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

24 February 2014

Ion, by Euripides

Ion: But I must scold Apollo.
What is the matter with him?
Ravishing girls and then deserting them!
Sneakily making babies, then leaving them to die!
That’s not you, Apollo, surely!
You have the power, so follow virtue.
Wicked men the gods punish,
            so how can you yourselves flout the laws
            you’ve made for mortal man?
If the day ever comes
            (I know the notion is absurd)
            when you gods must pay the price to human beings
            for all your rapings and your whorings,
            your and Poseidon, yes and Zeus himself the king of heaven,
            will bankrupt every temple to meet the bill.
To chase your fancies without thought is wrong.
One simply can’t go on blaming human beings
            for copying the glorious conduct of the gods:
            blame the setters of example (119-120).

Old Man: It’s a fine thing to be law-abiding when things go well
            but when it comes to enemies the law’s an obstacle (140).

Ion: One cannot sidestep fate (153).

Cruesa: Dire indeed was our destiny then
            And dire out destiny to follow:
            Flung to and fro, baubles of fate
            Sometimes fair, sometimes foul.
But winds veer.
            May a fair wind stay—
            A calm after storm, my child.
            We have suffered enough (157).

Whole Chorus: Those whom misfortune undermines
            Should reverence the gods and take courage.
            The virtuous in the end will win,
            The wicked, by their nature, not:
Because of sin (161).

In his short introduction to the play in the Signet Classic Euripides: Ten Plays edition, Paul Roche refers to Ion as a tragicomedy, but I think it is in fact a romance. It seems to have the classic characteristics of a romance—tragic potential averted because the characters have redeeming qualities, a happy ending with a family created/restored, and so on. But because this is a Euripides play we don’t have a straightforward romance—Euripides loved to tweak things just enough to make them problematic. In Ion there is an intervention of fate in the plot, but the characters are nearly destroyed by the very people they seek: Cruesa nearly poisons her long lost son, and Ion nearly murders his mother for revenge. I think for Euripides this is the more interesting role of fate than Apollo ordering Hermes to deliver baby Ion to the temple at Delphi. Generally in romances there is some kind of external force keeping the lovers (or in this case mother and son) away from one another, but in Ion the characters nearly destroy the very things they seek in an attempt to get the objects of their desire. Specifically, to ensure a place for her son, Cruesa nearly poisons Ion, who is her son though neither of them know it yet; and Ion nearly murders his mother in order to try and secure a place for himself in his family.

The other thing Ion does, which is characteristic of Euripides is presenting the gods in a fairly poor light—especially Apollo. Apollo had raped Cruesa long before the play and she had his child and abandoned it out of shame. To the best of her knowledge, Apollo had let the child be eaten by birds and other animals, which he let her think for some 18 years. His plan to reunite the family is a somewhat bizarre one, which requires some tricky oracular prophecies—prophecies which nearly lead to Cruesa and Ion murdering one another. Then at the end of the play Apollo doesn’t even have the courage to show up himself and justify his actions, but sends Pallas Athena to come and explain his plans.
Way more than Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides often made the gods comically human, with the same kinds of desires and incompetencies as the human beings they are supposedly superior to. Although Greek drama often uses the gods/curses as catalysts for dramatic action Euripides is often the only playwright (at least of these three) who is willing to bluntly call the gods to task for meddling in human affairs.

23 February 2014

Hippolytus, by Euripides

Leader: For the sake of the gods, King, cancel that prayer.
            Believe me, you’ll come in time to know the mistake you have made.
Theseus: Never (79).

Leader: There’s no escape from doom when doom’s ordained (92).

Artemis: Your father, Poseidon, king of the deep,
            with only good intentions to follow his word, consented.
But both of us, he and I, consider your action wrong.
For your proceeded, without examination, without proof,
            without auguries and without waiting for the revealing hand of time,
            to release curses against your son and kill him (94-95).

Chorus: A common sorrow for all the city.
            Many shall be the tears that fall.
            The tragedies of the great ones after all
            Are the most compelling tales of all.

Hippolytus is probably one of Euripides’ most commonly adapted plays—often adapted as Phaedra, or some variation on that title. I’m not entirely sure why it is such popular source material, but I suspect it has something to do with the image of the chaste and asexual Hippolytus, who rejects women, love, and sex. This figure has an enduring fascination for Western culture. To some degree, as a patriarchal society, I think the West shares Hippolytus’ fantasy of a world without women, in which men could live ‘simpler’ lives and buy a baby of the appropriate quality based on what they could afford to pay. But of course Euripides smashes this fantasy through the machinations of Aphrodite, who isn’t an admirable character, but she does represent an experiential reality of a world where love plays its part.

One thing I find fascinating about Hellenistic culture—or at least in Greek drama—is that people do not seem to take responsibility for being in love. It is always ascribed to Aphrodite and Eros. For instance, in SophoclesThe Women of Trachis, the heroine Deianeira doesn’t blame Heracles for falling in love with Iole, though she is a bit critical of him sending Iole back to their house. She says that Aphrodite must have struck his heart. Similarly in Hippolytus, the chorus of women and even the nurse don’t really blame Phaedra for falling in love with her stepson, they just sort of accept it as the kind of thing Aphrodite likes to do sometimes. This seems to me very different from contemporary western culture where we tend to blame people for falling in or out of love—partly why the divorce rate in the US is so high. On the one hand, the Hellenistic idea of ascribing it to Aphrodite’s will seems like a cop out that lets individuals avoid responsibility for their actions, but on the other hand, it is true that being attracted to or in love with someone is not a conscious choice.

The only other thing that I find troubling about Hippolytus is that it is never really explained by Phaedra writes in her suicide note that Hippolytus raped her. Artemis says that she was trying to protect her secret, but that doesn’t really explain why she makes the false accusation. On one level I get that the letter needed to be written as a mechanism for goading Theseus to call down Poseidon’s curse on Hippolytus, but other than as a means to that end (which wasn’t actually Phaedra’s goal anyway, or if it was I’m not sure why) the letter doesn’t make much sense.

Alcestis, by Euripides

Admetus: There was a time for you to feel for me,
            when I was at the point of death;
            but you stood aside and let another die:
            the young die for the old.
Now you come whining over this dead body (26).

Pheres: You struggled without a blush to hang on to life.
And now you only live because you killed this woman
            and went beyond your span.
Yet I’m the coward, you say, you—you prince of cowards:
            shown up by a woman who died for you—oh, fine young man! (28).

Heracles: my most generous host,
            who made me at home and did not turn me out
            though he was struck to the heart with grief:
            yes, hid his feeling, heroic man, and did me honor.
Is there anyone in Thessaly more hospitable than he?
Anyone in Greece?
Never let him say that such nobility
            was answered by a lack of generosity (33).

Admetus: For her a thousand cares are over—she is sublime.
But I, who have no title to be living
            and have overstepped my mark,
            must go on and on—most melancholy—alive (36).

EuripidesAlcestis is a romance, so it operates differently from a tragedy or a comedy. Romances set up like tragedies—a noble though not totally admirable hero makes a tragic mistake, which leads to disaster—but the resolution is a happy one as the hero is rewarded for being somehow good. The other component of romance as a genre is that at least one character is unrealistically idealized. In Alcestis the title character is the idealized woman, the one willing to sacrifice her youth and her life for a husband who is unwilling to accept his own destined time to die. Although she is sad to leave her family, Alcestis goes without recriminations for Admetus, despite the fact that it is for him that she is dying. Admetus is the noble hero of the play—though for modern post-feminist audiences I think he’s less admirable than he would be for the more staunchly patriarchal Hellenes—who allows his wife to die in his place in fulfillment of a deal Apollo had made with Death. But because Admetus obeys the Hellenistic laws of hospitality when Heracles comes to his home, Heracles reciprocates by fighting Death for Alcestis and returning her to Admetus. In this way the play turns from its tragic potential into a romance.

Alcestis puts particular emphasis on the multiplicity of guilt that RenĂ© Girard describes. Girard argues that tragedies have multiple characters who are all guilty of something and that the blame for the communal suffering could be hung on anyone of them. In Alcestis this is a central concern because the middle section of the play focuses on Ademtus blaming his parents for letting Alcestis die rather than giving up their own lives for him. When Pheres, Admetus’ father, arrives bearing tokens for the dead woman’s grave, Admetus accuses him of being selfish and cowardly, of refusing to give up his life so that Ademtus and Alcestis could live. Pheres rightly counters that Admetus is as much to blame because he asked his wife to swap her death for his own—that Admetus fears and resists death as much as Pheres. The other character who is directly implicated in this is Pheres’ wife, Admetus’ mother, who never makes an appearance. But in reality, anyone in the community could have stepped up and taken Admetus’ death on him or herself, so implicitly everyone in the community is potentially guilty. However, because Alcestis is a romance and not a tragedy, we never go beyond the phase of debating guilt. Girard argues that in a tragedy guilt is fixed upon one scapegoat and then that person is sacrificed for the good of the community, generally either dying or going into exile. As a romance, Alcestis does not include a sacrificial victim whose expulsion returns order and harmony to the community.

Euripides was quite a modern social satirist, often subtly critiquing and questioning the values of his society (a kind of dramatic Socrates, almost). In this tradition we get Alcestis, which is a problematic romance in that it undermines and throws into question the values of Greek society. Despite being a patriarchal culture, it would probably have been difficult for any Greek to get up after this play without questioning Admetus’s values. I mean, he does let his wife die for him and his rejection of his father (who refused to die) is less than filial. Admetus even admits that it was his choice that doomed Alcestis. Although not a feminist play directly, Alcestis does open the door for a strong feminist reading.
Additionally, a feminist reader could not help but notice that when Alcestis returns with Heracles from Death, she is not allowed to speak for three days, ostensibly to break the underworld’s hold on her. This seems like an odd rule, and as far as I know it isn’t a standard part of Greek back-from-the-dead stories. One might read this as of a piece with the general silencing of women in patriarchal cultures, or as a guarantee that Alcestis will not criticize her husband for the duration of the play. Perhaps it is Euripides’ ironic commentary on the ideal form of the Greek woman—much like Pucchini’s Butterfly, a woman should be willing to sacrifice herself for an unworthy man without ever speaking out against her own mistreatment.
Of course, to complicate the second wave feminist reading here, I think it’s important to notice the inherently phantasmatic quality of Alcestis. She is not a real person in the sense that many other Greek characters are dynamic and psychologically fleshed out. She is simply a two-dimensional prop to move the action of the play forward. By making this character so idealized and so perfect that she loses her humanity, I think Euripides gestures to the impossibility of any actual person being ‘the perfect woman.’ He attacks an ideal as only ever an ideal, one without any substance or humanity.