alternate cover for ISBN: 0140446680 Euripides, wrote Aristotle, ‘is the most intensely tragic of all the poets’. In his questioning attitude to traditional pieties, disconcerting shifts of sympathy, disturbingly eloquent evil characters & acute insight into destructive passion, he's also the most strikingly modern of ancient authors. Written in the period of 426-415,alternate cover for ISBN: 0140446680 Euripides, wrote Aristotle, ‘is the most intensely tragic of all the poets’. In his questioning attitude to traditional pieties, disconcerting shifts of sympathy, disturbingly eloquent evil characters & acute insight into destructive passion, he's also the most strikingly modern of ancient authors. Written in the period of 426-415, during the fierce struggle for supremacy between Athens & Sparta, these five plays are haunted by the horrors of war & its particular impact on women. Only the Suppliants, with its extended debate on democracy & monarchy, can be seen as a patriotic piece. The Trojan Women is perhaps the greatest of all anti-war dramas; Andromache shows the ferocious clash between the wife & concubine of Achilles’ son Neoptolemos; while Hecabe reveals how hatred can drive a victim to an appalling act of cruelty. Electra develops & parodies Aeschylus’ treatment of the same story, in which the heroine & her brother Orestes commit matricide to avenge their father Agamemnon. As always, Euripides presents the heroic figures of mythology as recognizable, often very fallible, humans....more
Paperback, 224 pages
January 1st 1999
by Penguin Classics
(first published -413)
Why anyone would waste time with modern TV drama when he/she could be reading Euripides is beyond my comprehension. A MASTER, a superb feminist, and a man far ahead of his time in terms of comprehending the insanity of war and/or the blind faith that tends to spawn it.
ANDROMACHE As I have read Euripides plays there are certain ideas that come through again and again. One is that mortal man is a slave to suffering. If one man seems to be held up as a favorite of the Gods, you must consider his life is not over. This theme is stated by Andromache in the following lines as she laments her status of slave:
ANDROMACHE: “Never should a mortal be called happy until he has died and you have seen how he has passed through his final day before making the journey below.”
AANDROMACHE As I have read Euripides plays there are certain ideas that come through again and again. One is that mortal man is a slave to suffering. If one man seems to be held up as a favorite of the Gods, you must consider his life is not over. This theme is stated by Andromache in the following lines as she laments her status of slave:
ANDROMACHE: “Never should a mortal be called happy until he has died and you have seen how he has passed through his final day before making the journey below.”
Another theme by Euripides is the blurring of class lines. Through his characters you see he does not hold that because a man is noble he is a good person. Euripides makes the distinction in many of his plays between being a good honest man and being rich. This sentiment is stated by Peleus in the following lines as he is arguing with Menelaus over the proposed killing of Andromache and her bastard son:
PELEUS: “Poor soil often yields a better crop than rich; let me tell you, and many a bastard is a better man than a true-born son…. Better for men to choose marriage-relations and friends from the poor and honest than from the wealthy and unprincipled.”
Finally the last theme I will discuss here is the fact that Euripides characters do not all possess unwavering faith in the Gods. There have been many declarations of doubt over the intelligence of the Gods. But when these doubts are expressed, some other character almost invariably expresses the opposite view of confidence in the Gods. In Andromache, the theme of doubt is related by a messenger after he relays an account of Neoptolemus’ death in the following lines:
MESSENGER: “This is how the god who gives oracles to men [Apollo], who arbitrates on justice to all the world, dealt with the son of Achilles, when he came to offer amends. Like an unforgiving man he remembered a quarrel in the past. How then can he be wise?”
The assertion of confidence in the Gods is by the Chorus in the following lines after they witness Thetis promise Godhood to Peleus:
THETIS: “As for you, so that you may know how blessed you are in marrying me, I will free you from all the ills that beset mankind and make you divine, untouched by death and decay. And then from that day forth you will dwell with me in the palace of Nereus, god and goddess together.” CHORUS: “Many are the forms taken by the plans of the gods and many the things they accomplish beyond men’s hopes. What men expect does not happen; for the unexpected heaven finds a way. And so it has turned out here today.”
All throughout Euripides works there are little gems of philosophic wisdom that are stated so well and hold to be timeless in truth. An example of this is the following lines when the Chorus-Leader comments on the argument between Peleus and Menelaus:
CHORUS-LEADER: “ The tongue can set men at each other’s throats, all from a trivial beginning. People who are wise take good care not to fall out with friends.”
HECABE This play is interesting in the fact that Euripides wrote two plays on this subject; Hecabe and The Trojan Women. They both are told from the perspective of the fallen Queen of Troy, Hecabe, as she learns of the fates of her children. Hecabe was written 9 years before The Trojan Women and is definitely more sinister. In Hecabe, Hecabe is portrayed as coming to a breaking point and plotting revenge within her powers as a mere slave. This differs from Euripides later play, The Trojan Women where Hecabe is shown as a wretched, unfortunate woman for whom one only has sympathy.
The Greeks, especially Odysseus, have decided to make a human sacrifice to the tomb of Achilles. Polyxena, Hecube’s daughter, is chosen as the one to fulfill this sacrifice. When Polyxena hears her fate her response is only for thought of her mother. Then after Hecabe and Odysseus argue, Polyxena consents to death by sacrifice. Why are all the virgin girls up for the sacrificial block so noble? Is this something girls everywhere should aspire to? Does it make the notion of human sacrifice less revolting? Does Euripides portray them this way to show good character and manners even when death is nigh? Whatever the reason, these girls don’t seem real and do not fit with the claim that Euripides portrays people how they are. These girls fit more within Sophocles plays where he is said to portray characters how they should be.
POLYXENA: “Odysseus, I see you hiding your right hand under your cloak and turning your face away to stop me touching your chin. Do not worry; I shall not appeal to Zeus, protector of suppliants; you are safe. I will go with you; necessity requires it and I want to die. If I did not have this wish, I should be thought a woman of no spirit, clinging to life. And what need have I to go on living? My father was king of all the Trojans; this was the first thing in my life. Then I was brought up with the fair hope of becoming a king’s bride, and many a suitor competed for the honour of bringing me to his hearth and home…. Now I am a slave…. I will take this sunlight from my eyes while they are still free, and give myself to Hades as a bride.”
Hecabe concedes to the wishes of Polyxena and she is sacrificed. Hecabe reaches her breaking point when she learns of the death of her son, Polydorus, and turns from succumbing to fate to scheming for some control. She appeals to Agamemnon for permission to take revenge on her son’s murderer. Agamemnon wants to help her, but is fearful of losing the favor of the Greek army. Hecabe responds by saying the following:
HECABE: “Ah, no end to my suffering! In all the world there is no person who is free; either he is the slave of money or circumstance, or else the majority of his fellow-citizens or a code of laws prevents him from acting as his better judgement dictates.”
Hecabe follows this remark by asking for his help in thought only and not by deed. By this she means when she is found out that he will support her. He agrees. Hecabe then plans and executes her revenge. She lures Polymestor into her tent and she and her fellow slave women from Troy kill his children and blinds Polymestor. Agamemnon defends her when the Greeks inquire over the matter and Hecabe has her victory.
SUPPLIANT WOMEN I really enjoyed Theseus’ speech as he censures Adrastus for his failures. Theseus lays bare the motives of politics. Each of his points can be applied to our government today and remain valid. One might think Theseus is being self-righteous, but as his actions later prove he is a honorable man and follows the principles of the Gods.
THESEUS: “Again, you led out to war every man of Argos, flouting the advice given in the prophets’ responses; you treated the gods with contempt and so brought destruction on your city. You allowed yourself to be led astray by younger men who love to make their mark in the city, fomenting wars without just cause and causing the deaths of fellow-citizens, the one to win an army-command, another to seize power and play the tyrant, a third to secure his own profit without caring whether the people will suffer any harm as a result of such treatment. There are three divisions in society; first there are the wealthy, who are harmful and endlessly grasping; then come the poor and needy, who are dangerous as they are ruled by envy and cajoled by the words of corrupt leaders into malicious attacks upon the rich; it is the third group, the moderates, who are a city’s lifeline; they are the ones who maintain whatever government the citizen-body establishes.”
Theseus takes on the task of obtaining burial for those denied by the Thebans. First he tries persuasion with the Theban Herald. I like how he personifies Fortune in the following lines:
THESEUS: “O foolish men, learn the truth about human suffering! This life we live is like a wrestling match; some of us succeed today, others tomorrow, others, again, have had their success. Fortune, meanwhile, enjoys herself; the unsuccessful man, hoping for prosperity, reveres her as a goddess, while the one who thrives is afraid of losing her favour and so exalts her name. So you should realize these truths, curbing resentment when the wrong done to you is limited and replying in kind only so far as will not rebound on you.”
Persuasion does not work and Theseus mounts an attack on Thebes to recover the bodies denied burial. He is successful, but does not enter Thebes. “He had come, he said, not to sack the city but to recover the dead.”
The Argive suppliants are grateful when they hear the news of Theseus’ success. Adrastus contemplates the stupidity of man:
ADRASTUS: “Oh, the stupidity of man! You shoot your arrows beyond the target and, when, as you deserve, troubles crowd around your heads, it is only events that can teach you a lesson, not friends’ advice. And you cities who have it in your power to end your sufferings by debate, you reach a conclusion by bloodshed, not parley…. O wretched mankind, why do you equip yourselves with spears and spill each other’s blood? Make an end of this! Cease your struggles and live at peace in your cities as tolerant neighbors. Life is such a brief moment; we should pass through it as easily as we can, avoiding pain.”
The mothers of the dead sing a dreadful lamentation. The cliché ignorance is bliss comes to mind in the following lines:
CHORUS: “If only Time, the ancient father of days, had kept us from marriage all our lives! What need had we of children? What awful experience did we imagine would overtake us, if we never were joined in marriage? But now the misery we see is beyond all doubt, robbed as we are of our beloved sons…. My life is now no life, and like a roving cloud, I am driven to and fro by heartless winds. … I am old and utterly wretched, to be numbered neither as dead nor as living, my fate hovering somewhere between the two…. Oh, oh! All for nothing the effort invested in my children, all for no return the pain of giving birth, the nurture of a mother, the care of sleepless eyes, my loving kisses!”
When the dead are laid out, Adrastus “speaks in their praise”. Adrastus names each of the leaders and tells of each of their strengths – definitely worth the read (pg. 118-119).
At the end of the play, the widow of Capaneus, Evadne, jumps on her husband’s pyre and ends her life. Before she does she has these haunting lines to say:
EVADNE: “I see it, yes, I see my end where I stand. May fortune attend my leap, as for fair fame’s sake I plunge from this rock into the pyre, and, clasping my husband in loving embrace in the fire’s radiant glow, my body pressed close to his, I shall pass to the halls of Persephone. Never shall I betray you as you lie beneath the earth by continuing to live. Kindle the wedding torch, begin my nuptials! May posterity in Argos look upon this marriage as worthy and blessed, when ashes of wedded husband unite in the breeze with those of noble wife, a guileless spirit.”
As I read these ancient works, I see things and wonder if this or that was the origin of various ideas. Here I wonder if this was the origin of the practice of suttee. Suttee was a religious funeral practice among some Hindu communities in which a recently widowed Hindu woman either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion would have immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. This practice was outlawed when the British were in control of India. A good historical fiction book on this subject is The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye.
THE TROJAN WOMEN The woes of Andromache, the widow of Hector (a great allegory near the end):
ANDROMACHE: “I never allowed the frilly gossip of women To infiltrate my house, And kept to the steady counsels of my heart, With quiet tongue and eyes serene before my spouse. I knew when to rule my husband And when to let him win: A virtue the Achaeans came to know of And it proved my downfall, For when I was captured the son of Achilles claimed me for his own, So I shall be a slave in the house of my husband’s murderers. And now if I put away the image of my darling Hector And open my heart to a new man It will seem like disloyalty to the dead, But if I turn from this new lord I’ll only earn his hate. Yet they say that a single night in bed Suffices to end a woman’s aversion to a man. I, however, feel nothing but disgust For the woman who forgets her former man And beds down with a second. Why, even a dray-mare Separated from the horse she pulls with Shows repugnance for another partner in the yoke, And this in a mere animal of a lower order Without speech or reason, Whereas you, my dearest Hector, were my perfect mate: Noble, intelligent, rich, brave – a man great in every way…. But now you are no more And I am about to board a ship for Greece, A prisoner of war and a subservient slave.”
This play is sad. It is interesting it is told from the Trojan perspective. It is told by Hecuba, the captured Queen of Troy. She learns about the death of yet more of her children, but to me the most haunting speech is for her grandson, Astyanax, after he is killed by the Greeks:
“The pleasures that you caught a glimpse of, Enough to know their worth, are snatched from you, And your happiness of home is lost, forgotten. [cradling his head] My stricken child, How ironically your own ancestral walls Apollo’s handiwork, have carded out your curls: Those curls your mother used to stroke and kiss, Which now are pierced by splintered blood-leached bone. Nothing can describe the horror of it. And your hands, so like your father’s, Out of joint and limp! Your dear lips, That sent forth so many childish sallies – silent now. Bounding on to my bed you used to cry: ‘Grandmother, I’ll chop off a big curl for you And bring a crowd of my pals to your burial To send you my love and last farewell.’ It has not happened so. It is not you but I, your grandmother, And old cityless, childless crone That has to bury your torn body. Wasted, lost forever, All those cuddles, all that care, All that watching while you slept. What frame of words is possible for your tomb? Here lies a guileless babe Killed by the Greeks who were afraid. An epitaph to disgrace all Greece. And now you possess nothing of your father’s heritage Except this shield of bronze – and for your tomb.”
ELECTRA I am finding after reading Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Electra and now Euripides’ Electra, I don’t like this story. I still believe Aeschylus was the only one who sort of did anything with the story in terms of finding something positive in all the murder and exaggerated hatred. Aeschylus tackles the question if two gods have opposing purposes, which will prevail? In Euripides’ version he ends the play and blames Apollo outright. How did this view sit with the ancient Greeks? To believe the Gods can be wrong and wrongly direct you in life?
I do love the passages that stand the test of time. In ancient Greece and for many years until recently, one’s birth has been significant in who a person is and can be. Even in ancient Greece there were feelings that this was not entirely fair:
Orestes: “Look at this man: He has no standing among the Argives, Is not swollen-headed because of his line, Is a man of the people, Yet whose humanity blazes forth. So learn some wisdom And avoid the pitfall of hasty judgement. Only by conduct and by character Should you judge the quality of a human being: Those that make contented states and happy families.”
In Euripides’ play, Orestes expresses doubt about killing his mother and even doubt in the god Apollo before the murder of Clytemnestra. This doubt is not present in the previous plays about Orestes by the previous tragedians and serves in this play as a premonition of what is to come. The following is also an example of the debates that are common in Euripides’ plays. Orestes is talked back to his task by his sister Electra:
Orestes: Our mother … what are we to do … murder her? Electra: Have you gone soft at the sight of your mother? Orestes: No, but to kill the one who bore me, gave me suck! Electra: The one who butchered your father and mine. Orestes: Apollo, what a blunder your oracle has made! Electra: If Apollo blunders, who on earth is wise? Orestes: But to have me kill my mother – against all nature! Electra: How does it hurt you to avenge your own father? Orestes: But to be branded as a matricide – I who was innocent! Electra: Be branded as sacrilegious, then, if you don’t succor your father. Orestes: I’ll have to pay the blood-price of my mother. Electra: But if you do not avenge, what price for your father? Orestes: It was a demon telling me to do it, pretending to be a god. Electra: Sitting at the holy tripod? I think not. Orestes: I’ll never be persuaded that this oracle is wholesome. Electra: So you’ll turn coward? Be no more a man? Orestes: [after a long pause] Very well then, how do I do it? Lay the same trap for her? Electra: Exactly: the snare that trapped and killed Aegisthus. Orestes: Sheer horror is this enterprise, and horror if I succeed. But if it please the gods, so be it: a bittersweet ordeal.”
Castor and Pollux, brothers of Clytemnestra and gods, come to dole out the fate of Orestes and Electra. Near the end, the chorus asks an interesting question:
Chorus: “How is it that you, gods and brothers of the deceased, Did not ward off the powers of death from her house? Castor: Karma and fate propelled her to her downfall. That, and the careless utterance of Apollo. Electra: What Apollo, what oracles, made me kill my mother? Castor: It was a joint compulsion, with a joint result: A single ancestral curse has ruined you both.”...more
I liked the Sophocles version best, but this one was good as well. It's interesting to see how the same story is retold in different ways along time -until the latest Eugene O'Neill version. They all have so many little differences and so much in common at the same time. There could even be a current version of Electra!
(Greek: Ευριπίδης ) Euripides (Ancient Greek: Εὐριπίδης) (ca. 480 BC–406 BC) was the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens (the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles). Ancient scholars thought that Euripides had written ninety-five plays, although four of those were probably written by Critias. Eighteen of Euripides' plays have survived complete. It is now widely believed that wh(Greek: Ευριπίδης ) Euripides (Ancient Greek: Εὐριπίδης) (ca. 480 BC–406 BC) was the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens (the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles). Ancient scholars thought that Euripides had written ninety-five plays, although four of those were probably written by Critias. Eighteen of Euripides' plays have survived complete. It is now widely believed that what was thought to be a nineteenth, Rhesus, was probably not by Euripides. Fragments, some substantial, of most of the other plays also survive. More of his plays have survived than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles together, partly because of the chance preservation of a manuscript that was probably part of a complete collection of his works in alphabetical order.