I love ancient Greek drama! Perhaps partially for the fact that it is so old.
It astounds me that these plays even survive, written mostly in the 400s, BCE. The lifespan of the four playwrights spans over a century—525-456 BCE for
Aeschylus; 496-406 BCE, Sophocles; 480-406 BCE, Euripides; and 445-385 BCE for the comedian of the group, Aristophanes. The Greek civilization loved their
theater, and there were numerous other playwrights at the time, but it is only these four whose works and names have survived over two thousand years! And
even then, only a tiny fragment of their output is still available for us to continue to enjoy. Thanks, guys! You have enriched us greatly.
A complete listing, as far as what we are presently aware is extant, is listed here on Wikipedia, and that includes many playwrights whose works are no longer available. I am also pleased that this book is still available! This, the First Series, was originally printed in 1949. Robinson published the Second Series in 1954. I have previously reviewed plays by all but Euripides, and since Project Gutenberg has all or most of their works as free eBooks, they will all eventually be making their way onto these pages. I have created a multi-author index page for these four great authors, so you can keep up with what I have published.
In addition, both books contain an Introduction with information about the plays and playwrights. This First Series also has an informative "Note on the Production of Plays," with an illustration of a Greek theater and the format of plays, which includes the actors and their roles, who interacted with the chorus, which represented the people, making the audience feel that they were part of the play. In the time of Aeschylus, plays were just evolving. He came up with the novel idea of adding a second actor, instead of just one. In Euripides' time, the chorus in its role as actor, diminished. Euripides was "disliked for his advanced views," but after his death ended up the most popular of the three tragic playwrights. Since there are so many plays to discuss here, I will not say more about the playwrights. You can check out the Index Page above for further information, and I hope you do. It is all so interesting.
One other point I want to make about the plays: they were performed mostly as part of two festivals: March-April, in celebration of spring and Dionysus; and the other of the Wine-Press, or Lenaea in January-February. They included serious competitions. Five comic poets were chosen, whose plays were presented on the third day of the festival and the last three days were given to three tragic poets, who typically produced a trilogy often ending with a satyr play. The only surviving trilogy is the Oresteia of Aeschylus. Agamemnon is in this book, and the other two are in the Second Series. While Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Antigone are related, they are actually from two different trilogies. The Trojan Wars and the troubles at Thebes seemed to be two favorite subjects amongst these writers. In addition, they also drew on historical/mythical stories, in which the gods always played a role. I am glad that I read Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes previous to reading these plays, because I had a much more informed understanding of what was going on. And typical of Greek mythology, where people and gods suffered greatly for their wrong-doing, poor judgment or pissing off the wrong god or person, these tragedies were really TRAGIC, often resulting in, or the result of, someone cursing someone or being cursed, which ruined the lives of numerous generations afterward. Obviously this was the belief system for the people of the time. What a terrible way to live your life, and yet, in many ways we still do. Anyways, let us get on with the plays, beginning with Aeschylus.
This is the first play of the Oresteia. Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, anxiously awaits the return of her husband, King of Argos, from Troy. Paris has lured Helen, the wife of Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus to return with him to Troy, and a big, long, miserable war ensued. Finally, across the waters and lands, a system of flares is passed along, so that Clytemnestra knows her husband has won and is returning home after all these years. Though claiming fidelity, Aegisthus, cousin of Agamemnon is her lover. Feigning joy at his return, she turns around and murders him very soon after, for a few reasons: first, that he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to curry favor with the gods for a fair wind to sail to Troy; and second because he has brought back Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, as his concubine; and third, because she is in love with Aegisthus. Although this play does not emphasize that, Electra, by Sophocles, does. Electra is the other daughter, and when the son, Orestes returns home, the two murder their mother and her lover. Euripides also wrote an Electra, but as of this writing, I have not read that one yet.
The mythological background on this curse begins a generation before these people: Thyestes, father of Aegisthus, had seduced the wife of Atreus, father of Agamemnon. In response, Atreus kills Thyestes' other two children and serves them to Thyestes at a banquet. Though Orestes feels he must avenge his father's murder, still he suffers for it. But through his suffering, he is expiated from the crime, thus ending the curse. That, however, happens in the other two plays of the trilogy, which are found in the Second Series of this anthology. Now we continue with Sophocles.
Oedipus the King
This is a seriously catastrophic tragedy, whose innocent victims are attempting to keep a prophesy from being fulfilled. King Laius and his wife Jocasta of Thebes, have learned from a prophesy that their infant son will eventually murder his father and marry his mother. So they plan to kill him, sending him out into the wilderness with a servant to do the job. But he doesn't. Instead, he passes the child on, where he eventually reaches a childless couple who adopts him. That is King Polybus, of Corinth. He grows to become a strong and ethical man.
Eventually he unknowingly makes his way back to his birthplace, Thebes, and solves the riddle of the Sphinx, thus rescuing the people who crown him king, since Laius has been murdered. He marries the queen, Jocasta and they live together in happiness, not knowing their terrible history. But now, calamity has struck the land and the crops, livestock and people are dying. A priest of Zeus approaches King Oedipus and seeks help. And the help must come in the form of finding and punishing the murderer of King Laius. Oedipus promises to avenge this heinous crime.
But as bits of information trickle in, especially from the blind prophet Teiresias, Oedipus slowly awakens to the truth. At first he threatens the prophet for telling such lies and blames Jocasta's brother Creon for attempting to undermine him. A messenger arrives informing him that the man he thought was his father has died of natural causes. Oedipus is relieved but not for long, as more witnesses, especially the herdsman who served Laius tells his story. The man he thought was his father, was not.
At last Oedipus must face the horror of the truth. The oracle did not lie. He, in fact, unknowingly was the murderer of his real father, Laius, whom he met and quarreled with along the road. He married his own mother and had children with her.
Though she knows sooner than he, the truth of who he is, and begs him to let it go (before he finds out the truth), she can see the direction it is all going. She goes into her room and commits suicide. Oedipus, upon finding this out, dashes into his mother's room and gouges out his eyes with her brooch.
When the ancient Greeks said tragedy, they meant it.
This play, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus make up what is known as the Theban Plays, or Oedipus Cycle, although they were not actually written as a trilogy. Oedipus at Colonus appears in the Second Series of this anthology.
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. This play was written before Oedipus the King, but actually takes place later in history. Her father has left the kingdom and her uncle Creon, brother of her mother is now king. He is a cruel and harsh leader. It takes place after the victory of Thebes from the attack by an Argive army led by Polynices. He is the son of Oedipus and brother of Antigone. In this battle he was pitted against his brother, Eteocles, who fights for Thebes. Aeschylus wrote about this battle in his The Seven Against Thebes. He also wrote two other plays as part of this trilogy, plus a satyr play (a bawdy tragicomedy that concluded the trilogies), but none of these survive. Perhaps we will discover them hidden somewhere at some point.
The cruel Creon has commanded that Eteocles shall have a proper burial, but the body of his traitor brother, Polynices will remain in the open to rot and be picked by animals, a decision repulsive to the gods. He warns all of Thebes that anyone who attempts to bury the body will be killed.
Though the people of the land shudder at this ruling, it is Antigone, who decides she must do what is right in the eyes of the gods, knowing her punishment. And so she does. Creon's son, Haemon, calmly attempts to persuade his father that his decision, both to not bury Polynices and to kill Antigone for doing so, will be his undoing in the kingdom. He is also engaged to Antigone.
But Creon ignores the warnings by all, including the prophet Teiresias, who is always right. He seals Antigone in a tomb and when Creon is finally convinced that he has done wrong, she has already killed herself, and so has Haemon and his mother.
Of the three tragic writers, Sophocles is the one whom, in my opinion, created the most emotionally grueling plays, yet of the tragedies, I liked his best.
Euripides' contributions to this anthology are both drawn from myths where the gods play a larger role. This one is from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts.
Euripides was not that popular in his time, and this play placed third in the competition of three. Now it is considered one of the great works of the period and of course, Euripides is now recognized for his creative genius and innovations.
In the play, Medea is in a state of wrath and emotional turmoil. She, the former princess of the "barbarian" kingdom of Colchis has betrayed her own people and even committed murder for the love of Jason. Now, here she is alone with her two sons, as she learns Jason is dumping her to marry the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth where they now reside.
Ok, so I would be angered, too, and if I was married to a sorceress, I would think twice before messing with her. Jason does not "get it," and tries to convince Medea that this was a political move to assure security for them all.
But Creon has banished Medea from Corinth for her threats against them. She has nowhere to go, but, as she settles down and plots, she realizes she has the gods to help her, being herself the granddaughter of Helios, the Sun God. She calls for Jason to visit her, and, pretending calmness and acceptance, she offers a golden dress and coronet to give to Jason's bride.
He believes her, but it is laced with poison, and she falls dead as she clothes herself. Her father, running to her aid, is also struck dead. Meanwhile, Medea has also murdered her two sons, so that Jason will have no one. She escapes with the bodies of her sons in the chariot of her grandfather, Helios.
This ending and Medea's deliberate murder of her sons was strictly an invention of Euripides. There are multiple variations of the Medea story in myth, but this is not one of them.
This is another play based on a myth where the gods play a more important role, even more so than the one above. It is the second of two plays with the same title by Euripides. The first one was not accepted by the public, but this one was, and won first place in 428 BCE at the Dionysia festival in Athens.
Hippolytus is the illegitimate son of Theseus, King of Athens and Troezen and the Amazon Queen Hippolyta. (Wikipedia says that he raped her.) He is pure and swears chastity. He worships the chaste goddess of the hunt, Artemis, and has refused to honor the goddess of love Aphrodite. This has angered her and she plots revenge, and a cruel revenge, too. She causes Phaedra, faithful wife of Theseus, to fall passionately in love with Hippolytus. Phaedra, however, will speak of it to no one, even her trusted nurse, while she pines away, starving herself and close to death. Finally, her nurse, pries it out of her, but rather than keeping quiet, she, in her desperation to save her lady's life, goes to Hippolytus. He is angered and appalled, since he has no interest in love or women, save Artemis.
Now, Phaedra is in a full state of shame, and not only that but she worries for the fate and position of her children. And so, she kills herself, but not before scrawling on a tablet that Hippolytus has raped her.
Theseus, who has been away, comes home to find that his beloved wife has just died. He reads the tablet, and determines to banish his son. Hippolytus has sworn to not speak of the secret he learned from the nurse. Of course, he has no idea Phaedra is dead, and even less idea that she has blamed him for rape. His father will not listen and asks the help of his father, Poseidon, the god of the sea. So, as Hippolytus races away in his chariot, Poseidon sends a bull from the sea to upset his trusted horses, who upset the chariot, mauling him nearly to death. It is then that Artemis appears to Theseus, condemning him for his cruel treatment of his innocent son. Hippolytus lives long enough to be carried back to his father's house, where his father asks forgiveness and Hippolytus dies.
Another real tragedy.
Whew! After all that tragedy we need some comic relief and we always find it with Aristophanes. He was a really funny guy, and found ways to ridicule local politicians. We would have loved him here and now, but we still love him from back then. Some things never change.
So, let's be totally honest, here. This play is about penises. Yes. And while the theme is that the women of Athens are sick and tired of their men leaving them to go off to war, the play still focuses on penises. And the women decide to reject them, withholding sex until the men agree to stop fighting.
This was actually the third time I read this play, and it just gets funnier every time around. The first time was a Dover edition, and the translation was not as blunt, shall we say? I had forgotten that I read another translation right afterwards and "got" a lot more of the jokes. This translation, however, is very clear, written in sexual slang that any English-speaking adult would understand. And with this one, I laughed out loud. Here is a bit of dialogue from the beginning, as Lysistrata has called together women from all over to unify and deprive.
Calonice: My dear Lysistrata, just what is this matter you've summoned us women to consider. What's up? Something big?
Lysistrata: Very big.
Calonice (interested): Is it stout, too?
Lysistrata (smiling): Yes indeed—both big and stout.
Calonice: What? And the women still haven't come?
OK, so you get the picture. Naughty humor, through and through. And I read somewhere that the original play used rather large props, as the men come crawling back to the women in obvious physical distress. It must have been hysterical to the Greek audience! Of course, even funnier would have been the fact that the sexy wives were all played by men. You may read more about the play in my review linked above.
So there you have it—the plays from this First Series. There are even more in
the Second, and I highly recommend these two anthologies to get you started, then you can read the complete remaining works of these masters at Project
Gutenberg. I also want to mention that the plays have been translated by many different people in these two anthologies, so you get to experience a number of
Below: Frederick Sandys: Medea (1866-68)
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