Saturday, 30 July 2016

Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Jan Havickszoon Steen (1671).

Iphigenia in Aulis (Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Αὐλίδι) is the last surviving play of Euripides, written between 408 - 406 B.C. and performed after his death in 405 B.C. And, it's hard for me to believe, but it's my second last play on my Euripides list: the final play, which I'll read this afternoon, is Rhesus which is generally (but not absolutely certainly) attributed to Euripides and whose date is unknown. 

Iphigenia at Aulis is a tragedy and tells the story of how Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Very unusually the play does not begin with a lengthy prologue explaining the background of the play (in fact the only Euripides play without such a prologue is Rhesus); it begins with a conversations between Agamemnon and his attendant that reveals the events leading up to the action. The fleet is ready to set sail to Troy however the ship is unable to move as their is a complete lack of wind (I believe the proper term is "becalmed"): Calchas, an Argive seer who, thanks to the gift of Apollo, is able to interpret the flight of birds, believes this is a punishment from the goddess Artemis (whose Roman equivalent is Diana) who Agamemnon previously insulted. To appease her, Calchas advises that Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter. And so Agamemnon has sent for his wife  Clytemnestra, telling her to bring Iphigenia to be married to Achilles, however he regrets his decision and sends another message telling her to remain. However the message is not received (due to the intervention of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother) and Clytemnestra soon arrives with Iphigenia and the very young Orestes. Agamemnon and Menelaus talk further: Agamemnon is unwilling to sacrifice his daughter but Menelaus wishes it; his wife is Helen, who as we know is the very reason for the Trojan War. However both end up changing their minds: to placate the restless fleet and to win the war Agamemnon resolves to sacrifice Iphigenia whilst Menelaus begins to have doubts over the killing of his niece. Meanwhile Achilles discovers his name has been used to lure Clytemnestra and Iphigenia and he vows to defend her. However, when all is revealed, Iphigenia heroically consents to the sacrifice, despite her mother's heartbreak, after initially trying desperately to get Agamemnon to change his mind. Yet, when the sacrifice takes place, as told to Clytemnestra by a messenger, Iphigenia disappears at the crucial moment, her body replaced by a deer. It is uncertain whether this was the original ending by Euripides, but it is in keeping with Euripides' earlier play Iphigenia in Tauris (416 - 412 B.C.).

It is a dark and unsettling play, made all the more disturbing by the lack of resolve of Agamemnon and Menelaus, and indeed Iphigenia. Their lack on conviction in the sacrifice makes this play a tragedy and Euripides handles the matter with great sensitivity. Unlike Aeschylus' Oresteia, in which Clytemnestra revengefully kills Agamemnon and is in turn killed by Orestes and his sister Electra, Euripides does offer some hope: in his telling of the Iphigenia tale, Iphigenia does get a happy ending. It is a great play, and another new favourite of mine, and it went on to inspire Racine's Iphigénie (1674) which I hope to read fairly soon, and several operas, most notably Iphigénie en Aulide by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1774), which I look forward to listening to!

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Tragedy of Valentinian by John Fletcher.

1778 edition of The Dramatic Works of Beaumont and Fletcher vol. IV.

The Tragedy of Valentinian was my spin result for the Classics Club 13th Spin; I have many plays listed on my Classics Club list and decided this summer, in lieu of reading the ill-fated Faerie Queene by Spenser I would try and focus on the 16th and 17th Century plays listed, hence my list was full of plays from this era. Even so these plays make me nervous! A worthy project I think to read them, but they are tough and The Tragedy of Valentinian was one of the hardest ones I've read so far.

The Tragedy of Valentinian was written by John Fletcher, first performed around 1610-14 and first published in 1647. It's based on Valentinian III, the Roman Emperor from 425 to 455 A.D who was assassinated (it's thought his assassination was perhaps arranged by Petronius Maximus who declared himself emperor following Valentinian's death though he was never officially recognised as such). He is thought to be a poor emperor, Edward Gibbon writing in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88):
He faithfully imitated the hereditary weakness of his cousin and his two uncles, without inheriting the gentleness, the purity, the innocence, which alleviate in their characters the want of spirit and ability. Valentinian was less excusable, since he had passions without virtues: even his religion was questionable; and though he never deviated into the paths of heresy, he scandalised the pious Christians by his attachment to the profane arts of magic and divination.
John Fletcher explores this idea of Valentinian's power and lack of humanity and compassion: in the play he is a tyrant in charge of an empire that is in effect collapsing. A general, Aëtius, attempts to reform Valentinian, repeating criticisms to him honestly and frankly whereas Petronius Maximus, a soldier, privately shares his hatred of the emperor. Valentinian meanwhile is obsessed with Maximus' wife, the chaste and virtuous Lucina who he ultimately rapes. She later kills herself, supported by Maximus, and after his death he dedicates his life to seeking his revenge.

As I say it's a difficult play to read, or at least I thought so. It's essentially about power and power struggles; Valentinian as emperor has both political and divine power (I'm referring to the 'divine rights' of the emperors). However his power and his legal justifications lack compassion and actual justice. He perceives a right to rape Lucina, a struggle of power in itself between morality (embodied in Lucina not only as the victim of the rape but also in her character as being good and pure) and immorality (that is of course Valentinian). The power struggles continue with Petronius Maximus who is determined to act out revenge for the rape of his wife and to become Rome's next emperor.

One final note: the epilogue of this play is quite bizarre in its rather jolly tone. It's thought that there was a mix up at the printing office and actually belongs to Fletcher's The Fair Maid of the Inn, which (I've just checked) doesn't appear to have an epilogue. Here it is in full - you can imagine reading this after such a bleak tragedy!
We would fain please ye, and as fain be pleas'd;
'Tis but a little liking, both are eas'd:
We have your money, and you have our ware,
And to our understanding good and fair:
For your own wisdoms sake, be not so mad,
To acknowledge ye have bought things dear and bad:
Let not a brack i'th' Stuff, or here and there
The fading gloss, a general loss appear:
We know ye take up worse Commodities,
And dearer pay, yet think your bargains wise;
We know in Meat and Wine, ye fling away
More time and wealth, which is but dearer pay,
And with the Reckoning all the pleasure lost.
We bid ye not unto repenting cost:
The price is easie, and so light the Play,
That ye may new digest it every day.
Then noble friends, as ye would choose a Miss,
Only to please the eye a while and kiss,
Till a good Wife be got: So let this Play
Hold ye a while until a better may.
The Tragedy of Valentinian is a good play, not the greatest of reads I must admit (I felt that it didn't quite flow as well as it might have done), but I'm glad I've read it. I would even read it again!  

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Manuscript of the first page of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles is Thomas Hardy's twelfth published novel and was first serialised in The Graphic in 1891 before being published in book form in 1892. It was, at that point, one of his most shocking novels: Hardy, it seems, had been on a slow march from the comic story of his first publication 'How I Built Myself a House' (1865), his sensationalist first published novel Desperate Remedies (1871), to what will be a crescendo of tragedy and bitterness in Jude the Obscure (1895). Already he was feeling the burn of the critics and Tess divided the Victorian reading public for its portrayal and condemnation of sexual hypocrisy and a certain sympathy Hardy shows with the rural working classes. 

The subtitle of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented; given the content of the book that alone would be enough to rile the more traditional and conservative audience. It is divided into seven parts or "phases":

  • Phase the First: The Maiden 
  • Phase the Second: Maiden No More 
  • Phase the Third: The Rally 
  • Phase the Fourth: The Consequence
  • Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays 
  • Phase the Sixth: The Convert 
  • Phase the Seventh: Fulfilment 

It starts with young Tess Durbeyfield, sixteen years old and living with her parents John and Joan Durbeyfield in Hardy's Wessex, the Dorset area. In the opening pages John is told by a parson that he may be of noble decent, and his surname Durbeyfield is a corruption of the old Norman name D'Urberville. John immediately has ideas of grandeur and Tess is sent to the family home of the D'Urbervilles to claim kinship, unaware that they are not kin at all. Here she meets Alec D'Urberville and comes to work for them (feeling very much obliged; she was earlier involved in an accident that killed her family's horse). By the end of Phase the First Alec has, at the very best, seduced Tess, at worse raped her: this part of the novel is very ambiguous. Hardy writes,
Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter. 
As Tess's own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: "It was to be." There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine's personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother's door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm. 
1893 edition.
Whatever the case (and I did interpret it as rape - the language, the reaction of Tess after the episode, and the fact that it feels more in keeping with the tone of the novel made me decide on that interpretation) Tess finds herself pregnant however her baby dies soon after the birth. After a long period of suffering she gradually moves forward and she begins work in a dairy farm. There she meets Angel Clare once more (she initially met him before her doomed trip to the D'Urberville house) and eventually the two marry, however she is unable to contain what she feels is the shame of her past.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one of my favourite novels and I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet so I'll stop here. I will say it is one of Thomas Hardy's finest novels, harsh and cruel, almost a polemic against the double standards of the time. Tess is, as other Hardy female characters before her, like a victim of the Greek gods and goddesses. She is, as Hardy wrote, "a soul bound to some Ixionian wheel": accidents in Hardy's Tess are the powers of Fate at work, her ending already written from the first page when the parson told her father of his possible noble blood. Forgiveness and understanding were needed but were never shown and Tess really is a victim of circumstance. And the drama is further played out in the audience: Hardy's novel divided readers and publishers as I said and Mowbray Morris, the editor of Macmillan's Magazine rejected it as having "immoral situations" and being a novel of "rather too much succulence". The character Tess Durbeyfield and the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles show Victorian hypocrisy at its worst.

After a bad run with Thomas Hardy it was good to read Tess again and I'm looking forward to reading more of his works. Next month I'll be reading another collection of short stories, A Group of Noble Dames: his second after Wessex Tales, which were published in the same year as Tess.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

Henry VIII.
Henry VIII is William Shakespeare's final historical play and indeed is one of the last plays Shakespeare ever wrote (his final play was The Two Noble Kinsmen, also with Fletcher, written around 1613-14). It was a collaboration with John Fletcher written around 1613 and it marks the end of Shakespeare's histories that start with the Plantagenet king, King John, and ends with the Tudor King Henry VIII. By the time it was written it was some 66 years after the death of Henry and 10 years after the death of the final Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter. When the play was first performed England had its first Stuart king, James I.

Henry VIII is perhaps most famous for his six wives, Catherine of Aragon (to whom he was married for 24 years, mother of Mary I), Anne Boleyn (the mother of Elizabeth I), Jane Seymour (mother of Edward VI), Anne of Cleves (to whom he was married just six months), Kathryn Howard, and Katherine Parr. Two of these wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, he divorced, two (Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard) were executed, one died in his lifetime (Jane Seymour), and Katherine Parr survived, dying a widow. His divorcing Catherine of Aragon lead to the split of England with the Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England. Shakespeare and Fletcher's play focuses on his two wives, Catherine of Aragon (Shakespeare and Fletcher spell Catherine "Katherine") and Anne Boleyn (spelled "Bullen" in the play):

Catherine of Aragon.
Married in 1509, divorced in 1533.
Anne Boleyn.
Married in 1533, executed in 1536.
The play begins with the Prologue, telling the audience that this is a serious play:
I come no more to make you laugh: things now,
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,
Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow,
We now present. Those that can pity, here
May, if they think it well, let fall a tear;
The subject will deserve it...
Cardinal Wolsey. 
Three Lords enter, Norfolk, Abergavenny, and Buckingham (Buckingham is Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, the son of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham who Richard III executed). They express their concerns over the influence of the Catholic Cardinal Wolsey on Henry VIII, Buckingham in particular, who is advised to keep his concerns to himself, but no avail: he is later arrested for treason. But, in Shakespeare's play, Buckingham was right about the influence of Wolsey on Henry, he is a favourite of the king's and abuses his status and powers, and because of Wolsey Buckingham will be executed, with Katherine expressing her doubts throughout.

By the time of Buckingham's trial Henry has met Anne at a masquerade ball hosted by Wolsey; as Buckingham's trial takes place, which is discussed by two gentlemen on the streets of London in Act II, there are already rumours that Henry favours Anne over his wife Katherine and wishes to divorce her, something Wolsey wishes to facilitate as he as shown great hostility to the Queen. A trial takes place and Henry remains loyal to Wolsey: the divorce is granted and Katherine is sent to Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire where she died in 1536. Henry is thus free to marry Anne, however the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Earl of Surrey, and the Lord Chamberlain are plotting themselves against Wolsey and they obtain letters between him and the Pope (Pope Clement VII) which show that Wolsey may appear to support the king, however, to the Pope, he shows opposition to the divorce. Wolsey is at last out of favour.

Elizabeth I.
Nevertheless Anne and Henry are married, and Katherine ultimately gives her blessing, herself showing signs of a grave illness. Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, and Henry and Cramner, Thomas Cranmer the Archbishop of Canterbury and new Chief Advisor, express their joy at her birth, Cranmer saying, among other things,
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be--
But few now living can behold that goodness--
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear'd: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself...
It must be said Henry VIII is a rather strange play and I gather even the loyalist of Shakespeare fans are forced to admit it isn't such a success. It's somewhat disjointed and it's very clear that history has been rather re-written to give a flattering tale of a king whose daughter had not long since died. It reminds me somewhat of John Bale's Kynge Johan (1534 - 1561) which, though about King John, was to flatter the king and give some legitimacy to the Church of England; as in Henry VIII, the Catholic leaders are portrayed as duplicitous and unreliable. It is still an entertaining enough play; Shakespeare, rather wisely I thought, left it at the birth of Elizabeth (very much on a high note) and didn't go on to write of Anne's execution and the subsequent four wives, however this is not a historical document and should not be treated as such: it's a play to entertain, above all else, and offers some kind of commentary on the establishment of the Church of England. Another interesting fact about Henry VIII: it is believed that this play, with the firing of canons, is responsible for burning the original Globe Theatre to the ground in 1613! Finally, it is a great drama concerned with the ideas of truth and falsehood and the manipulations and attempted manipulations of others, in this case a monarch.


And with that I have finished re-reading Shakespeare's histories! Reading them was a great experience; to me, Shakespeare's histories represent some of the finest writings in the whole of the Western Canon. I've said before but I'll say again: reading them in order of action was, I think, a good choice and I got so much out of them; the pleasure of reading the plays and a little education (I say that cautiously) on the Plantagenet Kings of England. I'll finish with a little re-cap: these are the kings Shakespeare has wrote about:

King John.
Reigned: 1199 - 1216.
Play: The Life and Death of King John (1596-97).
Edward III.
Reigned: 1327 - 1377.
Play: The Raigne of Edward III (1596, with Thomas Kyd).
Richard II.
Reigned: 1377 - 1399.
Play: The Life and Death of Richard II (1595-96).
Henry IV.
Reigned: 1399 - 1413.
Plays: The First Part of Henry the Fourth (1597).
and The Second Part of Henry the Fourth (1597-98).
Henry V.
Reigned: 1413 - 1422.
Play: The Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth (1599).

Henry VI.
Reigned: 1422 - 1461 and 1470 - 1471.
Plays: The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1591),
The Second Part of Henry VI with the Death of the Good Duke Humfrey (1591) and
The Third Part of Henry VI with the Death of the Duke of Yorke (1591).
Edward IV.
Reigned: 1461 - 1470 and 1471 - 1483.
Plays: The Third Part of Henry VI with the Death of the Duke of Yorke (1591) and
The Tragedy of Richard III (1592).
Edward V.
Reigned: April 1883 - June 1883.
Play: The Tragedy of Richard III (1592).

Richard III.
Reigned: 1483 - 1485.
Play: The Tragedy of Richard III (and the Henry VI plays).
Henry VII.
Reigned: 1485 - 1509.
Play: The Tragedy of Richard III (1592).
Henry VIII.
Reigned: 1509 - 1547.
Play: The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth.
Queen Elizabeth I.
Reigned: 1558 - 1603.
Play: The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth
What next? Well, I plan on reading a few more histories - Thomas of Woodstock (by an unknown author, 1582) and King John and Matilda by Robert Davenport (1655). Then I'm thinking about re-reading Shakespeare's four "Roman Plays" - Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. I'm also rather looking forward to a return to Marlowe. All that said, I will miss reading Shakespeare's histories, and no doubt I'll read them again, especially looking forward to the best one of all - Richard III.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Bacchae by Euripides.

The Death of Pentheus.
When I read Euripides' Cyclops last week I finished Euripides' surviving plays that we know were performed in his lifetime. The three remaining plays are Rheseus, the date that was written or performed is unknown (so too is the authorship: it might not be a Euripides play), and then the two that were performed posthumously: Iphigenia at Aulis and the Bacchae, both from around 405, a year after Euripides' death.

The Bacchae (Βάκχαι), also known as The Bacchantes, is a tragedy and is regarded by some as his final great work. The play begins with a prologue from Dionysus, the son of Zeus and the god of wine and religious ecstasy (among other things), whose Roman equivalent is Bacchus. He tells the audience of how his mother Semele was killed having been tricked by Hera, the wife of Zeus:
I am Dionysus, son of Zeus. My mother was
Semele, Cadmus' daughter. From her womb the fire
Of a lightning-flash delivered me. 
He goes on to explain that no one believed his mother was impregnated by Zeus, and some, even her sister Agave, believe her death was a result of her blasphemy. And so he returns to Thebes to punish the family for lying about his mother and refusing to worship him. He arrives disguised having learned that Cadmus is no longer king; his grandson Pentheus was given the kingdom and it is Pentheus who prohibits the worship of Dionysus. On his arrival Dionysus drives Semele's sisters and the women of Thebes mad and sends them to Mount Cithaeron to worship and perform ritual rites. Pentheus, believing them to be drunk and disorderly, sends his soldiers to arrest the women and Dionysus, who he still believes is a stranger. Dionysus is indeed arrested and he begins to plot the murder of Pentheus, but first he avoids being bound, tortured and killed by tricking Pentheus, later telling the Chorus,
There too I mocked him; he thinks he bound me, whereas he never touched or caught hold of me, but fed himself on fancy. For at the stall, to which he brought me for a gaol, he found a bull, whose legs and hoofs he straightly tied, breathing out fury the while, the sweat trickling from his body, and he biting his lips; but I from near at hand sat calmly looking on. 
As he tries to convince Pentheus of his wrongs, the women, still mad, perform their insane rituals on the mountain and a cow herder narrowly avoids being killed by them when he crosses their path. Dionysus, seeing Pentheus' curiosity, offers to take him to the women, the maenads or the bacchants, and so Pentheus is concealed at the top of a tree. However, as Dionysus has planned, the women spot him - he is killed by his own mother Agaue who does not recognise him. When she realises she weeps, and Dionysus banishes her from Thebes. He then tells Cadmus and his wife Harmonia that they will be turned into snakes:
Now, Cadmus, hear what suffering Fate appoints for you.
You shall transmute your nature, and become a serpent.
Your wife Harmonia, whom her father Ares gave
To you, a mortal, likewise shall assume the nature
Of beasts, and live a snake. The oracle of Zeus
Foretells that you, at the head of a barbaric horde,
Shall with your wife drive forth a pair of heifers yoked,
And with your countless army destroy many cities;
But when they plunder Loxias' oracle, they shall find
A miserable homecoming. However, Ares shall
At last deliver both you and Harmonia,
And grant you immortal life among the blessed gods.
The Bacchae is a play on the rational and the irrational; the conflicts of the irrational mind and the rational social order. The irrational is of course represented by Dionysus and the rational Pentheus, however in this play Pentheus attempted to suppress the natural irrational and for that he lost his life. It is a warning, in short, for moderation. It's a great play, very short and yet remarkably disturbing.


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