Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Oedipus the King - Sophocles

Oedipus opens the play as the celebrated ruler of Thebes.  Some years ago, he defeated the tricky Sphinx and became a hero.  Now he is trying to find out why the town is suffering a blight on the crops.  A messenger from the Oracle of Delphi tells him that the town must find out who murdered the previous king and throw him out.  Then prosperity will return.
Oedipus tries to find out who this wretch is and then suffers the worst day in human history.  In short order he:

  • Curses whoever is guilty, even if it is his own household
  • Accuses Creon, his trusted right hand man of treachery
  • Finds out that he killed the previous king
  • Finds out that the king was his father
  • Discovers that his queen, Jocasta, is actually his mother
  • and then Gouges his eyes out.
Jocasta also commits suicide.  As I said, it's a really no good, terrible day all around.  The only problem is that there are so many unlikely happenings, one on top of the other, that the play reads much more like a modern comedy.  In fact, I can't help but think that if it was staged today, that would be the way to go.  (Comedy and tragedy are much more loosely defined things today, of course.  Still, I can't help but wonder if there were some snickers back in the day that 'Oedipus' was first put on.)

I like Sophocles writing much more than I do Aeschylus.  The characters feel more like real people.  Just about everyone has motives and feelings.  Even the bit parts, like the shepherds, feel well rounded.  (Shakespeare has the same quality.)  It feels less like a moving diorama and more like a peek at actual personalities.  
My dad pointed something out to me before I read the play.  The Oedipal Complex (if I understand it correctly) suggests that every man wants to possess his mother.  But in the play, Oedipus had no such desire.  He ended up in the (very) wrong bed because of a series of errors and mishaps.  He didn't exactly plot his way there.  (We don't cover Freud until the end of next year, so someone correct me if I've got this all wrong.)
Not that I want to let Oedipus off the hook though.  He met a cart on the road, got into an argument with the driver and simply killed the whole party of people.  He quite obviously isn't blameless.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lovelace - Poetry

The next poem is 'To Althea, from Prison' by Richard Lovelace.  He was briefly imprisoned during the English Civil war and wrote this then.

WHEN Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
And fetter'd to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty grief in wine we steep,
When healths and draughts go free—
Fishes that tipple in the deep
Know no such liberty.

When, like committed linnets,
I With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how great should be,
Enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,
Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

The first part is a little too airy for my tastes.  And it reads very strange to me to mix love of sweetheart and love of king.  Of course, these are different times and I won't judge someone too harshly who is literally imprisoned during a civil war for sucking up to the powers that be.
I do like the defiance of the last stanza quite a bit.  I'm certain that many politcal prisoners over the years have taken heart from it.  'Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage'.  Yes, indeed yes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Eumenides - Aeschylus

'The Eumenides' completes the Oresteia trilogy.  The story takes up right where the 'Libation Bearers' ends. Orestes has just killed his mother and fled to the temple of Apollo.  He has cleansed himself and Apollo himself reassures him that he will be protected.  The Furies (aka Eumenides) have chased him there and being put under a spell from Apollo, promptly fallen asleep.
Unfortunately for Orestes, the ghost of his mother Clytaemnestra has also shown up and she isn't happy.

"You - how can you sleep?
Awake, awake - what use are sleepers now?
I go stripped of honor, thanks to you,
alone, among the dead. And for those I killed
the charges of the dead will never cease, never -
I wander in disgrace, I feel the guilt, I tell you,
withering guilt from all the outraged dead!
But I suffered too, terribly, from dear ones,
and none of my spirits rages to avenge me.
I was slaughtered by his matricidal hand.
See these gashes - Carve then in your heart!
The sleeping rain has eyes that give us light;
we can never see our destiny by day.

She succeeds and wakens them.  The search for Orestes to destroy him but before they can do so, they are stopped by Apollo and Athena.  Orestes (truthfully) claims that he was given the task of killing Clytaemnestra   by the gods and should not suffer.  The Furies will have none of it.  For a son to kill his mother is an outrage. If he goes unpunished, the law may as well be throw out.
At Athena's urging, they form a jury out of Athenian townspeople.  Each side will present their case and the jury will decide if Orestes should be punished or not.  Athena herself will break any tie.  The jury decides in Orestes' favor and he is spared.
The Furies are, well, furious.  They declare that they'll curse the land and be generally vengeful.  Athena appeals and appeals to their better nature.  Using her skills of reason, she convinces them to stand by the verdict and protect the court and the land.

This is a play about a maturing system of justice.  The normal laws of vengence have already wiped out two generations of a twisted family and are now threatening a third one.  Each death had some justification but there is no end in sight.  Some impersonal agency simply has to step in and decide what justice is.  Only once that is done can any kind proper conclusion come to the story.  When the Furies buy into the verdict, that system of justice can be in place.
I'll admit that I don't fully follow the Furies ethics.  It is awful for a son to kill his mother, but that's simply the latest in a chain of awful acts.  Is it more awful than ambushing your husband?  Is it more awful than letting the murder of your father go unpunished?  It definitely isn't more awful than killing your daughter to get better weather!  And yet this is the crime that exercises them.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Choephoroe (Libation Bearers) - Aeschylus

This is the second part of the Oresteia trilogy, written by Aeschylus.  It takes place several years after 'Agamemnon'.  Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus are still ruling, though some of the Thebans are still unhappy with the way they killed the old king. 
The play begins with Orestes, the son of Clytaemnestra and Agamemnon, finding the grave of his father.  Orestes has been away for years, in exile, and has returned for revenge.  The murder of his father has weighed heavily on him, especially since the murderer has gone on, unpunished. 
While at the grave, he runs into his sister Electra.  She is bringing libations to pour on the grave.  A libation is a drink offering given to the departed.  Her mother, Clytaemnestra, is offering libations to try and assuage a bad dream that she thinks was sent from the underworld.  She dreamed that she gave birth to a snake that then tried to suckle, causing a confusion of blood and milk.
The two meet and plan revenge.  Orestes will pose as a messenger, bringing the news of his own death.  He gets Aegisthus alone and then kills him.  Then he summons Clytaemnestra so he can kill her too. 
She is devastated by these events.  She's just been told that her son was killed.  Now she finds that this isn't true.  Instead he has returned and killed her lover of many years.  And now he means to kill her too.  Her own son!  She tried to talk him out of it, but he is resolute and slays her, across the body of Aegisthus, in the same spot that Agamemnon was killed. 

Clytaemnestra is the most interesting in this play.  Remember, she feels totally justified with how she dealt with Agamemnon.  She then suffers a series of emotional shocks and is faced with her own death.  At the end she pleads with her own son, her own blood, to spare her.  But to no avail. 
Orestes is also conflicted.  He has been told by Apollo that this is justice but he is far from certain.  If he could have figured a way out, he probably would have taken it but alas, there is no way.  He ends the play by fleeing to a temple so that Apollo can wash the blood from him. 
The 'Libation Bearers' doesn't have quite the punch of the other two plays, but I can see how it would be effective.  Both Orestes and Clytaemnestra are in very tough situations without any apparent solution.  The audience couldn't help but empathize. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Agamemnon - Aeschylus

'Agamemnon' is the start of a tragic trilogy.  It begins with the return of king Agamemnon, from the ruins of Troy.  The king, you may remember, was one of the least likable characters from the Iliad.  He opened that story by usurping Achilles woman and then spent the story undermining both the morale of the Greeks and his own authority.  The back story for the play shows us that his awfulness started even earlier.  Before the war started, he ran into some bad weather and then sacrificed his own daughter to help himself out.
Not surprisingly, this didn't sit well with his wife, Clytaemnestra.  While Aggie was out of town, she has taken up with Aegisthus, who also has a pretty awful back story.  (Before his birth, his brother was killed and put into a stew.  Aegisthus himself, was born of spiteful incest and set to kill his own father.)  Clyt and Aegis both lay in wait to kill Agamemnon as soon as he got home.  So arrive, he does, and he is whisked off by the servants. 
We then meet Cassandra, pretty much the only sympathetic figure in the whole story.  She was taken as a slave from Troy and is now Agamemnon's concubine.  She suffers a unique curse.  Cassandra can see the future, but she is doomed to be ignored.  In this case, she sees her own death and yes, she's right again.
The action happens offstage.  Clytaemnestra kills both Agamemnon and Cassandra.  Aegisthus dances on the bodies. The chorus, made up of the men of Thebes, tells him how awful he is and tell him that he'll get his end. 

Cassandra is the high point of the play.  I can easily imagine that she gave the Greeks chills!
the pain, the terror! the birth-pang of the seer
who tells the truth-
    it whirls me, oh,
the storm comes again, the crashing chords!
Look, you see them nestling at the threshold?
Young, young in the darkness like a dream,
like children really, yes, and their loved ones
brought them down . . .
     their hands, they fill their hands
with their own flesh, they are serving it like food,
holding out their entrails . . . now it's clear,
I can see the armfuls of compassion, see the father
reach to taste and-
     For so much suffering,
I tell you, someone plots of revenge.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Biography of Sophocles

Sophocles was born to a wealthy family in Attica, around 496 BC.  In 468 BC, he took first place in the Dionysia, the festival at which plays were judged.  According to Plutarch, the judging system was changed that year, which may have allowed Sophocles to win over Aeschylus.
He lived until he was about 90.  One of the stories about his death is that he injured himself trying to recite a particularly long sentence from 'Antigone', though that is probably simple legend.  His contemporaries said that he died happy.
Sophocles introduced a third actor to the stage, which enriched the possibility for conversation.  According to Aristotle, he also was the first to include painted sets.  After Aeschylus died, he was the undisputed master writer of tragedies.  He wrote more than 120 plays, but only seven survive to this day.
To my admittedly amateur eye, his work is richer than that of Aeschylus, at least in the selections for this months reading.  The characters have more depth.  They seem more like actual people with conflicts and less like archetypes.  Since both playwrights have more than 100 lost plays, this may be a completely unfair comparison.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Biography of Aeschylus

Aeschylus was born around 525 BC in a small town northwest of Athens.  When he was young he worked in a vineyard.  He was said to have been visited by the god Dionysus, who urged him to write tragedies.  (I'd love to steal that bit of personal history.)  He immediately started writing and won his first prize at the age of 26.
He fought against the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC and again, ten years later at Salamis.  These two battles were enormously important to the contemporary Greeks, and therefore to western history.  After he died, his military service was commemorated, not his play writing.
But history remembers him for the plays.  He was the first playwright who had two actors on stage, as well as the chorus.  This opened up space for conflict and he used that to create tragedies.  Aeschylus competed regularly with his writing and, though the exact numbers aren't well known, he is thought to have won more than a dozen times.
One legend has it that he was killed by a falling tortoise(!),  dropped by an eagle.  (I don't think I'll borrow that part.)  In any case, he died in 456 or 455 BC.  The Greeks restaged his tragedies in later competitions.  Most of his work has been lost to time.  Only seven remain, out of possibly 120. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bradstreet - Poetry

For the rest of this series, click on the 'Poetry' tag at the bottom.

The next poem is from Anne Bradstreet, the first American poet in the book.  It's from 'The Prologue'.  The book isn't clear but it might just be a fragment.

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong;
For such despite they cast on female wits,
If what I do prove well, it won't advance-
They'll say it's stolen, or else it was by chance.

But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,
Else of our sex why feigned they those Nine,
and Poesy made Calliope's own child?
So 'mongst the rest they placed the Arts Divine.
But this weak knot they will full soon untie-
The Greeks did nought but play the fools and lie.

Let Greeks be Greeks, and women what they are.
Men have precedency, and still excel.
It is but vain unjustly to wage war.
Men can do best, and women know it well.

And oh, ye high flown quills that soar the skies,
And ever with your prey still catch your praise,
If e'er you deign these lowly lines your eyes,
Give thyme or parsley wreath; I ask no bays.
This mean and unrefined ore of mine
Will make your glistering gold but more to shine.

Taken at face value, it's quite a sexist bit of work but of course, it shouldn't be taken at face value.  The poem was written in the seventeenth century, after all.  I like the way that there is no line that a man could actually point at and object to.  Yet, it's easy for the reader to see through it all.  Of course this woman can write as well as any man!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Author Timeline

Homer 7th or 8th Cent(?)
Aeschylus 525-456
Sophocles 497-405
Herodotus 484-425
Plato 428-347
Aristotle 384-322
Lucretius 99-55
Nicomachus 60-120
Marcus Aurelius 121-180
Hobbes 1588-1679
Milton 1608-1674
Pascal 1623-1662
Swift 1667-1745
Rousseau 1712-1778
Kant 1724-1804
Mill 1806-1873

Friday, February 1, 2013

February Readings

Here is the list for this month:

Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Choephoroe (a.k.a The Libation Bearers), Eumenides link, link, link
Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone link

I was able to find translations by Robert Fagles for these pieces, so that's what I'm reading from.  On a personal note, I did a one act version of 'Antigone' back in high school.  I'll see if I can dig up a picture.