Tag Archives: aeschylus

Review: The Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1 (3rd ed.)

Greek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: HippolytusGreek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: Hippolytus by David Grene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(This review is of the third edition.) I assigned this anthology for students in my Greek and Roman mythology class. My review will be in three parts: 1. The translation and paratextual apparatus. 2. The selection of texts. 3. The plays themselves.

1. The translation and paratextual apparatus

Like the series from which these translations come, The Complete Greek Tragedies, these are readable, poetic renderings by translator-poets. The original editors of the volume, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated four out of the five themselves (Grene: Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Hippolytus; Lattimore: Agamemnon) and Elizabeth Wyckoff translated the fifth play, Sophocles’ Antigone. These translations are both poetic and smooth, and they avoid the awkwardness of, for example, Fagles putting ‘Aieee!’ into people’s mouths to translate ‘Aiai!‘.

My one concern is that in this third edition, the new editors, Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, have taken it upon themselves not only to update the introductions and notes, but the translations as well. They claim that they have made the translations more accurate. I do not have time to sit down with the second and third editions and the Greek texts, but I am skeptical about this claim, solely on the grounds that poetic meaning and poetic diction are not always properly separable, and one Greek word or phrase may have multiple English renderings (of which I’m sure Griffith and Most are aware). I fear that this is more of the humanities slipping towards a false certainty of ‘accuracy’ derived from the sciences.

Paratextually, I am not fond of endnotes in the first place. Endnotes that are marked by a symbol in the main text that requires you to hunt and hunt I like less. This, however, is the name of the game for popular level translations of the classics, as seen in Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics as well. I found the introductions just what an undergrad needs — basic information, quick, snappy not too long. Finally, I am not so fond of rendering the sung parts of the plays in italics. A fourth edition should think of something else, although I think the rubrics should be enough.

2. The selection of texts

This is a good volume for someone who wants to try out Greek tragedies or for a class like mine that is giving a taster of classical literature — Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ most famous plays are here, Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound for the former, and Oedipus the King and Antigone for the latter. I would have expected Medea or Bacchae from Euripides rather than Hippolytus. In fact, one weakness of the selection is the fact that we get only five plays; two from each playwright would have made sense. Euripides, who exists in larger quantity, gets short shrift. The only problem with selection is endemic to anthologies — we get Agamemnon but not the rest of the Oresteia, for example; but at least that’s the best play of the three.

3. The plays themselves

Agamemnon by Aeschylus begins the volume. Here you meet straight up the fact that all the action happens off-stage in a Greek tragedy. This is the story of the homecoming of the Greek general from Troy to an unjoyous reunion with his wife, Clytemnestra, and his cousin, Aegisthus. Machinations are afoot, and vengeance is found. Clytemnestra has the reputation of being the most evil woman in Greek literature, but if your husband sacrificed your daughter to a goddess before going off to war for ten years, then came home with a concubine, I think you’d be a bit ticked off as well. Hubris and inescapable necessity (anangke) are the themes here.

Then Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. This play opens with Prometheus getting chained to a rock and then having conversations with passersby, explaining why he was chained there and what it will take to unchain him. The main theme is the power of Zeus. The confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus, it must be remembered, is between two gods. So, unlike the Romantics’ reading of the play, there is no railing against divine (in)justice here. Rather, since we are beholding ontological equals in conflict, the question of ancient Greek tyranny is much more germane than whether Olympian Zeus was a tyrant in relation to humans. Along the way, the myth of Io is also told; I’d hate to see a film version of this with a CG cow delivering Io’s lines.

Oedipus the King is Sophocles’ famous rendering of the myth of Oedipus, a story known to most of us because of Sigmund Freud. The play is a masterpiece, as demonstrated by Aristotle’s Poetics. The confrontations with Oedipus from the beginning of the play to when he blinds himself demonstrate his own unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge. Relentlessly, he pursues the truth, drawing the circle around himself as the murderer of Laius tighter and tighter until the moment of recognition (anagnorisis) comes, bringing the main character’s fall.

After the events of Oedipus, there is a civil war between his sons (recounted in its own way in Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes, which is in Aeschylus II). When the civil war is over, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices lie dead on the battlefield before Thebes. Creon, their uncle and Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle, is now king. He decrees that Polynieces is not to be buried since he waged war against his own fatherland.

Here begins Sophocles’ Antigone. I have a soft spot for this play, since it was the first piece of classical literature I read, back in high school (the second, in the summer before Grade 12, was the translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Robert Fagles). Here we see the conflict between natural/divine law on the one hand and man-made law on the other. Even though the play was written before Oedipus, Sophocles is consistent in his characterisation of Creon — a man who did not want to become king because of the worries it would create. In this play, he grows in paranoia until he breaks and relents too late to stop a triple suicide. Powerful in its portrayal of female confrontation with authority.

The volume closes with Euripides’ Hippolytus. Here the theme is love, and love gone wrong. Hippolytus rejects Aphrodite, so she makes his step-mother, Phaedra, fall in love with him. Contrary to the positive portrayal of romantic love in pop songs and Hollywood, Euripides presents us with an elemental, amoral, at times immoral force that brings destruction all around it.

All five plays are masterpieces of Greek literature.

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Ridley Scott doesn’t know Greek mythology

I was lurking around on the interwebs today, and was interested to find this interview with Ridley Scott, director of the original Alien film and the upcoming prequel, Prometheus. The interview starts off with a bang:

Why use the myth of Prometheus to revisit this universe you created?

Ridley Scott: The myth of Prometheus, Prometheus was a demi-god who challenged the gods. He received a gift of fire, which we consider in the film to be our first technology….if you think about that, fire IS technology. It’s how we use it after that. And then Prometheus was punished by the gods. So it’s a metaphor that unfolds in the movie, you’ll understand when you see it. I don’t want to give too much away.

Since Scott gets the facts of the Prometheus myth wrong, I don’t really think he’s in danger of giving much about the film away here.

Fact 1: Prometheus isn’t a demi-god. Prometheus is a Titan. Although such things as Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans may leave you scratching your head as to what exactly a Titan is, a Titan is an immortal being of the generation before the Olympian gods. Thus, he cannot be a demi-god, for demi-gods would be his grandchildren. He challenged the gods because all the Titans challenged the gods. It was the story of one generation rising up and taking over the next; the Titans wanted to maintain their own control. Prometheus was one of the ‘good’ Titans, so he didn’t get thrown into Tartaros with the rest of them.

Indeed, this theme of one generation taking over the next is tied up in the Prometheus myth to a large extent, as we shall see.

Fact 2: Prometheus did not receive fire. He gave fire to humans against the wishes of the new ruling class of Zeus and the Olympians. This was the main cause of his punishment. So technology in the Greek myth is not something that humans are given and then challenge the gods with it; it’s something that is given them in challenge to the gods by another immortal, and their benefactor is punished.

Mind you, Zeus doesn’t want humans having fire in the first place because he does not want them to gain too much power. So perhaps Ridley Scott is not so far off in his assessment as it first seems.

Tied into the whole myth, as stated above, is the idea of dynastic struggle amongst the immortals. Ouranos gives birth to the Titans. Led by Kronos, they overthrow him. Kronos gives birth to the Olympians. Led by Zeus, they overthrow him and the Titans. Zeus, now King of the Gods, ruling the world on high from Olympus, fears that somewhere one of his own progeny will do the same.

This is the image of Zeus we get in Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound. We also learn in this place that Prometheus is privy to knowledge about the sea-goddess Thetis, upon whom Zeus’ eye rested for a while. This knowledge, we learn, is that her son will be greater than his father. Zeus, in fear of another dynastic struggle amongst the gods wherein he goes the way of Kronos to Tartaros (the deepest, darkest depth of the dungeons of Dis) marries her off to a mortal, Peleus. Their son is Achilles. Problem solved.

Interestingly, this ties into the nineteenth-century humanist worldview that fuels such things as Wagner’s opera Siegfried (a topic I’ve blogged about before). There we see that the next generation after the gods is the race of mortals, created and mixed with the gods as we are in most mythologies. And there we see mortal humans rise, and the gods (Aesir) have their Twilight (but not their New Moon or their Breaking Dawn).

Anyway, who knows how Ridley Scott will use his understanding of the Prometheus myth in his Prometheus film? Time will tell. It looks to be a good, rollicking adventure, though!

“Bacchus who sets us free”

Thus writes Robert Fagles at Aeneid 4.73.  Although Virgil’s Latin (at 4.58) merely says, “patrique Lyaeo” — “and to Father Lyaeus”, one of the names of Dionysus — this phrase makes me ponder, “How does Bacchus set us free?”  Could one, perhaps, through an examination of ancient texts, produce a Dionysian Liberation Theology?*

Bacchus (or Dionysus), if you were wondering, is the god of the ancient pantheon associated with ekstasis — standing outside of oneself — which takes madness as one of its main forms, as we see in Fagles’ translation of Aen. 4.300ff (his 4.373):*

She rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through
the entire city, raving like some Maenad
driven wild when the women shake the sacred emblems,
when the cyclic orgy, shouts of “Bacchus!” fire her on
and Cithaeron echoes round with maddened midnight cries.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dido “rages in helpless frenzy” (my trans.).  And then she “bacchatur” through the whole city (4.301).  What is there of freedom in someone who rages, is helpless, raves, is driven wild, whose actions madden Mt. Cithaeron?

Consider, if you will, the life of an upper-class woman in the Graeco-Roman world.  She sits in the back row at the amphitheatre.  She spends most of her life indoors doing as little work as possible.  She shrouds her head in public.  Her first marriage is probably arranged by her father or some other powerful male relative.  She also has access to education, parties, chariot races, the right to divorce her husband, exotic foods, alcohol in moderation, and so forth.

However, in a world of clearly defined roles and strong, sturdy ideals of pietas — duty to the gods, duty to the family, duty to the country, duty to one’s honour — for both men and women, how does madness not set people free?

A Bacchante, as seen in The Bacchae by Euripides, has the opportunity to dance like a wild woman, to shake the thyrsus (Bacchus’ holy staff), to shake her wild her, to abandon the city and dance on the hills.  She is freed from the need to be decorous, she can live by the motto “Dignity Is for Chumps” as a Bacchante, she is freed from the inhibitions placed on her by herself and her society.  For a time, she is freed from her womanly duties and responsibilities without becoming impia.

Bacchus sets us free.  Father Liber (another name; this one is Roman) is also the god of wine, a substance that has its own dis-inhibiting effect upon people, making it similar to madness.  And since Liber is, himself a lover — “he himself is warmed” by the flame of love (Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.525) — he helps lovers in their quest for the beloved.  I reckon Ovid recommends the use of wine in the pursuit of one’s beloved, and that Bacchus who sets us free will join in the fight.  It’s not necessarily advice I would give, but there it is in one of our texts.  We are set free by wine — by Father Liber — to find somebody to love.  And since scholars think that Bacchus was originally a fertility god, this only makes sense.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dionysus is also the god of the theatre — hence the City Dionysia in Athens, the great theatre festival whence we gain Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.  In the theatre, you are freed from your very self.  Standing on the stage, looking out in the crowd of thousands of people, you are not Thespis anymore.  With the mask covering your face, you are an ancient hero, or a slave, or a god, or an aristocratic lady.  You can take the words of the playwright, words wrought to make people think about current affairs, words brought to bring about catharsis, and you can speak them into peoples souls from behind that mask.  And it is not Thespis speaking but another.  You, Thespis, are free, for you are not Thespis.

For us in the modern world, there is much to be liberated from.  And while Bacchus was fake at best and a demon at worst (to take the ancient Christian take on pagan gods), a bit of the Dionysian spirit should hopefully be good for us and set us free.  Freedom from inhibitions.  Freedom from feeling constrained by the necessities of life around us.  Freedom from decorum.  Freedom from lovelessness.  Freedom to be a little crazy.

To quote a non-classical source, “A little madness in the spring is healthy even for the king.” (Emily Dickinson)

*The ancient texts will serve, to some degree, a similar role to that of the Bible in Christian Liberation Theology.