The Suppliant Maidens
Seven Against Thebes
Oedipus the Tyrant
The Women of Trachis
Oedipus at Colonus
The Suppliant Women
The Trojan Women
Iphigenia in Tauris
The Phoenician Women
Iphigenia in Aulis
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Aristotle wrote that Greek tragedy developed out of the choric dithyramb. Thespis was the first actor known to step away from the chorus and make a dramatic scene, not just tell a story but actually act it out in present time. Now the protagonist could answer the chorus in a dialog. More than one point of view could be expressed at the same time allowing the portrayal of conflict in which the Greeks excelled. In 534 BC Peisistratus, who had enacted more than one real-life drama of his own to win tyranny over Athens, sponsored the first festival with a dramatic performance by Thespis and his troupe. Solon, who had reason to question the antics of Peisistratus, once asked Thespis if he were not ashamed to be telling so many lies in public; but the actor explained there was no harm in doing so in a play. In fact I believe we shall find that many of society's conflicts and ethical issues can be portrayed on the stage to enhance people's understanding without the negative consequences.
Aeschylus was born about 525 BC. At the beginning of the fifth century BC Athens' Dionysian festival became more organized, and Aeschylus began presenting tragedies in 499 BC along with Thespis, Pratinas, Choerilus, and Phrynichus, who was fined for reminding Athenians of their grief for the defeat by the Persians in The Capture of Miletus. Aeschylus, who is credited with introducing a second actor and making the dialog more important than the chorus, did not win first prize until 484 BC. The earliest of his seven extant plays, The Persians, was produced by Pericles in 472 BC and did win, as it reminded the Athenians of their glorious triumph over the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC. Aeschylus was so proud of having fought the Persians at Marathon that his epitaph mentioned this but nothing about his writing more than seventy plays and winning first prize thirteen times. The Dionysian prize was given for a cycle of three tragedies and a satyr play; so he won much of the time. Aeschylus was accused of revealing the Eleusinian Mysteries, but he was acquitted. Like the poets Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides, Aeschylus often visited Sicily as a guest of the tyrant Hieron at Gela, where he died in 456 BC.
The Persians is a most unusual Greek tragedy, because it is the only one extant that portrays a recent historical event; also as the title suggests, none of the characters are Greek. The scene is the palace at the Persian capital in Susa, where a chorus of elders waits for news from the Persians' second major invasion of Greece led by their king Xerxes. Although the Persians are presented sympathetically, the Greek viewpoint of the author and audience is still clear, since the Persian leaders are described as "slaves of the greatest of kings."1 They regret that the flower of her men is gone. The royal army that destroys cities has crossed from Asia to Europe over a bridge of ships that yoked the neck of the sea. The brave Persians under their leader, whom they consider equal to god, are accustomed to waging and winning wars. Yet the Aeschylean chorus asks how mortals may avoid the deception of god who leads astray. They note how the Persian women weep in their soft beds.
The Queen, consort of the late Darius and mother of Xerxes, fears that wealth may court contempt while indigence quenches ambition's flame. Her son has gone to pillage Greece, but the chorus reminds her the Greeks are slaves to none and were able to defeat the army of Darius. A herald arrives with news that at a single stroke prosperity is corrupted, and the flower of Persia has fallen; they were defeated in the naval charge at Salamis, though Xerxes lives. With the help of the gods the Greeks with 310 ships had overcome the Persians 1207 ships. Xerxes had thought he had the Greeks trapped and threatened that heads would roll if they escaped. All night the Persian captains stayed awake, but in the morning the Greeks advanced to free their fathers' land for their sons and wives. Never had so many died in one day, noble Persians dying in infamy, dishonor, and ugliness. The Queen laments bitterly the failed attempt to gain vengeance against Athens. The herald goes on to tell how the Persians were also defeated on land in Boeotia, and many more died of hunger and thirst as they retreated through Thrace.
Then the ghost of Darius makes the difficult ascent to learn that Xerxes "drained the plain manless."2 Darius notes the folly of trying to conquer the gods, and the Queen complains that counselors had reprimanded Xerxes for not having acquired wealth by the spear like his father until he plotted against Greece. Darius sees Zeus as the chastener of boastful minds; it is better to be wise, for wealth cannot benefit the dead. Finally the wretched Xerxes appears alone, the remnants of power without the hunters of the pack, lamenting his bitter fate. This tragedy reveals the dangers of imperialistic attempts at conquest, showing the consequences to those who would perpetrate such folly.
The Suppliant Maidens is the first part of a trilogy that enacts the story of the fifty daughters of Danaus who, rather than be compelled to marry the sons of Egyptus, brother of Danaus, have fled from Egypt to Argos, where their ancestor Io had been a priestess and princess. Accompanied by their father Danaus, the maidens, who make up the chorus, pray in a sacred grove to Zeus, who hates injustice and casts destructive men down from their towered hopes. King Pelasgus appears and notices they look more like Libyans than Greeks. The suppliants plead that he deny the demand of Egyptus' sons, but the king replies that waging a new war is hard. They remind him that justice will protect her allies. The king tells them that he will share their request with the people of the city, and they may work a cure. Pelasgus, caught in between, asks them why the laws of their home do not have authority over them. The women respond that they will never be subject to men in a heartless marriage; they believe the gods and justice are on their side. In their desperation they suggest that they might hang themselves. The king laments his dilemma as he thinks of the bitter waste that would result from a bloody battle with the Egyptians for the women's sake.
Again the women pray to Zeus to remove the pride of men, and Danaus brings news that the Argives have decreed they can settle there without being seized by foreigners. Danaus believes that the day will come when all who have dishonored the gods will pay. Finally a herald comes from the Egyptian ships ordering the women to hurry aboard whether they are willing or unwilling, threatening to drag them by the hair. However, King Pelasgus arrives to stop this insult. Considering them their property, the Egyptian intends to lead them away, but the king warns him not to touch them. The herald says he is not being kind to a stranger, but Pelasgus declares that he is not a friend to thieves. To lead them away he must persuade with pious speech, because the Argives voted unanimously not to surrender them to force; this the tongue of freedom's voice has announced. Saying there will be a war, the herald departs. The king offers the maidens hospitality and protection in the city, and the women continue to pray that they may ward off the marriages.
In the second play and third plays which are lost, the maidens are forced to marry their Egyptian cousins, but they swear to kill their husbands on the wedding night. However, Hypermnestra out of love saves her husband and is tried for violating her oath. Aphrodite defends her successfully proclaiming the sacredness and universality of love and marriage. These plays by Aeschylus portray the strength of Greek women struggling for their rights with the final apotheosis of love.
In 467 BC Aeschylus won first prize; The Seven Against Thebes is about the two sons of Oedipus he cursed for mistreating him after he had blinded himself. Because Eteocles had refused to give Polyneices his rightful turn as king of Thebes, the latter raised a force from Argos and attacked the seven gates of Thebes. In the play Eteocles after belligerently refusing to debate with the chorus of Theban women, discusses with the messenger the seven opponents and the Theban defenders at each gate. Eteocles will be fighting his brother Polyneices, whom he criticizes for attacking their city. In the battle the city is saved, but the two brothers kill each other. Their dead bodies are brought in as their sisters Antigone and Ismene lament the destructive war. At the end a herald proclaims that the corpse of Eteocles will be buried but that of Polyneices is to be cast out. Antigone declares that she will bury her brother's body even though the herald forbids it, a conflict later portrayed in Sophocles' Antigone. The Seven Against Thebes is a dark play about violent conflict, and at the end even the chorus is divided.
Another pessimistic play of Aeschylus is the archetypal Prometheus Bound in which the Titan god is chained to the rocks on a desolate mountain by order of Zeus, the new king of the gods, for having given fire to humanity. As Power and Force look on, the technical god Hephaestus, noting that new rulers are harsh, reluctantly fastens the chains against the will of Prometheus, a dreadful reward for having helped humans and angered the gods. Power, believing that only Zeus is free, accuses Prometheus of insolence and wonders why his forethought, which is what the name of Prometheus means, did not avoid this fate. Prometheus admits that he did know before what would happen, but he also believes one cannot fight against destiny. He felt he had to give people the fire that would reveal each craft.
The chorus of the daughters of Oceanus, resembling a flock of birds, listens to the story of Prometheus in anguish. Just as Kronos overthrew his father Uranus and was defeated by his son Zeus, Prometheus foresees that Zeus may be challenged too unless he is allowed to join him in friendship. Prometheus left his Titan family to support Zeus, but tyrants do not trust their friends. Because Zeus was going to destroy humanity, Prometheus had to help them. First he gave them blind hope, then fire and crafts that made them masters of their minds and led to numbering for calculating and language for remembering, use of animals for work, medicine for healing, prophecy, and the use of metals.
Io arrives, and Prometheus tells her future as well as her past; she too has suffered from Zeus and his jealous wife Hera. Finally Hermes appears to ask about the marriage Prometheus hinted would drive Zeus from power, but Prometheus refuses to tell until he is released from the cruel shackles. However, Hermes says that until some god takes on his tortures and goes down to Hades, Prometheus cannot expect an end to this pain. Prometheus once again laments his unjust suffering, as thunder and lightning unleash fury upon him. This play powerfully challenged the status quo religion, criticizing its tyranny and lamenting how foresight and human advances often bring suffering to their innovators.
The only complete trilogy of tragedies that is extant is the Oresteia of Aeschylus that won first prize in 458 BC. Agamemnon, the first play, is set in Argos, where the news of the fall of Troy is received from a chain of bonfires, and Clytemnestra is soon told that her husband Agamemnon, the great chief of the Achaean war effort, has arrived. The chorus of Argive elders hail him although their hearts are grieved from all the blood sacrifice and dead men which have resulted from the war to regain his brother's wife Helen from Troy. Agamemnon thanks the gods for helping him achieve vengeance against the Trojans. Clytemnestra recounts her long forlorn years of waiting; often she was prevented from hanging herself. She mentions that their son Orestes is staying with a friend in Phocis because of the danger of revolution. Clytemnestra has her maidens place precious tapestries of crimson for her heroic husband to walk upon, but the Greek general refuses such an Asiatic display. A clash of wills ensues as Clytemnestra insists, and though he is afraid the people will murmur, eventually Agamemnon gives in to her and walks on them into the house.
Returning with Agamemnon is his concubine, the Trojan princess Cassandra, known for her prophecies. Clytemnestra invites her into the house too; but when she does not respond, Clytemnestra goes into the house. Then Cassandra cries out to Apollo of the shame on earth, and she laments that she is undone again. She senses the butchery of the house where Atreus, the father of Agamemnon, fed the children of his brother Thyestes to him, because the latter had seduced his wife. Cassandra now perceives that this woman is entangling her husband in some net of death; she prophesies his murder in the bath and her own death too that will result in more vengeful spirits. She explains that this lioness has gone to bed with a wolf while her lion was far away. Knowing she will be killed too, Cassandra goes slowly into the house. Next we hear the cries of Agamemnon as he is struck. The Argive elders run around in distraction, not knowing what to do. One calls for all the citizens to rally; another says they must act right away, because they will attempt to be tyrants; but in spite of their words, they can do nothing before Clytemnestra opens the door to reveal the two murdered victims.
Clytemnestra proclaims what she has done because of the evil she has had to drink - the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigeneia to charm the winds of Thrace. She boldly threatens the Argives to keep their place, as they can do no more than accuse her of pride. She turns to her friend Aegisthus, who appears with the bodyguard of a tyrant and explains how this murder thus gains his revenge on the house of Atreus also as he is the only surviving child of Thyestes. He threatens to dominate over the old men of Argos, while they accuse him of being like a woman, who shamed the master's bed with lust. Aegisthus expects to control them with money and force. The Argives place their hope in Orestes, as Clytemnestra talks them into going to their homes with no more violence. They wait upon Orestes, and Aegisthus admits he knows how an exile feeds on empty dreams of hope.
In the Libation Bearers Orestes and his sister Electra pray at their father's tomb. Electra is accompanied by servant women and complains that she has been made a slave too. She finds the lock of hair that Orestes has placed on the tomb, and they eventually recognize each other. Orestes wants to revenge his father's murder and regain his lost estates. He goes to the palace and tells Clytemnestra that he is from Phocis with news of Orestes' death, saying ironically his father should be told. Orestes goes into the house, while his old nurse comes out and speaks to the women how Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are secretly glad at hearing that Orestes is dead. The women ask the nurse not to tell Aegisthus to bring his bodyguards, and she agrees.
Aegisthus goes into the house and is soon killed by Orestes. Clytemnestra comes out asking for help to kill the murderer; but Orestes, supported by his friend Pylades and the oracle of Apollo, declares that he will kill his mother too. She pleads with him, but he has the same answers she gave for killing her husband. Clytemnestra sees Orestes as the fulfillment of her dream in which a snake sucked at her breast. Orestes says simply that because it was wrong for her to kill, now she must suffer wrong. They go in, and soon the door opens to reveal a similar scene; this time Orestes stands over the murdered bodies of Aegisthus and his mother, while the same net she had used to kill her husband is displayed. Orestes proclaims his tyrannicide boldly, but the Argives sense there is more trouble to come. Orestes says he is justified by the Pythian oracle, but suddenly he begins to see gorgons in robes of black hounding him with his mother's hate. Although others cannot see them, he is driven by them from that place.
In The Eumenides Orestes has taken refuge at the Delphic temple, where Apollo is defending him and has made the Furies sleep; but the ghost of Clytemnestra appears to awaken them. Apollo has taken responsibility for telling Orestes to kill his mother; the Furies say he is guilty, and they will never let Orestes go free. Apollo responds that they will only be making more trouble for themselves, because he will continue to aid him.
Orestes goes to the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens for his trial, as the stain of the matricide seems to be fading. Athena asks the Furies where the flight of the killer will end; the Furies agree to turn the case over to her for judgment, and Orestes also accepts this. Yet because of the importance of the case Athena chooses Athenian judges, and they take their places. Apollo comes to testify that he cleansed Orestes of the blood and bears responsibility for his mother's murder. The Furies ask Orestes if he killed his mother, and he admits he did cut her throat with his sword; but he justifies it because she murdered her husband, his father. Athena establishes her tribunal and tells the jurors to cast their votes. The Furies debate with Apollo, and he says they must void their poison to no enemy's hurt. Athena declares that the votes are even, and she acquits Orestes. Orestes acknowledges his gratitude to Athens and leaves for Argos.
Athena asks the Furies to end their bitterness and live with her as goddesses in a positive way. She will bear their angers, and she asks them not to twist the inward hearts of the young with the spirit of war that turns the battle upon themselves. She tells them, "Do good, receive good, and be honored as the good are honored. Share our country, the beloved of god."3 Athena suggests that persuasion be given her sacred place free of grief and pain. As the Furies feel their hatred going, they become the Eumenides, the gracious ones who will win the hearts of others. Thus Athena establishes their power to judge the crimes. Finally the Eumenides pray there be no civil war ruining people with revenge for bloodshed, but grace for grace and common love, healing the wrongs in the world. Thus there shall be peace among these people.
Aeschylus has shown how the violence of vengeance can be transmuted through understanding and a democratic, judicial procedure to be purified by a nonviolent process of resolution. Since the warlike times of the heroic age, Athens had developed into a democracy that allows people to settle disputes through discussion and persuasion in accordance with laws and principles of justice rather than by the power and violence of tyrants and warriors. Aeschylus portrayed for the Athenian people this great blessing of theirs.
Sophocles was born in an aristocratic family at Colonus about 496 BC and died the same year as Euripides in 406 BC. When he was about 16, he led the boys' chorus at a celebration after the victory over the Persians at Salamis. He wrote and produced more than 120 plays. He first defeated Aeschylus in 468 BC with his Triptolemus. He competed in the Dionysian festival 31 times and won at least 18 first prizes and never came third. In 442 BC he was a president of the imperial treasury and responsible for collecting the annual tribute of 300 cities. Two years later he was elected general and served with Pericles in the Samian War. He was a diplomat and according to Aristotle was one of ten elders elected to manage Athenian affairs after the Sicilian defeat in 413 BC. Aristotle also credited Sophocles with introducing a third actor and scene painting. Only seven of his plays have survived, and probably none of these was written before he was fifty.
Ajax takes place at Troy near the end of the war. The play opens with Odysseus tracking Ajax, because some animals have been slaughtered. The voice of Athena tells Odysseus that Ajax was so disappointed because the Achaean leaders had awarded Achilles' armor to Odysseus that he went insane and tried to kill Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus. However, Athena confused his mind so that Ajax only butchered some animals. Odysseus is afraid to meet the bold Ajax if he is mad, but Athena makes it so that Ajax does not see him when he is telling the goddess how he is going to torture his rival Odysseus. Odysseus pities him, and Athena declares that the gods love humans who are steady but hate the proud.
Ajax's followers from Salamis ask the "spear-won" Trojan concubine Tecmessa, whom Ajax honors, what happened. She tells them he went mad, and now that his mind is clear he is miserable. "It is a painful thing," she says, "to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else had made it."4 Afraid he will do something dreadful, she asks his friends to help him. Ajax tells them he wants to die, and Tecmessa believes that it would mean her death too. Ajax thinks that the gods and the Greeks now hate him. He asks Tecmessa to bring their child Eurysaces to him, requesting that his brother Teucer and his parents take care of him. Ajax plants his sword in the ground and says he will obey heaven and the Atreid brothers, giving his friends some hope. A messenger arrives from Teucer warning them to keep Ajax safe in his tent that day because of a prophecy from Calchas. However, before they can find him, Ajax falls on his sword and dies.
Menelaus tells Teucer that because Ajax was plotting to murder the leaders of the army, his body is not to be buried. People are not allowed to do what they want without paying for it; actions rebound. Teucer resents the imperious authority of Menelaus and points out that Ajax joined the expedition as his own master. Teucer says he will reverently lay his brother's body in a tomb regardless, and Tecmessa and Eurysaces join him in the ceremony. Then Agamemnon appears, but Teucer defiantly states that he must throw the three of them out as well as Ajax. However, Odysseus wisely and diplomatically intervenes so that the body won't be cast out unburied, as he persuades Agamemnon to forbear from doing this wrong out of vindictiveness. Agamemnon does not want to back down and look like a coward, but Odysseus says it is a victory to yield to friends and that the Greeks will consider him generous. Agamemnon reluctantly agrees and calls it Odysseus' doing. To me this play reveals some of the madness of a foreign war and the foolish ambitions of warriors for honor and glory, though there is a feeling of redemption in the forgiveness of Odysseus.
Antigone was produced by Sophocles in 441 BC and takes place in Thebes just after Eteocles and Polyneices, the sons of Oedipus, have killed each other in a war over the throne. Antigone begins by reminding her sister Ismene of their suffering, because their father Oedipus had killed his father and married his mother, who is also their mother. Antigone tells Ismene that Creon, who is now king of Thebes, has ordered that Eteocles be buried with honor but has forbidden anyone to bury Polyneices, because he had led the attack against the city. Antigone asks Ismene if she will help her bury their brother. Remembering her family's woes, Ismene says they must remember they are women and do not fight with men; she will not join Antigone's wild and futile action. Antigone declares she will do her crime of piety alone. She now hates Ismene and believes the dead will too, while Ismene affirms her love for Antigone even though she believes her sister's intent is senseless.
Creon comes out of the palace proclaiming his royal power and philosophizing that the soul and mind cannot be known until they are seen in the practice of government and law. He explains that Polyneices must not be buried, because the wicked must not be honored. A guard reluctantly brings the news that someone has thrown some dirt symbolically on the corpse. Creon moralizes that it does not pay to get profit wrongfully. Soon the guard returns with Antigone, telling how they scraped off the dirt, sat upwind, and saw her ritually bury the corpse once more. Antigone does not deny doing it nor knowing that it was forbidden, because she does not believe that a mortal's orders can overrun the gods' laws. Creon resents her insolence and charges Ismene too. Prepared for arrest and death, Antigone argues with Creon. She did not honor a criminal but a brother who died; she wants an equal law for all the dead, but Creon wants to honor only the good. Antigone wonders if there is not all holiness in the next world and prefers to share in love rather than in hatred. If she loves the dead, Creon replies, then she may go there; for no woman will rule him while he is alive.
Ismene arrives and claims blame also as an accessory, while Antigone argues against her sister's love, which is only words. Antigone does not want her sister to die with her; her own death is enough. Ismene asks Creon if he will kill the promised bride of his own son Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone. Yes, Creon and death will break off the marriage. Haemon comes in and says at first that he will follow his father's judgment, and Creon exalts obedience to those in government and believes there is no greater wrong than disobedience. However, Haemon is ashamed of his father's order and argues that Antigone should be given a prize instead, implying that the people of Thebes agree with him. He asks his father to have a flexible mind and not be ashamed to change after learning more. The elders think both have spoken well, but Creon resents instruction from his son and cannot respect disorder. Haemon responds by saying that no city belongs to one man, and his father is disrespecting the gods. Creon declares he shall not marry her alive, and Haemon says her death may bring another. Haemon, believing his father is mad, leaves.
Creon agrees with the elders that Ismene should not be punished, but he orders Antigone to be confined to a cave with minimal food to clear the city from guilt for her death. She is exiled from life and can choose death or a buried life. Antigone is led away, saying that she is suffering for respecting what is right. The blind seer Teiresias appears, having found sickness in the state because of Creon's decision. He asks Creon to correct his error and not try to kill the dead a second time, but the new king only sees the profit motive of these prophets. Finally Teiresias states that Creon's own child will be added to the new corpses caused by the king's confusing the worlds by leaving the dead unburied while burying the living. However, after the seer leaves, the elders convince Creon to correct his error, and he hurries off. As Eurydice the queen appears, a messenger describes how by the time the body of Polyneices was burned properly, Antigone hanged herself with her clothes. While Haemon was mourning her death, Creon came in, evaded Haemon's sword thrust, and fled. Then Haemon stabbed himself. The grieved Creon blames himself for these tragic deaths and learns from his sorrow. To add to his misery and guilt, Eurydice has taken her own life too. The elders conclude that happiness depends on wisdom, and the gods must have their due because pride can bring blows upon one.
Perhaps the oldest example of civil disobedience, this play shows the conflict between state power and tyrannical authority versus individual conscience doing what is right anyway. Antigone also represents an early example of a woman challenging the patriarchal arrogance of Creon.
During the early years of the Peloponnesian War when Pericles brought the Athenians within their walls while the Spartans raided Attica, a terrible plague struck the crowded city killing many. In these circumstances about 430 BC Sophocles wrote and produced Oedipus the Tyrant, which begins with a priest asking Oedipus for relief from a pestilence in Thebes. Oedipus had solved the riddle of the oppressive sphinx by knowing that the animal who walks on four legs in the morning, two during the day, and three at night is human. Concerned Oedipus has sent his brother-in-law Creon to Delphi to consult the oracle, and he returns to say that the city is polluted by the murderer of their late king Laius, is living among them, and must be banished or pay with blood. Oedipus promises to search out the murderer and promises a milder penalty if the killer will confess.
Oedipus consults the blind seer Teiresias, who calls Oedipus blind and refuses to reveal his secrets. This makes Oedipus angry, and Teiresias tells the irate king to know himself. When Oedipus accuses the seer of plotting the crime, he feels forced to declare that Oedipus is the polluter of the land. In plain language Teiresias says that Oedipus murdered Laius and that he lives in shame with the woman he loves, blind to his own calamity. Now Oedipus suspects that Creon is behind this effort to get his place as tyrant, and he cannot understand what the prophet means when he says that Oedipus, whose eyes now see, will be blind, that he is both father and brother to his children, both son and husband to his consort, and both heir and killer of his father.
Creon, having heard the accusation made against him, confronts Oedipus, who again accuses him of trying to steal his throne. Yet Creon is happy being brother of the queen with all the trappings of power and does not desire to be tyrant, but Oedipus does not believe him. Jocasta comes out and pleads for her brother to her husband Oedipus; but Oedipus explains that if he believes Creon, then he himself must be banished. Creon leaves, resenting that Oedipus as a tyrant has been acting as both judge and jury. Jocasta consoles Oedipus not to believe in prophecies, because the one about Laius having a son who would kill him never came true, since the child died. When she mentions that Laius was killed at a place where three roads meet, Oedipus questions her on the details and tells how he killed an eminent man accompanied by five servants at such a place after he fled from his parents in Corinth because of an oracle that said he would kill his father. They send for the servant who witnessed the incident and became a shepherd afterward, and they cling to the detail that robbers were said to have killed Laius.
The chorus of Theban elders reflects on how a tyrant feeds on arrogance and pride, trying to climb the heights in blind conceit only to fall. Ambition should serve the state, and those who lack respect for law and justice scorn the gods. A messenger arrives from Corinth to announce that Polybus has died of old age and sickness, causing Oedipus and Jocasta great relief until the man explains that Polybus is not the father of Oedipus, but he had received him as a child on Mount Cithaeron with his ankles pierced, which is why he is called Oedipus meaning "swollen-footed." Jocasta now tries to stop the investigation; realizing that Oedipus will not listen to her, she retreats into the palace. The shepherd, when he recognizes the other man he knew at Cithaeron, does not want to speak; but threatened with torture he admits he gave the man the child he got from the house of Laius; Jocasta had told him to kill the child. Suddenly Oedipus sees his sin and rushes into the palace also.
Soon a messenger comes out to describe how Jocasta hanged herself and how Oedipus took her gold brooches and gouged out his eyes. Oedipus comes out of the palace with blood streaming down his face in agony from the pain of his body's wounds and his memory's horrors. He asks to be taken away, saying how he could not look on his mother or children or Thebes anymore. Creon arrives, and Oedipus admits he wronged him. Oedipus asks to be cast out to Cithaeron, but Creon must first consult the gods, telling Oedipus not to presume he still has tyrannical power.
This earliest of murder mysteries is profound in many ways. Sophocles commented on the blind ambition of tyrants, who in killing and marrying for power are like incestuous patricides. Always insecure in the power they refuse to share, they often blame and punish others; but in this archetypal story Oedipus discovers that his enemy and the criminal who has polluted the city and that he seeks to punish is himself.
In The Women of Trachis Deianeira tells how she had been courted by the river god Achelous whom she feared, but Heracles killed him and married her. They had children, whom the busy Heracles rarely sees; Deianeira has not seen her famous husband for more than a year. Their son Hyllus tells her that Heracles has been serving a Lydian queen Omphale and may be in Euboea campaigning against Eurytus. A messenger arrives to tell her that Heracles lives and brings the fruits of his victory, a group of captive women led in by Lichas. Heracles, resenting his poor hospitality by Eurytus, had killed one of his sons by guile, throwing him off a hill and causing Eurytus to sell him into slavery. To revenge himself for his year of servitude Heracles had attacked the city of Eurytus. Deianeira feels pity for the captured women, who now must live fatherless as slaves; she is particularly struck by Iole, who seems royal, and she welcomes them into her house. The messenger heard that the real reason why Heracles attacked the town was because Iole's father Eurytus would not give her to him. Deianeira becomes jealous and questions Lichas about her rival. Deianeira knows she cannot compete with the power of Love, and Heracles has had other women before; but she will not resist the gods.
Although she claims she is not angry, Deianeira is clearly jealous of the younger woman. She tells how Heracles saved her once from the bestial Nessus, who was carrying her across a river and got fresh with her; so Heracles shot him with an arrow. As he was dying, Nessus told her to use his clotted blood to charm the heart of Heracles. She puts the potion on a robe and has Lichas give it to Heracles for his ceremonies. Later when she notices the effect of the blood on some cotton, she has a foreboding that the result will not be good but harmful; she realizes the beast may have used her to get revenge on Heracles. Hyllus comes and tells his mother that she has killed her husband, his father, with the deadly robe. As the poison worked on him, Heracles killed Lichas; then he asks his son to take him out of that land. Hyllus tells his mother that justice will punish her for this, and going in the house Deianeira kills herself with a sword. The nurse calls Hyllus, who has just learned that Deianeira had unknowingly done the will of the beast.
The doors are opened revealing the dead Deianeira with Hyllus. Heracles arrives on a litter in dying agony, asking to be killed quickly. Ironically the brave Heracles has been killed by a woman's guile. Hyllus tells his father that his wife killed herself; he explains what her good intention was and how the centaur Nessus tricked her. Heracles instructs his son to set him on fire, and Hyllus reluctantly agrees to make the preparations. Heracles wants Hyllus to marry Iole. Heracles relieves his son's guilt by commanding him to build the pyre. After a life of heroic works this death of Heracles is pitiful, Sophocles making the point that no one knows their final end. This dark and pessimistic play seems influenced by Euripides' Medea. Heracles is not seen as heroic nor noble but as the pitiful victim of revenge from one he has killed and a wife he has made jealous. Deianeira is also a tragic victim of this jealousy and the net of revenge, while Hyllus feels guilty for having accused his mother.
In Sophocles' Electra, probably produced sometime around the Sicilian expedition, Orestes and his old tutor return to the palace in Mycenae, whence they had fled after the murder of Orestes' father Agamemnon. The oracle of Apollo has urged Orestes to kill with justice and stealth, and so his tutor is to say that Orestes has died in a chariot accident. They withdraw as Electra comes out of the house to lament and mourn her father. She complains that as the subject of his murderers her life is miserable without husband and children. Her mother Clytemnestra abuses her for having stolen Orestes away. With evil all around she feels compelled to practice evil. Aegisthus has gone away; so Electra can ask her sister Chrysothemis if she will join her in vengeance for their father; but Chrysothemis has been obeying the usurpers and so has a more abundant and honored life. She warns Electra that if she will not stop her mourning, they are going to send her away into a cave. Chrysothemis yields to authority, but Electra considers that flattery. Chrysothemis brings offerings their mother sent for Agamemnon's grave, but Electra does not believe that is pious at all. However, Chrysothemis does agree to help Electra.
Queen Clytemnestra comes out berating Electra and justifying the murder of her husband, because he sacrificed their daughter; but Electra explains Agamemnon's sacrifice as due to his having offended Artemis by killing a deer in her sanctuary. If killing requires killing, her mother should be the first to die. Electra further complains about her bad treatment from her mother and Aegisthus, and Clytemnestra threatens her upon her husband's return. Electra replies, "You see. You let me say what I please, and then you are enraged. You do not know how to listen."5 The tutor steps forward to announce that Orestes is dead, describing the accident in the chariot race. With this hope gone Electra is ready to die and will not live there anymore. Chrysothemis comes back saying that Orestes is there, because she found a lock of his hair, only to learn the news of his death. Electra asks her sister's help in killing Aegisthus for their father's sake and so that they can be free to marry nobly; but Chrysothemis believes it is more sensible to give in to those who have strength. So, like Antigone, Electra intends to act on her own.
Then Orestes comes forward with the urn of ashes he says are the remains of Orestes. Once again Electra complains that she is oppressed by violence and hardship, and she takes the urn. When she won't give it up, Orestes tells her of the fiction and that he is alive. Quickly they plan their revenge, and Orestes warns her not to appear radiant to her mother when they go inside. The tutor comes out to warn them to be quiet, and Electra recognizes him. Since Clytemnestra is alone, Orestes goes in, and her dying screams are heard. Orestes comes out saying their proud mother will not dishonor his sister anymore. Aegisthus soon arrives, as Orestes hides. Orestes comes forward and talks Aegisthus into going into the house, where he is going to kill him in what he calls direct justice for those who act above the law. So the play ends with the triumph of this bloody revenge. Unlike the version of Aeschylus more than forty years before in which the chain of killing is finally resolved by a judicial process, Sophocles seems to exult in the violent revenge during this time of war with no indication of Furies or guilt.
Philoctetes was Sophocles' second-to-last play and won first prize in 409 BC. It takes place on the island of Lemnos just before the end of the Trojan War. Odysseus and Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, have landed on a mission to retrieve the ailing Philoctetes, the Achaean that leaders abandoned nine years before. Odysseus tells Neoptolemus to have his men watch so that he can be protected from Philoctetes, who hates Odysseus. The wily Odysseus instructs Neoptolemus on how to make the abandoned warrior think that Neoptolemus is going home from the Trojan War, because his father's armor was given to Odysseus. Neoptolemus reluctantly agrees to the subterfuge in order to help win the war. Odysseus explains deception is necessary, because persuasion and force will fail.
Odysseus goes back to the ship as Neoptolemus tells the story to Philoctetes, who gives his account of his troubles from his snake-bitten foot and abandonment by the Greek army. Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes who has died at Troy, and they agree that war takes the good always but the bad by chance. Philoctetes pleads with Neoptolemus to take him with him, and even the sailors agree to put up with him. One of Odysseus' men arrives disguised as a trader, saying that Odysseus is in pursuit of Philoctetes because of the prophecy that his Heraclean bow is needed to take Troy. Philoctetes refuses to help Odysseus; but trusting Neoptolemus, he gives him the bow he got for lighting the fire that killed Heracles. Philoctetes, who seems to be suffering unjustly, undergoes great pain and asks Neoptolemus to kill him; he tells the young warrior not to give up the bow willingly or unwillingly to anyone. Finally Philoctetes passes out in pain and eventually wakes up feeling better.
Now Philoctetes is ready to go, but Neoptolemus tells him the truth that they are sailing for Troy to treat his ailment and win the war, because he must obey those in authority. Realizing he is betrayed, Philoctetes asks for his bow back, or he will die there hunted by those he had hunted. Just as Neoptolemus asks his men what they should do, Odysseus returns. Philoctetes is irate to see his enemy and refuses to go, and Odysseus prevents him from committing suicide. Philoctetes says that Odysseus will suffer for his wrongs, and Odysseus is going to leave without him since they have the bow. However, Neoptolemus decides to go back for Philoctetes to undo the treacherous wrong he did to him; when Philoctetes won't come, he gives him back his bow. Odysseus appears to forbid it but runs away as Neoptolemus holds back Philoctetes from shooting his enemy. Once more Neoptolemus tries to persuade him, but Philoctetes fears the wrongs to come as well and asks to go home, letting the bad men die in their own bad fashion.
Neoptolemus is about to take Philoctetes home when Heracles appears risen from the dead to convince Philoctetes of the divine will to go to Troy, where he will be cured and kill Paris. Heracles says that holiness does not die when men die, because it cannot perish. Philoctetes finally obeys this all-conquering Spirit. In his old age after so many years of war Sophocles lamented the unjust suffering of the heroic Philoctetes, who only by supernatural means can be made to participate in the war after his ill treatment. Perhaps he was criticizing the Athenian leaders for not utilizing their elderly resources in the war effort.
Oedipus at Colonus, the last play of Sophocles, was produced after his death. It takes place a mile from Athens, where Sophocles was born. The aged and blind Oedipus has been wandering with his daughter Antigone, and they have stumbled onto the holy ground, where the Furies of revenge have been renamed the Kind Spirits (Eumenides). Athenians tell them they cannot stay there, but Oedipus knows from prophecies that this is where he is to die. However, the Athenians promise he can stay until they find out who he is. Oedipus is counting on the piety of Athens, which offers refuge to strangers. He believes he suffered from the horrible crimes he did, because he did them unknowingly, and he offers a benefit in exchange for sanctuary.
His other daughter Ismene arrives with news that her brother Polyneices has gone to Argos, because the younger brother has taken his share of the kingship and banished him. Because prophecy has indicated the benefits to the land where Oedipus will be buried, Creon is coming to take him back to live outside the border. Oedipus recounts how after his excessive rage had subsided, he was driven out of Thebes as his sons did nothing. Oedipus sends Ismene to perform a ceremony to expiate the spirits of the place. Oedipus explains to the Athenians that he killed Laius out of self-defense and did not know he was his father; likewise he did not know he was marrying his mother. Thus he believes he did not sin, but was a victim of prophecy.
King Theseus of Athens arrives, and Oedipus offers him the gift of his presence as a lasting grace and asks for his protection. Theseus proclaims Oedipus a citizen and says no one will take him away. Theseus goes off, and Creon arrives with armed guards to get Oedipus, who calls him a scoundrel for denying him exile when he wanted to leave and for throwing him out after he wanted to stay in Thebes. Creon has seized one of his daughters and orders his men to take the other too; the Athenians begin to struggle with the Theban guards, as Antigone is grabbed. The Athenians are threatening to take Creon when Theseus arrives with his armed men, whom he sends to rescue the daughters, as he accuses Creon of violating their laws as if they were slaves. Creon says he did not think they would want an unholy patricide, but he must yield to their power. Oedipus once again justifies his past actions, and Theseus makes Creon release the daughters.
Polyneices has come from Argos, where he has organized a rebellion against his brother in Thebes, but Antigone must persuade her father even to talk with the traitor. Polyneices argues that he was unjustly banished; he has married the daughter of Adrastus and formed an expedition of seven noble warriors against his brother. Oedipus complains he was driven out of Thebes when Polyneices was king, and he predicts that both brothers will be killed by each other because of his curse on them. Antigone tries to talk her brother out of attacking his homeland, but Polyneices is ashamed to back down now and leaves. Finally as thunder is heard, Oedipus asks for Theseus to be the only witness of where he will die. A messenger describes how Oedipus died without lamentation, illness, or suffering. Antigone intends to go back to Thebes to try to stop the impending war, and the Athenians conclude that things are in the hands of God. Sophocles has pointed out the understanding that comes from experience and faith in a blessed death even after a horrendous life in contrast to the impulsiveness and violence of the sons who fight for power. The greater lawfulness of Athenian ways is contrasted to the violence of Thebes.
It was said that Euripides was born in 485 or 480 BC and that he first entered tragedies in the Dionysian festival of 455 BC. He wrote about 90 plays but only won first prize four times in his life, though he won one of the three prizes more than twenty times; thus his tetralogies were quite popular. According to Plutarch, Athenian soldiers captured in the Syracusan disaster could save their lives or even gain their freedom by reciting verses of Euripides. Nineteen of his plays survive, including one satyr play, The Cyclops, and the early Rhesus, which some scholars doubt is by Euripides. He married and had three sons, had a large library, and lived like a hermit in a cave by the sea at Salamis, where he was born. In 408 BC Euripides retired to the court of Macedonia, where he was honored by King Archelaus and died shortly before Sophocles in 406 BC. Though he is accused of hating women, in his extant plays the choruses and main characters are more often women than men, which is quite extraordinary.
More than half of Euripides' extant plays relate to the Trojan War, but Rhesus, which was produced about 440 BC, is the only one based on Homer's Iliad. The entire play occurs at night and begins with the officer of the Trojan guard waking up Hector to tell him of Achaean fires and activity. Hector, who had not wanted to stop his victorious battle the previous day at sundown, wants to push his advantage; but Aeneas persuades him to send out someone to investigate first to avoid a trap. Dolon volunteers to scout the Argive ships in a wolf-skin disguise for the reward of Achilles' horses if he is successful. A shepherd, after being treated contemptuously by Hector, tells him that the Thracian king Rhesus has arrived as an ally. Hector is irritated that this ally had not come sooner and tells the Thracian so, but Rhesus explains that he was delayed by a Scythian war. They plan to attack the Achaeans together in the morning.
Diomedes and Odysseus sneak behind the Trojan lines, learning from Dolon that the watchword is "Phoebus." Athena appears to tell them who they can and cannot kill according to destiny and guides them to the Thracians, while distracting Paris by disguising herself as Aphrodite. Odysseus and Diomedes return and escape the Trojan guard by using the watchword. The wounded charioteer of Rhesus accuses the Trojans of killing his king, while Hector suspects it was Odysseus. A Muse, the mother of Rhesus, appears carrying her dead son, who was killed by Odysseus although she blames it on Athena. As the play ends, Hector readies the Trojans for the day's battle. This war play of daring and intrigue by a youthful writer may be commenting on the Athenian empire's oppression of their Thracian allies.
Alcestis by Euripides was presented as the fourth play in the tetralogy in 438 BC and was awarded second prize behind Sophocles. Although the fourth play is supposed to be a satyr play, Alcestis combines tragedy, comedy, and a romantic ending. Apollo comes out of the house of Admetus in Thessaly to explain that he had to serve there a year for having killed the Cyclops, the smiths of Zeus. He was treated so well by Admetus that Apollo offers him a chance to escape his impending death by getting someone else to die for him. The aged parents of Admetus have refused, but his wife Alcestis volunteered to die on this day. Death appears and argues with Apollo, who tries to talk him out of his victim. Apollo places his hope in Heracles, who is coming as a guest. The maid describes and admires the nobility of the dying Alcestis. She and the citizens of Pherae realize that Admetus can only have a painful life after his wife's sacrifice for him. Admetus vainly implores the gods to save Alcestis, but Alcestis is still ready to die for her husband and asks him to take care of their children. Admetus promises that he will not marry again. In a pitiable scene she dies, and her boy tries to talk to her and grieves her loss.
Heracles arrives grimy from the road and is welcomed by Admetus, who in hospitality says the mourning is not important, persuading Heracles to stay with him. Pheres, the father of Admetus, comes to console him for his wife's loss, but Admetus shuns him for having refused to die. Pheres argues that he is not obliged to die for his son after raising him, resenting being called a coward by one who let his wife die for him. Pheres says he does not care what people think of him and even calls his son a murderer. Admetus goes off with his wife's body to mourn, and Heracles enters in drunken revelry, saying that fortune cannot be pinned down by science; no one knows when they will die. Learning of the true situation, Heracles asks about the funeral and goes out.
Admetus wonders what he has gained by living when his reputation, life, and action are all now bad. Heracles returns with a veiled woman whom he offers to Admetus to replace his wife, but Admetus does not want anyone else. However, Heracles finally persuades him to accept her from him, and in a poignant scene he eventually realizes that she is Alcestis, whom Heracles has reclaimed from the dead. This touching story of a heroic wife I believe affirms the value of a noble woman, exposes the selfish pettiness of some parents, and indicates the problems of trying to get someone else to take over one's destiny.
Medea placed third in 431 BC, the year the Peloponnesian War began, and is set in Corinth. The nurse explains how Medea's passion for Jason helped him win the golden fleece from her father and how they had to move to Corinth, because she persuaded the daughters of Pelias to kill their father. Now Jason is deserting Medea and their children to marry a Corinthian princess. Medea has turned from her children and become violently jealous. Their tutor informs the nurse that Creon, who rules Corinth, has banished Medea and her children. Medea is heard despairing and telling her children she hates them, regretting she killed her brother for Jason's sake. She tells the Corinthian women who have come to console her that she wants to die. She laments how a woman needs wealth to win a husband, whom she cannot refuse and must leave her family to serve because the alternative is worse. She would rather fight in war than bear a child. Now she is deserted and alone in a foreign land.
Creon arrives to tell Medea she must go into exile because of the threats she has made against his daughter. Medea's pleas are to no avail, but he does grant her one day. Medea plans to get revenge on her husband by using poison. The Corinthians note that good faith is gone and that Greece has no sense of shame now. Jason comes to tell Medea she must leave and offers to make some provision for her, but she reproaches him as a shameless coward; though she saved his life, he has broken his word to her. Jason claims he has improved her life by bringing her from a barbarian land to civilized Greece; he thinks his new marriage will improve their social status. However, the Corinthian women believe he has acted badly and betrayed her, and Medea says he could have discussed it with her first. She must go into exile, but Jason says she chose it by her wicked curses on the king's family; he offers her money, but she refuses it.
Aegeus, king of Athens, has been to Delphi to inquire how he may get children and promises to receive Medea in his country, because she offers to help him beget children with her magic. She sends her children with a poisoned dress and golden diadem as wedding presents for the bride, pretending she has forgiven Jason and ended the quarrel with Creon; but the tears in her eyes for her children are really because she is planning to kill them too. She asks Jason to beg the king not to banish their children. At the same moment she learns that the princess has accepted the poisoned dress and her children will be allowed to stay. Medea debates with her own heart the fate of her children. A messenger tells of the agonizing death of the bride followed by her father's death as her poisoned dress clung to him also. Now her fate is fixed, and in her fury she kills her two sons with a sword in order to make Jason suffer. Jason comes to save their lives too late, as he learns that the woman who killed her own brother for his love has now killed their children as well. Though he would capture her, Medea escapes in a chariot drawn by dragons. I believe this play subtly reflects the beginning of the Peloponnesian War caused by Athens' imperialistic control of the grain route from the Black Sea, the home of Medea, and brought on by violent conflicts in Corinth.
Hippolytus was produced in 428 BC although an earlier version by Euripides was rejected. In this conflict between two goddesses noble humans are caught and suffer. Aphrodite resents that Hippolytus is impervious to love and marriage and foretells how she will punish him by using Phaedra's illicit love. Hippolytus appears with his friends singing the praises of chaste Artemis. In the palace Phaedra has not eaten anything for two days, preferring to die rather than tell of her forbidden love for her step-son. Trying to help her, the nurse is able to discover that Phaedra is in love with Hippolytus. Phaedra has tried to conceal her love or overcome it, and as a last resort now intends to die rather than be a traitor to her husband and children, for she believes the proverb that a just and quiet conscience is best. The nurse persuades her that submitting to love is better than death; she needs the man, and the nurse will try to arrange it. Phaedra listens by the door, as the nurse tells Hippolytus what horrifies him. Hippolytus considers himself far too pure for this sin and leaves until his father returns. Phaedra fears his story will dishonor her, and she asks the women there to be silent. Now she plans her death and sorrow for the arrogantly chaste Hippolytus. Soon the nurse reports that Phaedra has hanged herself.
Theseus returns to find the women mourning for his dead wife. Fastened to Phaedra's hand he finds a tablet with writing saying that Hippolytus raped her. Immediately he calls on Poseidon to grant one of his three wishes and kill Hippolytus. Asked to call back his curse, he only adds banishment. Hippolytus comes in to find his mother dead and his father accusing him. He tries to reason with his father that he, still a virgin, could never do such a thing and even swears to Zeus, but Theseus will not change his decree of exile and leaves. Later a servant of Hippolytus comes in and describes how the young man was killed driving his chariot along the coast when a monster from the sea frightened the horses; he does not believe Hippolytus is guilty.
Theseus asks to see his dying son, who wronged his wife, and Artemis appears and tells Theseus the truth; his curses have killed his innocent son. The dying Hippolytus is brought in and senses Artemis' presence there. Hippolytus feels bad for his father and ends the quarrel at the request of Artemis and forgives Theseus, who recognizes the nobility of his son. Yet the vengeance is not over, as Artemis plans revenge on Aphrodite. In this tragedy Phaedra had tried to resist the incestuous love but gave in to revengeful resentment when spurned. Theseus in a jealous rage misused his divine gifts, while Hippolytus seemed to be too pure and arrogant for this world. Euripides seems to be saying that only by moderation can one avoid suffering from the conflicts of powerful divine beings.
The Heracleidae or Children of Heracles was produced during the early years of the Peloponnesian War and is clearly intended to support the war effort by raising the fighting spirits of the Athenians. The play is set on the plain of Marathon, the scene of the Athenians' greatest victory against the Persians. This play may also have been the fourth in a tetralogy, because it has much comedy and even satyr-like bravura. The elderly Iolaus has led the children of the late Heracles to Athenian territory for refuge from their pursuing enemy Eurystheus of Argos, who has been bullying cities not to accept them. The Argive envoy Copreus threatens Iolaus with force if the children do not accompany him; but Iolaus, the former "right-hand man of Heracles," takes sanctuary in the temple of Zeus and appeals to the Athenians for protection. The men of Marathon criticize Copreus for not going to their king Damophon in a lawful manner. Damophon arrives, and Copreus predicts total war. Iolaus declares that the children of the great Heracles would rather die than be disgraced, and Damophon agrees to defend them as friends and guests for their father's sake. In the heated argument the Marathon men warn Damophon not to injure the diplomat. Near the end of 430 BC the Athenians had put to death five Peloponnesian envoys bound for Persia.
Macaria, a daughter of Heracles, though she agrees with Pericles' statement that women should be discreet and remain quietly in the home, volunteers as a human sacrifice supposedly needed to win the war, symbolizing the sacrifices the allies are expected to make in war. Iolaus collapses but along with Heracles' mother Alcmena intends to fight in a comic scene in which the attending slave makes fun of the contrast between the old man's strong words and his physical capabilities. The battle is described in which Iolaus is miraculously made young for one day as the Athenians defeat the Argives and capture Eurystheus. The slave returns to describe the battle and wins his freedom from Alcmena, who then insists on putting to death the captured Eurystheus, who even argues that his grave will help protect Athens against their enemies if they give him a good burial. In a macabre ending Alcmena orders him to be killed and thrown to the dogs, and the men of Marathon agree as long as their kings are not held responsible for the atrocity. Although this play certainly had the effect of rousing aggressive patriotism for Athens as the defenders of the helpless, criticism of some of their methods is still apparent.
Andromache also appealed to the Athenian war spirit and hatred of Sparta. The Trojan princess Andromache, wife of the late Hector, was claimed by the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, and is now taking refuge at the shrine of Achilles' mother Thetis in Thessaly, where Neoptolemus still lets his grandfather Peleus rule. Andromache has hidden her child by Neoptolemus out of fear of her lord's wife Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, while Neoptolemus is at Delphi. Andromache, a slave now herself, sends her former slave with a plea for help to Peleus. Hermione arrives with her rich wedding presents and accuses Andromache of using drugs to make her barren and unattractive to her husband and of being an unlawful Asiatic. In a venomous exchange Andromache replies that Hermione is not fit to live with, while she herself welcomed and raised children Hector had by other women. Hermione asks her rival to leave the sanctuary, but Andromache refuses without a guarantee of safety.
Hermione goes away, but soon her father Menelaus arrives with Andromache's child, telling her to leave the shrine or he will kill her son. Andromache claims she is innocent and asks for a trial. After recounting how she was taken by force from Troy, Andromache decides to leave the shrine, but Menelaus betrays his promise and keeps her child for Hermione's life-or-death decision. This causes Andromache to launch into a tirade against the citizens of Sparta who specialize in evil. It appears that both Andromache and her son are to die; but Peleus arrives, has the two untied, and forces Menelaus to back down and depart. Peleus also denigrates Helen and the Spartan women for appearing in public in scanty outfits, which is soon demonstrated as the suicidal Hermione tears her clothes, exposing her breasts. However, Orestes arrives and, seeing his chance to win the bride he had been promised before, tells how is planning to ambush Neoptolemus at Delphi; then he goes off with Hermione. Peleus returns to learn of the attack at Delphi that killed his son, but in typical Euripides fashion the semi-divine Thetis appears to reconcile all and prophesy how Andromache will marry a Molossian, and her son will sire a line of Molossian kings, justifying the current king there, who was educated at Athens and rules in Epirus, where this play was probably first performed.
Hecuba shows the effects of war on the queen of Troy. The play is set in the Thracian Chersonese and begins with the ghost of Polydorus, son of King Priam and Hecuba, explaining how he was sent with gold for safekeeping to Thrace, where after Troy lost the war Polymestor killed him for the gold. The Achaean army is stuck there waiting for wind to sail home, and the ghost of Achilles has demanded the beautiful Trojan princess Polyxena be sacrificed. Hecuba has just had a dream that she would lose both these children. The chorus of enslaved Trojan women tells how Odysseus used demagoguery to persuade the Greeks to sacrifice Polyxena for the dead Achilles. The noble Polyxena pities her mother's plight but wants to die herself rather than be a slave. Odysseus arrives to tell Hecuba how the Greeks voted to kill her daughter. Hecuba reminds Odysseus how she spared his life the night he raided the Trojan camp; but when she asks for her daughter's life, he says he could only grant Hecuba's life and had promised only that the princess would go to the best soldier as a prize. Hecuba argues that they should kill Helen if anyone for causing the war and also because they seem to want someone beautiful. Hecuba even offers herself in place of her daughter or that she may die with her, but to no avail; Hecuba's fate has gone from being a wealthy queen to a grieving slave.
Talthybius describes how Polyxena died with courage and dignity and not as a slave, tearing her own robes to her expose her naked body to the sword. Hecuba's grief is doubled when the corpse of her son Polydorus is washed up on shore. Agamemnon comes to find out why her daughter has not been buried, and Hecuba asks him to help her get revenge against Polymestor for his betrayal. Though she has become a slave, she still believes in the gods and the moral order of the universe, saying:
But the gods are strong, and over them there stands some absolute,
some moral order or principle of law more final still.
Upon this moral law the world depends;
through it the gods exist; by it we live, defining good and evil.6
Hecuba asks Agamemnon to help her punish Polymestor for the sake of justice and in gratitude for his now having her daughter Cassandra; but the Achaean general is afraid of what the army would say if he did. Hecuba notes that no one is free then, and all are slaves of money or necessity; public opinion or fear of prosecution force people to conform against their consciences. Nonetheless to Agamemnon's surprise she expects women to overcome this man, and she is granted safe conduct through the army.
Polymestor arrives with his two sons, and luring them into a tent with the promise of jewelry, Hecuba and the furious women blind Polymestor and kill his children. Then the blinded Polymestor and Hecuba debate before Agamemnon, who decides that the former was guilty of murder, the killing of a guest being greatly offensive to the Greeks. Polymestor then prophesies how Hecuba, Cassandra, and Agamemnon all will die violently. The horror is so great that Agamemnon has his mouth gagged, and the Trojan women can only look forward to a life of slavery. The negative consequences of war and violence are apparent even while the cosmic principle of justice is affirmed.
The Cyclops, the only satyr play to survive, was adapted by Euripides from The Odyssey. The play contains burlesque humor, and the satyrs' costumes portray their phalluses. Odysseus has been driven by storms to the island of Etna, where at the cave of the Cyclops he shares his wine with the satyr Silenus and the one-eyed giant, Polyphemus. Silenus tries to trade supplies for the wine, but the barbaric Polyphemus just takes what he wants, including two Greek sailors for his dinner. Yet he criticizes Odysseus for going to war for a woman, but Odysseus paternalistically argues that the war was for Greece that includes even this land in Sicily. The hedonistic Cyclops worships money and sacrifices only to his own belly. Calling on Athena and Zeus, Odysseus is able to blind Polyphemus after he gets him so drunk that he takes Silenus into the cave for his pleasure and falls asleep. Odysseus rejoices in his crude revenge, but the Cyclops predicts that he will have to wander the seas for many years. Such entertainment was designed to relieve the tension after the presentation of three tragedies.
Heracles takes place before his palace in Thebes, but his father Amphitryon explains that Heracles has left his home, wife, and children to try to recover the plain of Argos and had to perform numerous labors for Eurystheus. Before his last labor to the underworld of death (Hades), he appointed his father as guardian of his children; but Lycus, who has usurped power in Thebes, intends to kill them. Amphitryon offers himself in their place, and their mother Megara asks that she may adorn them with funeral clothes in the house. Amphitryon calls Zeus a callous or unjust god. Heracles arrives, and Megara tells him how her father and brothers have been killed by Lycus, who dispossessed her. Heracles brought back Theseus from Hades to Athens. Heracles takes his children into the house, where he kills the tyrant when Lycus goes in, while the old men of Thebes rejoice that the tyrant's life is turned back to Hades, that the gods do raise the good and scourge the bad.
Then suddenly the figure of Madness appears over the house,
and Heracles goes berserk and kills his children and wife before
Athena stops him from killing his father by knocking him out with
a rock. When Heracles awakes, he discovers what he has done and
wants to die; but Theseus persuades him to suffer but not yield
to grief by following him to Athens, where he will be purified
of blood. Heracles realizes that this is more courageous, and
disbelieving in gods that could cause what Hera made him do, he
goes with his friend. Euripides expressed the madness of arbitrary
cruelty and violence and questioned the gods, but he still held
out hope that Athens could somehow resolve these problems.
After Athens made an alliance with Argos in 420 BC, Euripides presented The Suppliant Women, which is set before the temple of Demeter at Eleusis. Aethra, the mother of Athens' king Theseus, explains that the mothers of the seven Argive warriors, who were killed attacking Thebes, have come to Athens for help because Thebes' ruler Creon has refused to allow their son's bodies burial or removal. Theseus discusses it with Aethra and Adrastus, the king of Argos, criticizing the Argive ruler for ignoring divine guidance in launching the attack. Promoters of unjust wars lead the people astray, pushed by those who want position, power, or profit, while harming the majority. Of the three classes Theseus criticizes the rich who lust for more and the poor who are fooled by demagogues, while commending the middle class that guards the order of the community. Aethra speaks of the laws that keep cities together and pleads for the women. The heroic Theseus cannot refuse such a request, though he consults his people first to gain their votes and favor.
A herald from Thebes seeks the master of Athens; but Theseus corrects him, pointing out that the people rule there, not yielding power to the rich while giving an equal share to the poor. When the Theban replies that his city is ruled by one man not a mob, Theseus declares there is nothing worse than an absolute ruler, who takes the people's work and their maidens at his pleasure. Written laws protect the weak and the little people against the great in the call of freedom. The herald disagreeing states that the dead must not be buried, and any attempt to do so will mean war, though he considers peace better than war, saying the wise know when not to act. Theseus does not want a war, but after the Theban victory they ought to allow the dead to be buried. Believing he is respecting the gods, Theseus goes off to battle, while the women debate whether they believe the gods are just or not.
Athens wins the fight, but Theseus restrains his forces from going inside the walls of Thebes. Adrastus praises the seven who had died earlier and asks why wretched mortals slaughter each other with spears, hoping that people will stop those struggles and live in gentleness. After Evadne jumps on her husband's funeral pyre, and the boys of the seven plan their revenge, Adrastus acknowledges the gratitude Argos owes to Athens, and Athena tells Theseus the Argives must swear to this alliance. This political play celebrates Athenian power and democracy and its new alliance with Argos.
By the time The Trojan Women was performed in 415 BC the attitude of Euripides toward the war seems to have changed drastically. The Athenians had recently killed the men of Melos and enslaved their women and children merely for refusing to join the Athenian alliance against their traditional Dorian ally Sparta. As the Sicilian expedition had been voted and was in preparation, it is not surprising that this anti-war play came in second to an obscure writer named Xenocles. In the lost plays of the trilogy Euripides dealt with the origin of the Trojan War in Alexander, another name for Paris, who started the troubles judging a beauty contest between goddesses. The second play Palamedes tells how Odysseus contrived the condemnation and death of this wiser Achaean at Troy. The Trojan Women begins with Poseidon blaming the destruction of Troy on Athena, who now asks the god of the sea to help the Trojans get revenge against the Achaeans in their homecoming; her changed attitude calling to make their voyages unhappy must have seemed ominous to the Athenians preparing to sail to Sicily.
Once again Hecuba is portrayed facing her grief. Talthybius informs her of the fates the Achaeans intend for her daughters. Cassandra, a priestess of Apollo, is to be given to Agamemnon for his bed; Polyxena will join Achilles in his tomb; and Andromache is given to the son of Achilles. Hecuba herself is to be the slave of Odysseus. Cassandra laments the Achaeans' having thrown thousands of lives away hunting down Helen, and she prophesies that the house of Atreus will be wrecked after destroying her house. Hecuba remembers how she saw her husband Priam's throat being cut by the Achaeans. Andromache tells her mother that Polyxena has been sacrificed in a similar manner for Achilles' corpse. Andromache would rather die than be a slave too, but Hecuba encourages her to love Agamemnon for the sake of her son Astyanax. This hope is soon destroyed by news from Talthybius that Odysseus has persuaded the Greeks to put the boy to death, because he is the son of the hero Hector. Andromache sees only barbarity in the Greeks' cleverness.
Menelaus comes in saying that his wife Helen is also to be killed; but after a trial in which Helen defends herself against the prosecution of Hecuba, Menelaus decides to put off her death until after the voyage. Hecuba argued that Aphrodite is just an excuse for lust and that Helen really wanted the gold and luxuries of the Trojan court, and she had refused to be persuaded by the Trojan queen to go back to her husband to stop the war. Finally the broken body of Astyanax is brought in on a shield after he was thrown off the Trojan battlements. Hecuba prepares the body for burial, and Talthybius announces that Troy is about to be burned as the Greeks depart. This play reflects a strong condemnation of useless war, particularly the vindictive victories that kill all the men and enslave the women.
Electra by Euripides was probably performed in 413 BC, as Castor speaking for the twin gods at the end says, "We two must rush to Sicilian seas, rescue the salt-smashed prows of the fleet."7 At this time the Athenians were preparing to send reinforcements after the defeat at Syracuse. In Euripides' version of the story also told by Aeschylus and Sophocles, Electra has been married to a poor farmer, who in respect for her nobility has not consummated the marriage. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have done this to prevent revenge, and a price has been put on the head of Orestes, who had escaped. Orestes returns to join Electra in plotting and carrying out the murders of Aegisthus and their mother. Castor tells Electra to marry Pylades, and Orestes is to go to Athens. Euripides follows the Aeschylean interpretation with guilt for matricide plaguing Orestes until he faces a trial, acquittal by an even vote, and the final release of the guilt by this judicial process, a justice better than the ugly one of blood vengeance.
Helen presented in 412 BC is more of a romance than a tragedy. In this creative alternative to the legend of Helen, Hera, angry that she was not given the prize for beauty by Paris who was bribed by Aphrodite with the promise of Helen, spirits Helen away to Egypt and replaces her with an artificial image which Paris takes to Troy. Thus the point is made that the Trojan War was not only fought over a woman, but even the false image of a woman. The play is set seventeen years later in Egypt, where Helen has taken sanctuary at the tomb of Proteus so that she won't have to marry Theoclymenus, the son of Proteus. Menelaus arrives in rags after being shipwrecked there, but as a Greek he is in danger of being killed. He has brought the false Helen with him but soon finds that she has been swept back into heaven, as he meets the real Helen, who has been in Egypt. The couple embrace each other, as the servant derides the art of prophecy, preferring common sense. Helen and Menelaus plan their escape and vow to die together if they fail.
Helen appeals to Theonoe, the sister of Theoclymenus, not to tell her brother that Menelaus is there, declaring that God hates violence. Helen pleads that she consider right and wrong more than the past and future, and Menelaus tells her that no one else will marry Helen because they would rather die. Theonoe for the sake of justice agrees to help them even though she must lie to her brother. Helen speaks against the mindless strength of spears in war that stupidly tries to halt the grief of the world. A bloody debate will never remove hate from cities; rather they could have resolved the Trojan quarrel by reason and words. Helen tells Theoclymenus that Menelaus is dead and gets him to give her a ship for a funeral at sea to fulfill Greek custom, saying she forgives him and is ready to marry him now. Later a servant brings the Egyptian king the news that Helen and Menelaus have escaped on the ship with the Greek sailors who fought off the Egyptian crew. Theoclymenus wants to kill his sister for betraying him, but he is persuaded not to by the divine Castor, who appears as the "god from the machine" Euripides often provided to tie up loose ends. This play reflects criticism of war after the Sicilian defeat, and in showing the Spartans Menelaus and Helen in a good light, it attempts to relieve the Spartan-Athenian conflict.
Iphigenia in Tauris is a similar romance set in Scythia, where Iphigenia was spirited away by Artemis just as her father Agamemnon was sacrificing her at Aulis. Odysseus had been sent to tell her she was to marry Achilles, but now Iphigenia serves Artemis in Tauris, where foreigners are sacrificed. She dreamed that her brother Orestes is dead, but actually he has been sent there by Artemis to release him from the guilt of the Furies after he killed his mother. Orestes and his friend Pylades are caught and given to Iphigenia to be sacrificed. Orestes tells her news of the wicked and wasteful war and prefers to die so that his friend Pylades may live. Eventually when Iphigenia presents them with a letter for her brother Orestes, they recognize each other. They plan their escape, Iphigenia rejecting Orestes' idea to kill the king. She tells King Thoas that the statue of Artemis and the two Greeks need to be purified in the sea from the pollution of matricide. Athena appears to calm the sea and persuades Thoas not to punish the temple women, who lied to the soldier in aiding their escape. This romance once again affirms Athena breaking the tie to acquit Orestes in his trial at Athens and imagines miracles by which cruel sacrifices may be avoided while affirming friendship and love between brother and sister.
Ion is another romance involving recognition of long-lost relatives, this time mother and son. Hermes introduces the play which is set at the temple of Delphi, where he brought the abandoned baby of Apollo and Creusa, who now serves as a steward. Creusa has married Xuthus, but childless they come to ask for help. Before Xuthus arrives, Creusa asks the young man about a "friend" who had a child by Apollo. The steward intends to confront Apollo with his wrongs. Xuthus is told that the first man he sees is to be his son, and he greets the steward with the name of Ion. After initial hostility Ion accepts him as a father. Xuthus plans a banquet in celebration, and Ion hopes that his mother is Athenian so that he will have the right to speak.
An old slave offers to kill the son of Xuthus for Creusa at the banquet; but a slave sensing an evil omen, the poison is spilled. When doves are killed by the poison, and the old man confesses that Creusa was behind it, Ion goes after Creusa and is about to kill her when she takes sanctuary at an altar. Then the high priestess reveals the cradle that proves to Creusa and Ion that they are mother and son. They are overjoyed, but Ion has difficulty reconciling the actions and oracles of Apollo until Athena backs up Creusa's explanation that Xuthus has accepted him as a gift so that he can have an established place in a noble house in Athens. This story presents the divine and noble origins of Athenian kings and the Ionian peoples while also questioning the infallibility of Apollo and his Delphic oracle.
Euripides took up the Oedipus saga in The Phoenician Women, although so much is packed into one play that scholars believe some was added later by other authors. Jocasta begins by telling how her son Oedipus came to kill his father and marry her, then blinded himself when he discovered what he had done. He also cursed his two sons; since Eteocles would not give up the throne as agreed, Polyneices has brought an Argive army against Thebes. Calling a truce, Jocasta tries to mediate the conflict between her sons. The neutral Phoenician women commend Polyneices for offering to disband his army if he is given his rightful place as agreed, while they condemn Eteocles for holding on to his power wrongfully. Jocasta also speaks against ambition and for equality and tries to prevent the slaughter that is about to occur, but neither son will yield. This scene probably reflects Euripides' frustration with the continuing war.
Before the battle Eteocles asks Creon not to bury Polyneices if he should die. The blind seer Teiresias tells Creon that the two brothers will be killed, because they were cursed by their father Oedipus for not allowing him to leave or have his rights. Then Teiresias tells Creon and his son Menoeceus that the latter must be sacrificed, and Menoeceus kills himself after Creon refuses to have him killed. The first message is that Thebes has won the battle; but in a single combat Eteocles and Polyneices slay each other, and in grief their mother Jocasta cuts her throat. In scenes probably adapted later from Sophocles, Antigone and Creon argue over the burial of Polyneices, but then Antigone plans to go into exile with her father Oedipus. Euripides has used the battle between two brothers for tyranny over Thebes to criticize further the folly of the continuing war and the danger of tyrants.
Orestes was presented in 408 BC and takes place six days after the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in Argos. Electra reviews the violent history of the house of Atreus and blames the murders she and Pylades supported on Apollo more than Orestes, who performed them. For six days Orestes has not eaten or bathed as he has been driven mad by the Furies of guilt. The people of Argos have voted to shun the matricides as outlaws, but Helen and Menelaus have just arrived offering some hope. Helen is afraid to go to her sister's grave and asks Electra to go in her place; but she refuses to go to her mother's grave and suggests that Helen send her daughter Hermione instead. Orestes awakes and has one of his fits of madness, during which he accuses the god Apollo of the murders.
Menelaus comes in, and Orestes asks for his help with the Argives and admits he suffers from the remorse of conscience. The city is to vote their sentence that day, which is likely to be stoning unless Menelaus intercedes. Tyndareus, the father of Helen, comes to greet Menelaus and argues with him why Orestes is guilty of murder and morally wrong for not bringing his grievance to the law courts. Then the old man turns his wrath on Orestes, who defends himself by saying that he did a patriotic service or else other women would kill their husbands too; he claims Apollo commanded him to kill his mother. The vindictive Tyndareus leaves, determined to hound the Argives until they stone Orestes and his sister. Orestes pleads and begs for help from Menelaus, who says he does not have sufficient forces there, but he will try to use diplomacy.
Pylades arrives, and after they hear the sentence of death for Orestes and Electra, the three of them plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage in order to escape; if they fail, they plan to burn the house down. However, a god magically removes Helen from their grasp. When they are on the roof ready to kill Hermione and set the fire with Orestes declaring he intends to reign, Menelaus calls the people to arms. However, Apollo appears from above them with Helen to stop the action and resolve everything according to the myths. Helen is to be deified as a star, and Menelaus will remarry. Orestes must spend a year in exile and then go to Athens, where the gods will acquit him; then he will marry Hermione, whose throat he is threatening with a sword. Electra will marry Pylades. Orestes is to rule in Argos and Menelaus in Sparta. Orestes obeys the god and releases Hermione, gaining the blessing of her father Menelaus. All are to honor Peace.
The contrast of these three violent criminals suddenly being given royal positions by the god Apollo depicts the absurdity and disparities of violent Greek culture and its religion. In this play even the modern law courts and democratic votes for capital punishment still are not able to prevent the criminal chain of events. Only the miraculous intervention of the divine can bring peace, which seems so unrealistic as to be absurd, especially since the god who intervenes is the same one who promoted the vengeful murder.
Iphigenia in Aulis and The Bacchae were produced in 405 BC by his son a few months after the death of Euripides, and they won first prize, only the fifth time his plays were so honored. Scholars speculate on which parts of the play may have been finished by his son or others. While the army is waiting for wind to sail from Aulis to Troy, Agamemnon explains how Tyndareus, the father of Helen, got the suitors to vow to defend whomever should marry Helen in order to avoid the problem that was magnified by this oath. The army has become so restless that the prophet Calchas has told the Atreid leader that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, and then they would be able to sail and take Troy. However, Agamemnon ordered Talthybius to proclaim the army disbanded instead. Menelaus persuaded him to the horror, and Agamemnon wrote a letter to his wife Clytemnestra telling her to bring their daughter to be wed to Achilles. Regretting this, he has written another letter telling them not to come; this he gives to an old man. Menelaus captures and reads the letter. Agamemnon tells his brother he will not kill his own children, because oaths made under compulsion are evil, and Greece has gone mad.
Clytemnestra and Iphigenia arrive at Aulis, and Menelaus decides to support Agamemnon's refusal and suggests they kill Calchas; but Agamemnon now realizes that the army, manipulated by the demagoguery of Odysseus, is compelling the slaughter of the girl. Clytemnestra and Iphigenia enter excited about the marriage to Achilles. Agamemnon tries to get his wife to leave, but she refuses. When Clytemnestra mentions the wedding to Achilles, he doesn't know anything about it; Clytemnestra realizes that she has been tricked. The old man tells her that her child is to be killed, but Achilles promises to defend her. Clytemnestra has only one question for her husband: does he intend to kill their child? In agony Agamemnon cannot deny it. Clytemnestra asks with what heart will she then return to Argos. How will his other children take this? Why couldn't Menelaus kill his daughter to get his wife back? Then Iphigenia also pleads and begs for her life, but Agamemnon feels compelled by the army and the prophecy. Even the heroic Achilles' efforts are to no avail, as his own men turn against him.
Finally Iphigenia nobly accepts her fate and decides she wants to die for this cause of all Greece so that they can prevent barbarians from taking their women and so rule the barbarians; she gives her life to the divine will of Artemis. She gains the envy of Achilles and tells her mother not to hate her husband. After she willingly goes to her death, a messenger reports that the goddess swept Iphigenia away to heaven, and a mountain hind was sacrificed instead. This play depicts the barbarity of the war spirit while portraying the courageous nobility of the young woman.
The Bacchae describes an early phase of the Dionysian worship that has developed into the very theatre where these plays were presented. Dionysus, after spreading his cult in Asia, has come back to Thebes, where he was born, now disguised as a Lydian. He has come to punish his mother's sisters for denying he is the son of Zeus. So he has driven all the women of Thebes mad; but Pentheus, who is ruling after his grandfather Cadmus abdicated, is in revolt against this new god. The elderly Cadmus and the blind Teiresias appear dressed in Dionysian costumes to participate in the rituals, which Teiresias says the other Theban men are too blind to understand. Believing they are caught up more in the lust of Aphrodite than by Dionysus, Pentheus has had the women arrested. Teiresias and Cadmus warn Pentheus not to deny this god, but Pentheus orders their leader arrested too. By a miracle the women escape their chains and the dungeon, but Pentheus cuts the hair of the Lydian stranger and puts him under guard. Dionysus says, "You do not know what you do. You do not know who you are."8 Pentheus intends to make the women slaves, but an earthquake destroys his palace; then Pentheus ties up a bull thinking it is Dionysus.
A messenger describes how Agave, the mother of Pentheus, leads a company of women performing miracles. Pentheus calls out the army, while Dionysus warns him not to attack a god. Dionysus intends to lead the women back to Thebes without bloodshed and offers to let Pentheus see their revels on the mountain first. Pentheus agrees but refuses to put on women's clothes; Dionysus deludes him into it by making Pentheus hallucinate again. The women chant about justice, the principle of order and spirit of custom, and then the messenger brings a report that Pentheus is dead, torn apart by his own mother and her sisters believing they were killing a lion with their bare hands. Later when they come out of their trances, they realize what they have done for Dionysus because Pentheus blasphemed the god. Dionysus declares what will happen to them in the future. When Cadmus says that gods should be exempt from human passions, Dionysus replies that this was all ordained by Zeus long before. Pentheus has been punished for his pride and impiety by a powerful new god, who is hardly a model of Greek rationality. Euripides seems to be essentially religious while being critical of the religion at the same time.
In 427 BC when the first comedy of Aristophanes was produced, he was below the legal age of 18; so he was probably born in or soon after 445 BC. He wrote about forty plays in as many years, but only eleven still exist. He was an Athenian citizen whose family owned land on Aegina. His second play The Babylonians satirized the demagogue Cleon and portrayed the allies of Athens as slaves of Athenian imperialism, causing Cleon to bring charges against him. He must have been acquitted, because he continued to satirize Cleon the next year. In The Acharnians, produced in 425 BC, Aristophanes complained the politician had lied, slandered, and abused him nearly to death.
Despite its strong criticism of Athens' current war with Sparta, The Acharnians won first prize. Dicaeopolis, whose name means just city, is waiting for the assembly to begin; but the Prytanes as usual are late, and he says they do not care one jot for peace. He intends to interrupt the speakers who do not speak of peace and complains when a man who only wants peace is dragged away. Dicaeopolis gives eight drachmas to an ambassador to make peace for him and his family with the Lacedaemonians. Amphitheus is attacked for carrying treaties in the countryside, where the vineyards have been cut down, but he brings a five-year treaty, a ten-year one, and one for thirty years for Dicaeopolis to taste. The first smells of tar and naval preparations and the second of embassies as though allies are hanging back; but the third of nectar and ambrosia he takes with pleasure to release himself from the war. Happily he tells his wife that the six weary years of absence are over, because he has a private treaty.
The Acharnians, however, pelt him with stones for making the treaty and call him a traitor, hating him worse than Cleon. Dicaeopolis argues that their enemies are not entirely wrong, as the Spartans have suffered wrongs from the Athenians. He offers to debate the issue with his head on the chopping block. He notes how the Athenians love to hear themselves praised by some intriguer, while they are bought and sold. Dicaeopolis goes to Euripides to get some rags to wear. The Acharnians become divided between him and Lamachus, who represents the military. Dicaeopolis wants to vomit in the crested helmet, but they debate. Lamachus goes off to fight the Peloponnesians, while Dicaeopolis trades with the Megarians and Boeotians, which is against the war boycott for which he may be turned in by an informer; but he tries to sell an informer as Athens' latest product. The chorus praises reconciliation and love, which unites all in endless harmony; the truce of Dicaeopolis becomes a valued commodity. In the final feast the harshness of military life and equipment is contrasted to tasty food, wine, and pleasant female company. Lamachus goes off to be wounded by a lance, while Dicaeopolis goes away with two girls to make love. This comedy is a powerful protest against the war and a call for a peace treaty.
The Knights was presented the next year a few months after Demosthenes initiated and Cleon exploited the successful Athenian attack on Peloponnesian Sphacteria. Cleon had become so popular and powerful that no one would make a mask of Cleon, and Aristophanes had to play the part himself using only makeup. The Paphlagonian tanner represents Cleon, while the masks of the other two slaves of Demos, whose name means "people," depict the Athenian generals Demosthenes and Nicias. Demosthenes tells how Paphlagon has won over the master not only by making his boots but by licking them as well. Demosthenes says that when he cooked up the Spartan dish at Pylos (Sphacteria), the tanner took it to the master as his own; he also accuses Paphlagon of collecting protection money. Demosthenes gets Nicias to steal Paphlagon's oracles, and they discover that a sausage peddler will supplant him. So they persuade the sausageman to go into politics so that he can step on the senate, fire the generals, and screw around in the Prytaneum; his eyes can take in from Caria to Carthage, and he can buy and sell everything.
The sausageman wonders if he should learn how to govern the people first, but Demosthenes assures him he already has the requisite abilities from sausage making. The knights will support him, and they begin to attack Paphlagon for bribery. The sausageman can outyell Cleon, and they rail at each other, the former routing him in the duel of abuse. The sausageman has beaten the senate by telling them where they can get cheap anchovies, which distracts them from caring about peace even more than Cleon. The sausage seller accuses Cleon of using the war to conceal his corruption. Demos is won over and asks for his ring as steward back from Cleon. Demos seems to be aware his servants are robbing him, but then he says he forces them with a judgment to vomit it back up. Finally the sausage-maker reveals himself as Agoracritus and gives the truce of thirty years in the form of a beautiful woman to Demos to take into the country. Once again Aristophanes has called for the replacement of the war-mongering and corrupt demagogue with an enduring peace.
After having won first prize two years in a row, the next year in 423 BC The Clouds placed third, disappointing Aristophanes, who considered it his best play. At the first performance Socrates stood up in the audience so that all could see how much he resembled the mask of the character satirizing him. Strepsiades has so many debts from his son's horse-racing expenses that he wants to send him to Socrates' Think-shop to learn the unjust logic so that he can escape his creditors; but his son Pheidippides refuses. So Strepsiades enrolls himself in the school up in the clouds. Socrates informs him that there is no Zeus and that thunder is caused by a vortex. The trinity of gods are chaos, clouds, and the tongue, but Socrates finds this student stupid. During the interlude the poet recalls how he whacked Cleon but let him off when he was down. In a city where folly is endemic he once again urges them to convict Cleon of bribery and theft.
The clouds suggest that Strepsiades send his son to the school, and he tells him that Zeus no longer exists, because Vortex booted him out. These sages are so frugal, he says, that they don't use oil or even wash. If his son can't learn both the just and unjust logics, Strepsiades prefers he learn the latter. To demonstrate, these two logics argue with each other; the unjust logic proves that justice does not exist, because Zeus got away with tying up his father. Just logic's plea for the ancient discipline that produced the heroes of Marathon loses to Unjust's view that laws and traditions can be refuted. Why not follow the example of Zeus? Socrates tells Strepsiades that he can evade any suit he likes, and the happy father looks forward to his son crushing his foes so that he won't be hurt any more by his debts and interest. Pheidippides already has the look of a rogue, who appears injured when he is injuring. Strepsiades refuses to pay off two of his debtors and doesn't care that he swore by Zeus.
Yet the clouds predict that his son will teach him a lesson he will not forget, as he is caught in his own net. Pheidippides has beat up his father and justified it the same way his father justified the beatings he had given his son growing up. Not only that, he's going to beat his mother too. Angry at these results, Strepsiades burns down the Think-shop in revenge. In this play Aristophanes satirizes the sophists, who speculate in the physical sciences, question religion, and teach people how to argue cases in court in exchange for money. However, Socrates did little of this except questioning religion, but as a prominent figure he was used to satirize all sophists.
The next year Aristophanes won first prize with The Wasps in which Philocleon has been locked in his house by his son Bdelycleon so that he won't be able to go to sit on juries. Father and son disagree about Cleon and the three-obol payment Philocleon gets every day for going to court. The chorus of wasps comes to collect Philocleon on the way to court, and they fight with Bdelycleon and his slaves. Bdelycleon argues that Athenians are overtaxed to pay so much to judges, seeing his father as a tool of those who would profit. Athens' revenues from subject states, fees, imports, mining, interest, rents, and harbor dues amount to 2,000 talents, and the 6,000 judges get 150 talents, while the politicians extort 50 talents at a clip. To serve such greedy masters is slavery. The son wins the argument and asks his father to stay home and judge his household. They put their dog on trial for stealing a Sicilian cheese; but he is acquitted, though Philocleon says it is against his character to vote for acquittal. Then Bdelycleon teaches his father how to act in polite society, though if he had the chance, he would call Cleon an unprincipled thief and rascal. In celebrating Philocleon causes some damage in carousing, and finding himself being sued, he learns to be more careful.
While Athens and Sparta were negotiating the peace of Nicias in 421 BC, Aristophanes' Peace won second prize. Trygaeus is a farmer, who has his servants feeding a giant dung-beetle so that he can fly up to heaven to see Zeus about the war and peace. He intends to "pursue him at law as a traitor who sells Greece to the Medes."9 First he meets Hermes, who tells him the gods have moved higher to get away from the fighting of the Greeks and their prayers. There have been opportunities for peace; but when the Laconians have the advantage, they want the Athenians to suffer more. When it went the other way, the Spartans came with peace proposals; then Athens would not listen as long as they held Pylos. The goddess Peace has been thrown into a deep pit, while War is preparing to grind up the Greek cities in a large mortar. Trygaeus asks him not to throw in the Attic honey; but he has no pestle, because Cleon and the Spartan general Brasidas have both recently died. Although Zeus has decreed death for anyone caught digging up Peace, Trygaeus and the chorus of farmers bribe Hermes with gold cups and with great effort manage to excavate Peace.
Hermes notices that those who make crested helmets, pikes, and swords are quite unhappy, while Trygaeus tells the farmers to return to their fields and till the earth; the sickle maker is overjoyed. Hermes explains that Peace began to be lost when Pheidias was exiled, and his friend Pericles became afraid and sparked conflict with the Megarian decree that grew into a hurricane of war. After Athens took Pylos, three times Peace came to them with truces they repulsed. Now with Peace revived, Trygaeus asks the beautiful Theoria to take off her clothes, and nude she is given to the senate. The play concludes joyfully in celebration and feasting, because now in peace they can make love at their ease on their farms. The armorer and lancemaker are unhappy, but Trygaeus buys spears at a discount to use as vine-props. This marvelous play affirms the joys of peace.
The Birds won second prize at the Dionysian festival in 414 BC. Two men, Euelphides and Pithetaerus, have left Athens and its continual judgments from the law-courts to find a better place to live. The bird Epops suggests they try living with the birds who have no purses, and Pithetaerus decides to found a new city where they can share such a life. Pithetaerus wants all the birds to gather together in one city; when it is completed, they should demand back the empire from Zeus. To show birds are God the owls, kestrels, and thrushes will devour the locusts, gnats, and gall-bugs. Birds can prophesy and find secret treasures. They will not require temples to be built for them, because they can dwell in the oaks and olive trees. Epops gives the two men a root to eat so that they can grow wings on their shoulders. In the interlude the chorus of birds explains how as the offspring of Eros they are older than the Olympian gods. They invite everyone to join them and promise to make everything forbidden by law on earth honorable, even beating one's father. They review how helpful wings can be.
The new country is called Cloud-cuckoo-land, and Pithetaerus summons a priest to begin the sacrifices. Soon there arrives a poet expecting a gift for his verses, another selling the oracles of Bacis, a surveyor, an inspector, and a dealer in decrees; but Pithetaerus drives each of the pests away. After the walls have been built by the birds, a messenger tells them that a god sent by Zeus has penetrated their airy realms. A war is breaking out between the gods and the birds, and Pithetaerus tells Iris that people now adore the birds and no longer sacrifice to Zeus. Ten thousand people want to join their community of wisdom, love, and peace. Pithetaerus tells a patricide to respect his father and go to Thrace to fight, and he also encourages an informer to find a less degrading trade. Prometheus comes in a disguise to foretell the peace embassy of Poseidon, Heracles, and Triballi, advising Pithetaerus to ask for the lovely Basileia (sovereignty) in marriage. Heracles wants to strangle those who walled them out, but at the prospect of a feast he is eager to make an agreement. In arguing for the birds' sovereignty Pithetaerus indicates what helpful allies the birds could be. Peace is agreed on, and the play ends celebrating the wedding of Pithetaerus and Basileia. In the midst of the Syracusan disaster Aristophanes is once again challenging the religion and asking for peace.
After Athens was badly defeated in the foolish Sicilian disaster, Aristophanes produced perhaps the greatest of the peace protest plays in 411 BC with Lysistrata. In this bawdy comedy Lysistrata has organized the women of Athens and other cities to insist their men make peace. Representatives arrive from Anagyra, Sparta, and Corinth. They are frustrated because one husband has been in Thrace for five months, and the Spartan is always taking his shield back to the wars. Lysistrata proposes that they must refrain from sex with men until peace is made. By dressing in transparent gowns they will get their mates' tools up and then refuse them. Even if forced, they will not cooperate so as to remove the real pleasure. Already the older women are seizing the citadel of the Acropolis. The women take an oath to have nothing to do with their lovers or husbands voluntarily, and they seal it by drinking wine. Lampito goes off to organize the Spartan women.
The elderly men of Athens come to the Acropolis with torches, but instead of fighting fire with fire, the women use water to douse the men and their firebrands. When the men try to break into the Acropolis, Lysistrata comes out and says what is needed is not bolts and bars but common sense. Each Scythian who tries to arrest her is met by another woman, and they fall back in terror dirtying themselves. Lysistrata says they have seized the treasury to stop the war; the women intend to administer it just as they do their household expenses. Their first principle is no war, and they will save the men whether they like it or not. So far the women have been ignored when they asked for peace, as the men went from one war madness to another while telling the women to stick to their weaving. Now the women have decided to save Greece by disentangling the various cities. They have suffered the loss of their sons, and the best young men and their husbands are not available for the pleasures of love. However, Lysistrata soon finds that the women want to lay too, and some are trying to escape the protest action; but she persuades them that the men want them just as much.
The husband of Myrrhiné arrives looking for her. His erection goes unsatisfied as she continues to tease him and delay undressing until he agrees to make a sound treaty to end the war. The magistrate and the Lacedaemonian herald have similar protrusions under their clothes, as Lampito has instigated the women of Sparta. The beautiful goddess of Peace appears in the nude, as Lysistrata complains how the men cut each other's throats and sack Hellenic cities. She reminds the Laconians how Cimon marched to help them against Messenia, and the Athenians how the Laconians helped fight off the Thessalians and the tyranny of Hippias. The lusty men, seeing beautiful Peace, agree to the treaty, and the women invite them to a feast. The magistrate notes how sober envoys are always picking quarrels with each other. In his comedy at least Aristophanes has got the ancient Greeks to make love not war.
Two months later was produced The Thesmophoriazusae about the women celebrating the Thesmophoria festival of Demeter and her daughter. Euripides has heard that they are going to bring charges against him for defaming women in his tragedies. He goes to the tragedian Agathon to ask him to sneak in and plead for him, as Agathon is quite capable of impersonating a woman; but he does not want to trespass on their rites. So Euripides shaves and dresses up his father-in-law Mnesilochus as a woman while promising to save him if he is caught. After their prayers a woman accuses Euripides of portraying women as adulterous, lecherous, bibulous, treacherous, and garrulous. Another says her myrtle chaplets business has declined because his tragedies destroy people's belief in the gods. Then Mnesilochus gets up to say that Euripides showed only a few of the thousand faults of women, bringing on him the threat of punishment. When asked why Euripides does not portray Penelope, he replies it is because there is not a single Penelope among women of the day. Also dressed as a woman, the pederast Clisthenes discovers the ruse, and after a search Mnesilochus is exposed as a man. He grabs a woman's baby as a hostage, but it turns out to be a wineskin.
Captured Mnesilochus uses a device from Palamedes to get a message for help to the tragedian. After the chorus sings the praises of women, Mnesilochus tries the role of Helen, and Euripides arrives as Menelaus; but a Scythian policeman arrives to arrest and expose to ridicule Mnesilochus by order of the senate. However, he recites lines from Andromeda, and Euripides as Perseus rescues him. Finally Euripides promises the women he will not say ill things about them in the future if they will free his father-in-law; but if they don't, he will reveal their pranks to their husbands when they get home from the war. The women agree, but Euripides must impersonate a bawd and bring in two charming girls to distract the Scythian policeman while the two men escape. The play portrays the power of the women and their rituals in Athens while satirizing Euripides and Agathon.
The Frogs by Aristophanes won first prize at the Lenaean festival in 405 BC and was performed again a few days later by popular demand. The god Dionysus is ridiculously dressed in a lion-skin over his saffron robe in imitation of Heracles. He and his slave Xanthias knock on the door of Heracles to get advice from him about how to travel to and in Hades. Dionysus already is missing Euripides, who had just died the year before, and he wants to bring him back. Heracles asks why not get Sophocles; but Dionysus figures that Sophocles, who was so content with Athens, is probably content in Hades too, and Euripides has more tricks. To find a porter they ask the corpse at a funeral; but he wants two drachmas, which they think is too much. Dionysus gets a ride on the boat of Charon, but the slave Xanthias has to walk around the lake. They meet a chorus of frogs and one of initiates. Aristophanes complains about the fines imposed on poets in the temporary mood of censorship near the end of the war.
Aeacus, Judge of the Dead, abuses Dionysus because he thinks he is Heracles. So Dionysus exchanges costumes with his slave, who then is invited to join a banquet with dancing girls, causing the god to ask for his clothes back. But they are soon arrested, and Xanthias tells them to question Dionysus as though he were the slave. In Athens the word of a slave was only valid if given under torture. Not knowing which is the god and which the slave, Aeacus begins to torture both to find out who is impervious to pain as a god, each man trying to show no pain. During the interlude the poet calls for equality among Athenians and an end to penal laws. He complains against Athenians being made outcasts and that slaves are made masters for having been in one sea battle.
The contest in Hades is between Euripides and Aeschylus for the throne of honor in tragedy; upon arriving, Sophocles merely congratulated Aeschylus, but Euripides has been entertaining the rabble. Euripides argues he taught people to speak freely - to see, think, and understand things for themselves; he asks if Aeschylus has helped the nation and made people better. The older tragedian wonders if Euripides has not made them worse. Aeschylus then brags that The Seven Against Thebes made people hunger for havoc and gore, but Dionysus points out it made the Thebans more warlike. After much bantering, Dionysus cannot decide between the two and so asks them what they would do about Alcibiades and how they would save their country. Euripides suggests suspecting the trusted and trusting those now spurned, while Aeschylus recommends counting the enemy's land safety, and their own the enemy's. So Dionysus chooses to take back Aeschylus, who turns his throne over to Sophocles. The play reflects a conservative attitude about slavery, the basis for much of the Athenian economy.
The next play by Aristophanes we have was not presented until 392 BC and is about the women of the assembly, The Ecclesiazusae. Praxagoras is up early and waiting for the women to join her on the way to the assembly. They have all stopped shaving, dressed in their husbands' clothes, and put on beards. Praxagoras wants the women to save the ship of state which has been floundering for some time. The women practice their speeches, and Praxagoras has to remind them not to swear by the two goddesses or Aphrodite. Praxagoras believes that only one in ten of the male politicians are honest, and the rest are bad; others would be even worse. They vote themselves salaries and only care about their personal interests; it's time to give the women a chance. The citizens have become mercenaries for their daily three-obol payment.
After they have gone, Blepyrus, the husband of Praxagoras, comes out in her clothes since he couldn't find his. Chremes tells him that a handsome speaker proposed putting matters into the hands of the women, who keep the secrets of Demeter better than the men in the Senate. Women are always borrowing clothes from each other, need no witness, and always return them, while men often deny their borrowing. Women are not informers and do not hatch conspiracies. This innovation is the only one Athens has not tried yet, and they voted to give women the power.
The women return from the assembly, changing their clothes and removing their beards. Praxagoras declares that now there will be no more thieves, envy, rags, misery, abuse, prosecutions, and law-suits, though she is afraid the public may not accept her reforms because of traditions. She intends for all land, money, and private property to be in common so that all shall have the same conditions, though she seems to exclude the slaves, whom she wants to distribute more equally and have till the soil. Even women shall belong to all men in common, and the ugliest must be loved before the younger. She abolishes the whores, whom she expects to sleep with the slaves now. She believes that parents will be more respected, because everyone will stop a beating of any older person. In this communist system there will be no debts and no stealing; the law-courts will become dining-halls. Praxagoras goes off to implement her plan.
Chremes is bringing his goods to contribute to the common good when a citizen questions whether it is a good idea. The citizen intends to hold back his but still wants to attend the feast; decrees, he says, are not always obeyed, as happened with the ones on salt and copper money. Then an older woman insists that a young man make love to her before he goes into the girl, and she quotes the decree that declares he must. The girl rescues him; but a second older woman appears to make her claim and then a third even uglier, and these two take him away. At the end Blepyrus comes to the feast. This experiment in utopia which predates Plato's Republic indicates the prevalence of such notions in Athens, while at the same time satirizing them for their impracticality.
Plutus, the only example of Middle Comedy extant, was produced in 388 BC. Chremylus explains to his slave Cario that he went to the Pythian oracle to ask why the sacrilegious, demagogues, informers, and other rascals gain wealth, but he does not. The god ordered him to follow the first man he saw, who was a blind man. They discover it is the god of wealth, Plutus, who was blinded by Zeus so that he would not go only to the good and just. Chremylus offers to get his sight restored, but Plutus fears Zeus. Chremylus and Cario argue that Plutus is more powerful than Zeus, and Plutus asks how he can use his power. Chremylus sends Cario for his friends. Plutus complains that the avaricious either hoard him or the fools over-spend; but Chremylus says that he knows the moderation of how to spend when it is needed. Cario brings other farmers, and Blepsidemus wonders how Chremylus has become rich so fast.
A tall woman comes in to put a stop to all this; she is Poverty and is being injured. She proposes to prove that she is a greater cause of blessings than wealth. Chremylus argues that it will be better when Plutus can see and go to the just while shunning the perverse and ungodly; thus all people will become honest, rich, and pious. Poverty argues that then no one will work or ply their trade, and so there will be no goods. Chremylus expects the slaves to work; but she replies that no one will sell them, and someone must do the slave-dealing. It is Poverty that motivates everyone to work. Chremylus complains how bad it is without things; but she says that is beggary not poverty, for the poor are thrifty and work for what they need. Orators are honest until they are fattened by public funds. Poverty leaves, expecting to be recalled some day.
Cario tells how Plutus' vision was restored in the temple of Asclepius, and now he is sharing his blessings with them. A just man exchanges his old clothes for newer garments, but an informer must suffer. A generous old woman complains that her young lover has left her, but in the end she is promised he will come back. Hermes explains that the gods are no longer receiving their gifts, and he offers to do various services. A priest is likewise suffering hunger and is allowed to share in the feast that concludes the play. This fantasy probably relieved psychologically the economic hard times the Athenians suffered after losing the Peloponnesian War, while the benefits of both wealth and poverty were humorously portrayed. It also reveals how much the Athenians depended upon slave labor.
1. Aeschylus, The Persians tr. Seth G. Benardete, 23-24.
2. Ibid., 718.
3. Aeschylus, The Eumenides tr. Richmond Lattimore, 868-869.
4. Sophocles, Ajax tr. John Moore, 259-261.
5. Sophocles, Electra tr. David Grene, 628-629.
6. Euripides, Hecuba tr. William Arrowsmith, 799-804.
7. Euripides, Electra tr. Emily Townsend Vermeule, 1347-1348.
8. Euripides, The Bacchae tr. William Arrowsmith, 506.
9. Aristophanes, Peace, 108.
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