and teachers of medicine and other such dirty long-haired weirdies – anyone, in fact, so long as he doesn’t do any useful work.”

Not only does he satirise Socrates and the schools of philosophers, as well as contemporary political and civic figures throughout his plays, Aristophanes also again addresses his audience directly via the Chorus Leader in a sort of intermission to comment on the success and reception of his plays, his feelings on his competitors and their plagiarism of his works, and has another tirade on Cleon (despite saying a page or two earlier that he wouldn’t), accusing him of stealing public funds and taking bribes.

Pheidippides is dragged to the Thinkery to be instructed by either Right or Wrong, who are personified (with Right depicted as a stagnant old queer secretly lusting after young boys, who is so overpowered by Wrong’s arguments that he admits defeat and leaps into the audience to cuddle with one of the spectators)

Favourite lines/passages : It almost becomes a musical comedy as the Clouds sing their intentions to help Strepsiades and he and Socrates repeat the refrains.

“If you’re ready to work and your memory’s good, if you’ve got the ability to think

If you laugh at the cold and at shortage of food, wrestling, dice, sex, fresh air, even drink

If you honour the art of defeating your foe  by stratagems deft of the tongue –

Then we’ll make you so smart that wherever you go, Strepsiades’ praise will be sung”

The Clouds [chorus], page 130

“So I give myself entirely to the school – I’ll let it beat me

It can starve me, freeze me, parch me, it can  generally ill-treat me,

If it teaches me to dodge my debts and get the reputation

Of the cleverest, slyest fox that ever baffled litigation.

Let men hate me, let men call me names, and over and above it

Let them chase me through each court, and I assure you that I’ll love it

Yes if Socrates can make of me a real forensic winner

I don’t mind if he takes out my guts and has them for his dinner”                Strepsiades

“If he has them for his dinner – “                                                                              The Clouds

“If I have them for my dinner – “                                                                              Socrates

Diversions/digressions : There will be plenty of opportunity to think about the real Socrates with the works of  Plato and Xenophon so I will leave him for then, but a lot of what is laid at his door in satire in this play is, according to Sommerstein, said in good natured jest of all the ‘new’ philosophers and Socrates is used here as a well known representative.

Personal rating : 7

Next : Returning to the Old Testament and read the ‘historical’ books of the King James Bible : Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

 

44. The Knights, by Aristophanes (424 BC)

Plot : ‘The Paphlagonian’  (a thinly disguised representation of the prevailing Athenian leader Cleon) has been skimming the best of everything from his master ‘Thepeople’  – get it, “The People” –  (or Demos in Greek) and claiming credit for all manner of things done by others, until faced by a political rival in The Sausage Seller.  They duel verbally to win over The Athenian council and Thepeople.

My copy is the Penguin edition The Birds and other plays, translated by David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein (ISBN 9780140449518)

My thoughts:  Largely a one-joke play about two ‘politicians’ trying to out-do each other to prove themselves the biggest liars, cheats and thieves, and therefore ideal candidates to be the “servant of Thepeople”. Although there is the usual ridiculous nature of Aristophanes’ comedies, and a few sparkling quotes, the one-upmanship soon wearied me. The Sausage-Seller’s reveal as a sensible and honourable leader at the end was a pleasant surprise, giving the play a satisfactory ending.

This is probably Aristophanes’ most blatant attack on Cleon, who responded by trying to indict Aristophanes as not being an Athenian citizen (remember Athens had been at war with Sparta for seven years was produced). Two years later, Cleon would be dead, and Aristophanes went on to write less personalised but still topical satires.

Favourite lines/passages:

Thepeople’s other servants (Generals Demosthenes and Nicias) try to persuade the Sausage-Seller that he is the ideal political candidate (page 43)

SAUSAGE-SELLER : But look ‘ere – I don’t think I deserve to be great.

DEMOSTHENES : What’s all this about not deserving to be great? You’ve not got any secret virtues on your conscience, have you? You’re not of good birth, by any chance?

SAUSAGE-SELLER : The worst birth you could think of.

DEMOSTHENES : Thank Heaven! That’s just what’s wanted for a politician.

SAUSAGE-SELLER :  But look ‘ere – I ‘ardly went to school. I got no learning. Why I can only just read an’ write.

DEMOSTHENES : What a shame you can only just. If only you couldn’t at all. Come off it, you don’t think politics is for the educated, do you, or the honest? It’s for illiterate scum like you now!

Also, at the beginning of Act Two, The Sausage-Seller defuses the Council Chamber as The Paphlagonian tries to work them up into a rage, by bursting in and shouting that the price of sardines is the cheapest ever, and the Council members’ eagerly vote to close business and rush down to the Market Place.

SAUSAGE-SELLER : … By nah the Cahncil were all on their feet, shahting ‘Sardines! Sardines!’ an’ ‘e while they was trying to drag ‘im away, ‘e was begging them to stay and listen a moment. ‘Won’t you give audience to the Spartan Ambassador? He is here with peace proposals.’ And with one voice they cried, ‘Wot? Peace nah? They must’ve ‘eard abaht our cheap sardines. Trying to get their ‘ands on ‘em, eh? No peace nah, thank you : let the war go on!”

Diversions/digressions : Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian War made a  very good introduction to some of the topical people and events alluded to in this play. At this point, the Athenians had the upper hand, and Spartan envoys were appearing in Athens to try and reclaim the hostages taken at the siege of Sphacteria, where Cleon had showed up with a small force to bolster Demosthenes’ army and take the credit for his ultimate success.

Personal rating : 4. Again not Aristophanes’ best, which is a shame for his later plays really are gems.

Next : Euripides’ Suppliant Women has already been posted so the next new post will be The Clouds, by Aristophanes