"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

15 May 2016

Orestes, by Euripides



Chorus. For his horrible deed, done at a god’s command,
            And for his suffering, I pity him.
Electra. Apollo had no right to speak such words;
            The thing he commanded was a crime,
            When from the tripod of Themis
            He prescribed the unnatural murder of my mother.

Tyndareos. In this man’s case, to ask what’s wise or what’s unwise
            Is not the point. Since right and wrong are clear as day
            To us all, what man was ever born more void of sense,
            Conscience, or decency, than he? He never glanced
            At processes of justice; He made no appeal
            To the common standards of Hellenic law. Clearly,
            When Agamemnon gasped his life out, with his skull
            Split by my daughter’s weapon – An outrageous act
            Which I’ll never defend – his duty was to take
            Lawful proceedings, prosecute for murder, and
            Expel his mother from the palace. In that way
            From his misfortune he would have won a name for wise
            Behaviour, would have preserved both law and piety.
            But now, his life bears the same curse his mother bore.
            Rightly regarding her as criminal, he made
            Himself, by killing his mother, a worse criminal.

Menelaus. Gods hate extremists; so, in fact, do citizens.

Orestes. With unscrupulous leadership, the rabble is a dangerous thing.
Pylades. Yes, but under honest leaders they’ll make honest policies.

Orestes. My mother’s blood is curse enough; I won’t kill you.
            End your own life – and do it any way you please.
Electra. I will. My courage will not lag behind your sword.
            But oh, brother! Let me first take you in my arms!
Orestes. Embrace me, if it gives you pleasure. An Embrace
            Is little help to those within one step of death.
Electra. My dearest! Oh, my darling brother! How I love
            To call you my own brother! Our two hearts are one.
Orestes. Oh, you will melt my firmness. Yes, I must hold you
            In my most loving arms – come! Why should I feel shame?
            Body to body – thus, let us be close in love.
            Say ‘brother’, sister! These dear words can take the place
            Of children, marriage – to console our misery.

EuripidesOrestes is a surprisingly interesting play considering how many times Attic dramatists (even in the few extant plays) treated the Argive subject. The most famous treatment is AiskhulosOresteiatrilogy, but there are also Elektra plays by Sophokles and Euripides. In the overarching Argive storyline, Orestes falls between The Libation Bearers (which is roughly equivalent to the episode dramatized in the two Elektra plays) and TheEuminides. The Libation Bearers tells the story of Klytemnestra’s murder through the plot of Orestes and Elektra, and The Euminides depicts Orestes’ trial between Apollo and the Furies in Athens. Orestes is set shortly after Klytemnestra’s murder—six days afterward, in fact. The play depicts the set of events leading to Orestes’ temporary banishment from Argos and his pursuit by the Furies across Hellas.

One thing that makes Orestes a particularly interesting play is the sheer number of storylines in it. Unlike a play like Oedipusthe King, which focuses largely on one narrative line, Orestes moves through several problems and pulls together a number of dynamic threads. The overall plot focuses on Orestes’, Elektra’s, and Pylades’ attempts to get avoid being stoned to death in Argos. But within that framework there are broadly debated questions of justice, revenge, honor, duty, and so on. But in plot terms, the play opens with Elektra tending to an Orestes sick with fever and madness (caused by the Furies), then he recovers and receives visits from Menelaus (his uncle) and Tyndareos (his grandfather). Tyndareos condemns Orestes, and Menelaus refuses to speak on his behalf to the Argive council. Then Pylades—Orestes’ friend and accomplice in killing Klytemnestra—arrives and the two of them go to the trial before the Argive council, where Orestes and Elektra are condemned to die by suicide. Instead of killing themselves, they decide to trap Helen (as, in Helen of Troy) in the palace—because she’s staying with them post-Trojan War—and murder her on behalf of all the Greeks who died in the Trojan War, and to hold her daughter Hermoine hostage until Menelaus convinces the Argive to rescind the death sentence. As they’re in the process of doing this, Apollo snags up Helen and makes her a constellation, and then deus ex machinas a resolution which sets the stage for the events of The Euminides.

As busy as the plot is, there’s still room for some really interesting stuff to happen just in passing. For instance, the quote above where Orestes and Pylades discuss the pitfalls and benefits of democracy, which would certainly have played well in a democratic Athens where the value of democracy was definitely up for debate.
But more interesting to me is the brief section quoted above between Orestes and Elektra. Incest is a common theme throughout Greek tragedy, but this is one of the most blatantly incestuous conversations in any play I’ve read so far (even considering Oedipus and Jokasta’s relationship, though they didn’t know they were related). Here is a brother and sister talking to one another like lovers, embracing and talking about melting into one another. And what makes it a bit extra weird is that Pylades is there for this conversation, and Elektra is betrothed to him—so he’s basically watching his future wife and her brother, his best friend, make out right in front of him. I mean, it’s not inescapably sexual, but I feel like it takes a really generous reading to not see them all but knocking sandals in this scene.

06 January 2015

The Phoenician Women, by Euripides



Chorus: All around this city
            Gleaming shields mass like a dense cloud,
            A signal of bloody battle;
            This Ares shall soon learn
            When he brings fulfillment to the Furies’ curse
            On the two sons of Oedipus.
            O Pelasgian Argos,
            I tremble before your fierce strength
            And before the hand of heaven;
            For he arms himself in a just cause
            Who fights to recover his home.

Iocasta: Some immortal power is bent
To destroy the house of Oedipus. At the beginning
I bore the son I was forbidden to bear; this son,
Your father, sinned in marrying; you, in being born.
What help in saying this? The gods’ will must be endured.

Iocasta: Justice does not consort with haste.
Slow speech most often achieves wisdom.

Eteocles: If men all shared one judgment of what’s noble and wise,
All wordy quarrelling would vanish from the earth.
But as it is, there’s no such thing as ‘equal right.
Or ‘justice.’ These are words – in fact, they don’t exist.

Teiresias: To practice divination by burnt sacrifice
Is folly. Offer unwelcome words, and those for whom
You practice hate you. If you speak falsely, in compassion
For your inquirers, you offend the gods. Phoebus
Fears no one: he should speak his oracles himself.

Hegel’s theory of Attic tragedy revolves around the idea of the agon—a conflict between two more or less even ethical positions. Few plays directly embody the agon as well as EuripidesPhoenician Women. Set during the war between Thebes and Argos, this story is part of the Oedipus myth, which also forms the basis for plays like SophoclesTheban cycle, AeschylusSeven Against Thebes, and Euripides’ Suppliant Women. This particular play roughly corresponds to the section of the myth covered by the Seven Against Thebes, the combat between Eteokles and Polyneikes for the throne of Thebes. However, unlike in the more well known Sophoclean version, Oedipus and Jokasta remain alive at the beginning of The Phoenician Women. Unlike Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus hasn’t yet been exiled and died near Athens; and unlike Oedipus Rex, Jokasta did not commit suicide after learning that Oedipus was her son/husband.

But in terms of the agon, this play is very much structured around a direct conflict between the two sides, embodied in the two brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes. There is even a lengthy parley scene during which the two brothers state their purposes and ethical positions, providing perhaps a model of the policy debates that might have taken place in the Athenian agora. Polyneikes appeals to values like justice and honesty—things the Greeks definitely valued—in trying to enforce the bargain he made with his brother to divide rulership of Thebes. On the other hand, Eteokles is much more pragmatic and sweeps aside any ethical concerns to take the simple stance that he has the crown and it would be stupid to give it up unless compelled to do so. Jokasta tries to mediate between the two sons, pointing out shortcomings, flaws, and contradictions in each argument, and arguing that if Thebes is destroyed neither will be able to rule with honor and the gods will not forgive the destruction.

This agon is again repeated in the fight to the death between the brothers. After the initial Argive assault on Thebes, Eteokles challenges Polyneikes to single combat for the Theban crown. This parallels in combat the rhetorical violence of the truce scene, with each brother landing blows until they finally kill one another. Simultaneously, Jokasta has been summoned and she implores her two sons not to fight one another, so she remains the third term in the agon, the one proposing an alternative to either of the ethical positions represented by the sons.

30 November 2014

The Suppliant Women, By Euripides



Theseus: Did you consult prophets, and observe altar-flames?
Adrastus: Alas, no; that was my error. You have found me out.
Theseus: You went, it seems, lacking the favour of the gods.
Adrastus: Worse still: Amphiaraus warned me, yet I went.
Theseus: Was it so light a matter to ignore the gods?
Adrastus: The young men clamoured at me, and I lost my head.
Theseus: You sacrificed sound judgement to bold enterprise.
Adrastus: A choice which has brought many a leader to his knees.

Theseus: Citizens
            Are of three orders. First, the rich; they are useless, and
            Insatiable for more wealth. Next, the very poor,
            The starving; these are dangerous; their chief motive is
            Envy – they shoot their malice at those better off,
            Swallowing the vicious lies of so-called champions.
            The middle order is the city’s life and health;
            They guard the frame and system which the state ordains.

Theseus: I claim the right to fulfil the law of all Hellas
            In burying those dead bodies. Wherein lies the offense?
            If you were injured by those Argives – they are dead.
            You fought your foes with glory to yourselves, and shame
            To them. That done, the score is paid. Permit their bodies
            To hide below ground,

Adrastus: O wretched race of mortals! Why must men get spears
            And spill each other’s blood? Stop! Lay this rage to rest;
            Live quiet with quiet neighbours, and preserve your towns.
            Life is a brief affair; such as it is, we should
            Seek to pass through it gently, not in stress and strain.

Although the title might suggest a connection with AeschylusThe Suppliants, EuripidesThe Suppliant Women is a very different play. This play is set in the interval between the events of the Seven Against Thebes and Antigone—between the Theban civil war pitting Poliniekes against Eteokles, and the later events that destroy Antigone, Haemon, and Creon. In The Suppliant Women, the widows of the seven Argive champions come with Adrastus—the Argive leader—to Athens to try and convince Theseus, the Athenian king, to demand the bodies of the Argive dead for burial. Initially Theseus is reluctant because he (apparently, though I don’t know if this is covered in any other play) thought the Argive campaign against Thebes was a terrible idea, especially when he finds out Adrastus didn’t consult any prophets or make sacrifices to the gods or anything. But then Theseus is convinced that allowing the Thebans to deny burial to the Argive champions will be detrimental to all of Hellas, and that he will be remembered for turning down the request of supplicants.

These two issues are pretty important fare for Attic tragedians—the importance of burial and the rights of supplicants. Burial is a central concern here, much as it is in plays like Antigone. For the Greeks burial was a crucial ritual because it insured that 1) your spirit would actually make it to the afterlife properly, and 2) you would be remembered. Of course, burial for the Greeks wasn’t a one shot deal, it involved a duty for the living to offer sacrifices, libations, and to perform rituals periodically as a way of showing respect and maintaining the legacy of their ancestors, which we see in plays like The Libation Bearers. Greek culture was not an ancestor cult, but it did have elements of ancestor worship, with individual heroes and rulers often being compared to their ancestors. And of course, burying the deceased was important if you wanted to be buried properly yourself—of course, these two things don’t have a direct connection, but this was a component of the culture.

We also see supplication central here. Supplication was a big part of Greek culture, as was the duty of hosts. We see supplicants in (obviously) The Supplicants, but also in plays like Oedipus at Kolonus or Andromache. I think supplication and hospitality laws were two sides of the same coin, because travelling in the classical world could be extremely dangerous (this was before hotels existed in every town), so being able to come to someone’s house and have a reasonable assurance that they wouldn’t kill you in your sleep was a pretty useful cultural innovation. Similarly, being able to appeal to a powerful monarch or ruler or whatever when you were in need was good, because it helps lay the foundation for a social contract and reciprocity. And when you’ve got a god like Zeus who takes care of the interests of suppliants, it’s generally wise to extent your hospitality and assistance.