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

20 May 2014

The Bacchae, by Euripides

Dionysus: Like it or not, this city has to learn
            what it is to go through true conversion
            to the rites of Bacchus.
So do I defend my mother’s cause,
            making mortal men endorse the fact I am a god
            and born to her of Zeus.
You know that Cadmus makes his grandson Pentheus king,
            with all the kingly prerequisites;
            that Pentheus opens war on deity in me,
            wards me off his sacrifice,
            cuts me from his prayers.
Very well,
            I’ll show myself to him and all of Thebes
            a god indeed. (397)

Tiresias: mankind has two blessings:
            the goddess Demeter is the one—
            Earth, that is, call her what you will—
            who keeps us alive with solid food;
            the other is Semele’s son,
            who came afterwards and matched her food with wine.
He is was who turned the grape into a flowing draft
            and proffered it to mortals;
            so when they fill themselves with liquid vine
            they put an end to grief.
Besides, it gives them sleep
            which drowns the sadness of each day;
            there is no other anodyne for sorrow.
So when we pour libations out
            it is the god himself we pour out to the gods,
            and by this bring blessings on mankind. (407)

Pentheus: Is this the first place, then, you’ve brought your god?
Dionysus: By no means: every land in Asia celebrates his dance.
Pentheus: Naturally! Foreigners have much less sense than Greeks. (415-416)

Agave: Father, you see how everything for me is overturned.
Everything is deserted, dark,
            and who but myself put out the light?
You brutal hands, smoking with gore,
            once you washed and sped this baby to his bed.
Wicked hands that should have decked a young man for his bride,
            now you dress a corpse to speed him to the world below. (450)

Agave: My son, my son,
            whom these blind fingers tore apart
            and these callous eyes attacked,
            we know not what we do, when we pride ourselves we know. (451)

Euripides seemed really interested in mothers killing their children, at least from the extant plays. Of course Medea is the really famous example, but I think ultimately we have more sympathy for Agave, who tears her son apart while possessed by the spirit of Dionysus. It seems like Pentheus dying is at least somewhat justified since he refuses to acknowledge and properly honor the god Dionysus, but Agave is the one whose fate seems really unfortunate. I mean, Bacchus possesses her and she’s out reveling, when the god tricks Pentheus into spying on the rites and then convinces Agave and the other Bacchants that he is a lion, whom they rip into small pieces. Only later does Agave realize what she’s done. And it’s a pretty brutal moment when her father, Cadmus, coaxes her back to her senses and convinces her that it is actually her son and not a lion whose head she carries through Thebes in triumph.

I also feel pretty bad for Cadmus, whose grandson and heir is murdered by his daughter. I mean, Cadmus tried to do the right thing when he and Tiresias dressed in the goat skins and ivy and went out to join the worship of Bacchus. And then for some reason (I think because Cadmus had denied that Semele—Dionysus’ mother—had a child with Zeus) Cadmus is banished at the end of the play and maybe turned into a snake who will wage war on Hellas with foreign armies (Paul Roche, the editor and translator of my edition, noted that this is a confusing and kind of nonsensical bit, and probably was confusing and nonsensical for the Athenian audience as well). In my opinion, Cadmus should get some points for a) worshipping Dionysus, and b) trying to convince Pentheus to worship Bacchus as well. But I suppose his consolation prize is not being brutally ripped to death by his loved ones.

04 May 2014

Medea, by Euripides

Nurse: How ruthless if
            The temper of royalty: often commanding,
            Seldom commanded. Terribly slow
            To forgive and forget. . .How much better
            To live among equals! I want no part
            Of greatness and glory. Let me decline
            In a safe old age. The very name
            Of the “middle way” has health in it,
            Is best for human beings. Good never comes
            From overreaching, never to mortals
            And when it provokes the gods it destroys
The house to its portals (341).

Chorus: Never let Cypris the fierce
Queen of desire propel
My heart to a dissolute lust
From old to a new and another
Bed with a dissonant longing,
But test with a sweet eye for peace
The love-bonds of reverent women (360).

Medea: The evil that I do, I understand full well.
            But a passion drives me greater than my will.
            Passion is the curse of man: it wreaks the greatest ill (377).

It’s a bit surprising that this is the first time I’ve read Medea, considering how many feminist instructors I’ve had and how much drama I’ve read. But this was my first time. I’m not entirely sure what to say about Medea other than the usual stuff that probably gets said about her all the time. She’s an incredibly complex character, and I suspect scholars and teachers probably spend a good deal of their time trying to come to terms with her (and/or help their students come to terms with her).

Euripides was an odd bird as classical authors go, in that he seemed particularly interested in and sympathetic to the concerns and troubles of women (see Alcestis, the two Iphigenia plays—at Aulis and Among the Taurians—and The Trojan Women, for example). Rarely do women figure so prominently as actual fully developed characters in Aeschylus or Sophocles, but Euripides uses complex, interesting, and challenging female characters extensively. But Medea may be his most challenging and complex female character, and I would say she is one of the most complex and interesting characters in all of Athenian drama. While we sometimes think of Shakespeare—particularly Hamlet—as the origin point for modern psychological drama, Medea should definitely be a contender for that title. She spends the entire second half of the play debating and reasoning with herself, dragged between multiple desires and impulses—a psychological debate certainly equal to any the Danish prince could come up with. Medea is divided against herself, torn between the impulse to revenge the wrong Jason has done to her, on the one hand, and her love of her children, on the other. Medea is certainly a great Aristotelian hero, one who knows her tragic mistake and recognizes it but is none the less unable to escape the spiral of fate. But unlike many tragic heroes, Medea performs her psychological struggle, her two instincts warring against one another. She is not simply the brutal murderess that Jason (and the patriarchy) would have her, nor is she simply the wronged woman taking justifiable vengeance (as an uncritical feminist reading might have her), nor is she simply the exoticized and dangerous barbarian Other (as an uncritical postcolonial reading might have her). Instead she is all of these things. And perhaps none of them as well. Medea’s complexity in the end is a human complexity, a human struggle between revenge and love, displacement and betrayal—but that is not to say it is not a struggle conditioned by the ideological, socio-cultural, and patriarchal conditions of her time and place.