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    Here is the Second Series of this really fine anthology. We are treated to nine plays rather than the six of the First Series, again by the four ancient Greek playwrights whose works, though a small fraction of their writings, still remain. Since I supplied quite a bit of background information on the Anthology, plus a bit on ancient Greek theatre and the playwrights in the First Series, I will skip that here. You can check it out with the link above, plus I have created an Index Page for these four masters, which provides even more information, and also reviews of their plays as I get them read and written. It is my goal to read their complete works, which all together is not that many—around 43, I believe, and I also believe Project Gutenberg has all or most available as free eBooks. I have them all downloaded for my reader already. And last, I will again link the very comprehensive listing of all ancient Greek playwrights/poets and their works from Wikipedia, to the extent of our knowledge at this point. One always hopes that more lost works will show up eventually.
    And so, since there are nine plays to review in this Series and I want to mention them all, the rest of this review will spent on that endeavor.
    We begin with Aeschylus, the earliest of the four, sometimes called the "father of tragedy." This series provides three of his plays. Though his works are certainly tragic, we do not feel that pouring out of emotion that we do with the tragedies of Sophocles. Aeschylus seemed to be concerned with the ethical decisions his characters are forced to make. Once they make their decision, they follow through with appropriate action, then deal with the consequences. Perhaps a better way to describe my perceptions is that his characters do not seem imbued with human passion, while Sophocles' characters are defined by it.

Prometheus Bound
    There is still a debate on whether Aeschylus wrote this play, or perhaps his son Euphorion was the author. But for now, it is attributed to Aeschylus.
    It is based on the myth of Prometheus, who was a friend and supporter of humankind. Here, he suffers the wrath of Zeus, who has him chained to a remote rock for an eternity of suffering because he gave fire to humans, a race that Zeus planned to destroy. Wikipedia remarks that Zeus, who had just assumed control of the universe from the Titans "is ruling like a petty tyrant." The article makes the point that the Athenians had expelled the tyrant Hippias in 510 BCE, which is perhaps why Aeschylus has portrayed Zeus in this manner. It also states that Zeus is "usually depicted in Aeschylean tragedy as 'the defender of justice.'"
    Aeschylus veers from Hesiod's version of this story in his Theogony. Here, we find Prometheus surrounded by sympathizers. Hephaestus has been ordered to bind his kinsman Prometheus to the rack, and he does it with sorrow. After they leave, Prometheus is visited by the ocean nymphs and Oceanus, all sympathetic to Prometheus' plight. However, he assures them that in time, he will be set free, because he knows something Zeus needs to know—that a son will be born to someone who will usurp Zeus's power. And it is this prophetic knowledge that will eventually compel Zeus to make amends.
    Another character who, I believe, does not appear with Prometheus in Theogony, but does in Aeschylus is Io, another victim of Zeus's cruelty (and his wife, Hera's, since Io is one of Zeus's lovers). She has been turned into a cow and is tortured by a gadfly. Prometheus gives her directions on what she must do. Pandora, however, who does appear with Prometheus in Theogony, is not part of Aeschylus' play.
    In the end, Prometheus is visited by Hermes, sent by Zeus to extract the needed information, which Prometheus refuses. The play ends as he is swallowed up by the earth.
    All through the play, though he suffers greatly, Prometheus remains strong, willful, and self-righteous, angering Zeus and Hermes even more. However, this play was first of a trilogy entitled the Prometheia. In the second play, Prometheus Unbound, Heracles frees Prometheus and kills the eagle that constantly eats his regenerating liver. In the third play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, he finally tells Zeus who he must not sleep with, because she will bear the child that will overthrow him. Neither of these two plays survive, to our dismay.

    The next two plays are the second and third parts of the Oresteia Trilogy. In the First Series of this anthology, Clytemnestra (in cahoots with her lover, Aegisthus) murders her husband Agamemnon right after his return from the Trojan War. Again, she makes the decision and does the act, with little hesitation or remorse.

    This one is more commonly known as The Libation Bearers. Here, Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, returns to take vengeance on his mother and uncle, her lover. He had been sent away, either by his sister, Electra, or his nurse, because his mother planned to kill him, and this differs depending on the playwright or poet telling the story. We really don't know why he is away in this version, but he returns. As he visits the tomb of his father, along with his friend Pylades, they hear the approach of the women, led by Electra, who has been ordered by her mother to pour libations on the tomb because of a nightmare she had of giving birth to a snake, who drew blood from her breast. Orestes leaves a lock of hair on the tomb and his sister sees it. He eventually presents himself, and much of the play is spent at the tomb in prayers to their deceased father and the gods. But Orestes knows what he must do, no matter what the consequences: he must kill both his mother and Aegisthus for the murder of his father. This was commanded of him by Apollo at Delphi, on behalf of Zeus.
    The servants and Electra know, of course, and all hate the cruel king and queen and support Orestes taking revenge. He and Pylades enter the palace without their identity known. They say they have been sent to relay the news that Orestes is dead. Orestes meets with Aegisthus, without his guards, and kills him, then leads his mother to him, so she may be killed alongside him. She goes, knowing now that this visitor is her son, and he must kill her. She curses him and calls upon the Furies to torment him.

    In the third play of the trilogy, Orestes, pursued by the Furies, has gone to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Apollo helps Orestes to escape while they sleep, but the ghost of Clytemnestra awakens them and tells them to bring justice to her by punishing her son. They pursue and torment him relentlessly as he flees across the lands. But he has been cleansed through an offering to Apollo, and believes he is not guilty. After a year, he makes his way to the shrine of Athena at Athens and begs her help.
    She sets up a new way to determine guilt or innocence—that is, a courtroom. Apollo is a witness and takes responsibility for the murder, too, since he, acting for Zeus, commanded it. After the courtroom hears both sides, the judges vote. It is a tie, so Athena breaks that tie, with a vote of "not guilty." Orestes finally is able to return home to his kingdom at Argos, where the curse of three generations is now cleansed.
    The Furies threaten to bring death and destruction to Athens, but instead, Athena insists that they remain as welcome goddesses, where they will be worshipped and attended to, and for their part, they will assist with the building of a great and just city. She changes their name to the Eumenides, which means "kindly ones." They agree to remain as a constructive force, rather than seeking vengeance.
Below: William-Adolphe Bourguereau: Orestes Pursued by the Furies

William-Adolphe Bourguereau: Orestes Pursued by the Furies

    We now switch gears to Sophocles and his grueling dramas, filled with real human emotions and agony. Philoctetes was written late in Sophocles' life. It won first prize at the City Dionysia competition in 409 BCE. Sophocles died in 406 BCE.
    As I noted in the First Series, Thebes and Troy seemed to be hot subjects on which to write an ancient Greek drama, and this one is yet one more about the Trojan War. Philoctetes was the son of King Poeas, and on his way to Troy he was bitten by a snake. It became infected and smelled and was terribly painful. Because of that and his cries of pain, Odysseus abandoned him on the Island of Lemnos, where he had only his precious bow and arrows given to him by Heracles. Here he spent ten years in solitude, hunting for food and herbs which eased his pain, living on the edge of death.
    But to Odysseus' dismay, he learns that they cannot win the war against the Trojans without Philoctetes and his bow and arrows. So he and Neoptolemus sail back to Lemnos to fetch him back. Now, understandably, Philoctetes loathes Odysseus, so Odysseus sets up Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to trick him back onto the ship. Neoptolemus, an ethical man, has some issues with that but Odysseus is a bit of a bastard and convinces him to do as he is told. So while Odysseus and his ship are hidden, Neoptolemus approaches Philoctetes as friend and rescuer. He professes to hate Odysseus also.
    Philoctetes is still nursing his foot injury which tortures him with pain, and he is a bit of a whiner, too. But Neoptolemus assures him a ride back home. Philoctetes allows him to hold his precious bow when Odysseus shows up and demands he get on the ship. He is now in horror—betrayed by the only person in ten years who has given him hope. He refuses to go, but Odysseus also refuses to return his bow, and says they will leave without him. Now, he does not even have a means to hunt for food.
    But Neoptolemus cannot behave in this manner. He returns to Philoctetes and gives him back his bow. Of course, now Philoctetes is once again stranded on the island and still suffering in pain. But Heracles appears to him and tells him he must go to Troy. Because of him, they will win the war, and in addition, when they arrive Asclepius will be there to heal his foot. Because he trusts Heracles, he agrees to go.
    As I have mentioned before, Sophocles is my favorite of the tragedians. Unfortunately, the translation of this play was terrible and I found the lack of flow in the dialogue marred by reversing the normal order of words. OK, so maybe the Greek was written like that, but that's not the way English is spoken. For instance, "And they this evil done," or "Here of necessity I suffering learned." It occurs throughout and I found it annoying rather than poetic, but that's just my opinion.

Oedipus at Colonus
    Fortunately, this was done by a different translator and so I was back to enjoying the excellent drama of my favorite. This one was written shortly before Sophocles died in 406 BCE, and was produced posthumously in 401 BCE. It is one of the three "Theban Plays," the first two of which are in the First Series. Chronologically, it falls after Oedipus the King and before Antigone. It tells the story of what has become of Oedipus after that terrible day when he discovers the truth about who he is, when he gouges out his eyes with the brooch of his wife/mother, who has committed suicide, then he is banished from the kingdom, scorned by his sons and his wife's brother, Creon, who is actually his uncle. It was a pretty horrendous tragedy.
    But now he is old and at peace. His loving daughter, Antigone has born him as her burden, and they arrive, finally, to Athens, where Oedipus now is convinced he is meant to stay. He will worship the Furies, who, as you remember from Eumenides, above, have been given a place of honor as a token of peace by the goddess of Athens, Athena.
    And so we get to go back in time and find out what has happened, meanwhile, in Thebes. But first, here in Athens, the King, Theseus, knows of Oedipus and his innocent tragedy, and promises him loyalty and protection. Antigone's sister, Ismene joins them to tell them the bad news. Their brothers had been fighting, with Eteocles, the younger dethroning Polyneices. Oedipus wants nothing to do with either of them. Shortly after Ismene arrives, so does Creon, and Oedipus scorns him, too. He responds by having his guards seize the daughters and drive off with them. Theseus, true to his word, sends his men to free the maidens and return them to their father, which they do. Finally, Theseus advises Oedipus that a young man awaits to speak with him, and it is none other than Polyneices, banished and seeking his father's blessing and forgiveness, or so he pretends. He gets neither; in fact he gets a curse, which comes to pass, that is, the attack that Polyneices and his men are planning against Thebes will pit him against his brother and they will both die. You can read about that in Aeschylus' The Seven Against Thebes. Thus, knowing that his father's curse will come true, yet unable to be a coward, Polyneices begs his sister, Antigone, to give him a proper burial. And that you can read about in Antigone.
    After Polyneices leaves, and Oedipus is once again alone with his daughters a terrible storm blows up and Oedipus knows he is going to die. He calls for Theseus, then his daughters bathe him and prepare him for death, but he bids them leave, because only Theseus may know the place where he requests his burial, and in return, he will protect Athens. But when he dies, he disappears into nowhere in a "flash of wonder."
    Incidentally, Colonus was a wealthy suburb of Athens, the place of Sophocles' birth. He must have held it in high regard.

The Trojan Women
    I usually find Euripides a bit more difficult to digest, and I am not alone, However, I must say that, by far, this was my favorite tragedy in the whole Second Series. Perhaps, being a woman, I can relate to the abuse suffered by other women, which must have been much worse in those times. So far, in all the Trojan plays, we have heard it from the Greek perspective, but here, we get to see the horrors suffered by the Trojans, (as we do in Virgil's Aeneid. And all because of that two-timing slut, Helen, who is now loathed on both sides for all the misery she has caused.
    The main character in the play is Queen Hecuba, wife of King Priam, who is now dead, along with her son Hector. Most all that remain are women, and they are all slaves now including the old queen, who await their assignments. Cassandra, as we already know from Agamemnon, is taken back to Argos as his concubine, where she dies, and being a prophet, foretells it all. Hecuba is assigned to the hated Odysseus, and we really don't know her fate, but we do know that Athena, who sided with the Greeks and is on Poseidon's shit list, is now ready to punish the Greeks for defiling her altars in Troy. And so, Odysseus is destined to roam for an additional ten years while trying to find his way back home, which we can read about in Homer's poem, The Odyssey.
    Andromache has been chosen as a concubine to Neoptolemus, whom we read about in Philoctetes. Her baby boy, Astyanax, is killed by being thrown off a wall. Pretty horrible, huh? Hecuba's other daughter, Polyxena, has been killed as a sacrifice to Achilles, the father of Neoptolemus.
    This is really a grueling play to read, and yet, it is excellent. It won second prize in the City Dionysia festival in 415 BCE.

The Bacchae
    As a complete opposite reaction, I really did not like this play at all. It is filled with violence, drunkenness and revenge. And yet, it is one of only four plays that earned Euripides First Prize at the City Dionysia festival. Unfortunately, he was already dead, and the play was produced by his son or nephew.
    It takes place in Thebes (here we go again, Thebes and Troy, Thebes and Troy), but at an earlier time, when its founder, Cadmus, is still alive. His grandson, Pentheus, son of his daughter Agave, is king. The play begins as Dionysus plots revenge on the city for slandering him, not believing he is a god. But he is. Semele, the sister of Agave was the mistress of Zeus, and Dionysus is their son. But Hera, in her jealously, killed Semele while pregnant, and Zeus took the child and hid him in his thigh. Now Semele's whole family refuses to believe Dionysus is a god and to honor him properly. And so he brings his Bacchanals, women revelers, to Thebes and the orgy begins, drawing Agave and her other two sisters. Even old Cadmus and the blind prophet Teiresias, whom we have encountered in other plays about Thebes, don the ivy crown and other revelers garb and dance off.
    But it is Pentheus who behaves the worst to Dionysus, who is in disguise. He arrests him and his women. But he is a god, so the shackles slip off and they are free and the palace is suddenly on fire. Pentheus is still out to arrest the revelers, so Dionysus offers to help him spy on the women in a rite he has no business seeing. So Dionysus dresses Pentheus up like a women and sits him in a tree. But the women, especially Agave, see him, and in her drunken stupor and the crazed madness of the orgy, the women bring him down and literally rip him to pieces. Agave still does not recognize him as her son. It is not until she reaches the palace holding the head of the "beast" she has slaughtered, that the spell begins to wear off. Cadmus points out that it is not a beast, but the head of her son, the only male heir to Cadmus. And thus Dionysus has his revenge. A bit harsh.
    Wikipedia has a helpful article that offers more insight into this play, which I found difficult to interpret. but really, no one is sure what Euripides meant, and over the years, that has changed, too. And according to them, this is considered one of the best tragedies ever written. I dunno about that, but it is certainly tragic.

The Clouds
    Whew! And now for some much-needed comic relief, and Aristophanes is the man. As much as I love his sense of humor, of all these playwrights, his are the most difficult to understand. I had to read Lysistrata three times before I "got" all the dirty jokes, or most of them, at least—enough to keep me giggling throughout the whole play and for days afterwards. I was fortunate in that the translator for that play in the First Series of this anthology did an excellent job of providing familiar sexual slang that any English speaking adult would understand. Not so, this translator. In fact, there were so many words he used that made no sense that I could not even find in a dictionary. But I still found a lot that was funny, plus I did quite a bit of research, and I did understand the basic gist of the play—what he was mocking. The problem with Aristophanes is that he was a political humorist, and used the dirty jokes to embellish his mocking of contemporary public figures. Political humor doesn't travel well over two-and-a-half thousand years. With the tragedians, their subject matter is much more well known, (Thebes and Troy, Thebes and Troy), and stories from mythology that are familiar to most educated people, and even to children, thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the many others after him who have kept those tales current.
    Anyways, I will provide a synopsis of my interpretation of the play. Incidentally, Aristophanes was very proud of this one, and disappointed when he only won third place in the comedy competition for it at the City Dionysia festival in 423 BCE. The play that has been handed down to us, is a revision of the first, and also includes a bit of an interlude where the chorus of clouds drops their cloud costumes and chide the judges for giving this play such a low rating! After my synopsis, I will also provide a bit more on Socrates.
    And that is certainly a well-known figure whose name is familiar to most people, though they may not know why. He was a thinker of the time, but his thinking eventually got him into trouble, as in, he was executed for being a bad influence, and it is said that this play was partly responsible for his bad reputation and subsequent death. Did Aristophanes set out to have Socrates killed? Gosh, I would hope not, and I hope he felt a twinge of guilt, too.
    It begins as Strepsiades tries to sleep, but instead is wide awake worrying about his debts. These debts were incurred by his grown son and his obsession with horses. His son, Pheidippides, sleeps soundly in the bed next to him. Strepsiades decides to make his son attend the "thinking-house, where Socrates and his pupils abide. Pheidippides refuses so Strepsiades goes instead.
    He is greeted by a student who answers some questions about the school. But he is most interested in meeting Socrates, his purpose being that he wants to learn oratory so he can weasel out of what he owes his creditors in court. (Ha, like an attorney!) Eventually, he sees a man floating in a basket in the clouds, and finds it is Socrates himself, investigating celestial matters. When Socrates descends and asks him why he's come, Strepsiades answers:

Strepsiades: To learn to speak.
For owing to my horrid debts and duns,
My goods are seized, I'm robbed, and mobbed, and plundered.

Socrates: How did you get involved with your eyes open?

Strepsiades: A galloping consumption seized my money.
Come now: do let me learn the unjust Logic
That can shirk debts: now do just let me learn it.
Name your own price, by all the Gods I'll pay it.

    But Socrates doesn't take money for his service, (he really didn't). Socrates agrees to take him as a student. So he has him sit down on a bed, wear a wreath, then sprinkles him with flour. He then invokes The Clouds to appear. When they do, they literally scare the shit out of Strepsiades:

Socrates: O Goddesses mine, great Clouds and divine,
ye have heeded and answered my prayer.
Heard ye their sound, and the thunder around,
as it thrilled through the tremulous air?

Strepsiades: Yes, by Zeus, and I shake, and I'm all of a quake,
and I fear I must sound a reply,
Their thunders have made my soul so afraid,
and those terrible voices so nigh:
So if lawful or not, I must run to a pot,
by Zeus, if I stop I shall die.

    Incidentally, the rhyming "poetry" throughout is hilarious in itself.
    And so, unfortunately, Strepsiades proves to be a really poor student. He has a one-track mind and is only concerned with getting out of paying his debts. Socrates, in a last-ditch effort, has him lie on a bed under a blanket, in a sort of meditation, so his thoughts can arise naturally. Socrates advises him to "excogitate about your own affairs." But instead, Strepsiades only complains about the bedbugs:

Strepsiades: Friends! I'm dying. From the bed
Out creep bugbears scantily fed,
And my ribs they bite in twain,
And my life-blood out they suck,
And my manhood off they pluck,
And my loins they dig and drain,
And I'm dying, once again.

    Eventually Strepsiades is quiet, Socrates thinks he has fallen asleep, but actually he is playing with himself.

Socrates: Come, let me peep a moment what he's doing.
Hey! he's asleep!

Strepsiades: No, no! no fear of that!

Socrates: Caught anything?

Strepsiades: No, nothing.

Socrates: Surely, something.

Strepsiades: Well, I had something in my hand, I'll own.

    And so, between that, plus the fact that Strepsiades can't remember anything he has been taught and only thinks about his debts, Socrates throws him out of the school. The guy is a total ass.
    Now that Strepsiades has been expelled, he decides to throw his son out, or make him attend the school. Pheidippides decides to attend. There is then a choral interlude, with Right Logic arguing with Wrong Logic.
    Well, Pheidippides is certainly a better scholar than his father, and learns Wrong Logic thoroughly. He then promptly beats up his father, which, according to what he has learned, is perfectly acceptable behavior.
    And now back to Socrates. Of course, now he is remembered as an important person for the development of Western thought. Wikipedia calls him "one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher, of the Western ethical tradition of thought." But at the time he was perceived as a threat to the moral fabric of Athens, because he allowed thought to encompass all possibilities without judging them right or wrong. At least that's the way I understand it, and certainly the way Aristophanes presented it.
    Incidentally, here is quite a bit more about the play geared toward high school students from Shmoop. The part about Strepsiades masturbating is omitted, however, they do mention some of the other gross stuff, like when he farts out loud, which must have been a hoot to the Greek audience!

The Frogs
    Now this one, I got without having to do much research. There aren't many dirty jokes in it, but it is just plain slapstick and witty comedy, kinda like a Steve Martin movie, and at times even like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin! Unlike The Clouds, it was well-received by the judges, and won first prize in the City Dionysia festival in 405 BCE. It was one of the last plays written by Aristophanes.
    But, of course, it is also a political statement, that being the current state of Athens with the drawn-out Peloponnesian War, and Aristophanes' lament over the loss of good poets. And so, he sends the god Dionysus down to Hades, the Underworld, to fetch back one of the dead ones, Aeschylus having been dead for a while and Euripides recently passed. After the play was written, Sophocles died and Aristophanes did not want to rewrite it, so he only has a background mention. Of course, the City Dionysia, honoring the above god, was the main Athens festival for the presentation of these plays, and so Dionysus is the most suitable god to fetch back a poet.
    The play begins as Dionysus, who, remember, is the god of wine and orgies, a bit effeminate and not known for his brute power and courage wears the garb of his brother, Heracles (Hercules), who is a brute, but often a kindly one. In fact, in Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, he is portrayed as "all brawn, no brain." Dionysus walks and his slave, Xanthius, travels on the donkey carrying the luggage on a pole on his shoulder and constantly complains and finds ways to get back at his master. They reach the house of Heracles, who bursts out laughing as the costume Dionysus wears. He tells Heracles of his determination to get to Hades, and asks Heracles, who has been there, what is the quickest route. Heracles tells him, by hanging, poison, or jumping off a mountain. Dionysus opts for the longer route. So Heracles tells him what to look for.
    So, when they arrive, Dionysus pays the fare, and Charon ferries him across the lake, while Xanthius, being a slave, must walk around it. Dionysus has to help row, which he's not happy about, and doesn't even know how. Charon calls him a Potgut, and tells him what to do. Then the frog chorus begins: Brekekekex, koax, koax and drives Dionysus up a wall, then he begins to croak along with them.
    When they reach the other side of the lake, Xanthius joins them. Aeachus greets them, thinking, by the way Dionysus is clothed, he is Heracles, who wreaked havoc on his last visit, seizing Cerberus and eating way too much. He is ready to punish him. So when Aeachus leaves, Dionysus makes Xanthius change clothing with him. But then a pretty maid comes in and invites "Heracles" to a party. Of course, then Dionysus wants his clothing back. But she is followed by the keeper of the cook-shop and her partner, who remember all the food Heracles stole, so Dionysus quickly demands Xanthius trade clothes again and promises not to trade any more. What a wussy, that Dionysus.
    However, when Aeachus returns to flog "Heracles," Xanthius swears he has never been in Hades before, and to prove it, tells him to flog his slave. Well, Dionysus finally admits he is a god, and gods are not supposed to feel pain, so they both end up being flogged since the real god should not feel it, but the both do and pretend it doesn't hurt a bit, but it does and when they cry out, they claim it was that they were either singing or the smell of onions made their eyes water.
    Anyways, this scene reminded me of the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where Steve Martin and Michael Caine are both con artists who prey off rich women. Rather than compete, they hold a contest to see who can get $50,000 from one who they think is a wealthy American heiress, (but it turns out she's a con-artist, too). Anyways, Steve Martin is in a wheelchair pretending to be a veteran who is psychosomatically crippled and cannot feel anything in his legs. So Michael Caine does the most terribly painful things to him, but he pretends he still can't feel! Well, that is the sort of humor found in this play!
    And so, finally all is squared away, Aeachus knows Dionysus is the god he claims to be, and feels terrible that he beat up a god. Then they get down to business, that being, to decide which poet, Aeschylus or Euripides, will return to the upper world to fill the need in Athens for a good poet.
    Well, the two of them have been fighting like cats and dogs, because Aeschylus is angry that Euripides wants his place at the table with Pluto. I really should quote their arguments, because they had me laughing out loud! But instead, I will let you read this very funny and easy-to-understand play to find out who wins. I hope you enjoy all these wonderful ancient Greek plays, and grow to love them and immensely respect their authors, as I do.


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