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image I’m going to let you into a little secret, do you want to know what my real historic passion is?

Well, you’re wrong it has nothing to do with religion, well not in the modern sense of the word anyway, I do in fact find the Abrahamic religions boring. I have a fascination for the exciting world of Greek Mythology,  it is my official downtime. My true fascination within an historic setting is the following:-

  • Shakespeare’s Plays
  • Art History
  • Greek Tragedies

Not quite what you were expecting huh? Was a surprise to me too to be honest as when I decided on history as a subject at University I had a pre-conceived idea of which histories I wished to pursue.

Through my ‘O’ and ‘A’ level studies my focus had been on the ‘Industrial Revolution’ with all its inventions and dates! I still have a fondness for this age as the fastest movement from horse drawn carriage, on to the short lived prominence of  Canal barges and  finally the glorious Railway age. Initially I had thought i would study classical architecture and the French Revolution as my maternal family can trace its roots back to the french court and it had fascinated me as a teenager.

image I did indeed start out studying both alas my study of the revolution seemed to gravitate to the revolutionary paintings of ‘ Jacques Louis David’. David’s depiction of the ‘Death of Marat’ 1793 is breath- taking, murdered by a woman no less, there may be a tenous link there!

Despite my protestations to the contrary my lecturer thought I was a natural in the area of ‘Art History’ and I can discuss the vanishing point with the best of them but it really isn’t  my passion. I do love Art galleries and enjoy discussing works of art with friends and dragged all my children round many a gallery on a rainy afternoon. When I had the pleasure of living in London I would oft  ( did i just say oft?) be found infront of a masterpiece by Turner, a pleasure I will forever cherish. The scene  in a  Daniel Craig Bond movie of Bond and Q in the Turner room instantly brought memories back.

But my true passion was and still is the Greek tragedies, in particular by ‘Euripedes’ and my favourite of his plays ‘Medea’ I cannot begin to explain the pleasure and awe at reading a piece of work written in 431 BCE  by one of the most famous playwrights in history.

EURIPEDES (480-406 BC)

imageEuripede’s was the youngest of the three great Athenian playwrights, (the others being Aeschylus and Sophocles) and was born in  480 BC to a family of good standing. There is a history that he was unpopular even a recluse, we are told he composed poetry in a cave by the sea, near Salamis. What we do know is that audiences were fascinated by his innovative and disturbing dramas. His work was controversial in his lifetime.

Towards the end of his life he went to live at the court of the King of Macedon. It was there he wrote his greatest work ‘Bacchae’. He wrote about 92 plays 17 of which have survived. Historians have said of the great playwright :-

I portray men as they should be, Euripedes portrays them as they are”

-Sophocles – Poetics Ch 25 1460033-4

“Whatever other defects of organisation he may have, Euripedes is the most intensely tragic of all poets”

– Aritstotle – Poetics Ch 14 1453928-30

I am really amazed that the scholarly nobility does not comprehend his virtues, that they rank him below his predecessors, in line with that high-toned tradition which the clown Aristophanes brought into currency… has any nation ever produced a dramatist who would deserve to hand him his slippers

– Goethe, Diaries 22 Nov 1831″

“What were you thinking of, overweening Euripedes, when you hoped to press myth, then in its last agony, into your service? It died under your violent hands… though you hunted all the passions up from their couch and conjured them into your circle,  though you pointed and burnished a sophistic dialectic for the speeches of your heroes, they have only counterfeit passions and speak counterfeit speeches”

– Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, ch.10

imageUnlike epic poetry which was a traditional form familiar throughtout Greece, tragedy was a relatively new invention in the 5th Century BCE and was particular to Athens.

The Athenian tragedies were performed in huge amphitheatre’s under the stars to, we believe large audiences of up to 14,000 people. The audience would have been composed of mainly men, women could attend but it wasn’t usual. ( Believe me I would have been one of the few women!). We tend to think of the theatre as recreation which would be available every night of the year, in Athens however it would have been quite different.

Drama was part of a civic occasion, the festival of Dionysus. Although the city held many religious festivals, tragedies were performed only at a few fixed times in the year. The sheer range and variety of Euripede’s plays are extraordinary, but still my favourite is “Medea” For further readings on his plays may i suggest the following and if you would like to discuss would be my pleasure, truly.

  • Alcestis – written in 438 BC
  • Hippolytus – written in 428 BC
  • Hecuba – written in 424 BC
  • Electra – written in 420 BC
  • Helen – written in 412 BC
  • Bacchae – witten 405 BC

THE PLAY image

Medea is a play of dark revenge and child slaughter and is one of the most powerful and horrific of all Greek tragedies. It is dominated by Princess Medea, who aided Jason ( of the Argonauts fame) in the past and who is now spurned for a new Greek wife. Medea is dynamic and out classes and out-wits the men who she manipulates. Medea the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, niece of Circe and grandaughter of the  Sun God Helios, marries Jason with whom she has two children, Memeros and Pheres.

When the King of Creon offers his daugher to Jason he leaves Medea to marry her. Medea takes revenge first by killing Creon and his daughter and then murdering her children. Medea has often been called a feminist play ( I hear you groaning Jay) that it shows male power as something that oppresses women. I find it interesting that Euripides continually emphasises Jason’s betrayal of Medea, as a breaking of ‘ sworn oaths’. The importance of oaths is clear from the scene with Aegeus ( p 39-40) where Medea can be certain Aegeus can conveniently protect her from her actions.

The end of the play is commonplace for the appearance of a deity, Medea’s grand father, Helios sends down his chariot to take her away. Triumphant and malevolent she shows no sign of regret or grief. In every way the ending of the play is disturbing if the gods protect her, how can we make sense of the world. Greek tragedy as always has no answer.

Euripedes  transforms awesome figures of Greek mythology into recognisable fallible women and makes for a more fascinating read than any biblical mythology. He creates a complex character who performs a terrible deed but cannot simply be dismissed as a monster of villainy.

Whether or not this is usually your thing i encourage you to read this play and be amazed and maybe a little in awe of Euripedes, it is only 41-43 pages long give it a go and enjoy…

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