Tag: Euripides

67. Rhesus by Euripides (c.437 BC)

67. Rhesus by Euripides (c.437 BC)

Plot : On the plains of Troy, Hector is eager to take the fight to the Greeks and burn their ships. He sends out a scout (Dolon) to see what the large number of campfires at the Greek camp means : he thinks they are getting ready to sail home. Meanwhile Rhesus of Thrace arrives with his army to support Hector, after years of delay. Initially Hector boasts that he is on the point of defeating the  Greeks without this late effort from this ally, but agrees to let Rhesus and his army take part on the battle the following day.

Odysseus and Diomedes are also out scouting the Trojan encampment. They capture Dolon and torture information from him, including the camp password. Failing to find Hector, the pair are led by Athena to Rhesus who they kill. Confusion runs through the Trojan camp, but Hector insists on going ahead with his assault on the Greeks come morning.

Nearly missed out on this play – it should have been read back in February. This time I read the Oxford University Press edition Rhesos, translated by Richard Braun (ISBN 0195020499)

My thoughts: Firstly it should be said that some scholars dispute Euripides’ authorship of this play. If he did write it, then they believe it was an earlier play than the other surviving works, and would have been written between 445 and 435 BC.

Secondly it may be incomplete or unfinished as it is relatively short and there is not the usual prologue to set the scene. Also unusual are (i) the night time setting, (ii) the on-stage fight between Odysseus and Diomedes and the Trojan sentries, and (iii) the appearance of the Goddess Athena mid-play rather than at the end where instead we have the appearance of a second immortal, one of the Muses (Rhesus’ mother) to explain matters.

Hector is very different from his portrayal in Homer’s Iliad. Here he is hot-headed and impulsive, yet easily swayed by the arguments of others, even the lowly sentries and shepherd.

Rhesus  seems a blustery coward showing up late to fight for Troy in time for a share in the spoils, with his poor excuses of delay, but The Muse reveals to us that she had warned him that answering Hector’s call would lead to his death, and his bravado masks his fear of facing this.

Odysseus is still the sly pirate as he had been seen in many of the later tragedies, but his ability to disguise himself and slip in and out of the Trojan camp and city almost at will is held in some degree of awe by the Trojans.

Favourite lines/passages:

Dolon claims the right to Achilles’ deathless horses if he succeeds in spying out the Greek camp

“When a man stakes his life on dice some God tosses, the prize should be worth more to him than life”                                                                                                                   Dolon, page 31.

And one of the Trojan soldiers yearns for the life before the war, which we know he’ll never see again…

“When will this ancient Troy again toast rowdy troops of friends and lovers

Door to door, dawn to dark?

When will the round-the-table romp of rival vintages return,

The revelers’ beakers and clashing tunes and the lovers’ singing?”      Third soldier, page 39.

Personal rating: 5. Not a bad story with some multiple storylines coming together.

Next:  So we reach the end of the works of Euripides and indeed the last of all the great Greek tragedies. As a whole they are well worth reading and considering, but I doubt I will read them again soon. On to other other areas of Greek writings, notably their philosophy and science. But first some comedy with Aristophanes and The Frogs.

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66. Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides (405 BC)

66. Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides (405 BC)

Plot : The Greek armies are trapped at the seaport of Aulis, waiting for favourable winds before they can set sail for Troy to destroy the city and restore Helen to her husband Menelaus. Their prophet has announced that they will only sail if Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon agrees under pressure and writes to his wife Clytemnestra to send Iphigenia to Aulis, pretending that she is to be married to the great Greek warrior Achilles.

Clytemnestra and Iphigenia find out the truth once they arrive at Aulis, and Iphigenia eventually offers herself freely to be sacrificed to save her father and Greece. But even then, not all goes according to plan.

This play finishes the Penguin Classics edition Orestes and other plays (ISBN 0140442596) translated by Philip Vellacott.

My thoughts:

Back to the pre-Iliad episode where Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia or the fleet wlll never reach Troy – the prologue to Iphigenia in Tauris, and the motivation for Clytemnestra’s actions in the Oresteia cycle.

The first thing that struck me was how many characters reverse their decisions about the sacrifice. Menelaus turns from villain to supportive brother in a heartbeat, Iphigenia finds the courage to offer herself willingly after the grief and horror have washed through her, Achilles backing away (at least physically) from his stand to defend Iphigenia in the face of the entire Greek army, including his own men, prepared to stone him to death if he interferes, and the most vacillating, Agamemnon, who changes his mind back and forth several times. There is no direct influence by the Gods seen in these reversals, but maybe the Greek audience took that on board without being told.

The central question is what action should King Agamemnon take. The play reveals more fully the reasons behind the whole endeavour. All the Greek leaders had been suitors for Helen, and to prevent bloodshed, her father Tyndareos had made them all swear to support the successful man if ever he should call for their help – so they are all bound on their word to help Menelaus recover Helen from Troy.  Agamemnon’s position as leader and perhaps his and his entire familiy’s lives depend on his acquiescence to sanction the sacrifice of his eldest daughter. And yet the natural love between father and child would surely make this action an insurmountable grief to bear.

If you haven’t read Iphigenia in Tauris, I won’t reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, the fleet sail for Troy almost immediately but Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (the latter was not present at the altar) part ways believing very different things have happened to Iphigenia.

Diversions/digressions: Although I get most of my volumes from the local university library where I work, I do haunt the local public library as well, and yesterday my eyes caught a small paperback title  –  Classical literature : a Pelican introduction, by Richard Jenkyns (9870141977355), which covers a broad sweep of Greek and Roman literature in brief and relatively easy to read and understand chapters. I will go back and read what he has to say on the Greek authors and works I have already covered to see what deeper themes I have missed.

Personal rating : 6

Next : I thought I had finished with Euripides but I have to confess I have missed one. The early Euripidean play Rhesos (although the authorship is disputed) from around 437 BC should have been read back in February around #34-ish. Oh well, better late than never.

 

65. The Bacchae by Euripides (405 BC)

65. The Bacchae by Euripides (405 BC)

Plot : The lately come God Dionysus (Bacchus), the bull-horned “spirit of revel and rapture” is angered with the people of Thebes, particularly the young King Pentheus who refuses to acknowledge or worship him, and his mother Agave and her sisters who slandered their own sister Semele and refused to believe her son Dionysus was the son of Zeus.

Dionysus drives all the Theban women mad and they run off to the mountain wilderness to dance and partake of Bacchic rituals, such as breast feeding wild animals and caressing snakes. Dionysus then appears back in human form in Thebes and first enrages Pentheus to such fits of anger that he loses his sense and is easily led (dressed in women’s clothing) to the mountains where his mother and the other women tear him to pieces with their bare hands, believing him to be a young lion.

Agave and her sisters are now banished from Thebes, along with the old King Cadmus, while Dionysus moves onto another Hellenic city to see how they treat him.

This was the last play in the Penguin classic edition The Bacchae and other plays (ISBN 0140440445) translated by Philip Vellacott.

My thoughts:

Firstly I must say how shocked and sickened the violence in this play left me. I had the idea that Bacchic rites were all wine-drinking and amorous frolicking in the woods. Even the gory dismemberment of cattle did not prepare me quite for the horrendous fate in store for Pentheus. He is described as mad by Dionysus and his Chorus of Oriental women, but until he falls under the direct spell of the God, I felt he is understandably angry and disbelieving of this new God, and is too cruelly repaid. His mother Agave is made the scapegoat of Dionysus’ revenge for her part in slandering Semele, but even poor Cadmus who was willing to recognise Dionysus is punished by being turned into a serpent and destined to lead a foreign army against his home city (figuratively a serpent – turning on his homeland – or literally transformed??)

Dionysus’ self proclaimed migration across the Asian regions to reach Thebes and then other parts of Greece personifies how I believe many scholars imagine religions to migrate from country to country.

Euripides himself left war-tired Athens to retire to the mountain region of Macedon in 407 BC, and died the following year, not seeing The Bacchae go forward to win first prize in the Dionysia festival competition of 405 BC. With Sophocles also dying in 406 BC, Greek tragedy, at least that which remains for us to read today, comes to a fairly abrupt halt,  and the spotlight will soon move away from the theatre for a while to science, history and philosophy instead. Did the defeat of Athens and the resulting brief rule of the Thirty Tyrants discourage playwrights?  Aristophanes has a few comedies left in him yet, but more serious thoughts seem to occupy the next authors.

Personal rating: 5

Next: Iphigenia in Aulis, also by Euripides

 

 

 

62. Orestes by Euripides (408 BC)

62. Orestes by Euripides (408 BC)

Plot : Back to the events of The Oresteia where Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War only to be murdered by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra (Helen’s sister), who in turn is put to death by their son Orestes. This play by Euripides takes up events 6 days after Clytemnestra’s death. Unlike Aeschylus’ trilogy, in this version Orestes has not immediately fled the city (although he is being mercilessly tortured by the Furies) but remains feverish and sickening in Argos with his sister Electra tending to him.

Helen and Menelaus return, and Orestes begs Menelaus to intercede with the furious Argive citizens who want to stone Orestes and Electra to death for matricide. Menelaus advises a gentle approach which Orestes interprets as further betrayal. His friend Pylades and he present themselves to the citizenry, but the verdict remains death. Electra then suggests that instead of taking their own lives, they get revenge on Menelaus by killing Helen and keeping Menelaus’ daughter Hermione hostage to aid their escape. They start their savage attack but there seems to be some uncertainty over Helen’s fate ….

Back to the Penguin classics edition Orestes and other plays translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts:

I found myself gradually won over by this version of the story, particularly compelling when the desperate Orestes and  Electra put their plot into action in the last third of the play. I could sympathize with all parties, and was anxious that divine intervention would arrive in the nick of time to save Helen and the innocent Hermione.

Electra comes across as quite a spiteful little hellcat who truly hates Helen and is only too willing to kill Hermione if needs be.

The by-now expected arrival of a God at the conclusion of the play (this time, Apollo –  which is only appropriate as it was his oracle that set Orestes on his path of revenge) sets the scene for reconciliation and happy endings all round : Orestes will marry Hermione and become King of Argos once his trial is over;  Pylades will marry Electra; and most interestingly, Helen has indeed been rescued from Orestes’ descending blade and is made a Goddess who saves seamen’s lives. Menelaus is given the throne of Sparta, but  must find another wife (hopefully untainted by adultery).

Perrsonal rating: 6

Next : Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

61. The Cyclops by Euripides (408 BC)

61. The Cyclops by Euripides (408 BC)

Plot :

Odysseus on his way home from the War

seeking provisions and water comes ashore

But falls foul of the giant Cyclops,

who eats two of the crew but then stops

‘Cos  Odysseus on Greek wine gets him plastered

And once the situation he has mastered

Then blinds the giant with a  big burning stick,

and escapes back to his ship thanks to this trick

 

If you thought my poetic turn at the top of the blog was a bit pathetic, then you won’t think much of Cyclops, which is a light hearted retelling of this part of The Odyssey attended by satyrs and drunken giants.

And finally I am not reading from a Penguin classic paperback, but instead a volume from the Loeb Classical Library – Euripides Volume II, translated by Arthur S. Way.

Loeb Classics are published by Harvard University Press and come in two hardcover series  : green for Greek and red for Latin. These hand-sized books have the original text in Latin or Greek on the left hand page, and the English translation on the right. They are a bit more expensive than the paperback Penguins (I have borrowed this volume from my workplace library) but are more intended for the classics scholar than the casual reader, and the series are very rich in all the extant titles and fragments. The series is also available as ebooks, (which our library also subscribes to), so that is another way in which readers might gain access to all the classics.

The Loeb Classical Library started publishing in 1911. Euripides Volume II was one of the first, published in 1912 with many reprints including the one I am reading from 1953, hence there is no ISBN to record here.

My thoughts :

From my description of the plot, you might be checking the author’s name – this doesn’t sound much like a Euripidean tragedy.

It turns out that The Cyclops is the sole surviving intact example of a Satyr play – an essential fourth play to be included alongside the trilogy of plays that authors submitted for competition at the annual Dionysia. Designed for comic relief and much more in keeping with the original Bacchic celebration, satyr plays featured characters in drunken and amorous adventures more in keeping with Aristophanes’  style than the Tragedians.

The entire play in this translation is told in rhyme, often quite forced as one character finishes another’s sentence to ensure the continuing rhyme.

Cyclops :              I’ll teach you, if you make love to the wine

Which loves you not!

Silenus :                                                               It does : these charms of mine

It says, have won it’s heart

Cyclops :                                                                              Here, fill the cup.

Pour in – up to the brim. Now, hand it up!

 

which becomes a little tiresome to read, but I imagine would be good fun on stage, especially with a riot of satyrs dancing about.

Favourite lines/passages :

The Cyclops explains to Odysseus that he is the equal of Zeus himself

“And as for Zeus’s thunder – I’ve no fear

Of that, Sir stranger! It’s by no means clear

To me that he’s a mightier God than I ;

So I don’t care for him ; I’ll tell you why.

When he pours down his rain from yonder sky

I have snug lodgings in this cave of mine

On roasted veal or some wild game I dine

Then drench my belly, sprawling on my back,

With a whole butt of milk. His thunder-crack

I answer it, when he splits the clouds asunder

With boomings of my cavern-shaking thunder

……  And to no god beside – except that is,

My belly, greatest of all deities,

Eat plenty and drink plenty every day

And never worry – that is, so I say.”                                                        Cyclops, page 553.

 Personal rating: On stage I can imagine this might be at 6 or 7, on paper it is just a 3

Next: Orestes by Euripides

59. The Phoenician Women by Euripides (410 BC)

59. The Phoenician Women by Euripides (410 BC)

Plot

Sons of the doomed Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, agree to share the throne of Thebes in yearly cycle. Younger brother Polyneices agrees to go into exile for the first year, but on his return to claim his turn on the throne, Eteocles denies him and sends him away. Polyneices returns with the Argive army to force the issue.

Iocasta, their mother, and mother/wife of Oedipus, tries to intercede between her sons, and she calls them to both meet with her under truce before the battle starts to attempt one final reconciliation. But the family curse must reach its tragic conclusion.

I read the Penguin Classics version in Orestes and other plays translated by Philip Vellcaott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts

Again a Greek play named after the Chorus rather than the protagonists, this story is set just prior to, during and after the events already covered in Aeschylus’ play Seven against Thebes, but fleshes it out with more characters and background.

Creon’s unyielding refusal to allow Antigone to show Polyneices’ body due burial rites is now seen in context of his grief over his own son Menoeceus’ sacrifice to save Thebes and his anger that Antigone refuses to marry his other son Haemon. He also banishes Oedipus from Thebes, to ensure no further calamity will strike the city, and sets the old blind wreck of a once powerful man on his final wanderings (which I expect will be seen in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus)

The most interesting part of the siege of Thebes is the dilemma which faces Polyneices. He has been betrayed by his brother, and the only way to regain his share of the throne, is to attack his own city with a foreign army who will then expect their share of plunder if they are victorious. Yet his cause is repeatedly recognized by most as just – his allies the Argives, some of the Thebans and even the Phoenician slave women.

Another factor repeated in many of these tragedies is the suffering of the innocent for the deeds of their ancestors. Oedipus was innocent of the crimes of his father (which started when he ignored the Gods and begot a son). Oedipus saves Thebes from the ravages of the Sphinx, yet is doomed to marry his own mother, give her sons and daughters who are his own siblings, blind himself, then strike out in anger to curse his sons that results in their death.

Menoeceus, innocent and noble son of Creon must also die to protect Thebes as a result of the actions of his ancestor in killing Ares’ dragon. From that serpent’s teeth sown in the ground, the men of Thebes are fabled to have sprung.

Diversions/digressions

Moving away from the relentless curse and the tragic results to all, the story of the Sphinx was worth pursuing.

“… begotten by a snake from Hell, …… half-beast, half-maiden, a monster of terror, of ranging wings and claws red with raw flesh …. snatched up young men from the farms, and carried then aloft, carried them away, chanting your sinister music, a song of doom and despair filling the land with deadly pain…. while dread wings hovered above.”                                                                                                                  Chorus, page 272

Not done justice by the artist in the painting above 🙂

Of course Oedipus arrives to solve the Sphinx’s riddle, defeating her and winning the throne of Thebes and the hand of his unknowing mother in marriage.  The riddle was: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”

(If you haven’t come across this before, give it some thought before resorting to Google)

Personal rating : 5

Also in that year : Athens has managed to reverse the tide of war and destroy the Peloponnesian fleet at Cyzicus.

Next : Philoctetes by Sophocles

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