The average rating for Six Greek Comedies: Aristophanes, Euripedes, Menander based on 2 reviews is 3.5 stars.
|Review # 1 was written on 2008-07-06 00:00:00|
Athens and the children of Heracles 20 March 2011 The only reason I got this volume was because it contained the one Euripidean play that I did not have: the Heraklidae (or, the Children of Heracles). Herakles, otherwise known in Latin as Hercules (which is the term we generally use) was an ancient Greek hero and demigod. He is most famous for the twelve labours, but he appears elsewhere, notably as one of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason to search for the golden fleece (though he is left behind halfway there and goes his own way). Heracles is also well known for his strength, and in Greek Mythology he does seem to come out as a 'strong man' in the same sense that Samson of the Bible does. To me he is simply a hero in the same sense as Achilles. Heracles is also known for having over 700 children, and as such creating a race who eventually invaded and conquered the Peloponesian peninsula. The play is set before their rise to power (though it needs be remembered that there was an awful lot of them). Heracles' offspring come to blows with the King of Mycenae and flee to Athens for protection. While there the king raises an army, but the Athenians warn him that the Heraclidae are under his protection. However an oracle says that unless a woman is sacrificed then they will lose the war. One Athenian (no doubt in love with one of the Heraclidae) offers herself up, and thus they go to war and win, and capture the King of Mycenae alive. They are reluctant to execute him, but he prophesies that if they kill him then his spirit will become a defender of Athens. Euripides wrote this play during the Peloponesian war, and while we have a lot of his plays, he was always second best to his contemporary Sophocles. Initially only seven of his plays were to survive (in the same sense that we have seven each of the other two great tragedians), however an entire volume of plays also managed to survive and as such he have a much larger collection than normal. The Heraclidae would be one of those plays. This play, obviously written during the war, is designed as a patriotic piece to inspire the Athenians during a dark period of their history. As mentioned, the Heraclidae became the Peloponesians, of which Sparta is one of the many cities. Thus the audience is reminded of a time when they were the protectors of those who are now enemies, and is a way to justify their current actions. Further, the sacrifice of the former enemy of the Heraclidae is a reminder of a promise that Athens will be protected. Greek myth is very fluid and tends to change depending on the location and the events. Perseus is considered to be the father of the Persians and Media is the mother of the Medes. Both characters where betrayed by Greek kings, which is why their respective countries became enemies. Of course it is highly unlikely that either of these characters were to ancestors of these races, but in a Greco-centric world, one does not accept that there is any explanation beyond your own borders (which is very true of what is happening today).
|Review # 2 was written on 2015-10-15 00:00:00|
Orestes was the most notorious matricide in the history of literary creation - before Norman Bates, at least. The story of the Mycenaean prince who murdered his mother Clytemnestra in revenge for Clytemnestra's murder of his father Agamemnon was told by all three of Athens' great dramatists - Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In this collection of plays from late in his career, Euripides applies to the story of Orestes, and to other tales from classical mythology, a particularly grim and pessimistic worldview. As the great translator Philip Vellacott explains in a helpful foreword, the six plays brought together for this Penguin Books collection were all written late in Euripides' career, during the Peloponnesian War. Some were written early in the war; Andromache, for example, was probably first staged around 427 B.C., when the war was "only" four years old. By the time Euripides wrote Iphigenia in Aulis, by contrast, he had already left Athens for a voluntary Macedonian exile; it was around 407 B.C., just before the playwright's death, and Athens, beleaguered by one military disaster after another, was reeling toward final defeat. Perhaps Euripides, as an Athenian who loved his city, just couldn't bear to be there for a Spartan-administered coup de grâce. The Children of Heracles are suppliants; indeed, it is remarkable to see how many of these plays involve people who have been forced by some reversal of circumstances to seek sanctuary at one divine site or another. The central problem of the play is simple: Heracles has died, and his longtime enemy Eurystheus wants to kill off Heracles' children as well. Iolaus, Heracles' old friend, is an old man now, but spiritedly wants to protect the children; and the Athenian king Demophon, to whose city the children and Iolaus have come for protection, at first seems willing to oblige them. Yet Demophon learns that the only way his Athenian army can hold back the hostile forces of Eurystheus is if a child is sacrificed; and all seems lost until a child of Heracles - his daughter Macaria - expresses a willingness to serve as the sacrifice, sounding much like her father when she says, "Readily, not reluctantly,/This life is offered; here I pledge myself to death./Because I did not count my life dear, I have won/This dearest prize of all - to meet death gloriously" (121). One senses Euripides' bitterness at the manner in which war takes the lives of the young and leaves the old still living - a violation and reversal of the natural order. Andromache places the reader or theatergoer back in the company of a woman who was already well-known in the ancient Greek world as a personification of how cruel fate - or the Greek gods - could be. After all, Andromache not only witnessed the death of her beloved husband Hector, and the dishonoring of his body by Achilles, but also the sacking of her city by the Greeks and the Greeks' murder of her infant son Astyanax. By the time of this play, all those tragic actions are past history, and Andromache is now a slave in the household of Neoptolemus, king of Phthia. Yet Andromache's troubles are not over: as Neoptolemus' concubine, she has borne him a son, Molossus, while Neoptolemus' wife Hermione remains barren. Hermione and her father, the Spartan king Menelaus, plan to kill both Andromache and Molossus, and therefore Andromache takes refuge (another suppliant) at a shrine of Thetis, the sea-goddess who was the mother of Achilles. Andromache's denunciation of Menelaus - "Spartans! The whole world hates you above all other men!/Lies are your policy, treachery your accomplishment,/Your craft is crime and cruelty…" (p. 159) - no doubt sums up how many people in the play's Athenian audience were feeling about Spartans just then, as the Peloponnesian War was already well in progress by that time. Suppliants take center stage once again in The Suppliant Women. In this case, the suppliants are women of Argos, the mothers of the seven Argive chieftains who became the "Seven Against Thebes." Now that the war of the Seven Against Thebes is over, and the feuding royal brothers Eteocles and Polyneices are dead by one another's hands, the Theban tyrant Creon has ordained that the bodies of the Seven Against Thebes are to be left unburied on the plains outside the city, dishonored as scavenger animals tear at their dead flesh and bones. Aethra, mother of the legendary Athenian king Theseus, has symbolically bound herself to the altar of the goddess Demeter's temple at Eleusis, and hopes to persuade her son to recover the bodies of the Seven Against Thebes - by force, if necessary - so that the grieving mothers may give their sons an honorable burial. While Adrastus, the Argive king who acceded to the war, bemoans his lot, Theseus defies the Argive herald of the tyrant Creon, proclaiming Athens' democratic values in a manner that no doubt pleased the people of an Athenian city-state at war: "This state is not/Subject to one man's will, but is a free city./The king here is the people, who by yearly office/Govern in turn" (p. 206). The Phoenician Women reintroduces us to the ill-fated house of Oedipus, with some definite shifts from the way the story is portrayed in Sophocles' Oedipus cycle. In this play, the Phoenician women of the title are the proverbial innocent bystanders, neutral parties caught up in the horror and waste of war. These Phoenician women, en route from their home in the eastern Mediterranean to serve at the shrine of the oracle at Delphi, unhappily happened to be at Thebes when the Theban civil war between the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices broke out. Once again, the prospective sacrifice of an innocent person is placed at center stage, as Creon, brother of Jocasta, is told that he must sacrifice his son Menoeceus if Thebes is to be spared the horrors of destruction. Creon wants Menoeceus to run away to safety; but Menoeceus, in stark contrast with the selfishness of the warring brothers Eteocles and Polyneices, says, "How can I betray the city of my birth?...I will go and save the city,/Giving my life for Thebes" (p. 271). It is hard, when reading all these plays about the innocent sacrificing themselves to save the guilty, not to think that Euripides is drawing a parallel with the Athenian state willingly sacrificing ever more young lives for the prosecution of a stupid, futile, immoral, irrational, decades-long war. Orestes, as mentioned above, made me think of Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960); and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the parallel is warranted. This final chapter in the grim story of the house of Atreus would already have been quite familiar to an Athenian audience; what seems different here is the single-mindedness with which Euripides sets himself to the task of proving to anyone within viewing or listening range that Orestes is fundamentally deranged. By the time the play begins, Orestes, aided by his sister Electra and his loyal friend Pylades, has already carried out the murder of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Orestes and Electra are under arrest at the royal palace of Argos, and an Argive jury is to decide whether the matricidal brother and sister are to be stoned to death! Once again, Menelaus of Sparta comes off badly, refusing to help Orestes even though Orestes is the son of Menelaus' old comrade-in-arms Agamemnon; Orestes denounces him harshly: "You coward! Did you once command an army? Yes -/ To win a woman - not to help your friends. Traitor!" (p. 324) Once the Argive verdict comes down - Orestes and Electra will not be stoned to death, but they are expected to kill themselves - Orestes and Pylades come up with what can only be described as a delusional plan to gain the favor of the Argives who have condemned them, with a bit of sweet revenge into the bargain; as Helen of Troy is in town, Pylades suggests, "Let's kill Helen - and send Menelaus raving mad" (p. 339). Aside from the way Orestes, Electra, and Pylades seem ever ready to shed more blood, there is also a troublingly incestuous element in the way Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, address one another. Electra calls Orestes "My dearest!" and says "Our two hearts are one"; Orestes calls for Electra to embrace him and asks, "Why should I feel shame?/Body to body - thus, let us be close in love" (p. 337). Hello? Really? I would not be surprised to learn that, long before the deus ex machina resolution that ends this play, its original Athenian audience was ready to see Orestes and Electra leave the stage, by any means necessary. Kill them, don't kill them - just get them out of our sight. Iphigenia in Aulis, of all these plays, may be the one that is best known to modern audiences - or at least to international film buffs, as this is one of the plays that Greek director Michael Cacoyannis chose to adapt for the big screen in 1977. Cacoyannis chose well, for of all these plays it is the one that would be most immediately accessible to a modern audience. Its premise is horribly simple: Agamemnon's Greek fleet has assembled at the port of Aulis, ready to sail for Troy; but the winds are calm, denying the fleet the opportunity to sail, and the priests have decreed that Agamemnon must lift the curse by offering his own daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon therefore sends to his wife Clytemnestra a message directing her to bring Iphigenia to Aulis to be married to the hero Achilles. What awaits Iphigenia, of course, is not a magical wedding day but rather the knife of priestly sacrifice. In this, possibly Euripides' last play, the irony seems especially bitter. Once again, someone innocent and young is called upon to pay a bloody price for the follies and weaknesses of the old. Agamemnon and Menelaus dither about what to do, and their lack of resolution means that the entire Greek camp is ready to mutiny if Iphigenia is not sacrificed. It is left to a conscience-stricken elderly slave of Agamemnon to tell Clytemnestra the truth, and Clytemnestra begs Achilles to save her daughter, saying, "See, I throw away all pride and fall before you" (p. 400). Achilles puts on the heroic pose, saying, "I feel my proud heart stirred to noble action" (p. 401); but it is left to Iphigenia to carry out the central action of the drama. At first, Iphigenia asks (understandably) to be spared: "Don't kill me, so young! It is good to see the light;/Don't make me gaze at darkness in the world below" (p. 411). Gradually, however, she comes to feel that she can help her fellow Greeks by giving herself up for sacrifice, and says, "Mother, I have thought this over; I know now what I must do./I am resolved to die. Above all things, I want to act nobly/And renounce all cowardly feelings" (p. 418). The conflict between the brave princess and her feckless father could not be more apparent. We see in these plays how the real-life, slow-motion, long-lasting tragedy of the Peloponnesian War influenced and intensified Euripides' already-tragic consciousness. These plays about supplication, loss, and sacrifice still hold all of their grim power, and speak to the people of the modern world as they did to the Athenians of old.
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