Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Sitting in judgement on oneself

It’s a mug’s game trying to propound general rules about literature. Or about any art form, I guess, but let’s stick to literature for now. As soon as you hit upon something that seems reasonable, up pop any number of exceptions. But, even accepting this, there does seem to me certain principles one may propound that are true in most cases – true in enough cases, at least, to deserve serious consideration. And one of these is that messages do not make for good literature.

I suppose at this stage I should define what I mean by “message” in this context. I don’t mean a particular perspective on life, or a specific way of seeing things: an individual viewpoint is something we expect from writers. What I mean by “message” is an explicitly or implicitly stated moral precept. And, unless we are talking about fables (in which moral complexities are deliberately simplified), such moral precepts do not, I think, make for good literature.

And the reason they don’t make for good literature, I think, is that literature, being the least abstract of all art forms, must engage in some way or other with life. This need not imply close imitative reproduction: one may, if one wishes, and if one has the genius to do so, engage with the realities of life by making one’s characters speak in intricate blank verse, and setting the action on some magical island. But at some level, in some form, the realities of life need to be grappled with. And, given the various uncertainties and ambivalences of our human lives, given all the complexities and intricacies of all this unintelligible world, moral precepts either crudely cut through it all and end up being partial (“capitalism is an evil and we need revolution now,” say); or they end up being merely banal (“we should all be kind to each other”). Leaving aside fables once again, where moral simplification is the very point, neither, I think, makes for satisfactory reading as literature.  

This is not to say that writers cannot project their own ideas; but when they do – when, at least, the best writers do – something strange happens: they present their ideas not so much to propagate them, but, rather, to challenge them. Sometimes, even, to subvert them. Tolstoy had famously intended to present Anna Karenina as a sinful woman who is punished for her transgression, but what emerges is entirely different. Dostoyevsky often put his own most deeply held convictions in the mouths of fools and scoundrels, and, despite himself being devoutly religious, presents through Ivan Karamazov the most powerful (and as yet unresolved) argument against religious belief.

Ibsen wrote once in a letter that to write is “to sit in judgement over oneself”. Even while insisting that the truth must be told, whatever the cost, he created unflinching truth-seekers who, merely by the fact of seeking truth so unflinchingly, are maniacs. In Rosmersholm, he wondered to what extent the truth can even be discerned, let alone told. None of this is to say that Ibsen abandoned the idea that truth is vitally important; rather, he was sitting in judgement on himself. As all great writers do. And the judgement is harsh.

Tolstoy too, I think. In The Kreutzer Sonata, he presents a narrative told by a deeply misogynist man, Pozdnyshev, who murders his wife; and, very disconcertingly, he gives this man a great many of his own views. Now, quite clearly, Tolstoy is not Pozdnyshev, if only for the simple reason that Tolstoy is not a murderer; so why does he give Pozdnyshev so many of his own characteristics, and his own opinions? It seems to me that here Tolstoy, as Ibsen and Dostoyevsky had done, is sitting in judgement upon himself, putting his own most deeply held convictions under the microscope, and, with a disarming honesty, finding them wanting. The world that he presents – that Ibsen presents, or Dostoyevsky presents – is too complex for any simple moral precept to hold. It wasn’t that Tolstoy was above being a moralist: he did, after all, write fables – the finest, probably, since Aesop’s (James Joyce once described these fables as “the greatest literature in the world”). But when not writing fables (which, by their nature, simplify the moral complexities of this world), he had to acknowledge a world filled with complexities and uncertainties, in which moral precepts, even those embodying his most deeply held convictions, were simply not adequate – where they were either partial, or banal, or both.

And so, it frankly worries me when so many literary essays and discussions I see online consider works of literature, often major works of literature, purely in terms of their “message” – often, in the process, dragging out, based on what is known about the author, a straightforward message from all the messy complexities of the work itself. Are we really, after all, to believe that Tolstoy condoned murder? That Ibsen, speaking as his alter ego Stockmann, is calling for entire peoples to be “eradicated”? Or can we see here the authors’ own shocked realisations of the shortcoming and inadequacies of their own convictions?

With writers of the quality of Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, or Tolstoy, we have to – we must – look beyond whatever it is we perceive to be the “message”. In lesser writers, however, the message is all there is. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a very important book because its message was so powerful, and, happily, so influential. However, I doubt any great claim can be made for its literary merit. There are many other writers too who are prized primarily, on even purely, because of the message their works project. Claims of literary merit are often made for these writers, but I remain dubious. Ayn Rand, say: she remains controversial because her message remains controversial. I personally think her message is nonsense, but that’s not the reason her novels are so bad: rather, the novels are bad because they send out a message at all. This is not what literature is about.

Recently, on Twitter, I saw a thread (which, out of politeness, I will not link to) written by an English teacher in which she (for the author of this thread was a “she”) discusses how she teaches a certain poem in class. The work in question, which was reproduced in full, is a poem only by virtue of the fact that the lines did not stretch all the way to the right-hand margin of the page: I could certainly discern none of the creative use of language that I expect from poetry; and, indeed, if we were to take out the line breaks, even the prose that would emerge would not be particularly distinctive. The interest of the poem (for such we have to call it) lies solely in the content, and sadly, even that wasn’t very interesting: the imagery was banal, and the message – which may be adequately summarised as “we kill those that we are afraid of” – seemed to me both simplistic, and not generally applicable: we are all, after all, afraid of a great many people, but most of us manage to get through our lives without killing anyone. But what interested me more than the poem itself – there is no shortage of bad poems, after all, that this one should be of particular interest – is the account of its teaching: it focused purely on the content, on its message. I guess it had to, as there is nothing else in the poem that is worthy of attention – but I couldn’t help wondering if there is any point in teaching poetry at all when what is taught isn’t really poetry, as such, but, rather, some banal and questionable “message” it projects. Is it really a creditable thing to do to tell students that what matters in literature is merely what the literature says? That the sole purpose of reading a novel, or a poem, or a play, is to extract from it some sort of message?

This focus on message worries me because it seems to me to deny the richness of literature. It is reductive. It reduces even the greatest of writers, the greatest of works, merely to what it says – or, if what it says is complex and ambivalent (as life itself is complex and ambivalent), to a simplified (and therefore misleading) view of what it says. Children would be better not taught poetry at all than taught in the manner I saw described in that Twitter thread.

But now that I have written all this, you are all going to regale me with various titles of books that are without doubt major literature, and which certainly contain a message, even of the kind I described at the start of this piece. Well, yes: making up these rules always is a mug’s game, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But this reductive focus on “message” does, I admit, continue to worry me.

“The Eumenides” by Aeschylus

[Unless otherwise stated, all excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The first two plays of The Oresteia trilogy had dramatised a tragic impasse: the justice of the gods demanded that crimes be punished, and that humans should be the implements of the gods’ will, and carry out the punishment; but this punishment is also a crime, and the humans who mete it out must also be punished in turn. Any resolution of the drama that spans across these three plays should resolve also this impasse. Which, of course, by its very nature, cannot be resolved.

Much debate has raged over the nature of the resolution presented by The Eumenides, the final play in this trilogy. For some, it dramatises a decisive step forward: instead of the primitive code of personal vendetta and blood-letting, we have instead a civil institution that determines these matters: it is a step from darkness and barbarity towards enlightenment and civilisation. Other voices dissent. Would the horrors that have led to this point not have taken place had courts of law then existed? Are these horrors now things of the past, to be looked upon merely as relics of more savage times, and of little concern to our present lives? Of course not. And it would be absurd to think that Aeschylus was foolish enough to think that they were. So where is the progress?

And yet, there must be some progress, somewhere: otherwise, this vast drama could not have a resolution, and the torchlit parade of triumph with which the play ends would merely be hollow. Just what the nature of this progress is will, no doubt, continue to be debated, but, as in any major work of art, we should, I think, beware of any interpretation that is too simplistic: such an immense trilogy of plays was not, after all, written merely to demonstrate a thesis – whether that thesis extols progress from darkness into light, or whether it declares that any perceived progress is merely a semblance rather than reality. Aeschylus’ vision, both moral and artistic, was greater than either.

The play itself has a tripartite structure, with its centre of gravity lying in the middle section, which is the longest. This middle section is the earliest surviving example we have of a courtroom drama. But we have, before that, a sort of prologue, taking up about quarter of the play; and after the middle section, we have an epilogue, taking up another quarter of the play (these proportions are quite easy to determine when you have line numbers). The prologue sets up the issues that are debated in the courtroom drama; the epilogue addresses the issues that the courtroom drama had left unresolved. Such a structure, so satisfying in its symmetry, is very different from what we had in either of the two earlier plays; but then, this is a very different play.

However, one feature it shares with the other two plays is that the chorus does not appear immediately. In Agamemnon, we had, before the entrance of the chorus, a monologue delivered by a watchman keeping guard on the battlements of Argos; in The Libation Bearers had started with Orestes and Pylades at the grave of Agamemnon; and now, in The Eumenides, we have not one, but three scenes before the entry of the chorus. The chorus’ entry, when it comes, is possibly the most dramatic entrance in any Greek drama – maybe in any drama – for this chorus are the Furies themselves, the Erinyes, the most feared, the most horrific, of all beings. At the end of The Libation Bearers, Orestes had seen them, but we hadn’t: here, not only do they appear in the flesh, they are on stage for most of the duration of the play.

In the first of the three scenes preceding this entrance, we see a priestess of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. She first enters the temple, and, almost immediately after, emerges again in terror of what she had seen:

A sight too terrible to see or speak about

has sent me back out of Apollo’s hall;

I have no strength, I cannot stand –

I run, but on my hands and knees, not on my feet.

Inside, she had seen a suppliant, “a man abominated by the gods” (Orestes, we may guess); and around him, sleeping, were the Furies, with “disgusting streams of filth pour[ing] from their eyes”.

After the priestess’ terrified exit, we have a brief scene with Orestes, and with Apollo himself. Clearly, we are inhabiting a very different dramatic world now from what had been presented to us in the earlier plays: there, the presence of the gods, like the presence of the Furies, was felt, but not seen. Here, Apollo is as visible as the Furies soon prove to be. He too, like the priestess, inveighs against the disgusting Furies, “hated by mankind and by the gods”, and tells Orestes to go to “Pallas’ city”, Athens, where “we will have men who can judge this case”. This is a departure indeed from the earlier plays. There, it had been the will of Zeus, the will of the gods, that had determined human affairs: now, a god himself speaks of the judgement of men being the deciding factor.

There is another scene before the delayed entry of the Furies, and this is what may be termed a coup de théâtre: for there now enters the ghost of Klytaimnestra (or the “dream-image of Klytaimnestra”, as Ewans prefers to call it), as commanding and as terrifying dead as she had been alive. She enters in a rage, urging the sleeping Furies to awake, and to torment the son who had murdered his mother. Now, and only now, is the stage prepared for the entry of the Furies themselves: that which had so terrified the priestess, that had so disgusted Apollo, the audience gets to see in the flesh. Unlike the previous plays of this trilogy, this play can accommodate as real, physical presences, the gods, the ghost (or the “dream-image”) of the dead, and the Furies themselves. Whether we see them as real entities, or as symbolising different aspects of the human mind, they are all here, solid presences on stage. The Furies, of course, form the chorus, and, as in Aeschyus’ earlier play Suppliants, they are no mere spectators commenting upon the action: the chorus here are direct participants in the drama. Collectively, they may even be considered the principal protagonist: the play, after all, is named after them.

Apollo re-enters, and, making no attempt to hide his revulsion, commands the Furies to go: but they are not subject even to the gods’ commands: they answer back. It is their duty to torment the man who had murdered his own mother, as it is Apollo’s duty to protect the man who had, following the god’s own instruction, avenged the death of his father.

The prologue is now complete. We may move now to Athens, Pallas’ city, where Orestes has come, seeking absolution. The stage is, quite literally, set for the great confrontation.

We see Orestes now in Athens (space is as fluid here as it had been in The Libation Bearers), at the altar of the goddess Athena; but the Furies are in close pursuit. Orestes claims that he has been purified of the pollution of matricide, but that means nothing to the Furies, who assail him with accusations and with hideous threats:

… This is a song

for one who is doomed,

a blow to the heart that smashes the mind,

a song of the Furies to bind his wits,

a horrible sound to parch his brain.

We need not believe in the literal existence of the Furies to see in this a description of one driven mad with guilt: Orestes is in terror of incipient insanity, and the terror is real. Even after death, the Furies warn, they will continue to torment his mind.

It is at this point that Athena herself enters, in answer to Orestes’ call. She engages first with the Furies, but, unlike her brother Apollo, she addresses them with courtesy:

… you do not look like any other race,

not kin to any goddesses the gods have seen,

nor are you similar in shape to mortal women …

But to speak ill of guests who’ve done no harm,

that is not right; it would be far from just.

Athena expresses no disgust, no revulsion: not even distaste. But, after questioning the Furies on their cause, she feels that the story they tell is not the full story, and that if justice is to be done, a more balanced account must be considered:

You’d rather be renowned for justice than be just in all you do.

The Furies are stung by the accusation, but, mollified perhaps by Athena’s graciousness, they agree to trust her to help arrive at a just solution. Athena turns now to Orestes, and, after hearing his self-justification, decides that the matter is “too large” to be settled by the judgement of a single human; and that

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

And so she summons, as her prophetic brother Apollo had foreseen, what Athenian audiences (and, for that matter, ourselves) would recognise as a court of law:

I will choose blameless men of Athens,

judges of murder, faithful servants of the law

which I will fund for all time as the bedrock of their plighted oaths.

Then must you call your witnesses, and show your proof –

sworn testimony which will aid your case.

No longer, then, the inscrutable will of Zeus, but, rather, the consensus of a representative selection of humans. And should we think this an unwonted diminution by Athena of the powers of her father, we should remember what the chorus of Argive elders had said so forcefully in Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy:

There’s nothing to refer to

except Zeus…

Zeus is all there is. Nothing happens, nothing can happen, that isn’t the will of Zeus. Whatever is determined by other gods – by Artemis, by Apollo, by Athena – is all part of the will of Zeus himself. The power of Zeus to make judgements in these matters is not abrogated by Athena’s action, but delegated, and that delegation must itself be the will of Zeus.

The Furies now embark upon a chorus, confident of their victory. How can their case be denied, after all, when Justice is the end? For Justice cannot exist without Fear. Banish Fear, and Justice itself would cease to be:

There is a place where Fear is good,

and needs to stand as silent guardian

on watch over the mind;

it’s right that pain should teach good conduct.

How could any man or city that does not

nurture an element of fear inside the heart

still worship Justice?

At the start of the proceedings, Apollo makes a sudden and unexpected appearance: he has come, he says, to testify on behalf of Orestes, who is his suppliant. Orestes is then cross-examined by the Furies in a stichomythic passage. Orestes admits to having killed his mother, but goes on to offer justification: firstly, he was following the oracle of Apollo himself; and secondly, Klaitemnestra herself had been guilty of murder: he had merely been meting out just punishment, in accordance with divine will. Why, asks Orestes quite reasonably, did the Furies not torment Klaitemnestra for the murders she had committed? The Furies reply that her victims had not been her blood relations

Apollo now testifies on Orestes’ behalf, and, again in contrast to the courteous Athena, he is abusive and intolerant, refusing even to recognise the Furies’ case. He begins his testimony with a self-aggrandising speech proclaiming his own greatness: he is a prophet who never lies. The oracular command to kill Klaitemnestra that he had given Orestes was the will of Zeus himself, and that cannot be overridden. But, counter the Furies, how could Zeus give a greater weighting to the death of a father than to the death of a mother, when he had himself imprisoned his aged father Kronos? Apollo, here caught out, reverts to abuse:

You utterly revolting beasts, hated by all the gods…

Imprisonment can be reversed, Apollo continues, but death cannot. But this leads him into another contradiction: should not the death of the defendant’s mother therefore be punished?

Apollo’s response to this is somewhat unconvincing, especially to the modern audience. The mother, he says, is no real parent: she merely nurses the foetus in her womb. The true parent is the father. If modern audiences find this claim absurd, it is not something that had been entertained by the Furies either: in their earlier cross-examination of Orestes, they had explicitly stated the contrary:

You murderer, did she not nurture you

within her womb? Do you renounce the life-blood given by your mother?

Orestes, for his part, had not denied the blood-kinship.

Apollo ends his testimony by openly offering Athena a bribe: if Orestes is set free, if “he might be pledged to you for the rest of time”, then Athena would

… gain this man, goddess, as your ally,

and his heirs – and it would be so evermore;

all his descendants would be faithful to the pledge made here.

But this is a pledge Orestes had himself made earlier quite freely:

And now from a pure mouth I solemnly entreat

Pallas Athena, ruler of this land, to come

and be my helper; she will gain without a war

me, my country, and my citizens

as just and faithful allies for the rest of time.

Athena now gives a speech not merely to the Athenians on stage, but also, one imagines, to the Athenians in the audience. The institution she is founding is one to be maintained and revered, so they may live their lives “neither anarchic, nor beneath a tyrant’s rule”. As Ewans says in his notes, at this point in the earlier plays – that is, at the point immediately preceding the dramatic resolution – Kassandra, in Agamemnon, had foreseen someone coming to revenge the murders she knows are about to be committed; and Klaitemnestra, in The Libation Bearers, had warned her son of the Furies who would spring from her spilt blood to torment him. Athena, in sharp contrast, speaks of hope.

But the path towards hope is not clear. The Furies, in their previous chorus, had spoken of the concept of Justice breaking down if Fear is to be banished. If the Furies are to be defeated, how can there be hope for a city that is not “anarchic”?

Aeschylus addresses that question in the epilogue, but first, the jury must cast its votes. And here, we run into what, I gather, is quite heated scholarly debate. Athena states that should the vote be evenly split, then Orestes must be given the benefit of the doubt (this was, I gather, the practice of Athenian courts). This is entirely correct on her part: the rules of the vote must be made clear before the vote takes place. But does the jury consist of an even number of men? Or does it consist of an odd number of men, with Athena joining them to make up an even number? For Athena certainly votes: she says so explicitly, and says further that she is casting her vote for acquittal. But is hers the casting vote when an even number of jurors had failed to arrive at a decision? Or is hers the vote that results in an even split?

W. B. Stanford, in his notes for the translation by Robert Fagles, argues for the former, citing an essay by George Thomson. The argument he presents is, briefly, this: for Athena to mediate successfully with the Furies after the trial, she must command their trust; and if her vote effectively overturns a verdict made by the mortal Athenians of the jury, she is unlikely to command any trust at all. But Ewans, in his own notes, disagrees with characteristic combativeness. Among other things, he insists, the Greek text where Athena announces her own vote cannot be interpreted to indicate that her vote is a casting vote only, to be used if, and only if, the jurors fail to reach a verdict.

As ever, I shall refrain from entering such scholarly debate: as a layman in these matters, and as one who cannot even read the original text, this is not for me to judge. But I will note that every translation I have consulted renders Athena’s announcement, made after the other jurors have voted but before the counting, makes quite clear that hers is not a casting vote:

It is my task to cast the final judgement here;

and I will give Orestes’ cause this vote.

(Translated by Michael Ewans)

My work is here, to render the final judgement.

Orestes, I will cast my lot for you.

(Translated by Robert Fagles)

It is my task to render final judgement here.

This is a ballot for Orestes I shall cast.

(Translated by Richmond Lattimore)

It is now my office to give final judgement;

and I shall give my vote to Orestes.

(Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones)

The last vote is mine

and I cast it – for Orestes.

(Translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish)

It is my place to give my judgement last:

And I shall cast this vote in favour of Orestes.

(Translated by Oliver Taplin)

Leaving aside the very strange syntax adopted by Lattimore, what Athena says is clear in all these translations: we are at a point before the votes are counted, and she is casting her vote now, with not a hint that this is to be used only in case of a tie.

Whatever the solution is to this, the votes are counted; the jurors (including or not including Athena, depending on interpretation) are split; Orestes is, therefore, acquitted; and Apollo, his task now achieved, departs as abruptly as he had arrived. But all is far from settled. We enter now into the last act of this three-act structure – or, according to the line numbers, the final quarter of the play.

The Furies, previously so confident, cry out in anguished rage. But they had previously agreed freely to put their trust in Athena, and they cannot go back on it now. They pour out their fury in terrible threats, and then in self-pitying lamentation:

We are deprived of all we live for; in our misery

our anger will be terrible, and we’ll let

the arrows fly out from our hearts

to cause this country suffering in return –

unbearable! The blight will drip

to kill your plants and children.

Justice! Justice!

I will rush down into the plain, and pour into the earth

the stain that will destroy all human life.

I’ll weep. What shall I do?

They laugh at me. In Athens I have suffered

terribly.

We are the miserable, greatly suffering Daughters of the Night;

no-one respects us, so we grieve.

Their occupation’s gone.

Athena does not leave the scene, as Apollo had done, and her reason for staying does not appear to be fear of the Furies’ threats: rather, it is because she acknowledges the justice of their cause. She reminds them that they had not been defeated: the votes had been evenly split. Orestes is freed, but not exonerated. But, as if to underline the impotence of their anger, the Furies repeat their threats and their lament, word for word.

Athena mediates with them. She proposes a new role for the Furies: they may become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. They may live in Athens and bring blessings upon the city, and be respected and revered. Her powers of persuasion are great: the Furies agree, and the play – and the entire dark, blood-drenched trilogy – ends with a triumphant torchlit parade.

What are we to make of this ending? Many have found it somewhat anti-climactic, given all that has gone before. Is this really how all the darkness, all the terror, is resolved? Does this answer the seemingly unanswerable questions that the previous plays had posed? Is this really a progress into light from the darkness in which we had begun? Or is it just a cop-out?

We must, I think, refrain from making simplistic interpretations here. The two alternatives – that there has been a decisive progress towards civilisation, and its opposite – both seem to me far too simplistic to offer a satisfying resolution to this sequence of plays. We must look further.

And we must note two points. Firstly, Athena, unlike Apollo, had recognised the validity of the Furies’ case: instead of summarily judging in favour of Orestes, she had said quite explicitly that the issue was too complex for any single man, or even for any single divinity, to resolve:

… even I have not the right

to judge the issue in a case of murder where hot tempers rage

Secondly, the Furies, in accepting Athena’s proposal, do not change their nature. And neither is their power diminished. At three separate points, Athena clearly indicates this:

I have inspired these goddesses both great and hard to please

to settle here; for they have power

in all affairs of men.

If anyone encounters them

he doesn’t even realize they’ve struck him down.

For all the errors of his ancestors

drag him into the net, and silent death,

for all his mighty noise,

turns him to dust beneath their rage.

Later:

A Fury can do much, and has great power

both with the gods above and those below;

and in the world of men, it’s clear they always work their will

right to the end; some they give cause to sing,

to others a life dimmed by tears.

And later still:

From these terrifying faces

I see great advantage for my citizens;

for if you always honour them

they will be happy, you will be happy,

everyone will see that Athens is a land

where Justice rules.

Athena acknowledges here what the Furies had themselves proclaimed earlier: there is a place where Fear is good.

The progress celebrated at the end of the play is not the emergence of civilised institutions from the dark barbarism of private vengeance and retribution; rather, it is the delegation of moral judgement from Zeus to humans. No longer are humans subject to the frequently inscrutable will of the gods: they must determine among themselves, and for themselves, where moral good lies; they must determine who is guilty, and who is to be acquitted; they must determine when to punish, and what that punishment should be. For without this last element, without punishment, justice could not exist – neither divine justice, nor human. We cannot do without Terror: we cannot do without the Furies.

But is this, too, perhaps, too simplistic an interpretation? After all, the goddess Athena had, at best, intervened when humans had been unable to reach a decision; at worst, she had overturned the humans’ decision. Either way, divine intervention was required, and the delegation of moral law to humans has proved imperfect. The further one looks into this, the more complex it all appears. Perhaps there is no resolution. What resolution can there be, after all, that could requite the terror of Kassandra as she enters the House of Atreus, where she knows she will be butchered? Her cries of terror resound still, even after the peroration of the final triumphant torchlit procession.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Eumenides]

“The Libation Bearers” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

If Agamemnon had ended with Klytaimnestra triumphant over the corpses of Agamemnon and Kassandra, I doubt anyone would have complained. Everything had lead up to these killings, and now, the killings done, the drama, one might have thought, had reached its destined end. Had Aeschylus chosen to wrap up here, we could all have gone home – if not happy, at least satisfied with the dramatic trajectory of the piece But Aeschylus doesn’t wrap up here. We have, quite startlingly, a character quite new to the drama, Aigisthos, marching in to stage what is effectively a coup; we see him threaten to kill the chorus of old men; and, right at the very end, Klytaimnestra’s previous confidence suddenly, and perhaps unexpectedly, gives way to a sense of apprehension and of foreboding:

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

And it is on this uncertain, fearful note that the play ends, with much unfinished business, and much yet unresolved.

In terms of plot, we have actually been told how the resolution will come. Kassandra, in one of her vatic utterings, has already told us:

… for yet will come another, one who will requite our fates –

An offspring who will kill his mother, to avenge his father’s death.

Nothing remotely cryptic about this: this is, effectively, the plot of the second play of the trilogy. But this doesn’t render the second play superfluous, or lacking in dramatic interest, because, of course, the dramatic interest does not lie principally in the plot. So where does it lie? It’s not, I think, primarily in the characters: both Sophocles and Euripides provide far greater psychological depth in their retellings of this story than does Aeschylus. And neither, I think, is it primarily in the thematic development, important though that is: these works present a drama, not a thesis. But to understand why it works as drama, and how and why the dramatic tension is created, we do, I think, need to focus on the themes – and, in particular, the themes of divine will, of divine and human conceptions of justice, and of human responsibility.

The action starts in front of Agamemnon’s grave. Unless we are to believe that Agamemnon was buried right in front of the palace, we may assume that the scene is removed from there; and, since the palace is very clearly at the back of the stage later in the play, there is, presumably, a scene change somewhere along the line. But that need not concern us too much: a stage that is more or less bare can easily represent more than one space at any given time. Space here can be as fluid as time had been in the previous drama, where the victorious Agamemnon appears only some half hour or so after news of the fall of Troy is received.

First to appear are Orestes and his friend Pylades. Pylades is silent throughout the opening scene: indeed, he speaks only once in the entire play, at a moment that, by the very fact that he speaks at all, marks itself as the crux of the drama. Orestes, however, is given a long speech here: he had been – as he tells us – exiled before his father had been buried, and had not, till now, had the opportunity to formally lament his father’s death at his graveside. But Orestes has not come merely to mourn:

Zeus, grant that I avenge my father’s death;

become my ally of your own free will.

Right from the start, the theme of Zeus’ will is broached. Orestes has, we soon find out, been told by Apollo himself to avenge his father’s murder: as son, that is only right and proper. But even so, he cannot take for granted that Zeus will take his side.

It is only now that the chorus appears (the entrance of the chorus is delayed in all three plays of this trilogy). This time, the chorus consists of slave women, captives from the destruction of Troy. In their first chorus, they tell us that they have been sent by “that godless woman” Klytaimnestra, who has been terrified by a dream, to offer libations on her behalf to the unquiet spirit of the dead Agamemnon. But, they ask:

How can the house be purified, once blood’s been shed?

They know that this attempt to placate the angry ghost is pointless. What they do not yet know is that the placating of Agamemnon’s ghost, by very different means, is already close at hand.

This chorus of women, once free, now enslaved, put their fate down to the will of the gods:

We must approve of everything they do,

just and unjust; we are compelled

to overcome our bitter hatred.

The will of the gods is not necessarily just – at least, as far as humans understand the nature of justice; but just or unjust, we must submit to it.

To officiate the pouring of libations on Agamemnon’s grave, Klytaimnestra has sent Elektra, Agamemnon’s daughter, and also her own. Elektra, as she later tells us, leads “the life of a slave” in the royal palace, and here, charged with a dubious duty, is uncertain how to proceed: can she placate the ghost of her murdered father on behalf of her murderer mother? The chorus persuades her to pour the libations on her own behalf, and to pray to the gods that her father’s killers should themselves be killed. Elektra hesitates. “Would the gods see this as a pious prayer?” she asks. And we see here the pattern from the previous play repeating itself. The justice of the gods demands that crime must be requited, and humans are the instruments of their will; but will this requital itself be acceptable to the gods? Can what the gods see as pious what they themselves demand? In the previous play, this is was the trap Klytaimnestra had been caught in: in killing Agamemnon, she was carrying out justice but, as she herself says:

… If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’

Kassandra had foretold it wouldn’t be the end, and that the pattern will repeat itself. But if so, why should this same pattern not repeat itself again upon the second generation of avengers? What is to prevent it carrying on for ever? The human concept of justice has nothing to do with it: as the chorus had said, we must approve of everything the gods do – just and unjust.

And so Elektra pours upon her father’s grave the libations, but not, as her mother had demanded, to ask the perturbed spirit to rest, but with promises of retribution – a retribution the gods themselves demand, but for which the humans acting as the gods’ instruments must bear responsibility.

It is at this point that Elektra sees two locks of hair on the grave, so similar to her own; and footprints on the ground, similar again to her own. It is a scene famously parodied by Euripides in his own version of the story, but one only parodies that which is already famous, that which has made a mark. At this relatively early stage in the play, brother and sister are united, and there is no doubt why Orestes has come: he is to kill his own mother. Apollo himself has demanded it:

Apollo’s great and mighty oracle will not forsake me.

He ordered me to pass through all these dangers,

shrieking out his prophecies; he told

of vile and frosty torments that would chill my heart

if I did not pursue those who contrived my father’s death…

He goes on to tell of the torments he will suffer, both in this life and the next from the Furies springing from his father’s blood, should he allow his father’s death to go unavenged. And Apollo had told him too of the terrible diseases that would pursue him:

… creatures who invade the flesh with vicious teeth,

cankers which eat at healthy skin,

and leprosy, whose ulcers blossom with white hair!

Orestes is not given a choice. This is divine will, the will of Apollo. He is but an instrument of this divine will.

There now follows what, in opera, we would describe as an ensemble – an almost epic set piece, lasting some three hundred or so lines, and taking us to roughly the mid-way point of the play. Here, the voices of Elektra and of Orestes mingle with those of the chorus, lamenting and supplicating the dead father, and praying to the gods, steeling themselves for the mighty task that the gods themselves have commanded them to perform.

This passage, consisting as it does mainly of prayers and of supplication, is largely static, in that, although it intensifies the drama, it doesn’t move it forward. But two points emerge that are new – both revelations from the chorus: the first is the horrible detail that Klytaimnestra had mutilated Agamemnon’s body before burial (the nature of the mutilation is left to us to picture); and the second is the dream Klytaimnestra had had that had terrified her so. She had dreamt that she had given birth to a live snake; that this snake had “nestled in its swaddling-clothes, like a human child”; and that she had given suck to this serpent, whereupon “a clot of blood poured out into the milk”.

There hardly needs a Kalchas to interpret this dream, especially given what the audience knows of the current situation. But while it may be seen as a prophetic message from the gods, it also, I think, stands up to more modern interpretations of dreams, that is, as expressions of our mental states: Klytaimnestra fears, and with good reason, that the son to whom she had given birth will return, seeking revenge for the killing of his father. It is the same fear Klytaimnestra had expressedin more general terms towards the end of the previous play – the fear that her act of revenge is not in itself an end, but merely a fresh crime that, in its own turn, will call out for requital, for retribution. This fear has stayed with her for all those years between the end of the earlier play, and the start of this. For all those years, we may infer, she has brooded upon her doom.

By the end of this ensemble, we are at the half-way point of the play, and, very suddenly, the nature of the play changes. And it changes very abruptly, in all sorts of ways. Firstly, there is a change of scene, which is not very common in Greek drama: while the first half is set at Agamemnon’s tomb, presumably at some distance from the palace, the second half is very clearly situated at the palace gates, with no further mention of the tomb (which, as far as the drama is concerned, has served its purpose). Secondly, the pacing changes: while the first half had been largely static, the latter flows at a surprisingly fast tempo, eschewing long choruses, and containing some of the shortest scenes in all Greek drama. And thirdly, and perhaps most intriguingly, Elektra, who had appeared in the first half as one of the two principal protagonists, disappears altogether from the dramatic action.

We do not have the stage directions to the Greek plays, and neither, for that matter, do we have indications as to which characters speak which lines: these matters are at the discretion of the translator (or the director), and, in most cases, aren’t hard to conjecture. But what are we to make of the complete silence on Elektra’s part in the latter part of the play? Ewans, in his stage directions, introduces her as a “silent face”, but I am not entirely sure what purpose that serves: even if we do see her on stage, the total silence of this “silent face”, of a character who had been till that point quite loquacious, would hardly seem any less odd than her not appearing at all.

It seems to me that the Aeschylus had intended this oddness – that he had intended the changes from the first half of the play to the second to be decisive, radical, and abrupt. And if this jolts the viewer, he had intended that too. The setting is different; the pacingis different; and, more importantly perhaps, the focus is different. In the first half, the focus had been on brother and sister, who meet and recognise each other, and then steel each other for what is to come. But in the second half, the focus shifts to mother and son, to a mother who has to face her greatest fear – that her son has returned to kill her. A modern dramatist would be more inclined, I imagine, to shift the focus more gradually, but Aeschylus clearly wanted the change to be sudden and abrupt: why, I’m honestly not too sure. Orestes is the character who is in both halves, but for the shift in focus to be as abrupt as Aeschylus clearly wanted it to be, Elektra has to be as absent from the second half as Klytaimnestra is from the first. It is no longer Orestes the Brother Aeschylus is interested in here, but Orestes the Son.

Now, the plot speeds forward. Orestes knocks on the palace doors, and he has to knock thrice to get a response: the watchman at the very opening scene of Agamemnon had spoken of the household being badly run, and it appears not to have improved. Klytaimnestra herself soon appears, and, as a good host should, offers the stranger hospitality:

… for here we have

all that you would expect in a house such as this –

warm baths, soft beds to charm away

your aches and pains, and people round you who will do no harm.

Not recognising who this stranger is, Klytaimnestra is obviously not aware of the irony of offering the son of Agamemnon “warm baths”, and people around him “who will do no harm”.

The stranger now imparts the false news: Orestes is dead. Klytaimnestra is now given two speeches of about ten lines each, separated by a few lines from Orestes himself; and these two speeches of hers are quite startlingly different. In the first of these speeches, she gives expression to her grief, seeing it as further evidence of the “curse upon this house”. And, almost immediately after, in her second speech, she seems calm and collected, and welcomes Orestes in. “The news would have come anyway,” she says philosophically, “it’s all the same”.

This very abrupt change of tone has puzzled many a reader. Some scholars have suggested that when the palace doors open, Elektra should accompany Klytaimnestra, and that the first speech of grief should be hers, while her mother remains calm and collected throughout. But that seems to me dramatically weak. Elektra knows, of course, that the stranger is Orestes herself, and her grieving speech would, therefore, merely be feigning, in an attempt to throw her other off the scent; but if that is the sole dramatic purpose of her speech, it could have been achieved in just a line or two, and it seems to me unlikely that Aeschylus would extend it, especially at this point when he is accelerating the tempo. But if these lines are indeed Klytaimnestra’s what purpose could she have in speaking them? Of course, she could be feigning herself, but if she is, she is a very bad actor given how quickly she changes her tone for her second speech. Also, she has no reason to feign before the stranger: she is queen, after all, and commands power. The nurse, who appears soon afterwards, tells us:

… her eyes were full of grief; but it was all a sham

to hide her joy …

But the nurse is devoted to Orestes, whom she had tended in his childhood, and has no great love for the mother who had exiled him, especially now when she s heartbroken at the news of his death: there is no reason to take her judgement at face value.

I think what makes most sense dramatically, and what, indeed, enhances the depth of the drama, is to take both Klytaimnestra’s speeches at face value: she is a complex character, and is capable of feeling both grief and relief at the same time.

The nurse now enters: she has orders from Klytaimnestra to fetch Aigithos, so he can hear the news himself. The plot is now moving swiftly: the chorus persuades the nurse to change her message, and tell Aigisthos that Klytaimnestra had asked him to come without bodyguards. It is often said that Aeschylus here breaks the rules of Athenian drama by giving the chorus an active role in determining the action, but frankly, given that the vast majority of Athenian tragedies are now lost, it seems to me foolhardy to derive rules from the few that have survived. However that may be, the focus now is firmly on the plot: Aeschylus has ruminated on the various themes for some time now, and, given this new tempo, there is no room for further ruminations on these points.

Aigisthos soon enters, and the chorus lead him into what they know will be his death. And within minutes, we hear his death cries from off-stage. There’s barely time to draw breath. And now, Aeschylus gives us the crucial scene of the drama: a confrontation between mother and son, at the very point where the son is poised to kill her. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides had given us this scene in their retellings of this story, but here, it is the crux.

Klytaimnestra now recognises the stranger to be her son, her serpent-son, Orestes. She shows him her breast, where she had suckled him, and Orestes, who had been so confident before about his god-ordained mission, here, for the first time, wavers. And Pylades, who has been quiet throughout the play, breaks his silence to deliver his thunder-like lines, coming, it almost seems, from the gods themselves:

Would you destroy the standing of Apollo’s oracles

for all the rest of time, and of his solemn oath?

Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.

There is no choice, no escape. What the gods will, just or unjust, we are compelled to accept.

There follows a tense dialogue between mother and son. No point trying to separate out here the action from the thematic development: the thematic development is the action. When charged with killing her husband, Klytaimnestra says:

Fate had a certain share in that, my son.

But Orestes’ reply follows the same logic:

Well then, it’s Fate that brings death to you now.

Kassandra’s prophecy is now on the point of being fulfilled, but there is one point that Kassandra hadn’t mentioned, and which, hinted at at various points earlier in the play, now comes out into the open:

KLYTAIMNESTRA: Watch out! Beware your mother’s angry, hounding Furies.

ORESTES: But how should I escape my father’s Furies, if I do not do this deed?

If Orestes in killing Klytaimnestra follows the same logic as Klytamnestra had followed in killing Agamemnon, would he not be subject to the same fate as his mother had been? The logic is inescapable. This had been outside the scope of Kassandra’s utterances, but here, at the climactic point of the play, it is made explicit. Humans are trapped in this remorseless logic: past crimes must be requited, for such is the will of the gods, but the fresh crimes committed in the requital also call out for vengeance. And so it continues, in a never-ending cycle of grief, of pain, and of terror.

Soon, Orestes appears triumphant over the corpses of the lovers Klytaimnestra and Aigisthos, just as, at a similar point in the earlier play, Klytaimnestra had appeared triumphant over the bodies of the lovers Kassandra and Agamemnon. The symmetry is, of course, deliberate, and in neither case does the triumph last for long. We never expected it to, really: the pattern of triumph followed by apprehension has been present in this trilogy from the very opening scene of Agamemnon, but here, it is more than mere apprehension, for, as Klytaimnestra had prophesied, her “angry, hounding Furies” now rise from her spilt blood to torment her killer. Apollo had told Orestes of what he would have to suffer if he didn’t carry out the gods’ will: he hadn’t told him what he’d have to suffer if he did.

And on this note, utterly devoid of hope, the play ends. If The Oresteia is indeed a journey from dark to light, it is not a steady journey made in gradual steps of enlightenment: The Libation Bearers, as a play, is no purgatory leading from the darkness of inferno to prepare us for the light of paradise: we are, in this play, in greater darkness than ever. It is hard to think of a single play, either in the Athenian tradition or in any other, that presents so a grim view of the human condition. And whatever light we may find in the closing play of the trilogy, it does not, I think, banish the darkness we encounter here.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Libation Bearers]

“Agamemnon” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

I beg the gods; release me from these sufferings …

Agamemnon is the first of the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus known as The Oresteia: it is the only trilogy of Athenian drama that has survived in its entirety, and, if only for that reason, appears to have a grander and wider scope than most of the other surviving plays. It begins (as, interestingly, does Hamlet, another mighty tragic drama that addresses the theme of revenge) with a soldier keeping watch at night upon the battlements. And (again, as in Hamlet) the soldier’s opening line introduces a motif that runs through the rest of the work. In Shakespeare’s play, this opening line is a seemingly innocuous “Who’s there?” – an appropriate opening for a play in which we find the protagonist wrestling with who and what he is. Here, we are introduced in the first line to several themes. There is, firstly, the suffering – although, comparing different translations, the Greek word that is rendered by Ewans as “suffering” possibly has no exact equivalent in English: Fagles translates it as “pain”, Lattimore as “weariness”, Lloyd-Jones as “toil”, etc.; and in the translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, the word, whatever it is, is simply replaced with the pronoun “it”, so the play begins with a startlingly simple “Gods, when will it end?” I am in no position to judge which is best, but since it is Ewans’ translation I have been reading, let us stick with that. We have here the theme of human suffering – or of something, at least, that we humans may wish would end. There is also the desire for release. And finally, there is the reference to the gods, to some sort of divinities who, presumably, have the power to grant that release.

The watchman’s opening speech is only some forty or so lines long, but it more than sets the scene for what is to come: it introduces some of the main themes and motifs, and, more importantly, I think, it sets the emotional temperature of what we are about to witness; and also, it seems, it sets a pattern that is repeated throughout, both in this play, and in the two other plays of this trilogy: an anxious hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, a profound apprehension. The watchman here is anxiously awaiting news that Troy is taken, and that the ten-year war is finally at an end; the news comes, with, quite literally, a flash of light; but the watchman’s joy is cut short almost immediately by a fear of what is to come next. The joy is never more than merely temporary – a point we should, I think, always bear in mind, even at the triumphant torchlit celebration with which the trilogy ends. But let us not anticipate.

We are in Argos, at the palace of Agamemnon, leader of the allied Greek troops that has been fighting in Troy for ten years. All is not well. As we find out later, there is much unrest at home occasioned by the war fought abroad; and the suffering is not restricted to the soldiers who were sent to Troy:

… and all through Greece a woman waits at home

with patient sorrow in her heart

for each of those who went to Troy.

Many things touch their feelings:

each one knows the person she sent out;

instead of him

a pot of ashes comes back home.

The end of this war, the news of victory, should indeed be a cause of rejoicing, but the rejoicing of the watchman is cut short for reasons that he, rather ominously, refuses to tell us:

I’ll say no more; upon my tongue

a great ox sits. The house itself, could it take voice,

would tell most clearly. I prefer to speak only for those

who’ll understand; to those who don’t, I haven’t said a word.

Only now does the chorus enter – a chorus of the elders of Argos, who had deemed too old and too decrepit to travel to Troy to fight. And there follows a chorus of some 220 lines – the longest in any of the existing Greek plays. This may, to the modern audience (or to the modern reader), seem undramatic: who, after all, wants to start a play with a long narration? Show, not tell, as any creative writing course will tell us. But if it does seem undramatic to us, that is, presumably, a measure of the extent to which our conception of drama differs from that of the ancient Greeks. Aeschylus obviously deemed it important, and it deserves close attention.

Much of this chorus (consisting of a long introductory section followed by six pairs of strophes and antistrophes, with the first of these pairs rounded off with an epode), is indeed narrative, but the narration embeds many symbols and images that we must bear in mind if the rest of the play is to make its proper impact. 

The long introductory passage of this chorus tells of the Zeus sending out Agamemnon and his brother Menelaos to avenge the outrage committed by the Trojan prince Paris: he had abducted Helen, wife of Menelaos, and this is a crime for the gods themselves demand retribution. But the image describing this is a curious one: the Greeks, wronged by Paris, are compared to vultures who have lost their chicks, and, with them, “the toil of nurturing their young”. And it is on hearing these vultures’ lament that the gods send out Agamemnon and Menelaos, as instruments of divine justice. But, at the same time, Agamemnon and Menelaos have agency as well: they and their men cry out “with all their hearts for mighty War”. The avenging armies are, simultaneously, both instruments of divine will, and also free, autonomous agents. Aeschylus isn’t much interested here in choosing between the two: he insists on both.

The chorus now turns its attention to Klytaimnestra, sister of Helen and wife of Agamemnon, asking her what news she has received from Troy. Since the Greek dramas have come to us with no stage directions, directors (and translators) must provide their own. In some versions, as the chorus asks these questions of their queen, she comes out and, in silence, offers sacrifices to the sacred fire; in others (as in Ewans’ translation), the questions are directed towards the palace, but its doors remain shut, and no answer is given. Either, I think, can be theatrically effective.

Now the sequence of six strophes and antistrophes begins. In the first pair (which is followed by an epode), we are told of an omen that had appeared: two eagles had been seen swooping down and devouring a pregnant hare. The priest Kalchas interprets: the eagles are obviously Agamemnon and Menalaos, and the hare is Troy. However, the omens are “part good for us, part bad”: the hare had been pregnant, and the unborn are devoured too. And in the course of this narration, a refrain develops:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail.

The next pair of strophe and antistrophe, somewhat surprisingly, interrupts the narration with a meditation on the nature of Zeus: “… there’s nothing to refer to except Zeus”. Zeus is all there is, and all that is is Zeus. Zeus, we are reminded, had overcome his own father,

The one who once was great

and bursting with never-conquered might.

But that never-conquered might has now been conquered, and the conqueror, Zeus, is omnipotent: he is all that is. We need to remember this in what follows: Aeschylus would hardly have placed this seeming diversion at this point had he intended otherwise.

The second antistrophe runs into the third strophe mid-sentence, and continues the meditation on the nature of Zeus, who has ordained that “men learn from experience”. Ewans, in a footnote here, says that the original words, “pathei mathos”, literally means “learn from experience”, and that the traditional rendition of these words as “learn by suffering” is a mistranslation “with full Christian (and Wagnerian) overtones of redemption through repentance”. I have, however, also seen criticisms of Ewans’ criticism, claiming that Ewans makes too much of this, and that, given the lack of exact correspondence between Greek words and English, “learn by suffering” is not a mistranslation. As ever in these matters, I will leave the scholars to argue this one out (I have no choice really!), but will note that anything with Christian overtones is, perhaps, best avoided here, as the view Aeschylus gives of the nature of divinity is very far from Christian theology.

But no matter how we learn, whether from suffering or from experience, the pain is not dispelled:

But still, in sleep the pain

of memory drips down inside the heart; the calm

of reason comes even to those who do not want it.

I think the favour of the gods who sit on sacred thrones

are gifts that hurt.

The third antistrophe returns to the narrative. Agamemnon and Menelaos are the instruments of divine will, and the gods will grant them victory, but it is a gift that hurts: to achieve this victory, Agamemnon will have to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. The eagles had devoured also the innocent unborn: in order to revenge the crime of Paris, the innocents of Troy must also be put to the sword. And Artemis, who “hates the eagle’s feast”, demands that if the Greeks are to spill the innocent blood of Troy, they must first spill innocent blood of their own.

How much choice Agamemnon has in this matter is not clear. He is, after all, both the instrument of divine justice, and also an autonomous agent. And in this perplexing paradox lies the horror: to avenge a crime, Agamemnon must himself commit a crime; and he is both not responsible for it, and responsible for it, at the same time.

We may wish to put this down to civil war between the gods – of Artemis rebelling against the will of Zeus; but that is too easy an answer. Aeschylus had gone out of his way to tell us, just a few lines earlier, that Zeus is all there is. Zeus could easily have overruled Artemis, but he hadn’t. This is the collective divine will: Agamemnon must revenge the crime of Paris, and, in so doing, must himself be guilty of a monstrous crime. He is caught in an infernal machine from which there is escape. He may learn through experience: this ability to learn is the gods’ gift. But it is a gift that hurts.

The narrative continues, but all hint of triumph or glory is now lost: the chorus tells of the sacrifice, of how Iphigenia was led to the altar “with a bridle to silence her”, how she was lifted up “like a goat, with her head inclined”. But they stop short of the point where she has her throat slit by her own father: it is too horrible even to narrate.

What happened after that I did not see, nor will I speak of it.

And only now does Klytaimnestra make her long delayed first entrance (at least, her first speaking entrance).

The chorus’ narration should not, I think, be taken merely as exposition: if seen as such, it would appear merely cumbersome. But if it is seen as a drama in its own right, then the effect is electric. As in The Persians, the drama we see on stage is not that of the events being narrated, but of the people on stage – in this instance, the chorus of old men – trying to understand the significance of these events, trying to understand what these events tell us about the gods, about the nature of human free will, and the nature of divine will. And what they understand brings little comfort.

Klytaimnestra has news. Troy has fallen, and their absent king will now return. In a long speech, she describes how the news had travelled so quickly. She had arranged for a series of beacons, from mountain-top to mountain-top, to be lit to signal the fall of the city, so the news can be relayed by light across the continents. And that night, the night-watchman had seen the last light of that series of beacons bursting into light. Klytaimnestra it was who had arranged this: the watchman in the play’s opening scene had spoken scoffingly and yet fearfully of the “waiting, hopeful woman who plans like a man” – such gender confusion being, for this watchman and, one suspects, for the Greeks in general, abhorrent. Klytaimnestra describes the travel of the news by fire in a speech that appears to be more than mere boasting of her organisational powers: there seems something almost elemental to it: even fire obeys her bidding, and “Haephistos was my courier”. But then, her second speech takes an unexpected turn. Instead of triumph, or of joy, she speaks of the bloodbath that, even as she speaks, is being visited upon the people of Troy; and she expresses her hope that the Greeks reverence the city’s gods and not desecrate their shrines, so they may return safely. Once again, we see that pattern repeated: hope, fulfilment, and then, almost immediately afterwards, apprehension. And finally, in a short coda to her speech, she echoes the refrain that had earlier appeared in the chorus: “Yet may the good prevail.” On the surface, this means “May our men return safely”, but the original audience, who knew the myth, would, most likely, have looked beyond the surface: Klytaimnestra may well have a very different idea of what constitutes the “good”.

Klytaimnestra now returns into the palace, leaving the chorus again on their own. And again, they ruminate on Zeus, on the punishment he had meted out to Troy for having broken his law; and this drifts into apprehension of the punishment Zeus might yet mete out to the Argives, should they also – as Klytaimnestra has more than hinted – have similarly broken his law. They speak also of the deep unrest among the people of Argos at the absence of their king, and of their anger at the devastation brought home to them by a war that was being fought merely for the sake of another man’s wife. As always, fulfilment of hopes does not bring joy: it brings merely apprehension.

Now the herald enters with news of the fall of Troy. Time is very elastic here: in a naturalistic play, there would be a gap of a few days, at least, between Klytaimnestra receiving the news through a relay of fire, and the arrival of the herald, but here, that time is compressed to but a few minutes. The herald’s speech is initially triumphant, telling as it does of victory at Troy, but, with Klytemnaistra’s last speech still ringing in our ears, even that triumph contains within it the seeds of terror:

Nothing stands upon the plain of Troy;

the altars and the shrines of gods are all destroyed…

Klytaimnestra enters again, but she has no desire to listen: she knows about the fall of Troy already. She has come to talk. She boasts about her knowing when others had doubted her knowledge; and she asks the herald to tell her husband to come quickly, for she is waiting for him, like a faithful wife. And, having said this, without waiting to hear another single word, she returns into her palace, leaving the scene as abruptly as she had entered.

The chorus then questions the herald further, and his initial note of triumph now dissipates: the Greeks, on returning, had met with a fearful storm; the other fleets had separated, and of Agamemnon’s own fleet, only his ship had survived: the others are all drowned. Zeus is meting out retribution already on those who had committed crimes – even those crimes that had been committed to fulfil his own purpose.

The herald now leaves, but not before he, too, has echoed the chorus’ apprehensive refrain: “May all turn out as best it can.” The chorus is left once again to ponder on events, and, once again, these ponderings are themselves the substance of the drama: what do these events signify? Paris had transgressed, and Troy had transgressed by condoning Paris’ transgression; so they paid a terrible price, and the terrible price they paid is the judgement of Zeus. But there is now an obvious parallel to be drawn between Troy and Argos, for Argos too has transgressed. These ponderings are not comments on the drama: they are the drama. The drama consists of us humans trying to make some kind of sense of a world that is, to human understanding at any rate, unintelligible.

Only now, almost half way through the play, does the eponymous Agamemnon enter. He enters magnificently in a chariot, and at the back of his chariot is his “conquest”, the Trojan princess Kassandra, now a captive slave, and chosen by Agamemnon to be his concubine.

Agamemnon speaks in triumph, but we know the pattern by now. Klytaimnestra enters, and, like a dutiful wife, greets her husband. We do not need to know the myth to be fearful. She then instructs her maidservants to lay between the chariot and the door of the palace tapestries of crimson and of blood red, so Agamemnon may tread upon them, as the victor he is, and enter again his home. So a river of the most vivid red appears before Agamemnon, representing both his triumph and – as we can now be certain – his destruction. Agamemnon himself is doubtful: even as a victor returning in triumph, would not this be sacrilegious, and, somehow, obscene? – an affront to all that is holy? It would indeed. But Klytaimnestra convinces him. And so the man who had trodden on real blood before – on innocent blood, including that of his own daughter – now treads the symbol of that blood towards his own bloody end. Zeus, had delivered justice on the Trojans, with Agamemnon his instrument for that justice; now, justice is to be delivered on Agamemnon, and the instrument this time will be Klytaimnestra. Link by link, the chain is forged.

All this time, Kassandra, sitting at the back of the chariot, has remained tantalisingly silent. Agamemnon’s instruction concerning her was to treat her well, for “the gods look kindly from afar on those who conquer, but do not abuse their power”. So, after Agamemnon has entered the palace, Klytaimnestra, with a kindness that we can be sure by now is assumed, asks her to follow. But Kassandra keeps still, unresponding. Whatever power Klytaimnestra was able to exert over her husband, she cannot over her husband’s slave. In frustration, she enters the palace, without Kassandra.

One shouldn’t, I am told, sully literary criticism with subjective impressions, but since this is merely a blog post rather than a learned essay, I don’t see why I shouldn’t: the scene that now follows is, to me, among the most extraordinary I have encountered in any play: one has to go to the storm scenes in King Lear, or to the scene between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester on the heath, to come across anything of comparable tragic intensity.

Kassandra now breaks her silence – but not, at first, with words, but instead with inarticulate screams. She then calls out – not to Agamemnon, nor to Klytaimnestra, nor even to the ghosts of her slaughtered family, but to Apollo, whom she calls her “destroyer”:

Ah! Where have you led me? To what house?

For nothing is secret to Kassandra. She knows – she knows all. She has the gift of prophecy. Apollo had given her this gift for he had desired her, and she had, in her own words, “pledged [her] body to him, and then broken [her] word”. Apollo, unable to revoke his gift of prophecy, had then deemed that her prophetic visions would never be believed; and now, as she faces her own imminent extinction, she knows that it is he, the god, who has brought her to this end. She knows the hideous bloody future she is to face inside the house, and also its hideous bloody past. She knows that inside the house, she, now a mere slave and thus of no real consequence, will be ripped apart by Klytaimnestra’s sword.

The chorus cannot quite believe her: her prophecies are doomed not to be believed, after all. But they can’t quite disbelieve her either, as she sings an agonised threnody to her own death. No matter how we may choose to interpret the ways of the gods, this is the reality for humans, who have no option but to suffer.

So far, Aeschylus has given us two strands of causality heading towards a single event: there are the outrages in Troy, crying out for revenge; and there is the outrage on Agamemnon’s own daughter, Iphigenia. Both point to the killing of Agamemnon. But now, a third strand is introduced – this one spanning generations. Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, had been betrayed by his own brother: Thyestes had seduced Atreus’ wife. And, in revenge, Atreus had, under the guise of friendship, invited his brother to a feast, but had feasted his brother on the roast flesh of his brother’s own children. Thyestes, on realising the horror, had left with his surviving son, and had cursed Atreus and his house. This curse too must have its fulfilment. All these strands are converging fast upon what appears now an inevitable focal point: the killing of Agamemnon.

And what value can the life of a mere slave, a mere captive concubine, have in the context of such matters? Yet, it is to this seemingly insignificant figure to whom Aeschylus gives the most potent and powerful expression of grief and of terror. And, as she walks into the house in which she knows she will be butchered, she asks that she, a foreigner and a mere female slave, be remembered alongside the more powerful who will fall with her:

… in the house I will lament

my own and Agamemnon’s fate; I’ve had enough of life.

Oh strangers,

do not think I am trembling, like a bird scared of the trap;

I simply beg you to be my witness after my death,

when one more woman dies in recompense for me,

and for the man so badly married yet another falls in turn.

I ask this of you as a stranger who is about to die.

The various strands, the various chains of causality, may meet at a focal point here, but, Kassandra knows, this is not by any means the last link of the chain. And that she, Kassandra, a mere dispensable slave girl, is also part of that chain.

Once again, the chorus is left on its own, and soon, they hear the death cries of Agamemnon from inside the palace, and they are in turmoil. This turmoil seems to me to be depicted in comic terms. I realise that our modern responses are likely to be quite different from those of ancient Athenians; and I realise also the very stylised nature of the representation of events. But it is hard to see how, given the extreme seriousness of the context, lines such as these can be seen as anything other than comic:

  • Let us take common counsel; is there some safe plan?
  • … I vote that we do something; it’s a time for no delay.
  • Yes, we are wasting time…
  • I haven’t got a plan to offer; and no-one should act unless he has already planned.

We should not be surprised by such an incursion of the comic at such a moment: sending in the clowns at moments of the greatest seriousness would have been as effective in Greek times as it had been in Shakespeare’s (the gravediggers in Hamlet, say, or the man who brings in the asp to Cleopatra), or, indeed, still is in our own. But whatever humour there is here is cut short by the opening of the palace doors, to reveal a now triumphant Klytaimnestra, and the butchered bodies of Agamemnon and of Kassandra.

Klytaimnestra now has no reason to dissemble:

Much I have said before to suit the moment, and

I’m not ashamed to contradict it all

She describes in some detail how she killed Agamemnon, how she struck her blows, and how Agamemnon

blowing out rapid spurt of blood

… strikes me with black showers of murderous dew

The chorus is, naturally, horrified, but this is Klytemnaestra triumphant. All she had planned for – planned “like a man”, as the watchman had so scornfully put it – is now fulfilled. What outrage, she now asks, had this chorus of elders shown

when he, not caring much about it, just as if an animal was dead

out of abundant flocks of fleecy sheep,

killed his own daughter, dearest fruit sprung from

my labour-pangs, to charm away the winds from Thrace? 

The elders weep for their murdered king, but Klytaimestra offers us instead an unforgettable and resonant image of their dead king in Hades: traditionally, the dead are greeted in the underworld by those who had loved them, and here, Klytaimnestra imagines Agamemnon

…at the swiftly flowing crossing

of the stream of tears

And at this crossing,

His daughter, as is right,

Iphigenia, will

Embrace and kiss her father lovingly.

One might have expected the play to have ended here, but Aeschylus adds another scene which may, to the modern audience, seem a bit strange: at this late stage of the play, when the climactic point has already passed and we are, in effect, winding down, he introduces a new character, Aigisthos, the lover of Klytaimnestra, and a surviving son of Thyestes, who had been feasted on his own sons’ flesh. He, of course, has his own reasons for revenge on the House of Atreus, and he re-tells the story we have already heard from Kassandra of the hideous feast to which his father had been treated (though conveniently omitting his father’s adultery, the original cause of this particular chain of crimes).

He had, he claims, helped Klytaimnestra with the planning of the deed, but when asked why he had not done the deed himself, he claims simply, and somewhat unconvincingly, that the deceit required was “clearly woman’s work”, and that, further, he was already known as an enemy of the house. The roles of the Macbeths seem here reversed: it is now the woman who commits the deed, and the man merely helps urge her on. The reversal of traditional gender roles that the watchman had seemed to fear in the opening scene, and which no doubt would have been emblematic to the original audiences as a sign of confusion, of the overturning of the natural order of things, appears here, at the end of the play, to be a fact. Nonetheless, it is he who walks in when everything has already been done, and assumes power.

The chorus objects, and Aigisthos, who was happy to be away from the scene to leave the woman to do the dirty work, appears quite willing to put down this much lesser opposition of old men – men who, even ten years earlier, had been deemed unfit for war. But, perhaps surprisingly, it is Klytaimnestra who stops him.

No, dearest man; let us do no more harm.

So many things have now been done that they will be a bitter harvest.

There has been enough torment already; let us not be stained with blood.

The desire not to be stained with blood must sound very strange, coming as it does from a woman who, from her own account of the killing, has been stained with the spurting blood of Agamemnon.

She tells the old men to return to their homes, which they do: it seems a surprisingly weak and anti-climactic end to their part, given their prominence in the rest of the play. But if there is a sense of bathos in the departure of the chorus, then that is clearly what Aeschylus had wanted; the chorus’ part in the drama has ended, but the drama itself is much larger than them. The chorus now departed, we are left at the very end of the play with the weak and cowardly figure of Aigisthos, with the blood-spattered Klytaimnestra, and with the two butchered and mangled bodies.

How are we to interpret Klytaimnestra’s final words? Up to this point, she had been dominant, triumphant. Has the strain of it all now brought her down? Is all that strength that we had witnessed on the point of collapse here, at the very end? Ewans, in his footnotes, certainly seems to think so, but I can’t say I am convinced. She is certainly still strong enough to prevent Aigisthos from killing the old men of the chorus, as he had threatened to do. But as well as being strong, she is also, I think, a tremendously intelligent character – certainly more so than Aigisthos – and she knows that if Agamemnon’s deed had terrible consequences, so, by the same logic, must hers. She wishes not to be “stained with blood”, and yet she knows that she already is.

If only we could say ‘Here is an end of all our troubles’;

we have been mangled terribly by the god’s heavy claw.

It is not that she feels remorse: at no point does she express that. But what we see here is the same pattern that we had observed from the very beginning of the play: anxious hope, fulfilment of that hope, and, almost immediately, apprehension – fear of what comes next for us humans mangled so terribly by god’s heavy claw. For, as the chorus has told us, there is nothing that is not Zeus, no event that has not been destined by him. We do what Zeus has destined us to do; but – and here is the terrible, inexplicable paradox – we do it also as free agents, and bear the responsibility.

And Klytaimnestra knows all this. Or she has come, through experience, to know it.  And she fears what comes next. As we all do: we all know the pattern by now. And there are two more plays still to come.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Agamemnon.]

“Aias” by Sophocles

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tale of the downfall of Aias (or Ajax) lends itself easily to a satisfactory dramatic form. The tragic drama may start with a council scene, where the leading figures of the Greek forces meet, and decide to award the armour of the dead Achilles not to the great warrior Aias, but to he wily Odysseus. Aias could then be given a monologue where he expresses his sense of humiliation (there are other works that have a major council scene near the start, and from which the principal character emerges feeling humiliated and alienated: Hamlet, for instance; or The Iliad). Or perhaps the play could start immediately after the council scene, with the hurt and humiliated protagonist. Then, after the monologue, Aias, his immense pride wounded beyond repair, could have an exchange with a chorus consisting of his men: he wants to slaughter the Greek leaders who, in his opinion, have dishonoured him; and the chorus could try, but fail, to dissuade him from this course of action. Aias could then exit, sword in hand, and after the chorus has expressed its fears, a messenger could come in with a long narration: instead of slaughtering the Greek leaders, as Aias had intended, he has been driven mad by the goddess Athena, and has merely slaughtered animals instead. Aias now enters, filled with shame, and, after another monologue, and another exchange with the chorus, he goes offstage to kill himself. In an epilogue, Tekmessa, his concubine, and Teukros, his half-brother, could enter and, with the chorus, deliver a lament.

This would have been a perfectly acceptable dramatic arc. All the characteristics that we imagine define Greek tragedy are present and correct. We see the downfall of a great hero; and we can even identify the hubris that brings about his downfall. Audiences can go home happy, having learnt the moral that pride comes before a fall; and for centuries, this play would have been held up as the archetypal Greek tragedy – one where everything is so clearly and precisely laid out.

The only problem is that this is the play Sophocles chose not to write. And we must, I think, ask ourselves why.

Instead of starting with the council scene, or immediately after it, Sophocles starts at a point here the slaughter of the beasts has already taken place; and instead of starting with Aias, he starts with the goddess Athena, who gloats in the further humiliation of Aias, and with Odysseus, whom she invites to gloat with her. It may seem a strange place to start.

And neither is the suicide of Aias the culminating point of the drama: this suicide comes not at the end, but at a point where there is still nearly half the play remaining. The latter part of the play is taken up not with the themes of Aias’ pride and Aias’ shame, but, rather, with a squabble over how his body is to be disposed of: the Greek commanders, Agamemnon and Menalaos, who show themselves as somewhat petty and mean, refuse to accord Aias a proper burial; however, Teukros, Aias’ half-brother, is openly hostile, and even, at times, insulting to the commanders, reminding them of Aias’ heroic courage, and of his skill and prowess in the war which he had fought on their behalf. The unseemly squabble over the hero’s body only comes to an end when Odysseus, Aias’ greatest enemy, overrules Agamemnon and Menelaos, makes peace with Teukros, and orders Aias to be given a funeral befitting a hero.

This curious construction has not escaped censure. Sophocles, it has been claimed, has written here a curiously disjointed play – a play in two parts which don’t really fit together, and which, as a consequence, lacks unity. It is certainly true that the play falls into two distinct parts, almost equal in length; and it is true also that the narrative arc of the first part is very different from the narrative arc of the second. But, unless we want to accuse Sophocles of being an incompetent dramatist who gets wrong even basic things that any journeyman playwright would have got right, we have to ask ourselves why Sophocles has chosen to write it in this manner – why he was happy to introduce a narrative discontinuity that could so easily have been avoided. Clearly, Sophocles must have felt that this discontinuity was a price worth paying; but worth paying for what?

I think we may get the earliest intimations of this in the first scene, where Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at Aias’ madness, but Odysseus instead pities him. And the reason for his pity is interesting:

… I pity him

as he is now, although he is my enemy, because

he has been bound fast to a terrible downfall.

In this, I think no more of him than of myself.

I see that all of us who live are nothing else

but phantoms, empty shadow.

Odysseus’ pity and compassion, his humility in this situation, are not entirely altruistic. Humility as a virtue in itself is more a Christian than a Greek concept: Odysseus’ humility is, as he says himself, occasioned by his thinking of himself. For he recognises that all humans, himself included, are subject to the same forces, since they are all “but phantoms, empty shadows”. And the terrible downfall to which Aias has been bound fast could be his own downfall too, since he too, like Aias, is human.   

This sense of the mutability of the state of human affairs becomes a central point of the play. We are all phantoms and empty shadows: he who was yesterday a great hero and an invincible warrior is now a laughable figure, reduced to slaughtering mere animals. Tekmessa, in a moving speech, tells of her own past reversal of fortune as she pleads with Aias:

… Your spear destroyed my native land:

another cruel fate seized both my mother

and my father; they are now in Hades, dead.

I have no other home except your house,

no money; my whole life depends on you.

Odysseus is today a revered leader of men, famed for his guile and his intelligence; but what will he be tomorrow? What will any of us be tomorrow? For Athena, “the sweetest of all laughters is to laugh at enemies”. But she is an immortal, not subject to the mutability to which humans are subject: she is no mere phantom, no mere empty shadow. But we who are, like Odysseus, mortal, have to ask themselves how we should behave, given that phantoms and empty shadows are precisely what we are. As Athena herself says:

One day can weigh down everything a human being is or has

or lift it up again.

Aias too becomes aware of the mutability of the nature of things – how friends may become enemies, and enemies friends:

… I now know that an enemy

should only be so hated, as a man who will

become a friend again; and I wish

only to help a friend so far – because I know

he won’t always be true.

But this understanding has come to him too late: he is already in disgrace not only in other’s eyes, but in his own – to such an extent, indeed, that he cannot think of any way out other than suicide. And suicide is not noble in Greek culture: in all the extant Greek tragedies, there are only two suicides – that of Antigone, and that of Aias, and in neither is there any intimation, as there frequently is in Shakespeare’s tragedies, that it was a noble act. But even if this understanding had come to Aias earlier, it is doubtful whether he would have had the intelligence to act upon it. For what he had planned to do to the Greek leader – his erstwhile companions in battle – was hideous. When we see him still in the grips of madness, he actually boasts with joy that he has Odysseus his prisoner, and will torture him before killing him. And all this because he feels he had been slighted – although it is worth noting that, apart from his own followers, no-one else seems thinks so. It would be hard to imagine a tragic protagonist less worthy of the audience’s sympathy.   

It is perhaps not very surprising, therefore, that Agamemnon and Menelaos should be so spiteful towards Aias, even after his death, refusing him even a burial. What is more surprising is Odysseus’ generosity to his fallen enemy – the man who not only intended to kill him, but to torture him first. Agamemnon and Menelaos aren’t convinced by Odysseus’ generosity – and in this, we may well sympathise with them, despite their pettiness: but they do not oppose him.

At the conclusion of the play, Odysseus makes peace with Teukros, and agrees to help him bury the fallen hero: the understanding that had come to Aias too late – that friends may become enemies, and enemies friends – proves true.

And this, I think, is at the heart of the play. It is not so much a character study of Aias – who has, frankly, not enough depth to his character to carry the burden of an entire drama: it is, rather, an examination of the question of how we are to live, how we are to behave with each other, given the mutability of everything, given the constant flux that is our lives, and given that we are all but phantoms and empty shadows.

But I would, however, be interested in other interpretations.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Aias.]

“Prometheus Bound”, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

It is difficult now not to see this play through Romantic lenses: the image of the great hero rebelling against a tyrannical authority, and remaining defiant despite the most terrible punishment inflicted by the tyrant, is virtually an archetypal Romantic image. This image received perhaps its most striking realisation in Act 2 of Beethoven’s Fidelio, in which the enchained Florestan, in his dark, solitary dungeon, bewails his fate, but remains unrepentant, and hurls defiance at the tyrant who oppresses him. It is hard, indeed, to write about that scene without using the adjective “Promethean”.  It is no surprise that just about every major Romantic writer revered Prometheus Bound – Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Hugo, etc. The later parts of this trilogy haven’t survived, but Shelley famously wrote his own version of Prometheus Unbound, one of the cornerstones of the Romantic canon. The Romantics saw Zeus and Prometheus as symbols of, respectively, tyrannical temporal power, and of heroic resistance to it, but I wonder to what extent this was intended: would the first Athenian audiences have seen it in such terms? Perhaps not. But given that the Romantics have taught us to see it this way, I don’t think we can unsee it.

Neither is it possible, I think, for us not to see this play through a Christian lens: a crucified God suffering for his love of mankind is bound to have resonances of Christianity. But the play’s central thrust remains, nonetheless, far from the Christian ethos: while the suffering God in Christianity remains part of the Holy Trinity, alongside God the Father (let’s not get into theology here!), the suffering God in Prometheus Bound is, quite explicitly, an enemy of the Supreme Divine Power, and defies him: the overriding emotion projected is not grief, but, rather, defiance.

In short, Prometheus Bound has a great many resonances that are really accumulations of ideas and concepts from later times, but seeing this play free from these accrued concepts is now virtually impossible. One point that has changed from the era of Romanticism is on the question of authenticity: no-one doubted in the days of Goethe or Shelley that this play was authored by Aeschylus, but there are very great doubts upon it now, based not only on the fact that there is no record of the Athenian Festival to confirm its date or authorship, but also from the internal evidence of its style, which – so I am told – is markedly different from his other plays. Given that only a small fraction of Aeschylus’ plays now survives (only seven out of about eighty or ninety), I’d have thought it dangerous to draw any definite conclusion about Aeschylus’ style. But this is a dispute I am happy to leave to scholars, who, I believe, are fairly evenly split on the matter.

But judged in the context of the plays that have survived, it certainly reads differently. This is mainly, I think, due to the reduced role of the chorus. In all six of the other surviving plays, the chorus plays a much more important part, at times taking on themselves the role of the protagonist (in Suppliants, certainly, and possibly in The Persians and in The Eumenides also). Here, in contrast, they seem almost dispensable: not only do they not play any part at all in the action (such as it is), they fail to reflect on many of the major issues thrown up by the play, such as the morality of stealing fire from the gods (even for what is ostensibly a good cause), or Zeus’ motives in acting as he does. The focus is very much on Prometheus, who is given long speeches throughout, and whose interactions with the chorus is, surprisingly, kept to a minimum.

Another aspect of this play that marks it out as different is its lack of human characters. The only human character in the drama is Io, whose appearance, (from a different myth) seems almost arbitrary. The very first lines establish a world far distant from that of their audience:

We have come now to the very ends of Earth,

the plains of Skythia, a desert uninhabited by man.

A world that Aeschylus’ audience could not even imagine.

Then, the first figures appear: the Titan Prometheus is led in by two characters who are not human, nor even gods or other immortals: they are Power and Violence, personifications of abstract concepts. It is hard to escape the conclusion that what we are witnessing is not a drama set in the real world as such, but, rather, a drama of the Mind. This, I imagine, would have been very congenial to the Romantic era, which produced a great many Dramas of the Mind – plays intended to be read as High Art, but not really written for the stage: Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Byron’s Manfred, the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and even Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt (although cut-down versions of the last two work very well on stage, whatever the dramatist’s intentions). This play, dealing with abstract concepts and set in some Landscape of the Mind, with many of its characters literally flying in (Ewans in his glossary describes the use of a mechane, which is a “crane used in and after the late fifth century [BCE] to swing into view gods and other characters who are to be imagined as flying into the playing aera”), set this play at some remove from Aeschylus’ other surviving works.

The concept of Zeus is also different. In the other surviving plays there had been questions about Zeus, that omnipotent god whose ways mortals cannot understand. Here, he is not omnipotent: had he been so, he would not have allowed Prometheus to steal the fire. And neither is there any ambiguity or mystery about him: his ways aren’t hard to understand: he is merely a cruel and malevolent tyrant, who, some day, will be deposed. The opposition between Zeus’ tyranny and Prometheus’ heroic resistance can be thrilling, but one can’t help feeling that the dramatic tension generated by this ambiguity in the other plays is missing: it is all much simpler here, and, as a consequence, somewhat cruder.

Prometheus is at the centre of the play, immovable, since he is crucified to a rock at the very opening of the play. So whatever movement there is (and I believe dance was an important aspect of the original setting) had to be around the static protagonist. Prometheus has four scenes – first with the chorus of Okeanides; then with their father, Okean; then with Io, the only mortal character in the drama, who appears to have wandered in from a different play; and, finally, with Hermes. None of these scenes advances the drama, as such, which remains fairly static, but it could be argued that each succeeding scene intensifies the state of Prometheus’ mind. It’s not that his mind changes, but rather, it becomes ever more obdurate and defiant as the play progresses. The appearance of Io seems to me particularly puzzling. Yes, she too is a victim of Zeus’ cruelty; and yes, she contrasts with Prometheus in that he is condemned by the cruelty of Zeus to be static upon his rock, while she is condemned by the same cruelty to be continually on the move. And one also notes that Io is, according to mythology, an ancestor of Heracles, who would, some aeons or so later, free Prometheus. But even having noted all this, it’s hard to shake off a sense of the arbitrary: why do these two particular characters have to meet, and in what way does the scene between them advance the drama?

The ending is spectacular, although one wonders how it could have been staged without modern stagecraft. Or, indeed, whether it was staged at all: certainly the poetry is vivid enough to allow the audience to imagine it all for themselves:

Now the earth is shaken

not in words but deeds,

and from the depths the sound of thunder

bellows in response, and fiery coils

of lightning flash, and whirlwinds

twist the dust, the breaths of all

the winds leap up on each other

in civil war…

Blimey!

For what happens next, I think we need to turn to Shelley. Whether intentional or not, Prometheus Bound lends itself to a Romantic perspective.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Prometheus Bound.]

“Suppliants” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

Tragedy, and especially Greek tragedy, depicts, it is often asserted, the downfall of a protagonist as a consequence of that protagonist’s fatal character flaws. This doesn’t really take into account those various tragedies where the protagonists character flaws play no part in the downfall (Herakles, say, where the tragedy comes about not because of flaws in Herakles’ character, but because the goddess Hera, for reasons best known to herself, makes him mad); or those tragedies where the downfall is the consequence of the protagonist’s virtue rather than of the protagonist’s flaw (Antigone is an obvious example); or where there is no downfall (The Oresteia ends in triumph, Oidipous in Kolonos in transcendence, and even Medea is rescued by the gods); or, best of all, where, as in The Persians, there is no protagonist. It is always dangerous formulating rules for what tragedies ought to be: these plays need ideally to be seen in the context of their own rules, which differ from play to play.

In Suppliants, for instance, there does not appear to be any single protagonist: if we are to use that term at all, we can only apply it to the chorus, since it is their fate that is in the balance. This chorus does far more than merely observe the action and comment: it is they who initiate the action, and it is they whose very presence drives the action forward. However, at no point during the play is this chorus faced with a tragic dilemma (as one may expect from a tragic protagonist): it is the people of Argos (not seen in this play), and their king Pelasgos – that is, characters who are most certainly not protagonists – who face a tragic dilemma. And at the end, there is no downfall. But it is not unmitigated triumph either: what could have been an unambiguously joyous ending is mixed, quite startlingly, with powerful notes of unease. Just about every single rule we may propound for the tragic form is here overturned.

It could be argued, of course, that what we perceive as the ending is not really the ending: this is the first part of a trilogy, and the second and third parts are lost. The unease of the final tableau is intended, most likely, to prepare the ground for what is yet to come. We know from existing myths what the narrative line of these later plays would have been, but what we cannot know, of course, is how Aeschylus’ would have treated them.

The plot, briefly, is this: the fifty daughters of Danaos come to Argos from Aigypt, pleading for protection, as, back home, they are threatened with forced marriage; the Argives and their king Pelasgos are faced with a tragic dilemma: either they grant the Daneids protection, and face almost certain warfare; or they deny that protection, and face the wrath of Zeus for flouting his law. The Daneids turn the screw further in a passage of swift stychomythia:  if they are not granted protection, they say, they will use their waistbands – “such as a woman usually wears” – to hang themselves upon the very images in Zeus’ shrine. Through no fault of their own, Pelasgos and the Argives face the tragic dilemma, to which there is no good solution: either to plunge the city into war, or to face divine wrath. The citizens of Argos vote to offer protection, but the tragic seeds are sown.

This is what is covered in this play. Afterwards, according to the myth, war does indeed break out between the Argives and the Aigyptians over this matter; the Aigyptians prevail; and the fifty sisters are forcibly married. They plan, however, to kill their husbands on their wedding night, and they all carry out this plan – all except one Hypermnestra. The myth does not tell us the motives of Hypermnestra – whether it was cowardice on her part, or whether she truly loved her husband Lynkeus: no doubt Aeschylus had his own ideas. From one tantalising fragment that survives from the final play of this trilogy, the goddess Aphrodite appears to be speaking at a trial, but whether it is the trial of the forty-nine sisters for killing their husbands, or of Hypermnestra for not killing her husband, is not clear:

… The sacred Heaven yearns to penetrate the Earth,

and Earth itself is yearning for the wedding too;

desire makes showers of love fall down from Heaven,

impregnate the Earth; then she gives birth

to food for flocks and to Demeter’s gifts for all

mankind. The moisture of this marriage makes the trees

grow perfect fruits. Of all these things I am the cause.

Much, inevitably, is now left to conjecture, and what Aeschylus made of this whole myth is tantalisingly unclear. What is clear, though is that the potential tragic fate of the Daneids is not a consequence of any character flaw on their part; and neither is the tragic choice faced by the Argives a consequence of any character flaw on their part. Maybe the flaw is in the nature of the world itself, but that won’t really do either: the evil has come very clearly from the Aigyptians who are attempting to force the Daneids into marriage; but though they may be the originators of the evil, the tragedy is not theirs. So much remains unresolved.

It’s possibly best to see this existing play as but the first part of a three part drama, and not take the ending of the first part to be Aeschylus’ final word. However, this standalone drama does seem to me to make sense even as it is: sometimes, “there is no possible resolution” can serve as a resolution in itself.

For the question that requires resolution is the nature of Zeus. It is that eternal question that has worried people of all cultures: what exactly is the nature of divinity? Zeus is praised throughout, and is supplicated. Fear of offending Zeus drives much of the action. And yet – what kind of being is he? Some half way through the play, the chorus prays to him:

King of kings, most blessed

of the blessed ones, most perfect

of all perfect powers, Zeus, god of riches;

hear us, and shield your daughters from

male violence, which you truly hate;

hurl their black-thwarted, evil ship

into the sea’s depth!

But soon afterwards, the pursuing ship loaded with Aigyptian soldiers lands, very much not from the seas’ depth: either Zeus has not heard the heartfelt supplication, or he doesn’t care. There follows what is possibly the most action-filled onstage business in any Greek drama, as the Aigyptians try forcibly to abduct the panic-stricken daughters of Danaos. However, the Danaides have the protection of the city of Argos, and so, they are saved. For the moment, at least.

But the questions remain unresolved. What sort of god is it who demands that the people of Argos, through no fault of their own, face either bloody warfare or divine wrath? What sort of god is it who refuses to hear the Daneids’ heartfelt supplication?

If these questions aren’t resolved at the end of this play, that need not be seen as a dramatic flaw: whatever we may conjecture about the remaining plays of the trilogy, we can be sure those plays do no resolve these questions either; these questions have no answer. Enough that they have been posed.

And, in the finale, they are emphasised. One problem with making the chorus the protagonist is that it becomes difficult to negotiate those scenes where the protagonist needs to converse with the chorus. Aeschylus’ solution to this is as daring as it is simple: introduce a second chorus. In the existing text, it is not clear who the members of this second chorus are: most translations I have looked at give their lines to the handmaidens of the Daneids, who have been silent throughout the play, and speak only in the finale. Michael Ewans, in his translation, introduces a group of Argive soldiers to act as the second chorus. Either way, the play ends, quite remarkably – and quite uniquely, I think, in the existing Greek plays – with a dialogue between two choruses.

This second chorus is fatalistic:

When something’s destined, it will happen;

Zeus’ mighty, endless will

cannot be crossed.

And, a few lines later:

Daneids: How could I see into the mind

                  of Zeus? It is unfathomable.

Argives: Utter moderate prayers.

Daneids: What should I choose?

Argives: Not to ask too much of the gods.

And, with Argive pessimism undercutting the triumph of the Daneids, the play draws to an end. Or, rather, the first part of the trilogy draws to an end, but what remains unresolved here remains unresolved still.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Suppliants.]

“The Persians” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

The tragedies that have survived from Ancient Athens all have mythological themes – all except one, that is: The Persians, now believed the be the earliest of these tragedies (and, hence, the earliest surviving play from any culture, anywhere in the world) deals with a historic event. And very recent history, at that: the play depicts the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, which had taken place only eight years earlier, and where the invading Persian forces, led by their king Xerxes, were defeated by the much smaller Greek forces. Whether this focus on recent history rather than on mythology makes The Persians unusual among Greek tragedies is difficult to say, given how few of them have survived; but it certainly makes it unique among existing tragic dramas.

Not surprisingly, we need to adjust our modern expectations of drama quite considerably. There is no confrontation: the action of the play – if it may be called “action” – seems, to modern expectations at any rate, static. It consists of the chorus grieving. And of the Persian queen Atossa, also grieving. The ghost of the previous Persian king, Dareios (I am using the spellings as used in Michael Ewans’ translation) then appears, and he too is grieving. And finally, King Xerxes himself appears. And he also grieves. This is not what a modern audience expects from drama.

And yet, in one sense at least, it is surprisingly modern. The main events of the drama – at least in the sense that all that we see and hear is a reaction to it – is the Battle of Salamis, and the subsequent destruction of the Persian army; and not only does this happened offstage, it has happened before the action of this play begins. So we don’t see any of this in the play; what we see instead are the characters’ reactions to all this, and their understanding, or their coming to an understanding, of what it all signifies. We are all used to this sort of thing nowadays: many of Ibsen’s plays – Ghosts, for instance, or Rosmersholm – are similarly structured, in that most of the events of the story have already taken place before the rise of the curtain. Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is some three hours and more of four people endlessly brooding on past events. This kind of structure draws the focus of the drama away from the events themselves, and to the characters’ growing understanding of these events, and of what they signify. Such a concept of drama may seem quite modern to us, but here it is, right here, in the earliest play we know of.

If the play appears to us somewhat unrelieved in tone, that clearly is Aeschylus’ intention. It would have been perfectly natural say, to have presented the chorus initially as optimistic and bullish, and then to have dashed this tone with the messenger’s narration, thus achieving a theatrically effective reversal. But Aeschylus eschews this: the chorus is apprehensive from the beginning:

But will the king come back

and will his teeming army?

I am disturbed

By premonitions of disaster.

The Queen, King Xerxes’ mother, then enters, and she offers no relief to this sense of foreboding; instead, she intensifies it by narrating an ominous dream of hers. Quite clearly, unity of tone, even perhaps uniformity of tone, was more important to Aeschylus than any sense of contrast or of reversal.

The messenger’s four long speeches narrate the disasters, but rather interestingly, while the names of the Persian lords are listed, those of the Greeks are not:  presumably, this is because it is not the Greeks who are the focus of this drama. The focus is on those who suffered. The Greeks, whom Aeschylus could easily have named had his primary intention been to celebrate their heroism and their triumph, remain an almost impersonal, and certainly nameless force. Indeed, in the last of the four speeches of the messenger, it’s not even the Greeks who defeat the Persians, but, rather, the forces of nature; or, what is perhaps much the same thing, the gods. Many, we are told, “died from thirst and hunger”.  And then the final disaster, where the ice on the frozen River Strymon cracks, and drowns the soldiers:

… That night, some god

aroused unseasonable winter weather, so the stream

of sacred Strymon froze right over; soldiers who before

that time believed the gods are nothing then began

to pray, prostrate before the earth and sky.

After the troops called out repeatedly the gods

they went across the icy frozen stream.

But the belated prayers to the gods do not save them: soon, “the sun-god sprayed his rays”, melting the ice, and drowning those who were upon it. Throughout this final narration, it’s the gods, not the Greeks, who bring disaster upon the Persians. Queen Atossa says this directly immediately after the messenger’s narration:

Terrible god, your foot has crushed

The whole race of the Persians.

But why do the gods visit so terrible a fate upon the Persians? In the next scene, the ghost of Dareios, Xerxes’ father, appears. Xerxes had been guilty of hubris, of reaching for more than the gods will allow. Dareios is horrified to hear that his son had bridged the Hellespont with ships. “Some daimon,” says the queen, was “partner to his will”; “a daimon great enough to warp his mind,” the ghost of Dareios responds.

Aeschylus is playing as fast and loose with history here as he does with mythology in his other plays, adapting what is given to his dramatic needs: for Dareios himself had, in his life, bridged the same Hellespont. But the dramatic need here is to present Xerxes as over-reaching, his mind warped by a daimon, while Dareios himself, for the sake of contrast, is presented as having been prudent. This, I think, is the heart of the drama: Xerxes had over-reached; he had flouted the will of Zeus; and for this, he is punished. Given the very structure of this drama, the point is not so much what happened, but why it happened.

Xerxes himself, who had through his hubris brought this disaster upon his people, enters in the final scene, a broken man. Once again, Aeschylus defies our expectations: one might have expected an exchange between Xerxes and his mother, the queen, but Aeschylus has the Queen Atossa leave before her son enters: the relationship between Atossa and Xerxes is not the point; the point is the punishment the gods inflict for hubris, and the immense suffering entailed.

***

The Persians is not an easy play for those us accustomed to modern expectations of drama. It appears as a series of tableaux depicting defeat and lamentation; what variety there exists comes from depictions of different aspects of that defeat, and what drama there is comes from the characters coming to an understanding of why this terrible fate has been visited upon them. We may find it lacking in just about everything we nowadays think of as dramatic; but it is clearly, I think, what Aeschylus had intended.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on The Persians.]

Holmes’ final problems

As is well known, Conan Doyle killed off his creation Sherlock Holmes in the story “The Final Problem” in 1893, but, due, it is claimed, to public pressure, but more, I suspect, because he missed writing these stories, brought him back to life again ten years later in “The Empty House”. The resurrection isn’t s ingenious as is often claimed: there was, after all, no body recovered from the Reichenbach Falls, into which Holmes was supposed to have fallen, locked in deadly combat with Professor Moriarty; and this makes me wonder whether Conan Doyle wanted all along to keep up his sleeve the option of bringing Holmes back at some later date. He tested out the waters, as it were, two years before “The Empty House” with The Hound of the Baskervilles – a story that had presumably taken place before the incident at the Reichenbach Falls – and its spectacular success indicated there was still a strong public appetite for Holmes & Watson. And so, in 1903, back to life Holmes came – not in stories that had taken place before his presumed death, but in the here-and-now. And to the delight of Holmesians both then and now, “The Empty House” was followed in the Strand magazine by twelve others, and afterwards published together in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

There are those, it must be said, who feel that Holmes wasn’t quite the same after the resurrection – that the earlier stories are superior to what followed. I think this is palpable nonsense. The best stories in this collection are among the finest in the entire canon – “The Priory School”, “The Six Napoleons”, “The Abbey Grange”, etc.; and, looking through the thirteen titles, there doesn’t seem to me to be a single weak link – certainly nothing as weak as, say “A Case of Identity” (in the first collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), or “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” (which is effectively an inferior re-run of “The Red-Headed League”) in the second collection, The Memoirs. Indeed, The Return of Sherlock Holmes may well be the finest and most consistently inspired of the five collections.

However, it is much harder, it seems to me, to defend the fifth ad final collection, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. After The Return, instead of publishing planned sets, Conan Doyle wrote and published these stories more sporadically – much as fancy took him. His Last Bow, published in 1917, is a collection of seven of these stories, along with the earlier story “The Cardboard Box”, one of the very finest of the entire canon. (This story had been published in the Strand magazine as early as January 1893, but Conan Doyle had omitted it from the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, deeming it unsuitable for younger readers.) With the possible exception of “The Dying Detective”, every single story in His Last Bow seems to me a masterpiece, and two of them – “The Devil’s Foot” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” – seem to me quite exceptional. The collection wraps up with the title story, “His Last Bow”, a tale of Holmes, now approaching old age, lending his talents to the British secret services, and foiling an espionage attempt on the eve of the First World War.

But despite the title of the last story, Conan Doyle, it seems, couldn’t stop writing about Holmes and Watson. Between 1921 and 1927, twelve more stories were published in Strand, and these, collected together in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, gave us, most finally and most definitively, his last last bow. And this final collection, it must be admitted, is harder to defend than the earlier collections had been. However, when you’re a fan, you’re a fan, and even the least of these stories is of interest. And, reading them over recently, I found them far more interesting than I had remembered.

Let us admit first of all – and get it over with – that there are a number of weak stories here. There are two stories here narrated by Holmes himself (“The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”), and neither of these can be counted great successes. Holmes being the narrator isn’t really new: in two of the stories in The Memoirs (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”), while Watson had provided the narrative framework, it was Holmes who had narrated the bulk of the story, and his storytelling there was certainly better than it is here. Furthermore, the two cases here are solved not by detection, but by Holmes having retained some esoteric facts at the back of his encyclopaedic mind.

“The Mazarin Stone” too, is weak. Conan Doyle was, it seems, attempting to emulate stage productions, so the whole thing emerges as a conversation piece, with the entire exposition, development and denouement all taking place in the same set (Holmes’ front room in 221b Baker Street), and in the time it takes to read the story. It doesn’t really come off, I’m afraid.

“The Three Garridebs” is an inferior re-hash of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk”, which is itself an inferior re-hash of “The Red-Headed League”; but it’s hard to regret this story, especially given the rare moment of tenderness Holmes displays for Watson when his friend is wounded by a gunshot. And while “The Veiled Lodger” doesn’t really display any detection work, it is redeemed by a genuinely interesting and thrilling backstory. And also by this delicious passage:

The discretion and high sense of professional honour which have always distinguished my friend are still at work in the choice of these memoirs, and no confidence will be abused. I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated, I have Mr Holmes’s authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand.

Throughout this collection, there are tantalising references to other cases – most memorably near the start of “The Sussex Vampire”, where we are told of the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra – “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. Heard melodies are sweet, as the poet said, but those unheard are sweeter.

The one story in this collection I find hard to defend is “The Three Gables”. The story itself is pretty thin; and while we are accustomed to Holmes taking the law into his hands and letting the criminal off, it is hard to see why he does so in this case. And it is harder still to defend some of the comments made by Holmes to Steve Dixie – comments which, certainly by modern standards, can only be regarded as racist. (And the fact that Steve Dixie is a vicious thug hardly excuses Holmes’ comments.) Of course, they were different times, and the standards of what is acceptable have changed, but it’s nonetheless disappointing, especially given how warmly appreciative both Holmes and Watson had been of racial tolerance and of racial integration in the earlier (and rather touching) story “The Yellow Face”. If I had to lose just one story in the canon, this, I fear, would be it.

But the other stories in this collection I would strongly defend. “The Retired Colourman” and “Shoscombe Old Place” may not be Holmes and Watson at their best, but they are fine stories nonetheless. (In “Shoscombe Old Place”, Conan Doyle leads Holmes and Watson, quite successfully, I think, into the regions of Gothic horror.) And the much reviled “The Creeping Man” seems to me a splendid science fiction story: it is quite clearly a nod towards Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and, while the science in the story may not exactly be watertight (any more than in Stevenson’s story), it is worth it if only for Holmes’ rather melancholy observation “When one tries to rise above Nature, one is liable to fall beneath it”.

But I’ve kept the three best ones till the last. If “The Creeping Man” is Conan Doyle’s riff on Jekyll and Hyde, “The Sussex Vampire” is clearly a response to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And it’s a superb story. As in some other stories that hint at the supernatural (The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Devil’s Foot”), the truth is entirely rational: Holmes (unlike his creator) will not have it any other way:

“Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”

But even without the supernatural, Conan Doyle communicates powerfully an atmosphere of fear and of mystery, and this story would not have been out of place in any of the earlier collections. Neither would “The Illustrious Client”, in which Holmes is up against a truly formidable opponent, and which has one of the most thrilling denouements in the entire canon. But best of all, probably, is “Thor Bridge”: reading this intriguing story, with its ingenious solution, it’s like being back in old times again. Place this story in any of the earlier collections, and it would still stand out as one of the best.

So a mixed bag, all in all, and even though, overall, it doesn’t quite match up to the earlier collections, no self-respecting Holmesian would be without it.

There were no more comebacks after this one: this was, most definitely, the final curtain. We needn’t repine: this was the right place to stop. With the possible exception of “The Three Gables” – and even that I think I’d be sorry to lose – there’s not a single one of these fifty-six short stories (and four novels) that I would want to be without. Why? Oh, I don’t know … There are certain things that defy explanation.

Revisiting “Timon of Athens”

Timon of Athens is not a play often revisited, and for rather obvious reasons. A bare outline of the plot, such as it is, seems most unpromising: a wealthy and generous Athenian hosts lavish feasts, and showers his friends, of whom there are many, with extravagant gifts, but when he is in financial trouble himself, his friends decide they aren’t his friends any more and turn their backs on him; and this prodigal Athenian, now disabused, leaves the city to live in the wilderness, cursing mankind till he meets his death, offstage, for reasons unspecified. It’s a rather simple morality tale, pointing to rather trite and simplistic morals: do not be a spendthrift; do not put too much trust in other people; humans are ungrateful by nature; and so on – nothing, one might have thought, to interest a major literary artist. And neither does the plot leave much space for character development: Timon is first one thing, and then its complete opposite. As Apemantus says to him:

The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.

Instead of depicting the dynamic development of a character, we are presented with two contrasting tableaux, neither of which, being static, is particularly dramatic.

It is hard to determine when Shakespeare wrote this, as there is neither a record of a performance in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, nor any Quarto publication; nor even any documentation relating to it before it made its appearance in the First Folio. The themes and imagery that occur seem to suggest that this was written some time in the first decade of the 17th century – a period when Shakespeare was writing some of his most highly regarded tragic masterpieces – that is, when he was at the height of his powers. So this raises the question: what did Shakespeare, at the height of his powers, see in so simplistic a story, devoid of any great dramatic interest, to think it suitable material for a play?

The obvious answer, I think, was that Shakespeare was experimenting. This shouldn’t surprise us: looking through his plays, Shakespeare was frequently experimenting. Those experiments that worked have entered the canon so firmly that we do not think of them as experiments: we tend to take Antony and Cleopatra, say, for granted, rather than see it for the outrageous experiment it is. But not all experiments, of course, are equally successful: it is in the nature of experimentation that some are bound to fail. Or, at least, only partly succeed. Earlier in his career, for instance, Shakespeare experimented in introducing dark and even tragic elements into his comedies, and it doesn’t seem to me that he was uniformly successful in this: Shylock, for instance, is a tragic figure of tremendous power, but he does, I think, overwhelm the comic elements of the play. But no matter: so powerful is the figure of Shylock that top Shakespearean actors queue up to play him rather than play any of the relatively insipid characters populating the more comic strands. It remains, though, an unbalanced play: this particular experiment, while giving us Shylock, was by no means a complete success. Shakespeare was more successful in welding together the brighter and darker elements in Much Ado About Nothing, and succeeded so triumphantly in this respect in Twelfth Night that it becomes impossible to pick the light and the shade apart, so seamless is the construction. But throughout, he was experimenting: his artistic temperament was such that it was attracted to trying out new things, even at the risk of failure.

And Timon of Athens too, I think, is an attempt to try out something new, although, in this instance, it doesn’t quite work – certainly not well enough to create a dramatic figure as powerful as Shylock to compensate for the shortcomings. For the text gives the impression not even so much of an unfinished project as of a project abandoned: true, there are some passages that are quite magnificent, and undoubtedly the work of a great visionary dramatic poet; but equally, there are other passages that seem to cry out for revision, or even for rewriting; and since this is (from the internal evidence of the text) unlikely to be a late work, the fact that Shakespeare left these passages in such a state; coupled with lack of evidence for any performance in Shakespeare’s own time; seems rather to indicate that he had given up on the project: it just wasn’t going well. I’d guess, given Shakespeare’s willingness to experiment, there were many other such abandoned works – experiments that didn’t work – but this one, unlike the others, somehow made it into the First Folio. And that leaves us with some fascinating questions: what was Shakespeare trying to achieve here? And why did he not succeed?

One can only really provide tentative answers to this, based on guesswork: it is, after all, pointless to speculate on what was going on in a mind such as Shakespeare’s, and impertinent to presume to point out where he went wrong. It seems to me that Shakespeare was trying out satire – not satire as an incidental feature of the drama, but one that occupies its very centre; and a satire very different from the kind his friend Ben Jonson was writing at possibly the same time. Shakespeare, I think, was trying to accomplish more than pointing out human folly, and laughing at it. What more he was attempting deserves, I think, some attention.

If pointing out human folly had been Shakespeare’s primary aim, the play could well have finished after Act 3. But it is Timon’s hatred of humanity that takes up the final two acts. These acts are not dramatic since Timon does not develop further, but the intensity of his imprecations against humanity are chilling. Here, for instance, are his words to an army poised to take Athens:

… let not thy sword skip one:
Pity not honour’d age for his white beard;
He is an usurer: strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd: let not the virgin’s cheek
Make soft thy trenchant sword; for those milk-paps,
That through the window-bars bore at men’s eyes,
Are not within the leaf of pity writ,
But set them down horrible traitors: spare not the babe,
Whose dimpled smiles from fools exhaust their mercy;
Think it a bastard, whom the oracle
Hath doubtfully pronounced thy throat shall cut,
And mince it sans remorse

And so on. These are not merely the words of a man disillusioned with humanity: these are the words of a man in the grips of a genocidal rage. However much we may have sympathised with Timon’s disgust with humanity, it does not seem to me credible that Shakespeare could have intended us to sympathise with speeches such as this. And here, I think, is where Shakespeare’s satire differs from Jonson’s: the object of his satire is not merely human folly, but also revulsion from that same folly. Having invited us to deprecate human behaviour, Shakespeare invites us to deprecate that deprecation. And the emotion imparted is more than mere amusement, or disapproval: lines such as those quoted above inspire in the audience, or in the reader, a sense of horror. We find ourselves revolted by Timon’s revulsion; and Timon’s is a revulsion from the very follies that we ourselves have been invited to find revolting.  

The problem Shakespeare encountered, I think, is that he couldn’t find for this a suitable dramatic form. Comedy he rejected as not an adequate vehicle for conveying such horror, but the tragic form also threw up problems: far from describing a dynamic dramatic arc, the material resolved itself into two static tableaux, the second merely presenting a picture that is a reversal of the first. Yes, there is horror suitable for a tragic work, but there is neither the sense of development nor the complexity of character that Shakespearean tragic drama ideally requires.

The theme of human folly inviting a revulsion that is itself the object of satire was taken up by authors in later generations. Molière took up the theme triumphantly in Le Misanthrope, but he steered clear of horror: he was careful not to transgress the bounds of comedy of manners. Whatever the implications of his drama, he does not stray from the confines of the drawing room. But it was not, I think, Shakespeare’s intention to stay within confines: his protagonist had to break away from the bounds of civic society, and move into the wilderness, as Lear was to do. It was Shakespeare’s intention to present directly the horror to which revulsion from our fellow humans leads us. And it was his intention too, I think, to implicate the audience in that horror.

One author from a later generation who did present this horror directly was, I think, Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s genocidal rage is quite clearly of the same nature as Timon’s. And like Timon’s, his rage too is a consequence of revulsion from humanity, of disgust of human follies. And in Gulliver’s Travels, we, the reader, are faced with the same dilemma that we are faced with in Timon of Athens: how can we simultaneously sympathise with and yet be revolted by such rage? But Gulliver’s Travels is a prose narration (some would say a “novel”) rather than a play: the problem Shakespeare didn’t solve was giving this theme a dramatic shape. The satire in his plays, both before and after Timon of Athens, was incidental rather than central.

But even the failed experiments of a great writer remain fascinating. It is fascinating trying to understand from what we have, abandoned though it no doubt is, what Shakespeare was, at least, trying to do. It may well be, as I’d conjecture, that there had been many other such failed attempts which are now lost to us: given the experimental nature of Shakespeare’s art, it would have been very surprising if there hadn’t. But I’m certainly glad we have, at least, Timon of Athens: some failures are worth more than any number of successes.