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The English Major: Going Greek

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Going Greek–Without the Hazing

Of all genres of literature, the ancient Greek tragedy is no one’s first pick. We might be stirred to pick up the classics of Austen and Bronte, even the plays of Shakespeare, but we rarely get the hankering for a few lines of Euripedes. English major that I am, I feel it’s my duty to rush in the defense of these sadly neglected works. Not because the man in the ivory tower tells me so, but because they are great.

What’s more, these plays—of the three major tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—can be read and enjoyed in an hour. Take that, Tolstoy.

You can expect, of course, mythological allusions aplenty. I say, don’t worry about the footnotes; they just take away from the pure enjoyment of reading. Go back and look at them at the end if you like, but while reading, don’t bother breaking the flow of the dialogue with pesty and largely unnecessary background notes.

You can also expect vengeance. Someone usually gets tricked into killing, eating, or killing and eating their own child. It happens.

But for work this ancient, the plays are surprisingly easy to get absorbed in. After all, they were meant for performance. It was assumed the audience knew the story, so drama and tension had to built in to keep them interested.

We Brake for Aeschylus

Start off with Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. It takes place with the end of the Trojan War, when Agamemnon arrives back home to Argos, a hero. His wife Clytemnestra awaits him. Of course, the play follows a long and bloody back-story: the family is typically and complicatedly cursed. Agamemnon’s father tricked his cousin Aegisthus’s father into killing and eating his sons (Aegisthus’s brothers), so he’s none too happy with Agamemnon. At the same time, Agamemnon scarified his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to gain a favorable wind for his voyage to Troy. So despite her exaggerated claims of love and fidelity toward Agamemnon, Clytemnestra can’t be pleased either.

A great scene takes place that reveals the power play between prideful man and bitter wife. When Agamemnon gets home, he doesn’t even spare his wife a word, but gives a speech that is just short of “I’d like to thank the academy” about his war feats. The queen then induces him to walk on red cloth—a sign of dangerous hubris that would indicate Agamemnon thinks himself equal to the gods. At first he resists, but eventually gives in and walks the fateful red carpet. Clytemnestra has won.

It doesn’t bode well. At the same time, Aggy’s brought home a little something something- a prophet named Cassandra.

When he goes into the palace, the queen tries to get Cassandra out of the carriage, but she remains silent. Finally, though, she starts to sputter frantic and prophetical things (“of the grief, the grief of the city/ripped to oblivion”). Eventually, she proclaims “no more riddles” and gives it up: Agamemnon will die, and so will Clytemnestra; their son will then avenge his father’s death. I’ll save the climactic scene for you, but suffice to say it’s going down.

In my opinion, Clytemnestra makes the play, and makes it relevant to our time and place, when the we don’t take part in the revelry and theatre that was the context of this play (the festival of Dionysus, roughly 450 BCE). She is at first belittled (“rumours voiced by women come to nothing,” proclaims the chorus when Clytemnestra declares that Troy has been taken). She is treated with all brusqueness by her husband, ten years absent. She has also lost her daughter to a sacrifice at her husband’s hand. At the same time, there’s a lot not to pity: Clytemnestra has been shacking up with Aegisthus, and prepared to do what it takes to get rid of Agamemnon and take the throne. Aeschylus gives her a complexity and depth that he doesn’t quite spare Agamemnon, the title character. Along with the play’s ambivalence about war, the emotional territory of the play is far more sophisticated than its antiquity suggests.

In the end, the message is the same as all Greek tragedies, uttered by the Herald: “Who but a god can go through life unmarked?” Who, indeed.

–Allison Geller

Allison is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, and a regular contributor to Uptown Literati. Her column, “The English Major,” will appear every other Wednesday.


Written by whitney teal

September 17, 2009 at 8:50 am

Posted in The English Major

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