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

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.

23 November 2014

Andromache, by Euripides

Chorus: What help can it be
            To let distress waste and disfigure you
            Because those who command are cruel?
            Power will overtake you; you are nothing;
            Then why bring trouble on yourself?

Hermione: You orientals are all alike – incest between
            Father and daughter, brother and sister, mother and son;
            And murder too – the closest family ties outraged,
            And no law to forbid any such crime! You can’t
            Import your foreign morals here. It’s a disgrace
            In Hellas for one man to be master of two women;
            Unless a man wants trouble at home, he must enjoy
            The pleasures of marriage with one wife, and be content.

Andromache: Are there no gods? Do you not fear divine justice?
Menelaus: We will endure that when it comes. I’ll kill you first.

Chorus: I would rather forgo the success which involves dishonor
            Than earn men’s hate by perverting right with force.
            For though tyranny tastes sweet for the moment,
            Yet of its freshness time takes toll,
            Till it lies yet one more burden on a disgraced house.
            The life I admire, the way that I would choose,
            Either in marriage or in ruling a city,
            Is to wield no power beyond what is just and fair.

Nurse: to go to extremes is always wrong.

EuripidesAndromache is an interesting play, which seems to be trying to take on too much subject matter. At various points Euripides deals with ageism, xenophobia, sexism, jealousy, slavery, justice, courage, militarism, and relationships. This wouldn’t inherently be a problem, but in the course of doing all this the play brings together three story lines that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another, which makes this feel like a couple of different plays rather than one unified whole.

Broadly speaking, I would say the three storylines in this play are the Andromache plot, the Hermione plot, and the Orestes/Neoptolemus plot. Andromache opens, for maybe the first half, with the Andromache plot, then the Hermione plot is fairly quick (it might actually be more properly called an interlude), then the Orestes/Neoptolemus plot occupies most of the second half. The real problem is that the Andromache plot and the O/N plot aren’t connected other than through Neoptolemus being Andromache’s slave-owner and Peleus’ grandson. The Hermione plot does work as a bridge, but it isn’t clear why these two episodes fit into the same play. The Andromache plot focuses on the titular character’s attempts to avoid being killed by Hermione and Menelaus, and the O/N plot focuses on Orestes’ plot to murder Neoptolemus for marrying Hermione; these two plots are separated by Hermione’s (perhaps not entirely convincing) attempts at suicide after her plan to kill Andromache is foiled. Peleus and Hermione connect the two main plots vaguely, but the connection seems more incidental than essential. Andromache really dominates the first half of the play then just disappears, while Orestes becomes the driving force of the second half but doesn’t appear in the first half.

Menelaus and Hermione are an interesting pair in this play, and probably the main reason these Spartan characters come off so poorly is that Euripides’ Athens was on the losing end of the Peloponnesian War at the time this play was probably acted. The criticism of Spartans is really brutal here—the leaders are cowards who let others die for them, and the women are slutty and can’t be proper Hellenic wives. Menelaus comes across as a swaggering coward who feels he can kill his son-in-laws slaves without consequences from either Neoptolemus or the gods, but who runs away when the elderly Peleus arrives to defend Andromache and her son. Hermione is almost bipolar, moving from rage to suicidal despair, and clearly not fulfilling her role as a Greek wife by deferring to her husband (whatever we may think about that requirement today). Andromache, Peleus, and the chorus compare Hermione to Helen, her mother, comparing their disobedience and lustiness as negative character traits.

One other element I do find fascinating here is the whole series of intertexts, or references to other myths/plays throughout Andromache. Of course, Andromache itself picks up from The Trojan Women, which tells the story of the Greeks enslaving the women of defeated Troy, which also connects to Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem telling the story of the Trojan War. Peleus brings with him intertextual echoes of the Argonauts, an adventure in which he gained fame. And Orestes brings intertextual connections with AeschylusOresteia trilogy, and SophoclesElectra and Euripides’ Electra versions. These intertexts and references give us a really good sense of how interconnected these myths were, and how much Attic tragedy depends on audience familiarity. I mean, without knowing Orestes’ backstory, his troubles with finding a wife—which he discusses in Andromache—wouldn’t make that much sense. Here Euripides doesn’t give us enough info to piece together the Oresteia story, but he didn’t need to for an Athenian audience who could be counted on to be familiar with the story already.

28 October 2014

The Children of Heracles, by Euripides

Chorus: They are suppliants and strangers
            Who look to our city for help.
            To reject them is to defy the gods.

Chorus: My lord, their hard lot wins my pity. Never yet
            Have I seen nobleness so vanquished by mischance.

Macaria: Then you need no more dread the attack of Argive spears.
            Before you bid me, Iolaus, I am myself
            Ready to die, and give my blood for sacrifice.
            What could we say, when Athens is prepared to face
            Great peril for our sake, if we ourselves, who laid
            This burden on their shoulders, having it in our power
            To bring them victory, draw back and shrink from death?
            Never! We should command not sympathy but scorn
            If we, who sat here weeping as suppliants to the gods,
            Demonstrate that a father such as Heracles
            Can beget cowards!

Chorus: I believe that no man becomes prosperous,
            No man falls into disaster,
            Except by the will of heaven;
            Nor does good fortune always attend
            The same house, but differing fortunes
            Follow close upon one another.
            Fate brings low those that were high;
            The unhonoured fate makes prosperous.
            To evade destiny is forbidden;
            Not by wisdom shall a man resist it;
            He who attempts this will spend
            His length of life in fruitless struggle.

Well, The Children of Heracles is definitely not one of Euripides’ stronger plays. It feels a bit like a propaganda piece on behalf of Athens, which seems uncharacteristic of Euripides, who was frequently willing to critique and criticize the city. But really I think the reason this is such an unsatisfying play is that the danger never seems particularly threatening. I mean, there are some momentary setbacks in this play, but then within a few lines the problems are resolved pretty arbitrarily.

For instance, when Demophon—king of Athens—learns that the only way for Athens to defeat the Argive army is to sacrifice the virgin daughter of a king to Demeter, he refuses to sacrifice his child or any of the Athenians’ children. So Iolaus’ initial reaction is to despair. But then—for no particularly convincing reason—Macaria, Heracles’ daughter, comes out of the temple and is all like, “Well, I want to be sacrificed so my brothers can live,” and while initially Iolaus isn’t exactly on board, he is swayed pretty quickly to let her be sacrificed. But I guess it doesn’t matter that much because she’s a girl, and in Attic drama getting sacrifice to save the men in one’s family tends to be about the best fate a girl can have (Iphigenia in Iphigenia at Aulis makes a similar statement).

I want this play to be doing something interesting and critical, I want it to confront Athenian ideology and prejudice, because that is how I think of Euripides. The only way I see this play potentially fitting into that larger critical project is if the play is purposefully so bad and so blandly slavish in its praise of Athens that this is the critique—Euripides parodies Athenians’ high opinion of their city making it ridiculous and banal. But I don’t know if I find this reading totally convincing.

The other thing that troubles me about this play is that it is generically amorphous. It isn’t a comedy because it’s not funny and it doesn’t have any of the structural elements of comedy. It isn’t really a tragedy because there is no noble person brought low, and the people we are most inclined to identify with all have a positive result. It might be a romance, because the admirable characters go from being in peril to safety and there is a kind of odd reconciliation at the end, when king Eurytheus of Argos promises that burying his body in a certain place will bring Athens luck and protect them from future enemies. But there is not love story, which I feel is a crucial component of a romance. But that may be a prejudice I impose on the classical genre based on the modern usage of the genre name “romance,” I’m not sure whether a love plot is absolutely necessary for a romance in the ancient sense. (None the less, I’m listing this as a romance for my own categorization purposes).