All entries for Tuesday 26 October 2004

October 26, 2004

Summary – 'Oedipus The King' by Sophocles

Not rated

Oedipus The King

Plague in Thebes. Oedipus believes that the plague is a result of the gods’ displeasure at the murder of Laius, the previous king. Oedipus vows that he will stop at nothing to find Laius’ killer, and he asks the seer Teiresias to help him. Tieresias speaks in riddles and tells Oedipus that he is the cause of the plague and the killer of Laius, and forecasts great suffering for Oedipus. Oedipus rages at Teiresias, and when Creon suggests that Teiresias might have been worth listening to, Oedipus becomes even more angry, accusing Creon of trying to usurp him. The Chorus, too, tells Oedipus to be cautious.

In a conversation with his wife Jocasta, Oedipus asks questions about Laius, and with her answers, he begins to realise the truth. Horrified, he tells Jocasta that as a young man, the Oracle at Delphi had prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. A messenger arrives from Corinth to say that Polybus, Oedipus’ father, has died of natural causes. Oedipus feels better because he has not fulfilled the prophesy as his father has died of natural causes. However, the messenger tells him that Polybus was not in fact his natural father, but that he was found in the forest as a baby. The messenger says that the baby was given to him by a servant of Laius, and this servant is summoned to the royal palace.

The shepherd arrives and is reluctant to tell Oedipus the truth. When threatened, he says that the child was given to him by Laius and Jocasta, because they too knew of the prophecy, and told to kill it. The shepherd did not kill the baby but instead gave him to the messenger. The baby is identified as Oedipus by a scar.

Jocasta immediately commits suicide. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes. Creon brings Antigone and Ismene to Oedipus to comfort him. Oedipus cedes the throne to Creon and asks to be banished from Thebes.

Summary – 'The Trojan Women' by Euripides

Not rated

The Trojan Women

Play begins with Poseidon lamenting the death of his city, telling us that all the heroes of Troy are dead and now all that remains is for the Greeks to share out the women as spoils of war. Athene appears, telling Poseidon that she is angry with the Greeks for defiling her temple during the sacking of Troy, and the two gods make a pact to cause the Greeks sorrow on their voyages home.

Next we see Hecuba, widow of Priam, sitting in Agamemnon’s tent lamenting her fate. The Chorus are all women in the same situation, unknowing of where they are to be sent. Then the Greek herald, Talthybius, arrives and tells the women that they are all to be sent to different places – he tells Hecuba that Cassandra is to leave as Agamemnon’s concubine, but does not tell her the truth about the sacrifice of her other daughter, Polyxena, instead saying that she is an attendant at Achilles’ tomb. He tells Hecuba that she has been assigned to Odysseus. Cassandra is brought in, and she tells Hecuba not to mourn for her as she is going to bring doom upon the house of Atreus, and make sure that Agamemnon is killed.

Andromache, Hector’s widow, is next to arrive, with her infant son Astyanax. She tells Hecuba the truth about Polyxena’s death. Talthybius comes in and tells Andromache that Odysseus has decided to kill Astyanax, as the son of a great man such as Hector is too dangerous – he must be thrown off a cliff.

Menelaus then arrives, explaining that it was not for love of Helen that he started the war, but for a desire for revenge upon Paris. He expresses his desire to kill Helen, and Hecuba praises him. When Helen is brought in, she pleads with Menelaus to let her explain herself – Hecuba tells Menelaus to listen, but then she (Hecuba) will provide a rebuttal. Helen tells Menelaus that Aphrodite is to blame, not her, and that she tried to join the Greek army again when Paris was killed, but was prevented from doing so by the Trojans – she asks for pity and comfort, not revenge. Hecuba then takes her turn, saying that Helen loved Paris, and she switched sides during the war whenever one seemed to be on top. Menelaus agrees with Hecuba, and sends Helen back to Sparta on a different ship from his own, to face justice there.

Talthybius arrives with the body of Astyanax, explaining that Andromache has already been taken off by Neoptolemus, and so it is now Hecuba’s responsibility to bury the child. After she has lamented over the child and performed a few simple rites, the order is given for Troy to be burned and for Hecuba to be taken to Odysseus. Hecuba attempts to run into the fire but is prevented by Odysseus’ soldiers, and so Hecuba and the women of the Chorus get onto the ship away from the burning city.

Summary – 'Helen' by Euripides

Not rated


Play begins with Helen in Egypt, explaining that it was not her who Paris took off to Troy, but a replica made out of ether by Aphrodite – the real Helen was taken to Egypt by Hermes and given to King Proteus, a virtuous man. Helen explains that as long as Proteus lived she was safe, but now that he is dead, the new king (his son) Theoclymenus wants to marry her. Teucer, a Greek shipwrecked from Troy, enters, recognising Helen and, believing her story, tells her that he thinks Menelaus is dead. Helen, stricken with grief, determines to go to the prophetess Theonoe (Theoclymenus’ sister) to ask about her husband, vowing to kill herself if Teucer’s fears prove to be true.

Meanwhile, a ruined Menelaus lands in Egypt and goes to the house of an old woman to beg for food. The women tells him that, as a Greek, he will be killed if found by the king, and also tells him that Helen of Troy is on the island. Menelaus is confused, but assumes it to be a different Helen. Helen re-enters, cheered by Theonoe’s news that Menelaus is alive, and then she sees her husband. Menelaus at first does not believe her story, but a messenger arrives and tells Menelaus that ‘Helen’ has disappeared into thin air, and so Menelaus embraces his wife. Helen explains to Menelaus that if they are found by Theoclymenus they will be killed, and, as Theonoe already knows that he is on the island, their only chance is to beg her not to tell her brother. Theonoe enters and, moved by their speeches, tells them that she will keep quiet. Helen hatches a plan to tell Theoclymenus that Menelaus has been shipwrecked and that she needs a boat from him to give funeral offerings to the sea, as is the Greek custom. Theoclymenus, seeing that Helen will have to marry him afterwards, agrees, and, thinking Menelaus is a slave who survived the shipwreck, allows him to accompany her.

After the ship has set sail, a messenger tells Theoclymenus that Menelaus and Helen have escaped thanks to Menelaus’ crew overpowering his Egyptians. Theoclymenus, realising that Theonoe has lied to him, vows to kill his sister, but he is prevented from doing so by the Dioscori (the deified Castor and Polydeuces), who explain that Theonoe was just performing the will of Hera. Theoclymenus accepts that Fate took Helen away from him just as Fate had brought her to him.

Summary – 'Orestes' by Euripides

Not rated


Play begins with Electra telling us of Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra, his subsequent descent into madness and the fact that today is the day that the people of Argos vote on whether or not Orestes and Electra should be stoned to death. She also tells us that Helen has arrived in Argos and is hidden in the palace with her daughter Hermione, and Menelaus is on his way. Helen then asks Electra to go and place an offering upon Clytemnestra’s grave, but Electra refuses and so Hermione is sent. Orestes has a fit of madness but is nursed by Electra. Menelaus enters and has a long conversation with Orestes (interrupted by Tyndareos, Clytemnestra’s father, who expresses his disgust for Orestes), who begs Menelaus to repay his debt to Agamemnon by helping him fight his way out of his predicament. Menelaus refuses to use violence, saying instead that he will try to reason with Aegisthus’ friends who have seized power and are trying to sway the vote. As he leaves, Orestes calls him a coward. Pylades then enters, who vows to share whatever fate is handed to Orestes, and the two of them decide to go to the vote to try and put across their side of the story.

A messenger then comes to Electra to tell her that they have been found guilty and are to be executed. Orestes and Electra decide to kill themselves rather than be killed, buy Pylades has a plan. He reasons that if they kill the unpopular Helen, their crimes will be forgotten, and revenge will also have been taken on the traitor Menelaus. They will take Hermione hostage and threaten to kill her if Menelaus tries to avenge his wife. Electra keeps a look-out, and we hear Helen’s screams from inside – Hermione comes back from Clytemnestra’s grave, and Orestes captures her. A Phrygian slave runs out of the palace, chased by Orestes – Orestes captures him and threatens to kill him, but spares his life. When Menelaus enters, Orestes tells him that when he had tried to kill Helen, she disappeared. Orestes tells Menelaus to make them change the verdict otherwise he will kill Hermione. Menelaus refuses and calls the citizens to arms against Orestes. The god Apollo then appears – he tells Menelaus to be quiet and that Helen has been deified by Zeus, so he must find another wife. He exiles Orestes from Argos for one year, after which he must stand trial for the murder of his mother and be absolved. He tells Electra to marry Pylades, and predicts many years of happiness for them. Finally, he instructs Menelaus to return to Sparta and abandon any designs he has upon the Argive throne. Menelaus and Orestes, in obedience to Apollo, call a truce.

Summary – 'Antigone' by Sophocles

Not rated


In recent civil war, Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus and Jocasta, kill each other on opposing sides. Eteocles is given a hero’s burial, but since Polynices was attacking Thebes, Creon, their uncle and the King, decrees that his body is not to be touched and left to rot without burial. Antigone, their sister and Creon’s niece, vows to bury the body of her brother against Creon’s wishes, and asks her sister Ismene to help her – Ismene refuses through fear of the king.

A sentry tells Creon that Antigone has buried Polynices, and Creon summons Antigone to explain herself. Antigone is defiant and refuses to apologise for her actions, embracing the death penalty instead. Ismene also takes responsibility for Antigone’s actions, and tells Creon that she too is willing to die, but Antigone tells Creon that Ismene is innocent. Creon’s son, Haemon, who is betrothed to Antigone, tries to reason with his father, but he only makes Creon more angry. Teiresias then attempts to tell Creon that his actions will lead to his ultimate ruin, but Creon accuses him of trying to usurp him.

Eventually, Teiresias convinces Creon to lift Antigone’s death sentence, but it is too late. Antigone has already been executed, and Haemon has committed suicide. Eurydice, the queen, then kills herself because of Haemon. Creon realises what he has done, and stricken with guilt, abdicates a broken man.

Summary – 'The Oresteia' by Aeschylus

Not rated

The Oresteia

1. Agamemnon
Agamemnon returns from Troy. Clytemnestra, his wife, pretends to welcome him home, but, angry at his sacrifice of their daughter Iphegenia, as well as the fact that he has brought Cassandra back with him as his slave, she kills him with her lover Aegisthus, and they take the throne.

2. Choephori (The Libation Bearers)
Orestes and Pylades mourning at the grave of Agamemnon. They vow with Electra to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Orestes and Pylades, disguised as Phocians, request an audience with Clytemnestra. Orestes kills Aegisthus first, then his mother. The Furies pursue Orestes.

3. Eumenides
Apollo tells Orestes to flee the Furies, and acknowledges that it was he who made Orestes kill his mother. The Ghost of Clytemnestra pleads with the Furies to continue to go after Orestes. The Furies argue with Apollo over whether or not Orestes was right to kill his mother. Athena joins the debate, and it goes to trial at the Acropolis. After much debate, the vote is split 50/50, and Athena comes down on the side of Orestes, ensuring his pardon, then pacifies the remaining angry Furies, transforming them into Eumenides (Kind Ones).

Ghosts In The Machine (if by Machine you mean Seneca and Shakespeare)

Ok well just finished meeting with Hugh today – once again, the discussion about my dissertation topic left me wanting to go in a different direction with it, but for the first time I feel like there might be a topic within the genre of Greek/Roman/Renaissance revenge tragedy that I could talk about in depth – that is, the use of ghosts.

I noticed when reading three different Seneca plays, Thyestes, Agamemnon and Octavia that all three feature a ghost bent on revenge who speaks in the exact same way each time - he mentions the Classical vision of Hell (usually namechecking Ixion on his wheel and Sisyphus and that bloody rock), and how he has been wrenched from Hell only to face a world which is equally hellish. Then I considered Hamlet, and his father's ghost, who says 'I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul...' - there are clear parellels here. As far as the Greek is concerned, there are fewer examples of ghosts appearing on stage (the only ones really are in Euripides Hecuba and Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Eumenides), but the idea of the spirit of a dead relative/loved one holding sway over the living characters is one that is more common – in Sophocles, Antigone is willing to die to preserve her brother's memory, and in the final Oedipus play, the site of the great hero's burial is considered sacred and protecting because of the powers of his spirit.

This week's task, then, is probably to read up as much as I can on ghosts, the spirit and the power of death in tragedy – should be a barrel of laughs eh.

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