Month: June 2016

58. Lysistrata, by Aristophanes (411 BC)

Plot : The Athenian woman Lysistrata hatches a plot with her friends and the other wives and lovers of Athenian and Spartan men, to refuse sex with them until the War can be ended. They barricade themselves inside the Acropolis where the monies to rebuild the Athenian fleet are kept. The men on all sides soon succumb to the boycott, incapacitated as they are with huge erections.

Finishing this play also completes my work with the Penguin edition Lysistrata and other plays, translated by Alan Sommerstein (ISBN 0140448144)

My thoughts : Essentially a one-joke comedy, Lysistrata is not as satisfying as The Wasps, The Clouds or The Thesmophoriazusae. It is more blatant in its bawdiness and doesn’t have the same level of quirky surrealism. But it is a fun romp and is probably more popular in modern retellings thanks to its sex strike theme.

Favourite lines/passages:

Lysistrata’s stratagem begins to bite

O what, tell me what, is there left for me to do?

And, robbed of her beauty, who’s there for me to screw?

Philostratus, I need you, do come and help me quick

Could I please hire a nurse for my poor young orphan prick?                                   Cinesias

What heart, what soul, what bollocks could long endure this plight,

Having no one to shag in the middle of the night?                             Male chorus, page 179

 Personal rating : 5

Next : The Phonecian Women, by Euripides


57. The Thesmophoriazusae, by Aristophanes (411 BC)

57. The Thesmophoriazusae, by Aristophanes (411 BC)

Plot: The playwright Euripides fears that the women of Athens seek his death due to the way he portrays them in his plays. He asks a fellow playwright Agathon to dress up as a woman (as is his penchant) and infiltrate the Thesmophoria, a womens-only festival where he fears they will vote on his death. Agathon refuses, but Euripides’ old relative Mnesilochus volunteers instead. He gets inside the women’s festival, but then needs Euripides’ help to get out again.

I read the Penguin Classics edition The Frogs and other plays translated by David Barrett, revised by Shomit Dutta (ISBN 9780140449693) which provides a brief introduction to each play plus extensive footnotes.

My thoughts: Not only the world’s first Battle of the Sexes in literature, but also the first transvestite comedy, The Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria) is my favourite Aristophanean comedy so far, mainly because the plot is far more coherent and structured, flowing on from cause to effect.  There is still plenty of slapstick, double entendre, coarse humour and ribald behaviour, but the level of surrealism is not as noticeable.

Aristophanes’ use of Euripides as a major character in his play allows him to satirize many of Euripides’ works, notably Helen at the beginning of Act Two (which I totally got this time around, having just read Helen two days ago) but also unfortunately lost plays such as Andromeda and Telephus.

The last minute reversal of the women’s rancour towards Euripides is a little unbelievable but I think the audience would have had such a good time that they could forgive a weak ending.

The characterization of women in this all-male play performed for a mostly-male audience is interesting. The plot starts with the accusation that Euripides denigrates women, yet Aristophanes portrays them as lustful and  drink-loving (no better than men, in fact  😉 )

“A curse upon the man who plans our enemies to please,

Or puts his lot in with the Persians or Euripides

Aspires to be a tyrant, or to set one on the throne,

Or tells a woman’s  husband that the baby’s not his own;

The maid who knows the very man when Mistress wants some fun,

But spills the beans to Master when a good night’s work is done;

The messenger who bears false tales; the lover who seduces

with talk of all the gifts he’ll bring, and then no gift produces

……. And last of all the characters who meet with our displeasure,

The barman or the barmaid who serves us a short measure,

On these and on their houses may the wrath of heaven fall

But otherwise we pray the gods will guard and bless us all”       Chorus-Leader, page 89

I’m thinking Aristophanes would have made a great writer for the Carry On movies. Even down to the not-very politically correct stereotyping “Italian” accent inflicted on the Scythian guard.

And as for the singeing of Mnesiloichus’ crotch hairs….. ouch!!!

Favourite lines/passages : Mnesilochus’ disguise is revealed, and with accusers on all sides, he tries to hide his “damning evidence”

Cleisthenes: Stand up straight! Where’s his … thing? He’s hidden it!

Mica [lifting his robe at the rear]: Ooh! He’s pushed it through to the back. A nice one too!

Cleisthenes : Where? I can’t see it.

Mica : It’s back at the front again.

Cleisthenes  [lifting his robe at the front] : No it isn’t.

Mica: Oh no, it’s here again.

Cleisthenes : What is this? He’s sending his old chap back and forth like a shuttle service across the Isthmus.

page 99

Personal rating: Lots of laughs. An 8. 9.

Also in that year : Things were not so rosy for the Athenians on the war front. Following the defeat of their land and sea forces in Sicily in 413, their siege of Miletus was also thwarted in 412.

Next : Another battle of the sexes in Lysistrata by Aristophanes.




The Youtube Classics Book tag list

Saw a video on Youtube this morning which was based around a list of ten questions about people’s reading of classics. No Ancient Greek in evidence, but since we haven’t had a list on here for awhile, here are the questions with my answers:

1. Overhyped classic I really didn’t like : Wuthering Heights *ack* a book full of characters without a single redeeming quality between them

2. Fave time period to read about: not so much a single period but fave stories set in times, obviously Regency (Austen), Victorian (Dickens) but also American west pioneers

3. Fave fairy tale : mmm nothing leaps out – maybe Rumplestiltskin

4. The classic I am embarassed I haven’t read : Most of Shakespeare

5. Top 5 classics to pick up soon : Well, this blog kind of dictates where I go next.

6. Fave modern series based on a classic : *Guilty pleasure confession time* the extensions to The Little House on the Prairie books, looking at the lives of Laura’s mother, grandmother, great grandmother and daughter. Out of print but I bought copies years ago which I have only just got around to reading

7. Fave adaptation : the  BBC Ehle and Firth Pride and Prejudice production. Brilliant acting all round

8. Worst adaptation : I think it was the 1940 Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice with left over costumes from Gone with the Wind. The buggy race home from church to spread the news of the new arrivals was like a Chaplin version of Ben Hur – I turned off there and then

9. Fave edition of classics to collect : I like the Penguin Black Classics (no surprises there) _ I have a few Folio Society but it really depends on the style of illustrations they choose for the volume

10. Underhyped classic : definitely Silas Marner by George Eliot – loved it , but also The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Do we have any takers to comment back with their list?


56. Helen, by Euripides (412 BC)

56. Helen, by Euripides (412 BC)

“my curs’d beauty damned with deadly power Trojan and wandering Greek to sufferings untold”  Helen, page 147

Plot: Helen, wife of Menelaus, was not  taken to Troy as supposed by all the world, but has been living in the King’s palace in Egypt for 17 years. Menelaus, wandering the earth trying to return to Sparta but being repeatedly storm-driven onto the African coast, is washed ashore in Egypt and finally reunited with the real Helen. But now both must escape before the new Egyptian King Theoclymenus can kill Menelaus and force Helen into marriage.

My version is still the Penguin Classic edition translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140440445)

My thoughts: Suggested by Herodotus in his Histories, Euripides takes up the idea that Helen was whisked off to Egypt by the Gods, and an illusion was created from air by Hera to spite Paris for choosing Aphrodite over her, and it was this illusion that Paris carried away to Troy.

Similar to Euripides’ other, most recently performed play Iphigenia in Tauris, this play rewrites a well known aspect of the events surrounding the Trojan War, but in this case sets out to redeem the character of the universally reviled Helen to be revealed as an innocent victim of the willfulness of the Gods. Whether Menelaus can convince the Greeks of her innocence would make an interesting sequel.

It also mentions the fate of Aias (see Sophocles’ play Ajax)

Again the play ends with the sudden arrival  of the Gods (this time it is Helen’s brothers Castor and Polydeuces, who were made into demigods by Zeus) to prevent Theoclymenus from taking revenge on his own sister Theonoe for her part in the deception that allows Helen and Menelaus to escape.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Like the haunted scream of a woodland nymph

At bay in the echoing depths of a rocky cave

Caught and spoiled by the lust of Pan”                                                                     Chorus, page 141

Helen contemplates taking her life after hearing Menelaus may be dead

“Or the hand shall war on the wincing skin

and eager iron shall grope

and blood leap forth where the deadly blade passed in ;

my death a sacrifice to the three Goddesses and Priam’s son”                          Helen, page 146

Personal rating : More melodrama than tragedy, or as claimed by some critics, a comedy. 4 from me.

Next : The Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes

55. Iphigenia in Tauris, by Euripides (413 BC)

55. Iphigenia in Tauris, by Euripides (413 BC)

Plot : Orestes is still pursued by some of the Furies despite being exonerated of his mother’s murder by Athena, (see Aeschylus’ last play in the Oresteian saga, The Eumenides)  – under Apollo’s direction, he goes to Tauris with his friend Pylades, to steal the statue of Artemis, to rid himself of his continuing torment. They are captured and taken before the temple priestess for purification before being put to death as sacrifices. The priestess is actually Iphigenia, Orestes’ sister who all the world believes was sacrificed years ago by her father Agamemnon to allow the Greek armies to leave port and sail to Troy, but was saved at the last moment by the goddess Artemis.

Not recognising each other at first, they eventually discover the truth, and now must hatch a plan to escape Tauris with not only their lives, but also the statue in the temple.

My thoughts : As mentioned in an earlier post, I was quite pleased with the idea of this  re-imagining of the fate of Iphigenia, whose sacrifice at the hands of her own father Agamemnon was one of the most despicable acts I have come across in Greek literature (and there are quite a few to choose from). It seems I was not alone in this feeling, as when I searched for a suitable painting to embellish the post, there were dozens to select from.

Several points to raise here

  • Iphigenia, so close to becoming a sacrificial victim herself, is thrown by fate into the role of collaborating in the sacrifice of other innocent victims
  • Her feelings for her father seem to fluctuate between hate and love, as did Orestes’ feelings for his mother. This seems a very natural and realistic reaction beyond the two-dimensional drive for revenge as they could have been presented,
  • Like many tragedies, this play is initially driven by its share of coincidences and misunderstandings, but as in Euripides’ other non-tragedies, the worst is averted and the sympathetic characters finally head towards a happy ending
  • The Chorus tells of how Apollo petitioned Zeus to ensure that mankind’s dreams would not be prophetic and rob of his dues from the Delphic Oracle. (So Iphigenia’s dream at the start of the play foretelling Orestes’ death should immediately be suspect)
  • Athena is a more effective deity to pray to, than either Apollo or Artemis or even Poseidon

Euripides’ final surviving play, Iphigenia at Aulis, returns her to her fate as sacrifice, which we should reach in a month or so.

Favourite lines/passages:

The sacrifice of Iphigenia required to send the Greek forces on their mission to recapture Helen, described as

“Her blood was the unjust ransom for a worthless wife”        Orestes, page 148

And the Chorus, in sympathising with Iphigenia in her belief that Orestes must now be dead, summarises all tragedies in one line

“What God should abhor, God to your hurt pursues”                 The Chorus, page 137

Personal rating : 7

Next : Helen, also by Euripides, and another reboot?! Bit of a lateral thinker, our Euripides : inventor of the parallel universe genre? or simply open to making a quick extra drachma?




54. Ion by Euripides (414 BC)

54. Ion by Euripides (414 BC)


Creusa, daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens, is raped by Apollo and leaves the babe to die. Apollo rescues the baby and tasks Hermes to leave it anonymously at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Oracle.  The child, Ion, is raised by the Priestess but does not know his ancestry.

Years later, Creusa marries Xuthus, a foreigner who aided Athens in its war against Euboea. Both childless, they visit the Delphic Oracle to see if they will ever have children. They each meet Ion, and when Xuthus visits the Oracle, he is told that Ion is his son. Creusa is then encouraged by her servants to plot the death of this usurper to her throne, who in turn discovers the attempt and strives to kill Creusa – mother and son unknown to each other, desperate to discover each other, yet on a collision course to kill each other.

My Penguin edition The Bacchae and other plays (ISBN 0140440445) translated by Philip Vellacott. Unusually this edition contains very few footnotes, and those at the back of the volume are only linked to the text by page number. However, I found very little in this play requiring explanation (the one exception appears below) and the story moved along at a relatively quick pace for a Greek tragedy.

My thoughts

Creusa really carries the play, from her anguish being taken by Apollo, keeping her pregnancy secret, delivering the baby alone in a cave and leaving it there at the mercy of the elements, to her later unhappiness at remaining childless, and then being convinced to commit murder, and being hounded through the streets by a sword-wielding mob. Ion is not so well depicted, and takes little convincing to swing immediately from one extreme to another.

It is mentioned that Creusa’s father Erechtheus killed his other daughters to ensure success for Athens in another war, like Agamemmon killing his daughter Iphigenia to secure good weather for the Greek fleet to sail to Troy.  As a father, I find these paternal filicides quite the most horrendous acts depicted in the Greek plays, so the next play on my list Iphigenia in Tauris which reboots the story to allow Iphigenia’s survival will be a relief.

Favourite lines/passages

Ion’s very strong criticism of the gods, particularly Apollo, is tantamount to blasphemy but the protection of free speech allows the play to consider the Gods’ imperfections in an even more critical light

” …. I must remonstrate with Apollo: what can have come over him? He ravishes girls by force, then abandons them? He begets children by stealth, then leaves them to die? Apollo, no! Since you possess power, pursue goodness! Why, if a man is bad, it is the gods who punish him, How can it be right for you to make laws for men, and appear as lawbreakers yourselves? …. You put pleasure first, and wisdom after – and it is a sin!”

Ion, page 55.

and the sheer venom of the Chorus’ entreaty to Hecate to grant the success of Creusa’s plan to poison Ion

“Hecate, goddess of darkened ways

Queen of wandering ghosts that haunt the night

Visit this day with deadly power

Guide the cup that my lady Creusa sends

Blended with blood

Caught from the Gorgon’s gory throat –

Guide the cup to his thirsty lips,

Who comes to usurp Erechtheus’ palace”

Chorus, page 72


Quite a few interesting things arose during this read. Firstly, what is a thyrsus?  The footnotes did not help so I had to Google this and discovered it is a staff topped by a pine cone carried by followers of Bacchus/Dionysus and seen as a fertility symbol.


Secondly, petitioners visiting the Delphi Oracle could sacrifice oil and honey at the outside altar, but were required to sacrifice a sheep if they wanted admittance to the inside of the temple.

Lastly, and it had to happen, one of my favourite blogs also discussing classic literature Behold the stars posted a review of Ion today as well

Once I finish writing this, I will be off to read their thoughts, and based on previous posts, I highly recommend their site to interested readers as well.

Personal rating : Improved as it sped up and reached the climax, a 6 from me.

Next:   As mentioned, Iphigenia in Tauris, also by Euripides



53. The Birds, by Aristophanes (414 BC)

53. The Birds, by Aristophanes (414 BC)

Plot : Two Athenians, Peisthetaerus and Euelpides, searching for a more ideal place to live, seek out Tereus, formerly an Athenian prince and now transformed into a hoopoe bird. Peisthetaerus convinces the Hoopoe and his feathered associates that birds are really the rightful gods of Earth, and in building a city in the air (Much-Cuckoo) they can bring both the Gods of Olympus and mankind to account by impeding all the prayers and sacrificial smoke from reaching Heaven.

This edition was, as previously, the Penguin version of The Birds and other plays, translated by David Barrett and Alan Sommerstein. Barrett translated this script for The Birds.

My thoughts : Lots of puns and wordplay (judging by the modern English translation) and some of the Chorus songs reminded me a little of vaudevillian jokes – short and snappy snatches of humour. Despite the off-stage building of Much-Cuckoo city of real bricks and mortar suspended in the air, what was missing for me was the same extent of immediate fantastical surrealism and whimsy as in Aristophanes’ masterpieces The Clouds and The Wasps.

And in mentioning the nature of the translation, I must confress to some annoyance when the translator uses modern idioms in the characters’ speeches – “what the dickens are you playing at?” on the very first page doesn’t sound like a true translation of classical Greek to me, and lifts me away from the story – I don’t mind when directors recast Shakespeare plays into more modern settings but please don’t tamper with the words! Likewise I understand classical Greek translations will not always give the modern reader the exact meaning of all the speeches, but a little more sympathy to the original nature would be more respectful – am I being inconsistent here?

I was also uncomfortable with Aristophanes’ tacit approval of pederasty, even with accepting that social mores have changed drastically in many ways in 2000 years.

Favourite lines/passages

I did enjoy the seeming unending parade of Chaucerian officials and profit-seekers who arrived so quickly to take advantage of the new city: the inspector, the lawmaker, the mathematician/surveyor, the poet and even an oracle seller, and Peisthetaerus’ sending them all packing.

And what happened to Euelpides? Sent off by Peisthetaerus to do all the work while he scores Sovereignty (both the bride and the lordship) over all.


I had heard the expression “cloud-cuckoo land” occasionally before, but has assumed it had arisen from some piece of obscure English literature around Shakespeare’s time or earlier. Quite surprised to find it arose with the Greeks.

Personal rating : 5. A little disappointing.

Kimmy’s rating :Kimmy would have been quite excited with all the colour and caw-ing, and as she hates magpies, their absence was also a plus for her. Two paws.

Next : Euripides’ Ion