Oedipus Rex

13 Mar

Sophocles’s third and final treatment of the familiar Oedipal myths, variously translated as Oedipus Rex, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus Tyrannos, opens with a procession of priests appealing to King Oedipus to save Thebes. There’s blight on the crops and fields, cattle are dying, women die in childbirth and their babies are stillborn, and a plague is ravaging the city. When Oedipus appears from the palace Sophocles shows us the king in all his regal glory, we see a man concerned for his chosen city’s welfare and certain of his power to relieve his people’s distress. The people of Thebes have implicit faith in Oedipus – he became king by rescuing them from the monstrous Sphinx through his cleverness – and now they beg him for rescue once again. Oedipus tells the Thebans he’s already sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi so he can find out how to help them. Creon arrives and thus begins the gradual disclosure (a disclosure entirely prompted by Oedipus) that the king himself is the cause of all the trouble in Thebes; through his attempts to avoid a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother Oedipus has unwittingly fulfilled it.

To me, Oedipus Rex is disappointing; it’s a great example of why I love both Euripides and Aeschylus more than Sophocles.  Taking Clytemnestra from Agamemnon as a model, after the climax of the king’s death she’s changed – she’s openly triumphant and more defiant, probably because she’s aware of her own power to accomplish such an enormous deed, she’s also less nervous and more at peace with herself now that her grisly task is accomplished.  However, Clytemnestra is still clearly the same character we’ve been getting to know through the preceding parts of the play. Oedipus, on the other hand, is unrecognizable after the climax of Oedipus Rex. The weeping man who, having blinded himself, clings to his small children and begs for exile is an entirely different character than the stubborn, titantically willful king we’ve seen.  I read Oedipus’s self-mutilation as an extension of the same stubbornness and willfulness, so the change in behavior at the end was jarring. When I finished the play I badly wanted a “part 2” so Sophocles would have more time to fill out Oedipus’s character, and perhaps unify these two/too disparate versions of the king. I’m sure that’s one reason reading the Theban plays as a trilogy is sometimes recommended.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, makes numerous references to Oedipus Rex as a paradigm of how tragedy should be written. Certainly Sophocles follows Aristotle’s recommended unity of time to great effect. The play’s rapid pace almost seems to be hurrying Oedipus along towards destruction and helps lend a feeling of inevitability to Oedipus’s tragedy; this along with Oedipus’s unrelenting personality also heightens tension in the play. More than once I wanted to tell the character, “Wait! Can’t you just wait a second and think about this, Oedipus!”

One of the most obvious symbols in Oedipus is, of course, blindness.  The use of blindness as a metaphor is so pervasive and repetitive that I started to get uncomfortable with it as I was reading the play. At the point in my reading when I was thinking about how disturbing this was I came across these lines from the chorus that I found really repugnant:

How can I say you’ve chosen for the best?

Better to die than be alive and blind.

My first thought was, “Goddamn, Sophocles didn’t you Greeks say your greatest poet ever was a blind guy? Where did this come from?” I soldiered on and finished the play, but with a thousand questions in my mind about how people with blindness might have been treated and perceived in the ancient world. I’m putting the questions aside, for now, so I can work out what I’m writing about The Aeneid while the iron’s still hot, but if anyone happens to know something about it, or have a link you can leave, I’d appreciate it.



(Lack of) Sympathy for Agamemnon

3 Mar

Agamemnon is one of the least sympathetic characters in the Iliad. The actions of the antihero Achilles don’t endear him to Homer’s audience; the poet overcomes this obstacle by creating an even more unsympathetic character foil in Agamemnon.  The Argive leader comes off poorly in every contrast that’s made between the two men: the influence the gods exert over them, the truth or falseness of the insults they exchange and, most particularly, their behavior towards their social inferiors.

Homer’s famous opening, “Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles,” might seem to single out Achilles as blameworthy in the deaths the poet describes, but before the ending of the first stanza this is mitigated by the line, “all in fulfilment of the will of Zeus.” Apollo is then said to be the god who incited the two men to fight, however the reason given for his anger is Agamemnon’s dishonour of the god’s priest Chryses. Thus within two stanzas the cause of Achaeans’ “countless agonies” has been transmuted from Achilles’s rage to Agamemnon’s insult. Later in the first book Athena comes personally to Achilles to stop him from killing Agamemnon when they are fighting over a ‘prize’ (the female captive, Briseis), by comparison Agamemnon’s first ‘visitation’ from a god is a false dream sent by Zeus in Book Two that urges him to attack the Trojans. Given that Homer lets his readers actually see and hear both these scenes along with Achilles and Agamemnon, it casts doubt on Agamemnon’s claim in Book Nineteen that he was led astray by the gods, and Zeus and Ate “cast a savage blindness on my heart” the day he took Briseis from Achilles.

In the quarrel over Briseis, Achilles and Agamemnon hurl insulting language at one another in a back-and-forth exchange. However, while Achilles’s most insulting remarks to Agamemnon prove to be true, and truly insults, Homer merely allows Agamemnon to denigrate Achilles’s evident good qualities. Achilles calls Agamemnon greedy, which is clearly how the king’s acting at that moment, and later accuses him of being scared to fight and only hanging back in the rear of the army. This is proved out in Book Four when we are told again and again of Agamemnon alternately rousing and rebuking his troops – urging them to fight – but he’s not depicted battling anyone himself. In contrast, Agamemnon can’t seem to find anything about Achilles to put down, “So what if you’re strong? Some god gave you that,” is about as offensive as his language gets.

Agamemnon’s sending his two heralds, Talthybius and Eurybates, to collect Briseis from Achilles might also serve as an example of the king’s cowardice – Agamemnon perhaps being unwilling to face Achilles – although this is easily interpreted as simply being an act too menial for the king to do himself, but I believe Homer is using this incident to highlight Achilles’s treatment of the heralds. When they’re too nervous to approach him, Achilles sets their minds at ease and reassures Talthybius and Eurybates that he doesn’t blame them, but Agamemnon. This is the most distinctive passage showing Achilles kindness to his inferiors, as opposed to Agamemnon, who’s repeatedly shown as rude or dismissive to those people he has power over. This is apparent at the beginning of Book One when he threatens Apollo’s priest, Chryses, and ignores the Argive troops, who want him to keep the ransom Chryses offers for his daughter. Later when Apollo strikes the army with a plague, Achilles promises the prophet, Calchis, his protection if he’ll tell them what has offended the god, “even if you name Agamemnon, who claims he’s by far the best Achaean.” As it turns out Calchis’s caution is warranted, as Agamemnon immediately attacks the soothsayer:

Then, Atreus’ son,
wide-ruling, mighty Agamemnon, stood up before them,
incensed, spirit filled with huge black rage.
Eyes blazing fire, he rounded first on Calchas:

“Prophet of evil, when have you ever said
good things to me? You love to predict the worst,
always the worst! You never show good news.

A more subtle incident occurs when Nestor, an elder and respected warrior, tries to intervene in the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon. Though both men are unwilling to leave off their quarrel, at the end of Nestor’s speech Achilles concedes he will give up Briseis to the king. On the other hand, Agamemnon, even though he says that Nestor’s right, immediately dismisses his advice and refers to him contemptuously as, “Old Man.” Rude to priests, prophets, and old men; possibly a coward; easily deceived and himself deceptive – the way Homer has portrayed him, it’s no wonder the doomed king of Argos can’t garner more of our sympathy.

The Bacchae

23 Feb

Euripides’s Bacchae is undoubtedly one of most disturbing and eerie of the extant classical tragedies. If this play had been written post domine Dionysus’s position in the play would have to be occupied by a demon or Satan himself. Who else in our cultural tradition could function as the Other, the Outsider, the endlessly travelling Stranger who dissolves all boundaries, causes us to transgress all limnitations, then moves on to do it all over again? However, in ancient Greek society this is a role for a god and, as Dionysus reminds us, refusing a god their proper worship can bring disastrous consequences.

The Bacchae opens with the god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus and Bromius, explaining how he was born from Zeus and Semele – the mortal daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes at the time. Dionysus is angry at his mother’s family for denying she was impregnated by Zeus and refusing to worship him. He’s recently come from the East, where he’s already introduced the Dionysian mysteries, and compelled his aunts and the other women of Thebes to enter the wilderness outside the city and become Bacchantes.

Pentheus – the current king of Thebes and son of Agave, who’s now reveling on the mountain with the other Bacchantes – finds himself simultaneously attracted and repelled by Bacchus and his Maenads. He attempts to imprison Dionysus but the god promptly escapes and destroys Pentheus’s palace. The king is then lured into dressing as a Bacchante and spying on their rites in the wilderness. This brings us to the strange and sad scene in which Dionysus helps Pentheus get properly dressed and, given that we already know what becomes of the king, every line is pitifully ironic. (Agave later wins the Bacchae’s pitifully ironic first place trophy in her scene with the chorus of foreign Bacchantes, but this is a close runner up.)

The scene between Dionysus and Pentheus brings the woo to the Bacchae. Why is Pentheus so excited to be dressed up as a Maenad? Particularly he seems delighted that he looks like his mother. Ancient shades of Norman Bates? Is all this coming from Pentheus’s subconscious, or is he under the sway of the god at this time? Support for either interpretation can be found in the text. I’m not sure the audience is even supposed to find answers to all these questions, though. Perhaps Euripides’s point here is that when all boundaries are erased and nothing’s left but ambiguities, there are no answers – only an endless series of questions.

The Bacchae ends with every member of the Theban royal family exiled from their city, as Euripides was from Athens until the end of his life. As a final farewell to a city that had not been very kind to the playwright, it’s possible to see in the Bacchae as much curse as blessing. As the play closes Dionysus assures the audience that since he’s finished up in Thebes he’ll be moving on to the next Greek city. See you soon, Athens!

The Orestreian Trilogy

21 Feb

For anyone planning to read the Oresteia my best advice would be cut it short and stop after you finish Agamemnon. In both The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides Aeschylus never approaches the moral complexity, depth, or pathos of his opening, and neither of the latter plays offers a character as compelling and sympathetic as Agamemnon’s Clytemnestra. There’s a sense when regarding the work as a whole that Aeschylus deliberately backs off the difficult questions he asks with Agamemnon so he can reassure his audience, first implicitly in The Libation Bearers and then more overtly in the Eumenides, that these difficulties need not trouble them because the status quo is the will of the gods.

Agamemnon opens with an exposition by a watchman who has been ordered by Clytemnestra to the roof of the house so he can look for a signal fire that will announce the fall of Troy; within the first fifty lines he introduces the play’s two important themes: appropriate gender roles and silence in the face of wrongdoing.  Both themes figure strongly in Agamemnon then are a carried through the next two plays of the trilogy in a more limited way. The watchman first describes Clytemnestra as having “the determined resolution of a man” and then in closing his ode he alludes to some troubles in the house of Agamemnon and says he will keep his silence about them:

As for all the rest, I’m saying nothing.
A great ox stands on my tongue. But this house,
if it could speak, might tell some stories.

A chorus of Argive elders then enters and begins a long series of stanzas, first telling of Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’s departure for Troy, then of a sign Zeus sent to the two brother-kings, and finally of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia in which they note, “They gagged her lovely mouth…to stifle any curse which she might cry”. Despite the level of detail the elders are able to give about Iphigenia they maintain that, regarding her sacrifice, “What happened next I did not see. And I won’t say.”

In a significant departure from more familiar versions of the myth, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon depicts Artemis as sending hostile winds and delaying the Achaean voyage to Troy due to her anger at the sign of victory Zeus gave to Agamemnon and Menelaus – two eagles devouring a hare and its unborn young.  Artemis’s actions are not shown as a personal animosity toward Agamemnon, but rather as the natural and expected capriciousness of a god. Agamemnon is still faced with either sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, or peremptorily giving up the war against Troy and returning home with his troops, but by omitting any insult or offense given to Artemis by Agamemnon, Aeschylus relocates the immediate cause of the Orestreian tragedy to Agamemnon’s desire to maintain his reputation and press forward with his army and, thus, his valuation of his honor over Iphigenia’s life.

Clytemnestra then enters and the chorus of elders asks her if she’s received any message. After detailing the relay system she sat up to signal from Troy to Argos, Clytemnestra describes in detail the aftermath of Troy’s fall. While there’s nothing unusual about what she claims the soldiers are doing now that they’ve captured the city, even though she can’t possibly know all the specifics she gives, her speech ends with an ominous reference to Iphigenia:

But even if the soldiers do reach home
without offending any god, harsh sorrow
for the dead may still be watching for them

Perhaps realizing she’s spoken too plainly, Clytemnestra concludes with, “Well, I’ve let you hear my woman’s words. May good things now prevail for all to see.” The dramatic irony wouldn’t have been lost on Aeschylus’s audience but the Argive elders prove they are not only unable to speak the truth, as in their description of Iphigenia’s death, but unable to hear it as well. Before Clytemnestra’s exit they complement her by saying, “You speak wisely, like a prudent man.”

Left alone the chorus now recites several stanzas discussing the will of the gods, the war, Helen, and divine punishment of wicked men. Their words not only foreshadow Agamemnon’s death with references such as “those men who trample underfoot”, and “destruction is the penalty for those with reckless pride”, but give the impression that they and the Argive people, although unhappy with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, aren’t willing to speak out about it. Some stanzas seem particularly bold in condemning Agamemnon:

Some complain about that woman [Helen],
how she’s to blame for all of this—
but do so quietly. Nonetheless,

this sorrow spreads resentment
against the leaders of the war,
the sons of Atreus.

For gods aren’t blind to men who kill.
In time, black agents of revenge,
the Furies, wear down and bring to nothing
the fortunes of a man who prospers
in unjust ways.

The chorus of elders, however, quickly backtracks from this boldness and begins to question whether Clytemnestra’s message is even real. They now describe her as a woman and “far too trusting.” When the elders see a herald coming they say they’ll soon find out the truth, but hint at a deeper truth they’re unwilling to speak of, “and we can then rejoice still more, or else . . . but I won’t think of that.” The herald confirms that Troy has fallen, then Clytemnestra enters and gives a dissembling speech proclaiming how faithful she’s been while Agamemnon was away. After she exits the herald tells the elders about Menelaus’s trouble getting home and then he leaves as well. Alone on the stage the chorus excoriates both Helen and Paris, they allude to the curse of violence and death Agamemnon inherited from his father and this sets the stage for Agamemnon’s entrance with Cassandra.

Since Agamemnon killed his daughter to ensure he’d have the opportunity to obtain wealth and glory in the Trojan War, the wording of the elder’s welcoming ode to him seems particularly ironic:

For many men value appearances
more than reality—thus they violate
what’s right.

Agamemnon gives thanks to the gods for his victory and his return then informs the elders he’ll set up an assembly to “root out all infectious evil” in the city. Clytemnestra enters and gives a clearly duplicitous speech honoring her husband, chillingly referring to him as “his father’s truly begotten son.” She then tells the women of her household to spread out valuable tapestries for Agamemnon to walk on. She closes with lines that, as with so much she’s said in the play, have an obvious double meaning for the audience:

Let his path be covered all in red, so Justice
can lead him back into his home, a place
he never hoped to see. As for the rest,
my unsleeping vigilance will sort it out,
with the help of gods, as fate decrees.

Agamemnon and Clytemnestra enter their palace, leaving the chorus of elders alone with Cassandra. The elders express their unease and foreboding, then Clytemnestra returns and tries to persuade Cassandra to enter the palace with her. Cassandra remains mute and unmoving so Clytemnestra exits to the palace once again. The Argive elders now have a long exchange with Cassandra. When she obliquely prophesies Agamemnon’s death and her own the elders are very sympathetic toward her, but when she tells them directly what is happening they refuse to believe her. Although the audience is aware of what’s going to happen, Aeschylus maintains tension in Agamemnon by the character’s repeated refusal – or in Cassandra’s case, inability – to speak plainly about what’s going on. When Cassandra exits to the palace, the Argive elders turn their attention to Agamemnon:

Take Agamemnon…if he must pay the penalty
for blood which other men before him shed
and die in retribution for the dead
he killed himself, what mortal human being
who hears all this can boast he lives
a life unscarred by fate?

Even though they seemingly understand what’s happening the chorus becomes panicked and confused when they hear Agamemnon crying for help. They decide not to take any action until they know for certain what’s going on inside the palace. Just then the palace doors open and reveal Clytemnestra standing over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. She gives a powerful speech to the elders, closing with:

He filled the mixing bowls in his own house
with such destructive misery, and now
he drinks it to the dregs. He’s home at last.

The Argive elders are aghast at what she’s done and wonder how she can gloat over her dead husband but Clytemnestra is unrepentant and informs them, “You’re testing me, as if I were some silly woman. But my heart is fearless.” The elders and Clytemnestra now have a back and forth exchange, she continually justifies her actions until Aegisthus enters accompanied by armed retainers. The chorus is insulting and contemptuous of him, referring to him as a “womanly creature” not brave enough to kill Agamemnon himself. Aegisthus is ready to have his retainers attack the chorus of elders but Clytemnestra intervenes to diffuse the tense situation. The play ends with the two of them returning to the palace and leaving the armed guards and the Argive elders facing each other outside.

After Aeschylus’s subtle meditations on the nature of revenge and fate, the intricately used motifs of refusal to say/refusal to hear, and the compelling character of Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, the falling-off that occurs in The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides is a disappointment, to say the least. To save you the trouble I’ve rewritten them here and, for brevity’s sake, maintained all the important plot points and characterization while omitting needless dialogue.


Didn’t we know someone named Iphigenia once?


Iphigenia who?


I love my daddy!


I love my daddy!


Patriarchy, patriarchy, yay!

Classics Reading List

18 Feb

Aeschylus – Oresteia

Sophocles – Oedipus the King, Antigone

Euripides – The Bacchae, Electra, Orestes

Virgil – The Aeneid

Ovid – Metamorphoses

Marcus Aurelias – Meditations


Marie de France – Lais

Njal’s Saga

Dante – The Inferno

Giovanni Boccaccio – The Decameron

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales


Machiavelli – The Prince

Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote

Thomas Kyd – The Spanish Tragedy

Edmund Spenser – The Faeire Queene

Christopher Marlowe – The Jew of Malta

Shakespeare – King Lear, Hamlet, The Tempest

Francis Bacon – New Atlantis

Ben Jonson – The Alchemist

Hobbes – Leviathan

Descartes – Discourse on Method

Milton – Paradise Lost

Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress

Defoe – Robinson Crusoe

Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

Rousseau – The Discourse on Inequality

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Honore de Balzac – Pere Girot

Mary Shelly – Frankenstein

Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Mill – On Liberty

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss

Dostoevsky – Notes from the Underground

Herman Melville – Benito Cereno

Ibsen – A Doll’s House

Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil

Oscar Wilde – The Importance of Being Earnest

Freud – Civilization and Its Discontents

George Bernard Shaw – Major Barbara

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness

Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Kafka – Metamorphosis

James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night

Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August

Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon

Nabokov – Lolita

T. S. Eliot – The Waste Land

Thomas Merton – Seven Storey Mountain

Carson McCullers – Reflections in a Golden Eye

William Golding – Lord of the Flies

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five

Reading Completion Goal/Date: 18 February, 2016