Wednesday, December 18, 2013

mormonhermitmom's review of Volume 4, Great Books of the Western World

This volume contains English translation of ancient Greek plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.  I only managed to read a few of the plays still extant while in college so I was excited to read more. 

Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote plays often classified as "Tragedy" while Aristophanes wrote "Comedy".  In a very basic sense, a Greek Tragedy ends badly for the protagonist, and a Greek Comedy ended well for the protagonist.  I won't get into the particulars of characteristics of Greek Tragedy/Comedy here (I still have memories of high school A.P. English where this was pounded into our heads), however I will say that after reading this volume, I prefer the Greek Tragedy.

Normally I prefer to laugh instead of moan, but unfortunately, Aristophanes's work turned out more bawdy and vulgar than I remembered it.  I don't know if I feel this way because the translator decided to use the most crass of English words to make it more palatable to a modern audience or if Aristophanes was really that foul-mouthed and dirty minded.  I suspect both possibilities have had their influence.  Aristophanes was a satirist, though in his own plays he calls himself a "poet".  He made fun of the political figures of his time, as well as other playwrights he knew.  (Poor Euripides.) Every kind of sexual act was referred to, every biological function applauded, and every possible way to demean, humiliate or debase a person was utilized.  Think Saturday Night Live with a rather unhealthy dose of pornography thrown in and all sense of decency thrown out.  I would NOT recommend letting teens or children read anything by Aristophanes.

The tragedies are a bit better as far as rude humor is concerned, but they can still get into uncomfortable themes and mature subject matter.  For a modern audience, the works of Aeschylus would probably seem oddly formal and stiff, lacking true to life emotions and situations.  The volume includes two or three plays that focus on Greek myths and a few that focus on characters and stories you can find in Homer's The Illiad or The Odyssey.  Aeschylus used a chorus and maybe a couple of actors.  The chorus in his plays tended to speak all together and there really wasn't a leader among the chorus.  Prometheus Bound was one of my favorites by this poet.

Sophocles wrote the Theban Plays - the trilogy that chronicled the story of Oedipus and how messed up his family got.  Oedipus was left outside as a newborn to die because his father received an oracle (prophecy) that Oedipus would kill him someday.  Oedipus was found by a shepherd, sent away to another country to grow up with another family.  However, fate is a big deal in Greek Tragedy.  When he grows up, Oedipus finds himself traveling to the country he was born, unknowingly, and in an altercation on the road he kills his biological father, unknowingly.  Oedipus saves the city of his birth from the ravages of the Sphinx, is hailed as a hero, marries his mother, unknowingly, and later has four children with her.  When he finds out that he has (gasp) married his mother, he blinds himself and the city exiles him for his incest.  The kingdom is put in trouble when one of Oedipus's sons banishes the other and the banished one raises an army to fight for his right to rule.  The brothers kill each other and their Uncle Creon takes charge.  The Uncle forbids the "traitor" brother to be buried.  Of course, one of the sister decides that's not right, buries the traitor and comes under condemnation herself.  She ends up hanging herself and other suicides follow.  Like I said, a real mess.

Sophocles' other works in this volume deal with characters involved in the Trojan War: Odysseus, Philoctetes, Electra, Agamemnon, Clytemenaestra and so on. The Women of Trachis is a Heracles (that's Hercules, to Americans) story.  Sophocles plays come across a little more "natural" to the modern reader; there is still a chorus, but there are more speaking parts and definitely more "drama".

Euripides is described in this volume as reclusive, living a hermit type existence, not liking women much and generally a gloomy person.  Aristophanes makes fun of him (in one play, a comic character goes to the home of Euripides looking for a costume that befits a tragic character so he can engender some sympathy among his creditors).  There are more plays by Euripides in this volume than the other poets, even Aristophanes.  I found some of Euripides' plays came close to what I think of as "horror stories".  The Medea, which tells of Medea's reaction to her husband Jason deciding to marry a princess for political reasons is a prime example.  Jason (the same that captained the Argos, finder of the Golden Fleece, etc.) decides that his fortunes would be better if he married a princess for her wealth.  He promises to take care of his sons born of Medea, but Medea is so mad she threatens bodily harm to Jason, his new bride and his bride's family.  The father of the bride wants Medea banished.  Medea feels she has no where to go.  She plots to hurt Jason by killing his bride and their children.  Her pride is so extreme that the thought of letting Jason cuckold her overwhelms her maternal instincts. 

We never see the actual killing.  The Greeks apparently didn't want to ever go that far so the action would take place offstage and later the audience sees the bodies.  There are quite a few instances in Euripides' plays where someone offends one of the Greek gods and the gods get their revenge by making the character mad/insane to the point where they kill the people they love most.  In one play, Heracles kills his wife and children, in another, a woman kills her son thinking that he is a vicious lion.

One interesting thing Euripides does is he twists some of the stories from The Odyssey and The Illiad.  Instead of Helen being an adulterer, she was switched with a ghost of herself when Paris abducted her and took the ghost to Troy as his wife.  The real Helen was sent to live in Egypt while the Trojan War was being fought over her ghost.  The point of the war?  The gods felt there were too many warmongering Greeks and decided a war was the best way to kill them off and have peace again.  I know.  Not very logical, but very effective, right? 

So, after three months of wading through this volume, I think I'm ready to move on to something else.

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